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The Broadway Musicals of 1968 by Matthew Murray

  • Making the best of a bad situation is not always Scott Siegel's strength when it comes to his venerable "Broadway by the Year" series: Try as he, or anyone, might, the success of a concert celebrating the music of any particular year is dependent on the music of that year. But while Siegel was facing an uphill battle with The Broadway Musicals of 1968, which played at The Town Hall on Monday, he rose to the occasion and made up the deficit himself.

    Never have Siegel's remarks been wittier, more pointed, or more precisely timed. Beginning the evening with a sobering recounting the tragedies of 1968, including the Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations, he ultimately described the year -- the most recent "Broadway by the Year" has ever tackled -- as one of tumultuous change, inside and outside the theater. The musical theater, he hinted, was accelerating its downward spiral of broad-based popularity and becoming more critically dependent on rock and pop for ideas.

    As evidenced by the songs Siegel had to choose from to represent the year, who could disagree? When Promises, Promises (music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David) and Hair (music by Galt MacDermot, lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado) were, apparently, the only shows that year displaying adventuresome lyrics and melodic invention, one must question the health of Broadway. So, we were at least treated to stunningly energetic opening and closing numbers in "Aquarius" (led by Shayna Steele) and "Let the Sunshine In" respectively, with the occasionally exciting pepperings of "Frank Mills" (Annie Golden, who was in the Hair film) and "Easy to be Hard" (Steele), as well as a plaintively powerful "Knowing When to Leave" from Lisa Howard, the elegantly spicy star of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

    But despite Siegel's captivating commentary and the Herculean efforts of director Brad Oscar, the evening otherwise tended toward futility in making more of the songs than most of them made of themselves. Of the three excerpts from Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968, only Lorinda Lisitza even halfway scored with the Brecht-Weill parody "Das Chicago Song" (which, while no great shakes, puts to shame Urinetown's bevy of half-baked imitations); Oscar himself scored an impressive coup with "Why Can't I Walk Away?" from the flop Maggie Flynn, by making it marginally enjoyable; and Howard beautifully sang "Only Love" from Kander & Ebb's Zorba.

    Few of the other performers could generate many highlights, which is perhaps unsurprising for the terminally one-note Jack Noseworthy (who demonstrated in two songs from Promises, Promises that he's no Jerry Orbach, and in one from The Happy Time that he's no Robert Goulet) or the ever-artificial Scott Coulter (whose singing of "Promises, Promises" and Golden Rainbow's "I've Got to Be Me" proved the evening's most self-indulgent moments). More depressing was the usually terrific Adam Grupper, wasted here in hopeless numbers from The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and Her First Roman. Bill Nolte scored a minor comic success with the march-inspired "Love In a New Tempo" (New Faces), but his "Panache" suggested that it was perhaps not simply Clive Barnes's absence on opening night that killed Darling of the Day. Broadway dancers Christina Marie Norrup, Kim Shriver, and Courtney Young made a valiant effort with Promises, Promises's "Turkey Lurkey Time," but were fighting an impossible battle against Michael Bennett's iconic choreography, to which Norrup's dance could not compare.

    Jeffry Denman supplied the show's far more interesting dance component with the first-act finale, drawn from George M!: "Give My Regards to Broadway." Singing (unamplified, and with no words lost) and tapping his way through the Cohan classic, Denman proved that there was indeed real, exciting music in the Best Broadway tradition heard on the Great White Way in 1968. What a shame we had to go back to 1904 to find it.

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