Music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by George S. Kaufman and Nunnally Johnson, based on a short story by Nunnally Johnson
The Butler – David O’Brien
Ned Scott – Stephen Carlile
Madge Bennett – Helen Anker
Sybil Bennett – Elizabeth Counsell
Ogden Bennett – David Firth
Charles Crowell – John Rawnsley
Elsa Crowell – Andrea Miller
Myra Fox – Valerie Cutko
Reggie Fox – Terence Bayler
Richard Nelson – James Vaughan
Betty Nelson – Nuala Willis
Mr Meachem – Peter Gale
Freddie Coleman – Nicholas Cass-Beggs
Carole Benswanger – Anatt Bass
Mark Warman – Music Director & Pianist
Ian Marshall Fisher – Director
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 13 April, 2008
Venue: Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London
The “Lost Musicals” series has come up with a true rarity and in fact in presenting “Park Avenue”, Ian Marshall Fisher is giving the show its European premiere. It hasn’t been seen since its initial opening at the Shubert Theatre in New York in 1946, following try-outs in Boston, Philadelphia and New Haven. On paper its pedigree is impeccable: a book by George S. Kaufman, renowned playwright and director, responsible for “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” with the Marx Brothers, “Strike up the Band”, “Of Thee I Sing” and “Let them eat cake”, all with the Gershwins, “Lady in the Dark” with Kurt Weill, plus “Once in a Lifetime”, “Dinner at Eight”, “You can’t take it with you” and “The Man who Came to Dinner”, and he went on to direct “Guys and Dolls”.
Then there was lyricist Ira Gershwin who contributed to many of the above shows, and Nunnally Johnson, celebrated screenwriter and film producer (“Rose of Washington Square”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Tobacco Road” and “Roxie Hart”, on which the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago” was based).
Finally, there was Arthur Schwartz, composer of many great Broadway and popular songs (‘Dancing in the dark’, ‘I guess I’ll have to change my plan’, ‘A shine on your shoes’).
Put them all together and what do you get? A show that runs only 72 performances. The trouble was that it was the right people in the right show but at the wrong time. In the (leftish) climate of American opinion before World War II it might have worked, but after the hostilities, when the US lurched to the right, it was a no-no. A satire on the American way of marriage and divorce proved to be just not what the US public wanted. Kaufman said that “satire is what closes on Saturday night” and with “Park Avenue”, he proved his point.Ira Gershwin has said that, following a lot of costume and period operettas on Broadway, such as “Oklahoma!”, “Song of Norway”, “Bloomer girl”, “Up in Central Park”, “Carousel”, “Annie get your gun” and a revival of “Show Boat”, the authors thought that something contemporary and smart would be just what Broadway needed. However, they soon found that novelty was not enough, that charm alone could not save the second act which has too much ‘book’ and that the subject itself was something you could not make amusing for an entire evening. If the original was the same length as Ian Marshall Fisher’s concert staging, then at three hours or more, it really needed some pruning.
Even though he directed many musicals, Kaufman was reputed to hate musical-comedy songs. He couldn’t bear people billing and cooing to each other in song. I suppose he could have cut all of the Gershwin/Schwartz numbers and left himself with a fairly amusing and cutting comedy, although it resembles more a French farce. It’s not that there’s much to-ing and fro-ing in and out of doors as in most farces, but it’s more a case of a bunch of New Yorkers to-ing and fro-ing in and out of marriage.
For its time, 1946, “Park Avenue” takes a very cynical look at the world as seen from the viewpoint of some rich-living Manhattanites. It opens with a clutch of bridesmaids extolling the joys of wedded bliss and the impending nuptials of Madge Bennett and Ned Scott (“They will really tingle / When they’re no longer single”). On the other hand it would appear that Madge’s mother, Sybil, is a serial divorcee and about to offload her latest husband. She doesn’t think she’s been too hasty as she’s given it over five months. However, she remains on good terms with all her ex’s and they claim to have always separated “when the dew was on the rose”, before the romance had a chance to decompose.
The plot continues in this fashion but it gets complicated as Sybil and her friends and their husbands all play musical chairs with their marriages until there’s a log jam and they all have to go back to where they started. It’s a good idea for comedy, even if it sounds more 1960s than 1940s, so the timing was probably the real reason it flopped. It is strange, though, seeing a show from which you know absolutely none of the songs. Most successful musicals these days are pre-sold through familiarity with the score. But there are some good things here and they demonstrate Ira Gershwin’s great and witty facility with a lyric that could be worthy of a Cole Porter or a Stephen Sondheim. There’s even one number that prefigures Sondheim’s “Company”, another show about relationships: ‘There’s nothing like marriage for people’ contains such lines as “Being alone and breaking bread together / Reading the New Yorker in bed together…” and “Growing old together / Sharing a cold together…” which echo ‘Perfect relationships’ from “Company”. Some numbers were cut on the road or unused, although Ian Marshall Fisher has restored ‘Stay as we are’ which provides a good note on which to end the show which had originally finished on a number called ‘Good-bye to all that’.
The cast keeps its end up on this long haul and led by Elizabeth Counsell as Sybil, as flighty as they come, but determined not to let marriage become a bore. Counsell is a past mistress at sophisticated harridans and she really makes a witty fist of the role. Towards the end of the show she has a long comic scene on the telephone, a virtual monologue which she sustains beautifully. David Firth is her long-suffering husband, Ogden, whom she has forgotten to tell about her moving on from him to a younger model. John Rawnsley is good as one of Sybil’s ex’s and, if he wants to stay in musical comedy, he would make a fine Nicely-Nicely in “Guys and dolls”. Valerie Cutko is her usual sophisticated self as Myra, while James Vaughan blusters about as Richard, Sybil’s first husband and the father of Madge, in the manner of film director John Huston. His sidekick and current wife, the wisecracking Betty, is played by the splendid Nuala Willis taking the role created by Mary Wickes. Helen Anker and Stephen Carlile are the innocent young lovers Madge and Ned who have yet to become as cynical as their parents, and Peter Gale contributes a nice characterisation as the JP Meachem.
It may not be the best musical to come out of Broadway but it has its moments and is certainly worth seeing for its rarity value alone, which is surely the object of the exercise behind “Lost Musicals”.
- Park Avenue is at the Lilian Baylis Theatre on 20 April at 4 p.m. and 27 April at 4 p.m. and 7.30 p.m.
- Tickets on 0870 737 7737
- Lost Musicals