The Concert Just Past (Cabin in the Sky)
and The One to Come (1776)
New York City Center/Encores Website

by David Spencer

The Encores! production of Cabin in the Sky took the concert series back to its root mission of producing once-popular musicals with notable scores that, due to changes in social sensibility combined with later, greater sophistication in the craft, are now unfit and unrealistic for full production.

            Even in a concert adaptation of this fantasy set in an African American urban community of the late 30s, the libretto by Lynn Root was attenuated, terribly dated, and socially a bit hard to make peace with—but, as was the point of the exercise, it provided a sense of the original context for the score by Vernon Duke (music) and John Latouche (lyrics), which includes a number of jazz standards including the title song, “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and “Taking a Chance on Love”. Speaking of that context, here’s the press release boilerplate:

            “The musical tells the story of ‘Little Joe’ Jackson (Michael Potts), a charming ne’er-do-well who dies in a saloon brawl and is given six months on earth to prove his worth to the Lord’s General (Norm Lewis) and the Devil’s Head Man (Chuck Cooper)—all while struggling to remain true to his loving wife Petunia (LaChanze) and resist the wiles of temptress Georgia Brown (Carly Hughes).”

            One hopes the exercise might also generate a definitive recording, particularly as this version boasts new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. As he did with the pastiche numbers of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, he didn’t quite orchestrate as they did in the period, he orchestrated the in the somewhat lusher, more nuanced, romanticized style of what we remember the period to be (which in its way is even more accurate). Under the usual dazzling musical direction of Rob Fisher, the cast was swell, and the score soared.

            Next up at Encores! is the Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical 1776, March 30-April 3. This one will pursue the other mission the concert series has developed over time, revisiting musicals that are revivable, but that just haven’t been seen in quite a while on the NYC mainstage. Hardly obscure or lacking for productions around the country, it’s a favorite musical of many (it’s certainly mine), and a fascinating entry for a concert series, because of all the latter 20th Century book musicals in the canon, it may have the lowest music-to-book ratio, the score of the nearly three-hour show (including intermission), clocks in, including a bit of dance and incidental music, at about 55 minutes. But every last minute counts, and the Peter Stone book is as worthy of a concert hall as the Sherman Edwards songs; it is justifiably heralded as one of the five or so best librettos of the American Musical Theatre.

            What makes the coming staging more novel than any previous is that, taking a direct cue from Hamilton, the casting is multi-ethnic. And it’s the first mainstream production of this heavily testosterone-powered show to directed by a woman. And that woman is Irish director Garry Hynes, who has never before helmed a musical. But she may well have the sensibility for it—she’s perhaps best known in the US for her direction of plays by Martin McDonaugh, whose brand of wordplay and characterization has much in common with Peter Stone in terms of size, structure, muscularity and wry wit. It’ll be interesting to find out…

A sidebar: 1776 is a historically quite relevant musical right now. In part because of its subject matter, but also, in great measure, because of its history. At this point, the unabridged, nearly three-hour home video DVD and Blu-Ray are taken for granted as definitive. But the original theatrical release, and the original home video, were quite a bit shorter. Here's how that happened…(this text is lifted and slightly tweaked from a review I wrote of the 1997 revival, that you can find here):

The cuts, which amounted to a desecration, were actually inflicted by the film's producer, Jack Warner, himself (it was his first for Columbia after leaving the studio that bore his name) He believed mightily in the project, and to his credit sanctioned having as many of the original personnel involved as director Peter Hunt wanted (Warner had received such flak for having cast Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" rather than Julie Andrews that he was not about to compound the felony)...but he was also a staunch right winger. And much of the film's political content bothered him.

So he lopped it.

Whap. Just like that.

Forty minutes of it. Most of it political debate. And two verses of "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve" were eviscerated.

One of the last cuts made, while Hunt was away in Europe, was the song "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" (the creators abbreviate it as "Cool Men"). This is the number in which John Dickinson rallies the conservatives who are against American independence. And at its peak final chorus, where they're all singing together in musular resolve, Onna White's choreography became just a little bit goose-steppy. Bear in mind one other thing about the period: Vietnam.

When I was in college, I interviewed Peter Stone for my campus paper. I asked him why "Cool Men" wasn't in the film, since it's practically the center of the show, crystallizing the conflict and defining the conservative faction in song--and since, curiously, the tune was still alluded to in the film's underscoring. "It was shot," Stone said to me, "and shot beautifully." Then how, I asked him, could it possibly have gotten cut?

This was the early '70s--and this was Stone's answer then. "If you put a gun to my head, I'd have to tell you I don't know. But if you took the gun away, I'd say for political reasons."

A very tactful way of saying what couldn't be admitted at the time for publication. Which was this--

--Nixon called Warner up and asked him to cut it. And so it went. All eight minutes of it. And because Warner didn't want to be overruled at some future point--

--he then burned the negatives. Presumably destroying it forever.

(In 1969, "1776" had the distinction of being the first stage musical to be performed at the White House in its entirety. Previously, "tab" versions of shows had been presented. Even so, "Cool Men" created much controversy. A request was made that the number be cut for the White House presentation. The request was refused; "1776" would be performed with "Cool Men" intact or not at all. The number stayed in. But Nixon remembered...)

In the early '90s, a company called Pioneer Video had an unexpectedly enthusiastic response when they released the theatrical version of the "1776" film. The response was so positive that two Pioneer Video guys, Joseph Caporiccio and Michael Matessino decided to go on a see if they could restore the film to its full length.

The film's editor couldn't help. But the editor's assistant, who had worked on the 1972 trimming project, had felt it such an injustice, that she secretly set aside complete copies of the "burned" scenes. Which were stored, in strips, in a salt cellar in Wisconsin.

These strips (and others kept by Columbia pictures' storage facility in Kansas) were cleaned by hand, their color retimed, individual frames repaired--then painstakingly edited and synchronized to newly mixed and mastered stereo tracks. (The original film was not released in stereo, as Warner had deemed it too expensive to be worth the bother. Caporiccio and Matessino approached Columbia records, who had released the soundtrack album, but the option of using the album as a stereo source proved unworkable, due to the heavy reverb and graceless panning of the album mix. Amazingly, though, Columbia Records had held onto the original 16-track master tapes--which included all the songs, the unreleased reprises, and background music. Combined with the soundtrack material from the Columbia Pictures Kansas facility, the restorers now had everything.)

But for that investigation, however, the film of an American musical about American history would have been forever, essentially censored by a conservative administration.

Happy voting…

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