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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: Make Mine Manhattan

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A guest post by UnsungMusicalsCo director, Ben West

The CompanyPhotograph © Dixie SheridanThe Company
Photograph © Dixie Sheridan
Currently in its fifth year, UnsungMusicalsCo. (UMC) is a not-for-profit production company that I founded with the aim of researching, restoring and presenting obscure but artistically sound works from the Golden Age of musical theatre. It should be noted upfront that I am perhaps more liberal than most in my definition of the Golden Age, by which I mean those 40 glorious years between the Follies: Mr. Florenz Ziegfeld's in 1931 and Mr. Stephen Sondheim's in 1971.

While all of our projects had a prior life, even those that were unproduced (e.g. Gatsby), I am particularly passionate about treating every one of them as a new musical such that the artists involved have the freedom to create their own interpretations of the piece without feeling bound by the parameters of what may have worked wonderfully for the original team. The result is hopefully a production that has grown out of and is specific to its participating artists, even though the material is pre-existing and potentially unchanged.

As some of you may know, UMC programming began in 2009 with a developmental production of How Now, Dow Jones as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

In March 2012, three years, three readings and two world premiere concerts later, we presented our first fully staged Off-Broadway production: Make Mine Manhattan by Arnold B. Horwitt and Richard Lewine. Beyond being a delicious show, Manhattan is the embodiment of UMC's mission to research, preserve and present unknown musical works that deserve to be a part of the modern musical theatre repertoire. It is a delightful musical revue with charming, tuneful, well-crafted material and a wonderfully sweet sense of style. A resounding hit in 1948, Make Mine Manhattan has been decidedly forgotten.

Kristen J. Smith, Greg Reuter, LaQuet SharnellPhotograph © Dixie SheridanKristen J. Smith, Greg Reuter, LaQuet Sharnell
Photograph © Dixie Sheridan
One often thinks that if a show is forgotten, it must have been a flop. Manhattan, in fact, ran a year on Broadway and had a subsequent tour starring Bert Lahr. No, it was by no means a flop. Rather, I believe Manhattan has been neglected for two main reasons: 1) the traditional revue format is no longer considered commercially popular; and 2) its authors, as acclaimed as they were, never became household names, their work therefore drifting into obscurity. It is these types of projects that are a major focus of UMC, thus making Manhattan an ideal candidate for our inaugural mainstage production.

In their initial drafts, the authors describe the musical, originally titled A Nice Place to Visit, as "a pocket revue, designed for a cast of eight, a small stage with either two pianos and rhythm, or a small orchestra. The cast should be highly versatile – they sing, play in sketches, dance a few steps now and then and may act as one of the revolving narrators. The look of the show is stylish but unpretentious. No curtain is necessary and only occasional, but simple, furniture and props are needed. Most of the time these are pushed or brought on stage by the cast themselves. The scenes flow from one to the other almost as 'dissolves', and the whole atmosphere is light. The cast members enjoy what they're doing and show it."

What ultimately opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1948, however, was a full-blown Broadway revue that set aside the intimate original concept in favor of a grander, razzle-dazzle affair. While it received rave reviews, Make Mine Manhattan displayed little of its "pocket revue" origins. That said, it fit spectacularly well into the 1940s Broadway environment in ways A Nice Place to Visit might not have.

On the road to New York, Manhattan was greeted with capacity crowds, great press and a spot of gossip. A report in the Philadelphia Bulletin indicated that the musical was:

"[...]undergoing last-minute tightening and sandpapering before braving Broadway. Writer-director George S. Kaufman dropped in last week to give the once-over for the skits in the Forrest SRO hit, for which his sidekick and frequent collaborator Moss Hart anted up 10% of the $165,000 nut. Kaufman restaged one sketch, an item concerning drama critics. As of Friday night, the revue's finale has been bolstered with new lyrics ["Never Again" became "Glad to Be Back."]"

Gabrielle Ruiz & Nicolas DromardPhotograph © Dixie SheridanGabrielle Ruiz & Nicolas Dromard
Photograph © Dixie Sheridan
But that was rather tame as far as gossip goes, and Manhattan went on to a celebrated run which helped launch the career of featured player Sid Caesar. (The sketch director of Make Mine Manhattan was one Max Liebman, with whom Caesar would soon create the acclaimed television series "Your Show of Shows.") Make Mine Manhattan is a classic revue wonderfully emblematic of its time, perfectly capturing the sweetness, levity and effervescence of a sparkling metropolis. As such, I was immediately drawn to the piece and found it to be an ideal fit for UMC.

The problem? Its original production had a cast over 30 strong. Part of UMC's mission is to give our projects fully realized productions such that we might breathe new life into the material for contemporary audiences. Given that we are still a young organization with limited resources, there was no way we could do justice to a piece requiring a cast of 30 actors. However, when I discovered its origins as a "pocket revue," I was struck with a distinct vision for the piece and became increasingly excited about its prospects. And so, on March 4, 2012, Make Mine Manhattan opened at the Connelly Theatre in a new production which returned the hit revue to its roots.

Much of my work researching and reconstructing the piece was done at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It was perhaps a spectacular twist of fate that housed within the NYPL's Billy Rose Theatre Division was the composer's collection. Needless to say, the Richard Lewine Papers proved an invaluable resource.

LaQuet SharnellPhotograph © Dixie SheridanLaQuet Sharnell
Photograph © Dixie Sheridan
I began to assemble the piece using the original concept as a template and building in additional elements from the Broadway version. Our production saw the addition of four musical numbers that were cut at various points in the revue's development ("I Gotta Have You," "New York Gal," "Old Fashioned Girl," "Please Take It Back,") as well as new snatches of dialogue pulled from the original drafts that would serve as connective tissue between several items in our new production. Taking my cue from the authors' own words, I worked to add and subtract elements of the revue such that the individual items would "flow from one to the other almost as dissolves."

In strategically structuring the material and the running order, I created eight distinct performer tracks, which would hopefully provide us with a hint of a narrative within the episodic revue format. Actor Nicolas Dromard became our charismatic narrator, Kristen J. Smith our bright-eyed ingénue, Gabrielle Ruiz our young starlet, and so on. While making every effort to honor the original, our Make Mine Manhattan would be a fresh take on the classic revue.

Arnold B. Horwitt and Richard Lewine are not names that are regularly bandied about, but perhaps they should be. Mr. Horwitt achieved great success in theatre and in television, writing numerous episodes of the hit series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"; Mr. Lewine received an Emmy Award for producing "My Name is Barbra" and served as director of special programming for CBS. Their combined talents here yielded "a sweet little revue with clever lyrics and cheery music," as reviewed in The New York Times. With its storied past and its enchanting material, it was an honor to revisit Make Mine Manhattan and I hope we have made a step toward returning it to the American musical theatre canon.

A note from Doug

This month's Musical of the Month is different in several ways. As Ben West describes above, the script included with this post is not the original version but a revision made for the the UnsungMusicalsCo production performed last year. Further, unlike the public domain scripts often found in this series, both the original and UnsungMusicalCo version remain under copyright protection, and the PDF of the new version is offered here for research use only with the permission of the rights holders. If you are interested in producing this script, please contact UnsungMusicalsCo at info@unsungmusicals.org

Download the Libretto (PDF only this month)

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Recording?

Is there any possibility of a recording of the show? Or is that fraught with too many copyright claims?

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