Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: THE RINK
Ben Rimalower revisits favorite musical theater recordings as he digitizes and declutters his collection.
Is the Original Broadway Cast Recording of The Rink biodegradable?? It seems so sad to just drop my CD into the trash, like right on top of broken egg shells, coffee grinds and leftover Seamless spoils. But I'm loving "Tidying Up" on Netflix-worshiping Marie Kondo-and I want that Life-Changing Magic to cast its decluttering spell all over my life. So out my collection of hundreds and hundreds of CDs must go.
The funny thing is I've been here before, sort of. In college (and embarrassingly into my 20s!) I would sell CDs when I needed money for food or booze or more CDs (necessities!). In those days, it was a real Sophie's Choice moment because parting with a CD meant losing the music. To this day, I'll never forgive myself for choosing Tyne Daly's Gypsy over Angela's. Of course, now I'm not parting with anything-I have The Rink on my phone, iPad and computer, not to mention Apple Music, Spotify, etc.
But the 90s were different and somehow I always sold The Rink. I say always because I also always bought it back, or bought a new copy, rather. I can't quit you, The Rink! Why did I always get rid of The Rink and why did I always go back to it? Certainly by the time I was 30, I had embraced it as one of my favorite musical theater scores and began proudly shouting it from the rooftops. (I'd already been proudly belting the score from my shower for years.)
I guess I was quick to get rid of The Rink because it's a flop-I mean not that I have anything against commercially unsuccessful shows (that's my whole career, RIM SHOT!), but The Rink feels particularly tainted by the scarlet (pimpernel?) mark of failure. It opened in January 1984 to mostly negative reviews and was left out of the Best Musical Tony race, although it received five nominations including a pair of nods for the stars as well as Best Original Score and Best Choreography. Based on the ladies' marquee value bolstered by Chita's win, The Rink held on halfway through the summer, but couldn't make it to Labor Day, once Liza had left (to check in to Betty Ford for the first time, incidentally).
I've never seen The Rink (hello, Encores, get on it!) and I haven't managed to get through the entire bootleg on Youtube, so my familiarity with the actual plot of The Rink is limited. And what I do know feels like a turnoff.
Don't get me wrong, it all starts out fine and dandy. It's not hard to see what drew Kander and Ebb and Chita and Liza and everybody to the subject in the first place. By the way, that everybody was a pretty auspicious group. The other heavy hitters at the table were book writer Terrence McNally, director A.J. Antoon (who had directed That Championship Season) and choreographer Graciela Daniele. Notably, the cast also included some young unknowns (Jason Alexander, Scott Ellis and Rob Marshall) as well as Liza's two understudies, Mary Testa and Lenora Nemetz, and eventual replacement Stockard Channing. Kind of hard to believe that Stockard took this unceremonious replacement job after Grease, but such is the plight of women over 40 in show business.
All these talents were understandably drawn to a story about a grown up flower child daughter down on her luck coming home to crash at her family's roller rink, just as her middle aged mother is preparing to move on with her life. But I guess their reunion is the catalyst for some dark flashbacks and that's where the joy of The Rink (at least on the cast recording) takes a dive. Now I'm not saying I don't like my musicals to confront serious issues, but I am saying I usually find myself skipping those tracks on the The Rink.
That said, the tracks I don't skip, I'm obsessed with. The opening number of The Rink isn't really an opening number at all, except that it's a Liza Minnelli solo; so therefore it's the best opening number money can buy. "Colored Lights" (familiar from Karen Mason's lusty rendition in the Kander and Ebb revue, And The World Goes Round, directed by former Rinkster Scott Ellis) is a song about the daughter Angel wanting to get back to the simplicity of her youth. The verses have her reflecting pensively on times spent with various lovers, although the details get deliciously mixed up in pure Liza fashion.
I was sitting on a sand dune in Santa Cruz,
I could feel the trickle on my cheek of ocean spray.
A perfect day.
I remember that I turned to Sam and said,
or was it Fred?
I should be up and yet I'm down instead.
Something's missing, Sam;
Something's missing, Fred.
Something's missing here.
Of course, you could argue that The Rink has two opening numbers since Liza's song is followed by another great one, this time for Chita, "Chief Cook And Bottle Washer." In fact, some later versions of The Rink opened with this song and moved "Colored Lights" to the end of the first act. Every time I listen to Chita sing "Chief Cook And Bottle Washer" (a middle-aged housewife's vow to turn her life around and start living for herself), I imagine Chita standing on Broadway singing it in 1984. She was Broadway's chief cook and bottle washer! Think of all the heavy lifting the poor woman had been doing for over 30 years! Making history in West Side Story, being iconic in Bye Bye Birdie, being brilliant but ignored next to A Chorus Line in Chicago, and bringing that old school hustle to countless flops and tours, nightclubs, industrials, summer stock, you name it. She was a single mom and she had to work. Chita never missed a matinee. And she had never won a Tony! What????!!! Think of all the people who have Tony awards today. In 1984, Chita Rivera had no Tony. The lyric in "Chief Cook" says it best, "'Working Her Ass Off' should be the title of the story of my life."
Anyone who's ever been bummed that Bernadette Peter's brilliant, career-defining turn in Sunday In The Park With George lost the Tony to Chita in The Rink need only listen to this number and they will be at peace. Chita's voice is so warm, so distinctive and expressive. You hear Anita. You hear Rosie. You hear Velma Kelly. She means every word. Chita Rivera's voice somehow belongs to us. This song is a Tony winner. They could have dropped the curtain at 8:15 and she still would've won. I love her, I want to marry her. Literally. Eff, Marry, Kill: Liza, Chita, Marie Kondo. I would definitely marry Chita. And I guess... ugh, kill Marie. Sorry!!!
For so many of us who grew up after The Rink had already happened, it's easy to take for granted the sheer novelty of a show having two such heavy-hitting Broadway divas at the same time. It's no wonder that another rare example is Chicago as I think the feasibility of this unique alchemy has a lot to do with Chita's singular persona that is somehow both above us and yet also one of us, both divine and human. This enables her to share the star space with someone like Liza or Gwen Verdon and hold her own without infringing upon their turf. (Conversely, I think it's how she could make such a star turn out of a supporting role like Anita in West Side Story, or how she later stood out from the coterie of ladies onstage in Nine, or how she existed in balance with the central male characters in Kiss Of The Spider Woman.)
The first of The Rink's two epic duets for its pair of stars, "Don't Ah Ma Me," is a conversation set to music, which sounds like the way a novice musical theater writer might defend an eventless excuse for a song. However in this case, to quote another Fred Ebb lyric, "Oh, no, no, no, but it ain't." Liza's Angel and Chita's Anna literally butt heads (or at least that's how I would stage it in my dream production starring Leslie Kritzer and Patti LuPone, but that's another story...). It begins with Anna ranting about her mistreatment by ingrate Angel, who keeps chirping in with "Ah, Ma!" prompting Anna's bouncy chorus of the title lyric, building in speed and intensity as the song progresses. Eventually, Angel gets her turn to speak-sing her side of the story, now with Anna doing the chirping in as the tennis match builds to what else, but a big Liza belt note as Chita emphatically spits out the rest of her lyrics. It's almost a rap, and it's as good as anything in Hamilton.
As in their opening solos, the synergy of Chita and Liza and Kander and Ebb is absolutely ideal. Kander and Ebb excel at making people sing the way they really talk, the way they really feel, the way they really are. They also excel at writing for stars, for individuals, and their tailor made creations for Liza and Chita bring out the Liza-est and Chita-iest Liza and Chita imaginable. And no one in history could sing Kander & Ebb with as much unique realness as Liza and Chita, so it's a great big happy musical theater melting pot of magic.
Their other duet "The Apple Doesn't Fall" allows the ladies equal verse and chorus time to score the character comedy bits and money notes alike. They sing about how similar they are, one upping each other with playful warmth. It comes about midway through the cast album and it's clear the two are seeing more eye-to-eye at this point. Maybe that was a problem with the show-they made up too early?
Liza gets two intermediary solos before her big finale and they're both great, just the kind of easy, breezy, fun, charactery, plot driven stuff that bolsters a Kander and Ebb show in between all the razzle dazzle. Of course, with Liza, somehow or other everything has razzle dazzle. I wasn't a particular fan of Kristen Wiig's acclaimed Liza on SNL (how could I be, when in the Theater we have so many wonderful performers who really nail her?), but it aptly skewered Liza's bent for gilding every lily. Both "Under The Roller Coaster" and "Angel's Rink And Social Center" deliver exactly that with Liza adding her signature panache to such ridiculously mundane things as Fred Ebb's rhymed Belgian waffle and "fine falafel."
Chita gets an actual ballad in "We Can Make It" and it's a staggering reminder of all the woman can do, or more to the point how there's nothing she cannot do. Going back to the Tony battle against Bernadette (and when am I not?), all of us who love Bernadette in Sunday In The Park With George (i.e. all of us with eyes, ears or a heart) might want to argue that Chita's got the bombast and the comedy and can dance up a storm and even be very human and relatable, but Bernadette is so moving, so tender and vulnerable, Bernadette has such pathos! Yet "We Can Make It" offers just those qualities from Chita. Perhaps the baritenor who sang the song at your high school had a more lyrical legato, but Chita's rendition is singularly beautiful. Anyway, cheep up, Bernadette didn't have to wait long for a Tony.
There are several other songs worthy of favoriting including Jason Alexander's solo, "Marry Me," Chita's scintillating "Wallflower" and the bouncy title song, although it's best enjoyed divorced from its unhappy context as performed in And The World Goes Round.
The last song in The Rink is a climactic solo for Liza as Angel and I'm guessing it was problematic on stage. That's not to say that I don't live for "All The Children In A Row" because I do. Liza delivering Kander and Ebb's take on the Counterculture Revolution of the 60s and 70s? Yes please! If I'm being honest, though, I enjoy it somewhat ironically.
The trouble is that it's reminiscent of Liza's concert performances of songs like "Some People" and "So What?" where she ad libs the spoken section. You know what I mean? Like in "Some People," when she says, "It's not like I'm asking for a second mortgage on this place-it's 88 lousy bucks! Whaddyou mean I ain't getting 88 cents outta you?!"
"All The Children In A Row" actually sounds like that, even just on paper. I guess you could say, Kander and Ebb wrote for Liza's persona a little too well here.
I suppose it's make sense that The Rink flopped not only on Broadway, but even in multiple revivals within my CD collection. I don't care, though, I love listening to it and I hope to see it one day soon. I'm still throwing out the CD, though. My joy is sparked in the cloud.