Monday, 27 July 2015

Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey's "Grease"

"Grease is the word, is the word that you heard
It's got groove its got meaning
Grease is the time is the place is the motion
Grease is the way we are feeling."

His name was Jeff Rosnick.  All the girls in Grade 6 had a crush on him.  Why?  Because he had the biggest, brightest, bluest eyes and dark wavy hair parted in the middlle, just like John Travolta.  John Travolta starred in the biggest Broadway production of 1978, Grease.  I saw it not once, but twice in the theatre.  I saw it a third time in Grade 9 when my high school, Westmount, mounted its own version of the play.

The story was set in Chicago in 1959 at Rydell High School, based on William Howard Taft School where Jim Jacobs attended.  It followed the lives of ten teenagers through their friendships and loves in a world filled with souped up cars, greasy hair and greasy spoons.  At the centre is greaser Danny Zuko, played by Barry Bostwick, and Sandy, played by Carole Demas, as well as Rizzo played by Adrienne Barbeua and Kenickie played by Timothy Meyers.  Good girl Sandy falls in love with rebel Danny over the summer.  When the school year resumes, Danny is torn between his girl and his gang, The T-Birds and the Pink Ladies.

The original production was staged in an old trolley barn in Chicago in 1971.  Grease premiered on Broadway at the Eden Theatre on Valentine's Day 1972 and ran for 3388 performances, closing in 1980.  At the time it was the longest running musical on Broadway.  

The play was adapted for the big screen in 1978, starring John Travolta as Danny and Olivia Newton John as Sandy.  They belted out hits such as "Summer Nights", "Greased Lightnin'", and "We Go Together".

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I"

"The King and I is really a celebration of love in all its guises, from the love of Anna for her dead husband; the love of the King's official wife, Lady Thiang, for a man she knows is flawed and also unfaithful; the desperation of forbidden love; and a love that is barely recognized and can never be acted upon." (

Sepia tinted photo of seated woman and older man separated by three children sitting on a bench, with several children sitting on the floor in front of them

The King of Siam with nine of his children courtesy

Rob and I saw "The King and I", based on the book Anna and the King of Siam, at the Stratford Theatre about twelve years ago.  What struck me the most about the musical was the beautiful costumes.  Set during the 1860's in Siam (Thailand), the story follows a widowed British schoolteacher who is hired to educate the King Mongkut's children.  The King is attempting to modernize his country and the education of his offspring is part of that plan.

He and the schoolteacher, Anna, clash on many occasions as they disagree in how the children should be taught.  At the same time, they are drawn to each other, and end up falling in love, a forbidden love that they cannot act upon as the King is already married.  In fact, the King has more than one wife; his official wife loves him despite his unfaithfulness.  

Theatrical attorney Annie Holtzmann came upon the book Anna and the King of Siam (1944) and presented it to her client, Gertrude Lawrence, suggesting that it would be a good play for her to star in to revive her fledgling stage career.  The attorney contacted composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein, who had already written four musicals.  Rodgers worked his magic, composing hits such as "Shall We Dance", "I Have Dreamed' and "Who Would Refuse?' and they had an instant hit on their hands.  Yul Brynner starred as the king alongside veteran actress Gertrude Lawrence.

The musical premiered on March 29, 1951 at the St. James Theatre on Broadway.  The role was taxing for Lawrence, who at 52, had to wear 75 pound dresses as she walked and danced 4 miles across the stage over a 3 1/2 hour period, eight times a week.  In September of 1952, she discovered she had liver cancer and passed away.  She was buried in a ballgown she wore in Act II.  The King and I continued with a new leading actress for another year and a half.  It closed after 1246 performances, the fourth longest running musical in history.

A barefoot man in Asian-style dress dances exuberantly with a woman in a formal gown with a large hoop skirt

Yul Brynner & Gertrude Lawrence dance to "Shall We Dance?" circa 1951 courtesy

Friday, 24 July 2015

Don Harron's "Anne of Green Gables"

The longest running musical in Canadian history debuted on CBC in 1956.  It first appeared on the stage in 1965 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and Canadians fell in love with it

Based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's 1908 classic book, the musical features a red-haired pig-tailed orphan named Anne who arrives in Prince Edward Island looking for a home.  Marilla and her brother Matthew have requested a boy to help them on the farm, but are shocked to find a girl at the train station.  Despite their wishes, Anne works her way into their hearts and they keep her.

She falls in love with their home, Green Gables, and their community, Avonlea.  Anne dreams of one day being a famous author and enters a writing contest sponsored by the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company for which she wins first prize.  As she daydreams, Gilbert watches her from afar, the boy who tugged on her pigtails on that first day of school, to which she responded by smashing a slate over his head.  Anne's relationship with the tender hearted Matthew is precious.

The musical features songs like "Humble Pie", "Wondrin" and "Ice Cream".  Anne of Green Gables appeared on the London stage in 1969 and Off Broadway in 1971.  It continues to appear on Canadian stages and has been performed every year since 1965.

Megan Follows plays Anne of Green Gables on CBC series circa 1985 courtesy

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Alan J. Lerner's "Paint Your Wagon"

A crusty old miner named Ben and his 16 year old daughter, Jennifer, are panning for gold during the California Gold Rush.  Jennifer strikes gold and the town suddenly swells to 400, all men.  She falls in love with a Mexican named Julio.  Later, her father buys the second wife of a Mormon named Jacob who comes to town.  Jennifer, disgusted with her father, moves East for a year to attend school.  When she returns, she is a "civilized" woman.  She waits for Julio, who has left to find more gold as the rest of the townspeople leave in a caravan of Conestoga wagons.  Julio returns, a broken man.

The play premiered on Broadway in 1951 and ran for a total of 289 performances.  Ben was played by James Barton, Jennifer, by Olag San Juan and Julio by Tony Bavaar.  The musical score, composed by Frederick Loewe, became famous for songs like "Wandrin Star", "I Talk to the Trees" and "They Call the Wind Maria".  The movie premiered in 1969, starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

George Kaufman & Moss Hart's "You Can't Take it with You"

The play "You Can't Take it with You" premiered at the Booth Theatre in 1936, running for 838 performances.  Mr. Kirby, played by William J.Kelly, is a Wall Street banker who intends to buy up a 12 block radius around a competitor's factory to put him out of business.  However, there is one hold out; Mr. Kirby suggests offering the family a large amount of money and if that fails, causing trouble for them

Mr. Kirby's son,Tony, played by Jess Barker, is the Vice President of the company.  He has fallen in love with the company stenographer, Alice Sycamore, played by Margot Stevenson, and proposed marriage.  No one knows that Margot lives in the hold out house.

Mr. and Mrs. Kirby disapprove of their son's choice of a mate, given that she is of the lower class.  Alice invites the Kirby's to dinner one evening, hoping to smooth things over.  However, the Kirby's come on the wrong evening and find the house in disarray.  The police arrive and arrest everyone in the house for setting off firecrackers illegally.

In prison, the Kirby's and Vanderhof's get to know each other a bit better.  Mr. Vanderhof points out to Mr. Kirby that even though he has wealth, he "can't take it with him."  Sprung from prison, the two families have their day in court where the judge asks why a wealthy family was associating with a lower class one.  Someone explains that they were discussing the possible sale of the house, but Alice points out that they are about to be in-laws.  However, disappointed at the poor treatment displayed by the Kirby's Alice spurns Tony and flees town.  Grandpa Vanderhof decides to sell their home and the neighbourhood prepares to vacate for the proposed factory.

Kirby's competitor, Ramsey, dies after confronting Kirby about his ruthlessness.  Kirby realized that Mr. Vanderhof is right:  he has no friends.  He visits the Vanderhof's again and realizes that they are good people.  Alice takes Tony back and the final scene shows the two families dining in harmony.

You Can't Take it with You was adapted for the big screen in 1938, directed by Frank Capra.  The production starred Jimmy Stewart as Tony Kirby, Jean Arthur as Alice Sycamore, Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Vanderhof and Edward Arnold as Mr. Kirby

You Can't Take it with You circa 1938 courtesy

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page"

The Front Page is a play written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The setting is the Chicago Criminal Courts Building in the 1920's.  Tabloid reporters, waiting for the hanging of Earl Williams, convicted of murdering a black policeman, sit around a table  encircled in cigarette smoke playing poker (

All of a sudden, they hear that the convicted murderer has escaped.  Everyone stampedes out of the room except Hildy Johnson.  As he sits there, Earl Williams jumps through the window.  Claiming he shot the police officer accidentally, Williams says he was set up by a crooked mayor and sheriff who were looking for black votes for the next election.

Hildy is convinced that Williams is telling the truth.  He helps him hide in a rolltop desk, hoping to whisk him away to safety and interview him when the opportunity presents itself.  However, he finds he has no choice but to ask for help.  Should he approach his cantankerous editor?

The play premiered at the Times Square Theatre on August 14, 1928.  The Earl Williams character, played by George Leach, was loosely based on Terrible Tommy O'Connor.  The Walter Burns character, played by Osgoode Perkins, was based on Hearst editor Walter Howley.  Lee Tracy played Hildy Grant.  Peggy Grant, Hildy's fiancee, was played by Frances Fuller (

The play was adapted for the stage in 1940 under the title His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy.

Theater building facade with colonnade spanning second and third stories and marquee and entrance on the left for two theaters.

Times Square Theatre circa 1922 courtesy

Monday, 20 July 2015

Elia Kazan's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

Based on the novel by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows an Irish American family lives in Brooklyn during the first two decades of the 20th Century.  The mother, Francie, got pregnant twice as a teenager and is raising her two children.  She is forced to be the main breadwinner as the father, Johnny, who is a singing waiter, cannot hold down a job due to his alcoholism.

The daughter, Francie, escapes from her family's poverty and her father's alcoholism through books.  She sits on the step of the apartment building and looks out the window at the Tree of Heaven, a tree native to China, which grows in vacant lots in New York City.  Francie is quite bright and her father tries to encourage her.  She attends a squalid overcrowded school in Brooklyn, but her father arranges for her to go to a much better school in the city.

Francie's brother, Neeley, has always been the healthy robust one of the two children.  The mother has always considered him to be her favourite, though she tries not to show it.

The mother discovers she is pregnant in 1915 and when the father finds out, he goes into a drunken stupor, dying of alcohol related pneumonia at Christmas time.  An unscrupulous undertaker absconds with the father's life insurance money.  Without money for high school, the two children are forced to find jobs.  Francie works in an artificial flower factory and press clipping office.  Her brother Neeley becomes a talented jazz piano player following in the artistic footsteps of his father.

Francie takes some courses and gets accepted at the University of Michigan.  She is courted by an older man and gets engaged.  Packing up her things to leave the apartment, she spies the Tree of Heaven again.  The tree is just like her family:  despite people's efforts to destroy it, it keeps growing.

The play A Tree Grows in Brooklyn premiered on Broadway in 1945, starring Peggy Ann Garners as Francie, Dorothy McGuires as the mother, James Dunn as the father and Ted Donaldson as the brother.

A scene from the movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn courtesy