Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Prelude to the Tony Awards

When the nominations for the Tony Awards were announced today, I recognized the names of composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, who received a nod for their work on The Wedding Singer, a musical based on the 1998 Adam Sandler movie of the same name.

I remembered the names as the creators of a 2000 musical that had its premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, but never made it to Broadway (despite their hopes and my prediction): The Rhythm Club, set in 1938 Germany.

Speaking to Playbill, composer Sklar gave his reaction to the news of being nominated for best score of a musical:

"I was just at home sitting on my couch watching NY1. When they read the score nomination, I let out a little scream. Well, actually a big scream. I wanted to be nice to my neighbors. Then my friends and family started calling. It meant so much for our show that we get recognized. We got five nominations in five big categories. It feels amazing. I'm sort of at a loss for words. It's been a dream of mine for a long time. We'll get to do a number on the Tony telecast."
I haven't yet seen The Wedding Singer (neither play nor movie), but here is my review of Sklar and Beguelin's earlier musical play, The Rhythm Club, as it appeared in The Metro Herald on October 13, 2000:
The Rhythm Club: Waiting for the Explosion
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

The Rhythm Club is a firecracker ready to explode – yet some of its powder is just a bit damp. A work in progress that still needs some tweaking, it already provides an evening of great music, fine choreography, and evocative design. With some minor improvements, it will be a powerful piece of musical drama and a potential classic.

On its way to Broadway, The Rhythm Club has the potential to be for Signature Theatre what The Great White Hope was for the Arena Stage. That is, it could permanently set this small regional company into the firmament of theatrical trendsetters.

The Rhythm Club continues what seems to be Signature’s recent affinity for – or is it fascination with – musicals set in the 1920s and ‘30s. Last year’s Floyd Collins was about events in 1924 Kentucky; and Side Show recreated Depression-era vaudeville. Later this season, Donna Migliaccio will play Mama Rose in Gypsy, also from the same period. And here The Rhythm Club, although not about America, gives us Nazi Germany: Hamburg, 1938.

If nothing else, this affinity gives Signature’s costume designers a wonderful opportunity: Gregg Barnes’ costumes in The Rhythm Club are marvelous. Each piece of clothing not only represents a unique period in history, it supports and enhances the character who wears it.

The Rhythm Club
treads on ground already covered, as a musical, by Cabaret, and in terms of storyline by the movie, Swing Kids. The main characters are adolescents who rebel against Nazi authority by listening to, performing, and dancing to forbidden music – the swing music of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and others, as well as the pure jazz of Louis Armstrong and the hybrid sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Why was this music forbidden? The Nazis saw it as “Negro music performed by Jews – a double whammy in that racially-based legal system. But the impetus for such control goes back much farther. In The Republic, Plato (speaking as Socrates) said that “the introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole state; since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions,” adding: “It is here in music that our guardians should erect their guardhouse.” To this, Socrates’ colleague Adeimantus replied: “At any rate it is here that lawlessness easily creeps in unawares.” If nothing else, Hitler understood what the ancient Greeks did: by control of music and art, the state can also control the minds and souls of the people.

Enter two friends, Jake and Adam (Jeremy Kushnier and Tim Martin Gleason). Adam is a composer who absorbs the works of the American swingmasters. Jake is a conductor who admires their zest and celebrity. Together, they have put together a small ensemble and even have persuaded a classically trained singer, Petra (Lauren Kennedy), to front for their band. With the assistance of manager Greta (Megan Lawrence), they persuade Gustav Hebert (Buz Mauro), the owner of the underground Rhythm Club, to let them play for his customers.

Jake and Adam meet with success. In the argot of swing, they ride and send like Satchmo. Their talents merit the attentions of the menacingly effete Herr Kroger (Jonathan Hogan), a Nazi official with connections to the music business in America. He offers them their ticket to stardom and out of the path of danger that Nazi Germany presents (particularly to Adam and his family, who are Jews) – or does he?

To go further in this synopsis would give away too much. At this point, let us be frank about The Rhythm Club’s shortcomings, then go on to its superlatives.

First, the backstory of The Rhythm Club has a number of holes in it. How, for instance, do the musicians in Jake and Adam’s band learn their stuff, aside from listening to smuggled acetates? They seem to rise sui generis, like some kind of Hamburg Howard Roark. While important bits of information about each character are revealed over time in the play, there are still questions that need answering. Perhaps a prologue could help, or some flashbacks.

Second, anyone can see the play’s ending from a mile away. I won’t reveal it now, but suffice it to say that a reasonable closing line could be something akin to “Round up the usual suspects.”

Third, the sound design (by Tony Angelini) in Signature’s space is seriously flawed. Particularly with some of the hotter numbers, it was difficult to hear the singers over the orchestra. This is one rare instance in which body microphones would have been helpful. (Signature used them for The Fix, so the intimate staging alone does not explain their absence here.)

That said, one cannot praise highly enough The Rhythm Club’s music and dancing. Just as Stephen Sondheim filled his Follies with pastiches of the music from the Broadway revues of the 1920s and ‘30s, composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin emulate – not imitate, but emulate – the various musical styles of the great swing bands. Much credit for this must go to orchestrator Don Sebesky (fresh from winning a Tony Award© for the revival of Kiss Me, Kate) and music director Robert Billig. Particularly given the small size of the orchestra – only seven pieces – it is astounding that they wereable to recreate so accurately the sound of the era. Some numbers evoked Artie Shaw so accurately, one expected to see Lana Turner waiting in the wings. (Or is it Ava Gardner?)

Sklar and Beguelin and their collaborators successfully evoke the sometimes unique, sometimes overlapping musical styles of the 1930s. (“Up in Heaven They Play Swing,” which becomes something of a theme for the show, sounds remarkably like Jimmy Lunsford.) The other, “Broadway” tunes are not so remarkable, but they bear echoes of Sondheim (“Inside the Music”) and Kander & Ebb (“They Taught Me Well,” sung by mothers Florence Lacey and Barbara Walsh, is virtually a duet version of “What Would You Do?” from Cabaret).

Integrated with the music is what really makes The Rhythm Club shine: the choreography by Jodi Moccia. Although the show comes a few years late to capitalize on the swing dancing craze of the mid-1990s (and the remarkable TV ads for The Gap), Moccia pulls out every trick in her leotard to make the joint jump.

Altogether, director Eric Schaeffer has pulled together a visually brilliant, musically inventive production.

A prediction: The Rhythm Club will be a modest success on Broadway, but a huge hit when it arrives in London’s West End.

No comments: