BWW Review: Shows That Never Made It to Broadway Find a Home at Feinstein's/54 Below with BROADWAY BOUND
"That's really niche."
Those words from one of the night's emcees, Feinstein's/54 Below Programming Director Jennifer Ashley Tepper, were technically used in reference to Linda Lavin's propensity to play love interests for superheroes. But, really, they could've been used to describe BROADWAY BOUND: THE MUSICALS THAT NEVER CAME TO BROADWAY, which played at the aforementioned venue March 21.
Fortunately, unlike the shows where the night's songs originated, these niche songs found their niche. Right out of the gate, A.J. Shively (BRIGHT STAR), Nick Cartell (SCANDALOUS) and Danielle Gimbal (F#%KING UP EVERYTHING) beamed with excitement as they broke into the evening's first song, "Hello, New York!" (Matthew Sklar/Chad Beguelin) from THE RHYTHM CLUB, backed by musical director Joshua Zecher-Ross on piano.
In between verses, the trio explained the ill-fated show's basic plot and revealed the loss of a backer, eventually leading to the plug being pulled on the entire production. But because Broadway, like Hollywood, loves talking about itself, it was a bit hard to tell during the opening number if the original show was a musical about a musical, a la THE PRODUCERS, or if the song breaks were a meta-commentary about the song itself.
It was the latter, but that confusion cast a bit of a shadow on the otherwise pristine performance by the three jubilant singers. Though the device of interspersing details about the show and its eventual failure could've used a bit of an introduction, once clearly established, that charming stylistic choice could have been employed a few times more often than it was.
After that performance, Tepper, author of THE UNTOLD STORIES OF BROADWAY series, took the stage with the night's other co-emcee, Robert W. Schneider, host of the BEHIND THE CURTAIN: BROADWAY'S LIVING LEGENDS podcast.
Together, Tepper and Schneider did an admirable job hosting, giving scripted award show-style intros, if award show patter was, you know, actually funny. Still, reading from a binder is reading from a binder, and a slightly looser vibe would've helped push it over the top.
Speaking of which, theatre in-jokes were tossed in with overwhelming frequency, with Schneider immediately referencing the black binders they were reading from and joking, "How ENCORES! are we right now?"
Next, Rebecca Spigelman (HAIRSPRAY) tore the house down with the decadent, double entendre-laden "Growing Boy" (Alan Menken, Howard Ashman) from BABE, an unfinished work about baseball legend Babe Ruth, with a sultry growl and lines like, "The more you see my fricassee / The better you feel" in the food-centric tune.
The night was almost therapeutic at times, with original HOW DO YOU DO, I LOVE YOU co-star Loni Ackerman getting to sing "A Different Drummer" (Richard Maltby Jr./David Shire) from the show that was almost her Broadway debut. And Rita Gardner (THE WEDDING SINGER) gave so much of herself in "The Chance to Sing" (Tom Jones, Joe Thalken) from HAROLD & MAUDE, a show she was replaced in, it was enough to break your heart.
In between songs, Tepper and Schneider kept the 80-minute show at a brisk pace, leading to a few surprising tonal swings. This was especially true following Kevin David Thomas' effervescent rendition of ARTHUR: THE MUSICAL's "Fun" (Michael Skloff/David Crane/Marta Kauffman), as ANNIE lyricist Martin Charnin took the stage with a somber introduction to his number from his MATA HARI, the eponymous 1967 musical about the exotic dancer-turned-alleged World War I spy.
The failure of MATA HARI clearly stung so badly, the phrase "The one that got away" may have been invented to describe it. Following a lengthy monologue about Vincent Minnelli coming out of retirement to direct, only to "destroy" what he'd worked so hard on, Charnin sang "Maman" (Charnin/Edward Thomas), a song from a subplot that survived the extensive rewrites about a young soldier singing to his mother about war, with World War I standing in for Vietnam.
Both the song and his breathy, emotional delivery were devastating and a far cry from Thomas's bubbly---both literally and figuratively---number about sipping champagne in a bathtub with a sex worker you could just fall in love with.
The hosts said all of the shows featured were chosen based on the unique reasons they never achieved liftoff, from Minnelli's fatal meddling in MATA HARI (at least from Charnin's point of view), to the REBECCA investor who turned out to be a total fabrication.
But even more intriguing was the vast difference between the shows that should've made it to the show's that never had a chance.
Because, for every MATA HARI, there was a PRETTYBELLE. Only Lesli Margherita's (MATILDA) tireless moxie could, even for a second, make you rethink an astonishingly misguided musical about a woman (originally played by Angela Lansbury) who "atones" for her racist sheriff husband's wrongful imprisonment of minorities through... sexual means.
Gliding onstage and placing a piece of paper on the stand, Margherita cracked, "These aren't lyrics. This is a sheet saying I'm pretty and I look good." She then gave it her all on the cruelly brief "I Met a Man" (Jule Styne/Bob Merrill), which, all things considered, is a solid number.
To be clear, a musical about a superhero facing his toughest foe yet---the midlife crisis---would be woefully out of place today, let alone decades before the comic book movie's hostile takeover of the film industry.
But Walton, who currently stars in THE BEST WORST THING THAT EVER COULD'VE HAPPENED, a documentary about Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince's doomed Broadway production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and the remarkable afterlife that show has had, has certainly seen stranger rises and falls.
The producers seemed bullish on the idea of keeping BROADWAY BOUND alive in the future with new shows and songs. Hopefully, it, if not one of these underloved shows, can roll along like MERRILY and see a second life.