Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 1994
He was so drunk on the opening night of his show’s Broadway revival that he had to be removed from the theater. The year was 1943. The diminutive, despondent, alcoholic lyricist was Lorenz Hart. Five days after the re-opening of “A Connecticut Yankee” he was dead, at age 48. Just one year earlier, he terminated a 23-year collaboration with Richard Rodgers by turning down the offer to work on a musical adaptation of “Green Grow the Lilacs.” Hart thought it wouldn’t make a very good musical. So Rodgers approached lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and the result, “Oklahoma!” , changed musical theater forever.
But it’s not the details of their personal lives that’s most intriguing about Rodgers and Hart, though those can be juicy. What’s immortalized their trend-setting collaboration is a catalogue of almost 1000 songs, including the scores to 25 Broadway shows, featuring Rodgers’ ingenious rhythms and Hart’s witty, intelligent and sometimes heart-wrenching lyrics. That’s what inspired Steven Suskin to put together a musical revue called “Sweet, Smart, Rodgers & Hart” (at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, January 6-23).
The 40 year-old producer and theatrical/show manager got hooked on musicals after he saw “The Music Man” at age six. He went on to write three impressive books about Broadway musical theater. Suskin co-produced William Finn’s acclaimed “Falsettoland” Off-Broadway, as well as the Kennedy Center presentation of David Mamet’s highly-charged “Speed-the-Plow”. He also co-produced the unstoppable “Forever Plaid”, which in three sellout visits to the Old Globe, became the most successful of the 28 productions of “Plaid” thus far, and the largest grossing theatrical production in San Diego history.
For years now, San Diego has had a love affair with the musical revue, from “Six Women With Brain Death”, to “Beehive”, “Bessie’s Blues”, “Boomers”, “Sweet and Hot”. But this reflects a national trend.
According to Steven Suskin, writer/director of “Sweet, Smart, Rodgers and Hart”, “people aren’t writing the same quality of music, and there are just not as many people writing. In 1927, there were 275 shows on Broadway a year; now there are about 36… And there’s nowhere for songwriters to train. They can’t earn a living writing shows, so they wind up doing TV commercials.” There is also, of course, the financial aspect. Revues are small-cast, require few musicians and fewer scene or costume changes. Regional theaters can’t afford to mount a large modern musical. Even with collaborations, they lose their shirts, as Starlight did with “Annie Warbucks”.
For “Sweet, Smart”, Suskin aimed for variety, including 35 songs, both the big hits and the lesser-knowns. What he loves about Rodgers and Hart is that “they were the first ones to make the words as important as the music. Their dramatic songs are like one-act plays; they draw full characters. They don’t need to be embellished or dressed up.”
When the show had its world premiere in Pasadena in November, L.A. Times theater critic Sylvie Drake was underwhelmed. She called “Sweet, Smart” “a chamomile tea for the ear, designed to soothe and becalm,” although she liked the “engaging performers”: Karen Morrow, Marcia Mitzman (Tony nominee for her portrayal of Mrs. Walker in “Tommy”), Linda Griffin and Bob Walton. Despite a “polished” production and a delicious menu of songs, such as “Bewitched,” “Where or When,” “Isn’t It Romantic?”, and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Drake found the revue to be “soporific.”
Nonetheless, Michael Putnam, Performing Arts Manager at the Poway Center, hopes “Sweet, Smart” will be a winner locally. After all, audiences differ, and so do critics. In the co-producing venture that began in 1992, the Pasadena Playhouse has brought nine mainstage productions to Poway, Santa Barbara (the Lobero Theatre) and sometimes San Francisco. “They love the demographics of our community,” says Putnam of the Pasadena group. “It’s virgin territory. There’s no other competing theater.” With 50,000 residents, the City of Poway has the highest per capita income of any incorporated area in the county. That’s the kind of upscale community that usually frequents the theater.
But so far, the co-productions are not filling the beautiful 800-seat Poway theater. Most successful has been the funny-silly “Tuna Christmas”, which sold close to capacity, the thought-provoking dramedy “Twilight of the Golds”, which later had an abbreviated run in New York, and the small, retro, musical revue, “Oil City Symphony”.
Putnam is cautiously upbeat about the Poway/Pasadena collaboration: “Generally, it’s been a very positive thing for both our organizations. We’ve not yet reached the audience development level we want, but we’re very pleased with the relationship. San Diego is a tough theater market. People buy impulsively and typically at the last minute, making for white-knuckle times for us. As the new kid on the block, it’s a challenge to try to develop a market share. But considering that the Poway Center was born on the doorstep of the recession, we’ve done remarkably well. This collaboration has raised our visibility in the San Diego area by a quantum factor.”
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.