Sunday, February 10, 2008

All About Applause

There has been a lot of buzz around the New York theater going circles this week regarding a concert version of the 70's musical Applause. The chatboards are all aflame with comments and criticisms regarding the Encores! series and their decision to do (and their production of) what many consider to be a lesser musical from an era gone by. Within these discussions people have touched on the original source material (the famed film All About Eve), the original leading lady from that source material (the great Bette Davis), the original musical production (legendary actress Lauren Bacall), touring productions and replacement casts (Eleanor Parker, Arlene Dahl, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lisa Kirk and Ann Baxter), an ill fated regional production that starred Stefanie Powers and the performers who grace this week's production. Almost nobody remains unscathed, save for the original film and leading lady. Everyone has an opinion and the majority of them appear to be laced with dissatisfaction.

Applause has been an important piece of theater in the life of this musical theater buff. I was a small boy living in Ohio, craving to know more about theater, about musical theater and about the people who create both; that is when I began checking out record albums from the library and hardcover play scripts to read while listening to them. I checked out the books Hello, Dolly!, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, The Sound of Music, Mame and read them while listening to the same cast albums and Oliver!, Dear World, Maggie Flyn and a host of others. Imagine my great delight when I turned on the television one night to find a made for tv version of a play called Applause. It was a musical about a great actress starring a woman I had never heard of but what did that matter? It was a musical on television. I was beside myself with excitement and I devoured every moment of the broadcast. It stirred my imagination and (further!) sparked my desire to be a part of that world. It became an obsession for me and trips to the library brought sessions of research to find out all I could about the show - and I did - all before the age of ten. When I found, during a family visit to the K Mart to do some shopping, that there was a cast album, I went to absolute pieces! I did not have enough allowance saved up to make the purchase and would have to wait a couple of weeks. Terrified that someone else would come buy it, I called every day to see if it was still there. "Do you have the record for Applause?" I would ask and a salesperson would tell me yes. After two weeks of this, a salesperson said "Why don't you just come buy it?" Eventually, I did. I played that album until it was scratched and worn. It was one of those shows for me -- and every musical buff knows what I'm talking about, in exactly the same way that every musical buff understood the Man in the Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone. It marked a time in my life.

Years later I discovered the film All About Eve and I was enlightened to the flaws inherant in Applause. That mattered not to me. My devotion to the play had to remain intact; even when, in my twenties, I was forced to do a bad production of the piece. By that time I had become an All About Eve quoting afficionado. I had read books on the subject and knew the backstories and trivia. I had read Lauren Bacall's autobiography and knew all her tales regarding the creation of the Tony award winning musical. I had spent years working in theaters around town, some of them as a dancer, and had reached a point where I did not want to dance anymore. I didn't want to do musicals - I wanted to do Lanford Wilson and Tennessee Williams. Nevertheless, when a girlfriend of mine called me and said she was playing Margo Channing and would I PLEEEAAASE play the gay hairdresser with her, I said yes. It was a nightmare of an experience. The director tried to rethink the script and cut and reconfigured the play. The musical director cut whole passages of songs (Welcome To The Theater became a two verse ditty) and, indeed, whole songs from the play, replacing them with new songs he had written. The choreography was non existent, as was the set and any of the glamour that makes All About Eve and Applause the story that they are. I was miserable and hated every minute; but I still loved Applause. After that production closed down I continued to listen to my cast album, throughout my adult life. It remains one of the few cast albums I play from start to finish, without skipping tracks; no matter how stupid some of them are.

I read that Stefanie Powers was going to do Applause at the Papermill Playhouse a few years ago. My mom and I love Stefanie Powers (LOVE her) and I got us tickets to the show. The script had been changed and the songs moved around and cut and it was almost no better than the production I had been in. She was beautiful and she sang and danced the role to great distinction; but mom and I met her after the show and a few years later when she and I worked together, she so much as told me that she knew it was a trainwreck. I didn't care. I got to see Stefanie Powers live in a musical I had loved since I was eight years old. That was enough for me.

The Encores! series in New York does concert versions of shows that people won't produce anymore - for whatever reason. Usually they are sort of considered flops by historians but they have a following (almost every musical has a following of some sort, however small). The series brings in great stars and does splashy versions of these lost musicals, sometimes to great success (productions of Chicago and Wonderful Town even transferred to Broadway) and sometimes to great criticism.

Applause has been the latter.

I do not know the entire cast of Applause (I hear the great Kate Burton is in it, have mercy!) - and the truth is that it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is who is playing Margo Channing? That's what everyone wants to know. Who is the diva? Originally it was Bette Davis. When it became a musical it was Lauren Bacall. Those are divas. No matter how great the cast of Applause may be, individually, if they are not lead by a diva, the production is in trouble.

At the first performance of Applause, a producer made a curtain speech in which he announced that Christine Ebersole had been sick for the last few days of rehearsal and, yet, they were going ahead with the performance. It would appear that she couldn't sing the songs but that she did the show to the best of her ability and people forgave her because she is Christine Ebersole. I tell you what: I can get right behind that. I love Christine Ebersole. I am rarely starstruck but twice I have seen her in public and stopped breathing. I love her. I would give her the benefit of the doubt, too. I'm not here to criticize her or the production, not having seen it. I'm here, writing this story, to respond to the writings of chatteratti who have been commenting on Applause, in the wake of what (by all accounts) is a disappointment.

People have been criticizing the original production of Applause, the writing, the songs, the star... it's a critique that I have read often. So what? I have also read serious criticisms of that other Lauren Bacall musical, Woman of the Year. I didn't see Applause on Broadway but I did see Woman of the Year and it remains one of the highlights of my theater going lifetime. People seem to just choose to forget that art is an evolution and reflects the time period in which it is created. It may not seem like great artwork, now, in an age when the most artistic ventures are given support (both monetary and spiritual) that seems like a bottomless well. The arts community has greater resources now and fewer limitations; people are allowed to create visual and theatrical artwork that touches on subjects that, in the seventies and eighties, one would hesitate to put onstage. This last year, the Tony award for best musical went to a rock musical about teenage fornication. In the eighties it went to a musical about felines. Art is subjective and evolutionary. In the time during which it was written, Applause may have been considered to be innovative and edgy. Only those of us who were alive to see it on Broadway and compare it to the other works of the day can say, for sure, if it was considered a flawed piece at the time. It is, now, a museum piece. In recent theatrical seasons I have heard people say that Bells Are Ringing and Barefoot in the Park are dated -- well, YEAH, they are dated. They are set in other decades. They are revivals. Applause is set in the seventies, just as All About Eve was set in the forties (fifties? I think forties). People in the seventies could never have said some of the dialogue in All About Eve. Today I wish people could talk like that but we just DON'T. It isn't natural. So you must look at a piece like Applause as a glimpse of the past and just accept it the way it is. It will enhance your enjoyment of the event.

People have criticized Bacall's singing. Tough. When I saw Woman of the Year it didn't matter - her magnetism was UNBEATABLE. There have been any number of musicals starring people who weren't great singers. It is about the performance. People have criticized Bacall's performance on that tv version of Applause. It was the seventies. It's the way it was done. Believe it or not, there was an ability that people had to suspend their disbelief. People would watch shows filmed as stage plays to be shown on tv and appreciate the theatricality of the performance. Nowadays everyone wants everything to be natural. One of the things I love about old movies is that actors and actresses were allowed, given permission to, chew scenery and ham it up. There was a time when actors ACTED. So what if Applause doesn't sound great on the record album? It represents the art at the time it was created. So what if that tv version doesn't hold up? Transport your mind to the seventies. And when it comes time to see a current day production of the musical, remember that it is a revival. It is meant to show you what was considered good at the time. It's history.

People have been down on Christine Ebersole's casting as Margo Channing. They were down on Stefanie Powers, too. Well... I get it. It is not meant to take anything away from either of these remarkably talented women. I love them both. They are beautiful and talented actresses. The thing about Margo Channing, the problem in casting her, is that you don't want an actress. You want a legend. Not even a star will do. You must have someone who is so iconic that when she is onstage you can't look at anyone else. Even if she is just sitting there, listening to someone else, talk, while her left leg (crossed over the right) bobs up and down, you cannot look away. You must have someone in the role that, by sheer virtue of their being in the room with you, you believe is the greatest star in the universe. Bette Davis WAS Margo Channing. Lauren Bacall WAS Margo Channing. Remember, I am completely starstruck by Christine Ebersole. I am besotted by Stefanie Powers.


To cast a proper production of Applause, they should have called someone bigger. Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Annette Bening. People who walk in the room and take your breath away. A STAR. At the time when they were doing the show at Papermill, they needed Raquel Welch. In the early eighties, they could have used Ann-Margret (and anyone who thinks she wasn't up for the task, think again). OOH! They never could have gotten her but Margo Channing is Sharon Stone. What I said about Ann-Margret goes double for her. This is one of the problems inherant in a production of the musical Follies. When Follies opened on Broadway, those people were STARS... but they were stars whose day was waning and who had everything to lose by the show being a flop and everything to gain by it being a hit. Alexis Smith had been a movie star. Dorothy Collins was a recording and television star. Yvonne de Carlo had been a b movie star and a tv star. They had that larger than life quality that made the theater buzz when they walked in. That's who Margo Channing is.

A few years ago there was a staged reading of the movie All About Eve that took place in Los Angeles. Stockard Channing was Margo Channing. That's a star. When Stockard Channing walks in the room, I dare you to try to look away. DARE you.

I feel sad for the people who have lost the joy that permits them to appreciate an event like the Encores! production of Applause. It's a great glimpse at the past, it's a fun score, it's got a great leading lady and a wonderful cast of supporting actors. It's a night in the theater! What heaven is that. I think people would be a lot happier if they CHOSE to have a good time and appreciate what they have before them, rather than go into an event looking for something to criticize. It's certainly a lot more fun. Speaking as someone who doesn't have disposal income and cannot afford to go to see everything, a shot at seeing the luminous (even if miscast) Christine Ebersole in a (truthfully, less than perfect) musical would have been enough for me.

But I am happy with my cast recording and my audio bootleg of Stefanie Powers and my vhs copy of the tv broadcast with Lauren Bacall. I still have my strong attachment to Applause and I am happier than ever.

That's something to clap about.
Please note that the photos in this story were taken from the internet and not shot by me.


Blogger Paul Bratter said...

I love "Applause"--and I think Lauren Bacall is fabulous on the recording. Would've loved to have seen the Encores version.


4:07 PM  

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