Friday, May 29, 2015


     Billed as “a new musical about Hollywood’s tough guy in tap shoes,” Cagney, which opened last night at the York Theatre Company, is another refreshing show from a company that specializes in producing uplifting new musicals.

     Broadway veteran Robert Creighton is the powerhouse of talent behind the show, making its New York premiere through June 21. A triple threat — actor, singer and dancer — he also wrote the music and lyrics for several of the songs.  Christopher McGovern wrote the rest. 

     Short and stocky, Creighton would not normally be thought of as a leading man, unless that leading man happens to be the similarly built James Cagney, in which case Creighton seemed almost destine for the role.

     “When I was a student at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, an acting teacher, Jack Melanos, told me I reminded him of Jimmy Cagney.  Thank you, Jack,” he writes in a program message. “At the time, my only knowledge of Cagney’s film work was having seen ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ as a kid. I went and rented several Cagney films and thus began the obsession.”

     Unlike Creighton, I have never seen any of his films and knew nothing about his life.  Thanks to this musical, with its book by playwright Peter Colley and direction by Bill Castellino, I now know a good deal about Cagney’s biography, although his character is portrayed too one-sidedly sweet and wholesome to be the entire story.

   After an opening number about the ups and downs of Hollywood, “Black and White,” the story is framed by Cagney’s appearance in 1978 at the Screen Actors Guild awards to receive one for Lifetime Achievement. He’s talking with Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath), the head of Warner Brothers Studios who gave Cagney his first movie role and wants to take credit for finding “a tough guy to give the Depression-era public what it wanted.”

   But Cagney, who had broken with and rejoined the studio several times, has an answer for his former boss.  “You didn’t create that.  The streets of New York did.”

    In between that frame we see Cagney, born of Irish ancestry on the Lower East Side, stumble into show business in 1922 after losing his job as a laborer. Checking out the Help Wanteds with his brother, Bill (Josh Walden), he finds one for a dancer at Keith’s Musical Theatre and goes to check it out. Proving to be surprisingly light on his feet, he dances his way into the chorus, where he is dressed as a woman, and also performs standup comedy, thus beginning his life in vaudeville.

     In a nutshell, the stage and Hollywood follow, along with a happy marriage to Willie (Ellen Zolezzi), his first dancing partner at Keith’s.   He is called before a House of Representatives committee to answer charges that he is a Communist sympathizer because he contributes to labor organizations and sent money for the Scottsboro Boys defense.  This contributes to one of his splits from Warner Brothers, but also after portraying “dumb women-slapping Micks” in 28 movies, he wants to play different roles, so he forms his own production company. 

     “I long to bring some light, to make art that feeds the soul,” he says. “I want to make movies that inspire people.” He expresses this longing in “How Will I Be Remembered?”    

     “How will I be remembered when they roll my final reel — a gangster, a villain a bum?”

     Unfortunately Cagney Productions is a failure, but the actor does achieve success apart from the bad guy roles, namely for his Oscar-winning portrayal of George M. Cohan in the musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” In addition to Creighton’s and McGovern’s original songs, Cagney also includes three Cohan songs, “Grand Old Flag,” "Over There" and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, sung rousingly by the company, which also includes Jeremy Benton as Bob Hope (and others) and Danette Holden as Ma Cagney (and others). 

     Mark Pirolo’s projections enhance James Morgan’s minimalist sets.  Amy Clark creates nice period costumes and Brian Nason provides the lighting. All of this is understated, which is just fine because the show needs little more than a stage and its talented cast.

     All of the actors are good tappers, but Benton really shines in his solo to “Harrigan,” played by the onstage band, and he and Creighton bring down the house together dancing to “Crazy ‘Bout You.”  Joshua Bergasse does a great job choreographing on that tiny stage. (He is currently represented on Broadway as choreographer for On the Town, for which he received a Tony nomination).

     All sing well, too, especially Zolezzi.   And the acting is good, even if the characters are a bit one-dimensional.  The scenes with Cagney are the best.  The two-hours, 15-minutes running time could be trimmed by cutting some of the others, which slow the story.   Not the tapping, though.  Leave in all of that.  It’s a joy!

(Photo by Carol Rosegg: Danette Holden, Jeremy Benton, Robert Creighton, Ellen Zolezzi and Josh Walden.)

Friday, May 15, 2015

'Divinely Inspired' Godspell

     Many people talk about theatre as a transformative experience, but few experience that transformation quite as drastically as Carol de Giere did when she discovered Godspell.

     Growing up in Madison, WI, she mostly saw movie musicals or what was being done at school.  Somehow one of the most widely produced musicals of all time never crossed her path until she was in her late 40s and living in Fairfield, Iowa, a town of about 10,000 residents.  Artistic offerings were limited in Fairfield, so when the local community theatre presented Godspell, de Giere was there.  And that was the beginning of the end of her days in Fairfield.

    “I felt myself being emotionally expanded,” said de Giere, 63, during a phone interview from her home in Bethel, CT.  “The score and the performances were so joyful.  It was just exhilarating to watch.  I felt like it had a spirt to it that was different from other musicals.  It lifted me out of the boundaries of the moment.”

     It also lifted her out to the midwest.  She quit her job as a librarian and with her husband, who had been laid off, moved to Connecticut to explore the musical theatre work of Godspell’s composer. 

     “I felt I needed to be near Broadway.  I wanted to be close to the creative pot to see what the chefs were brewing.”

    “I like writing behind the scenes,” she said. “Rather than write about a musical, I like to recreate the experience of being present at the creation.”

     She found Schwartz and cast members willing to talk about their experiences with Godspell, a show that began as a master’s thesis for John-Michael Tebelak at Carnegie Mellon University, a thesis that was initially rejected by his advisor.  It then had a stint Off, Off-Broadway where its potential was spotted by producers who brought on Schwarz, giving him five weeks to compose new music.  Godspell as we know it now opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971, then moved to Broadway for a total New York run of six years.  It has been translated into more than a half dozen languages, made into a movie and is still produced a couple hundred times each year somewhere in the world. 

     It all started with Tebelak, whose affection for religious material dated back to his childhood. His sister told de Giere that John-Michael loved the religious pageantry he experienced at the Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland and would “redo the church service” when he got home, creating an altar, burning candles and offering a communion, “all the dramatic parts.”

     Years later when searching for a thesis topic, Tebelak considered several miracle and passion plays, but determined they were too heavy.  He started reading the gospels and discovered their joy. 

     “Tebebak resolved to attend a church service, and it was there that a spiritual experience, or lack thereof, completed the inspiration for the new musical,” de Giere writes.  

     On a snowy Easter morning in 1970, Tebelak attended the Anglican Cathedral in Pittsburgh and later told Dramatics Magazine about his experience: “An old priest came out and mumbled into a microphone, and people mumbled things back, and then everyone got up and left.  Instead of ‘healing’ the burden, or resurrecting the Christ, it seems those people had pushed Him back into the tomb.  They had refused to let Him come out that day.”

     As he was leaving the service, a policeman tried to frisk him, suspecting him of carrying drugs because of his hippie appearance.  “At that moment — I think because of the absurd situation — it angered me so much that I went home and realized what I wanted to do with the gospels: I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and re-create the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service.”

     And so the roots of Godspell were grounded in Tebelak’s positive and negative experiences in the Anglican tradition.  

     Considering how many lives the show has touched, de Giere felt called to do a second book just on Godspell while the original cast members were still available to share their stories. The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, for which de Giere conducted nearly 40 interviews, features engaging anecdotes, exhaustive research and an analysis of the show’s songs, several of which come from the Episcopal hymnal.

     “I thought, ‘I’m probably the only person who’s going to do this.’  This is a time when people will remember.  They’re all in their 60s or deceased.  I’m writing for future generations.”

     Cast members tell lively stories about the creative process with Tebelak, who was the original director as well as the creator of this show drawn from the gospels. What made the musical so different was that it didn’t start with a script.  Tebelak, who died in 1985, had the actors improvise Jesus’ parables. What worked became part of the show.  It was confusing for the actors at first, but Tebelak had tapped into what was to become big time entertainment — improvisation, which later would be wildly successful in shows like “Saturday Night Live.”

     When Godspell was headed for Off-Broadway, the producers hired Schwartz to set the Episcopal lyrics to livelier music.  He drew from the artists he was listening to — James Taylor, the Mamas and the Papas, The Supremes, Elton John — to create a pastiche of his favorite pop styles. When additional lyrics were required, he turned to Biblical passages.   

     “Stephen was one of the first people to integrate popular music into the style of musical theatre,” de Giere says.  “It was innovative and it spoke to people musically.”

     Schwartz had rich material to work with in the Episcopal hymns.  Most of the lyrics for “Day by Day,” which was a breakout hit, were penned by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), a bishop of Chichester in the United Kingdom who was canonized by Pope Urban IV in 1262. He wrote it in Latin without the beginning and ending words “day by day,” and it became hymn 429 in the 1940 hymnal. Schwartz simplified Chichester’s lyrics slightly and added some repetition.    

     The beautiful “All Good Gifts” was a harvest song from the hymnal that Tebelak remembered from Thanksgiving services, hymn 138, “We Plow the Fields, and Scatter.”  

     “Turn Back, O Man,” was inspired by hymn writer Clifford Bax, who wrote the piece in response to World War I.  Bax’s hymn was published in 1919.

     When Schwartz was looking for an uptempo number, the song often referred to in musical theatre as the “Eleven O’clock” number, Tebelak suggested hymn 229, with lyrics attributed to Thomas Benson Pollock, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who was ordained in 1870. The following year Pollock wrote “Father Hear Thy Children’s Call,” which, with Schwartz’s adaptation, became the lively “We Beseech Thee.”  
     Godspell’s score is one of the reasons for the show’s enduring popularity, de Giere says. Another is the non-didactic way the parables are presented. In clowning around, the actors draw out the humor, but not in a satirical way. When done properly, the show leaves the audience with a strong appreciation for Jesus’ message of compassion and fellowship.  

   In her epilogue, de Giere offers a reflection from former cast member Don Scardino: “I got letters from people who had quit drugs (including heroin), or gone back to their Bible, or patched up relationships with their mother or father after seeing Godspell.  They would say it’s the power of the show and you playing Jesus, and I knew it had nothing to do with me.  I would always write back and say it is the show.  The show is divinely inspired.”