Musical Director Patrick Wickliffe on MTI – All Together Now
A Show Outside a Show Part 1
With Music Theatre International’s All Together Now!, Lost Nation Theater asks complicated questions in the form of a narrative arc reinforced by the project’s managing director, Kathleen Keenan. The show draws from a repertoire spanning the 20th and 21st century. This first installment covers the first half of the program and discusses some interesting historical things.
“Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by British composers Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley was written for the movie of the same name featuring Gene Wilder.
Having literally ‘phoned in’ this selection, Bricusse admits it was not initially successful but, since the release of the film and in 1980’s television reruns, it has gained a wide following. With this song, we are invited into a wonderful chocolate-saturated world. The real world of today needs similar imagination.
“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Stephen Sondheim’s early masterpiece, Company, is an Andrew Sisters style tour de force. Says Broadway World’s Rona Kelly of a recent production, “The Andrews Sisters were at the height of their popularity…during World War II, when their music brought joy and optimism to their audiences during a particularly dark time in history. It was a devilishly satisfying choice for Sondheim to write the number this way. In the original, [the song] was the audience's introduction to Bobby's three current girlfriends. And although he talks about them as if everything is perfectly delightful, they are all clearly furious with him.
What could be a better way to show that discrepancy theatrically than to evoke the Andrew Sisters? In the first few bars, we hear that iconic jazz trio sound, and we expect nothing but sweetness and light from them. But then the actual characters say rude and angry (and hilarious) things about Bobby – lyrics the Andrews Sisters never would have said!”
“Back to Before” from Stephen Flaherty’s Ragtime is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow. Set in the early 20th century, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in the United States: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.
The show incorporates many historical figures as well, leaving us reflecting on both the past and the future.
“Gimme Gimme” from Jeanine Tesori’s Thoroughly Modern Mille, is based on the 1967 film of the same name, itself based on the British musical Chrysanthemum. Perusing a hand-written autograph of the score reveals a bit of the composer’s process, characterized by a lush tapestry of strings, brass, rhythm, percussion, and clarinets (here, a quartet comprised of Bb clarinets and a Bb bass clarinet). We are reminded of early 20th century cabaret, given a modern twist and exalting that age-old thing called Love.
“Life is so Peculiar” from Louis Armstrong’s Five Guys Named Moe, a musical with a book by Clarke Peters and music by Jimmy Van Huesen and Johnny Burke. The musical is based on a 1943 musical short of the same name. It was not until 1992 (!) that the work premiered on Broadway, highlighting conversations around the influence of black American culture. Our interpretation ‘takes it to church’, combining Louis Armstrong’s bluesy performance with a 50’s-style drive by opening with a sway and spinning to the end.
“Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”, also known as “Café Song”, is from Les Misérables (colloquially known as Les Mis) which is an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. The work was written in French and acquired an English translation in 1985. This musical was so successful that it garnered, by 2019, status as the second longest running musical in the world after The Fantasticks, thanks to Claude-Michel Schönberg’s saccharin setting. Set in early 19th-century France, Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his desire for redemption. Valjean decides to break parole and start his life anew, after serving nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's starving child. A police inspector named Javert refuses to let him escape justice and pursues him for most of the play. Along the way, Valjean and a slew of characters are swept into the June 1832 Rebellion in France, where a group of young idealists attempt to overthrow the government at a street barricade in Paris.
“Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”, sung by Marius, captures a moment of introspection after a battle renders him sole survivor. It was added for the English premiere in New York.
“The New World” is from Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown, an early and successful attempt produced off-Broadway in 1995. This work has become a staple of the music theater repertoire. Brown and director Daisy Prince put together songs he had written for other venues and events, resulting in "neither musical play nor revue”. Rather, “it is closer to a theatrical song cycle…an abstract musical, [or] a series of songs all connected by a theme: ‘the moment of decision.’” The show has four performers who do not play the same characters throughout but display consistently developing character arcs. Brown continues, "It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." Because of its small cast and orchestra, Songs for a New World has become a favorite small show for colleges and local theatres, despite its vocally demanding score.
We at LNT are happy to include it in this retrospective on what has been a difficult pandemic time.
Stay tuned for another installment shortly, which will discuss more interesting historical things about All Together Now!
On the docket will be solo power ballads like like “She Used To Be Mine” from Waitress, fantastic dance numbers like “Seize the Day” from Newsies and tongue twisters like “Supercalifagilisticexpialadocous” from Mary Poppins (say that ten times fast, then say it backwards).