To close the benefit program this week I grabbed a song Amanda Bottoms offered: “Sing Happy,” from the 1965 Flora the Red Menace. The musical is famous for a few things: it marked the first collaboration of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who would soon go on to write Cabaret, Chicago, and a raft of Broadway hits; it won a Tony for Liza Minelli, who was making her Broadway debut at age 19; and it was a flop. Like many Kander and Ebb works, Flora had a politically ambitious premise, but its director George Abbott came from a more traditional theatrical ethos. He was a giant, but not the right giant for this problematic material.
The most famous song from Flora is the ballad “A Quiet Thing.” It talks of how gentle it can be to fall in love:
Happiness comes in on tip-toe
Well, what d’ya know,
It’s a quiet thing
A very quiet thing.
“Sing Happy” is at the opposite end of the spectrum: a classic Liza Minelli smiling-through-the-pain belter whose more famous prototypes are “Maybe This Time” and “But the World Goes Round.” Kander and Ebb use a classic, sure-fire formula: an ostinato rhythm, a slow build of dynamics through successively rising keys, and a lyric in which the character insists on triumphing over a painful past. It’s the music-theater version of “I Will Survive,” a song whose power has lasted well past its use-by date. And Amanda can sell “Sing Happy” like a trouper.
It seemed like the perfect closer for the FSH gala: emotional, tough, a hymn to victory over challenges. And I am especially happy to be playing it—for the first time—after running into John Kander last week at a performance of “The Inspector General.” What a kind, intelligent, sensitive man he is. I was shocked to find out at the University of Google that he was 90 years old. He seemed as youthful as ever. I’ve always been grateful to John for the way he reached out to me when we first met in 1985, offering encouragement and support during a time when I was very lonely and isolated. We were strangers, but he gave me a lifeline for which I’ll always be grateful.
One of the anomalies of my life as an artistic director is that I have to think about Christmas in June. Our annual Goyishe Christmas program at Henry’s is set for December 12, and it would be smart to get a cast assembled sooner than later. It’s been a little easier to turn my mind to GC this year because it has been so cold outside. I seriously thought about wearing a scarf on Wednesday, and now wish I had. Goyishe is the only show we bring back year after year, and it doesn’t even need a huge amount of alterations. The folks in the neighborhood love it as a local tradition, and of course the performances are at a very high level—we’ve had John Brancy and Paul Appleby, Judy Kaye and Lauren Worsham, and it served as the NYFOS debut of Theo Hoffman a few years ago.
The theme is simple: Yuletide songs by Jewish composers. “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and of course the ur-Jewish classic, “White Christmas.” Interspersed with tunes you just heard in the department stores are a bunch of specialty numbers—this is a NYFOS show, after all. On the home encyclopedia known as YouTube, I found this one by Jule Styne (lyrics by Bob Merrill): “I’m Naïve,” from The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood. It was a 1965 TV special in which Liza was cast as the title character, Cyril Ritchard was the Big Bad Wolf, and that 60s band called The Animals (remember them?) played…a band of animals. This sultry tune brings us the fresh, young sound of Liza with a Z, a lovely if sad reminder of her tremendous promise.
I am enclosing another Christmas treat—not a song, but a video. Two Canadian actors have a web series called Yidlife Crisis, and I am a huge fan. This segment takes place in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas: Yingl Belz. It is almost entirely in Yiddish, with subtitles. The first time I saw it I laughed so explosively I was afraid my neighbors would call the police. Have a look—it is a 6-minute break that you have certainly earned today.
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