Bacharach on Broadway

By Bill Rudman

There were so many written tributes paid to Burt Bacharach, who left us February 8 at the age of 95, that I would feel no need to add my own words now were it not for the paucity of space given to one of his finest projects: his only Broadway score, Promises, Promises (1968), with lyrics, as usual, by the agile and underrated Hal David.

Bacharach came out of Tin Pan Alley in the 1950s, then quickly rose to household-name status over the next 10 years with one pop hit after another — so many of them introduced or covered gorgeously by Dionne Warwick. His writing became increasingly, memorably, miraculously idiosyncratic, with complex meters, bold harmonies and tunes that remain living ear worms all these years later. Will anyone ever forget the quirky front phrase of “What’s New, Pussycat?” Doubtful. 

And though Bacharach never sounded like Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers or the rest of that gang, I contend that he somehow belongs in their company, his inspired craftsmanship filling a chapter of the Great American Songbook — the tradition of songwriting that paid equal, risk-taking attention to melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics. 

But I digress: Bacharach’s score for Promises, Promises was just as important as Hair in bringing a new sound to Broadway. Why? Because it was truly sophisticated. The show was revived in 2010 in a production starring Sean Hayes, but it’s conceivable that in the wake of the MeToo movement we’ll never see the musical on stage again: Neil Simon’s script, based on Billy Wilder’s film comedy The Apartment, is sexist at its core. But if you don’t have the CD, the one you want — and you must have it — is with the original Broadway cast starring Jerry Orbach and Jill O’Hara, both of whom make the Bacharach-David songs sizzle.

I visited my archives to refresh my memory of how Bacharach’s work was perceived by Martin Gottfried, the best musical theater critic of that era. A week before the show opened, he wrote: “Audiences love that Broadway show sound so much they have stopped listening….Now they will be faced with a real musician. This is a chance with a composer, and he must be heard.” And from his review: “Not only has orchestrator Jonathan Tunick [who would begin working on Sondheim’s musicals the next year] been faithful to Bacharach rather than the show-tune cliche; the whole archaic system of show biz has been shattered by the use of an amplified orchestra and electric instruments (organ, bass fiddle, guitar)…and an honest-to-god recording engineer is in the house….This is something very special.”

In the early 1970s Bacharach and David wrote the score for a Hollywood musical, Lost Horizon; the movie — not the songs — was a disaster, and he never again ventured into musical theater territory, which was a great loss for the art form. I saw him in concert about 15 years ago, and he and his band were sensational, even though he had not been a “cool” element in our popular culture for decades. 

But no matter: We must be grateful for his discography including that one terrific Broadway musical.


By Bill Rudman

Everybody who knows more than a dozen musicals knows that at 21 Barbra Streisand became a Broadway star as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. And nearly everybody knows that two years earlier, she stole the show in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, wildly swiveling in her office chair as the sexually frustrated Miss Marmelstein.

But ironically, it’s not on Broadway that we got the first glimpse of her singular vision as a singer. At 17 she began the first of several engagements at New York’s Bon Soir (in Greenwich Village, naturally). She instantly owned the place and observed years later, “Some singers, like Mabel Mercer, used to spend their whole lives singing in small clubs. I could understand why after playing the Bon Soir, where I spent some of the happiest nights of my working life.”

So here comes a new CD from Columbia Records (now Sony), the only label she has ever recorded for. “Barbra Streisand Live at the Bon Soir” shares performances from November 1962; it was her late-night gig after the curtain came down on Wholesale, and it was to have been released as her first album. Sony tells us that this is the debut of her Bon Soir recordings. They’re fibbing. Of the 24 cuts on the CD, eight first appeared in the 1991 compilation, “Barbra Streisand: Just for the Record.”

But I’m quibbling. To finally get the whole shebang in one package is a glorious gift. In 1962 she wasn’t happy with the sound (the Bon Soir was a tough room to mike), and it took 60 years until a digital remix from the master tapes made her happy.

The real point of this, however, is that the CD provides an expansive look at what was to come. She’s working with just four musicians, and there are times she pushes a bit too much—arrangers like Peter Matz and Ray Ellis arrived soon, and their orchestras were totally in sync with where she wanted to go.

But that’s more quibbling. What’s fascinating is that much of her repertoire at the Bon Soir later turned up on the early LPs, and when you add up all 24 tracks it’s quite a statement from a 19-year-old. Most of the songs—and she chose her own material from the get-go—were written by the old guard of our musical theater, including Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and no less than six songs are by the great Harold Arlen and his various lyricist-partners.

What did such a young woman find in the work of these masters, written in the 1930s, 40s and 50s? I’ll offer good taste and sophistication and let it go at that. In 1962 she was already surrounded by rock ‘n’ roll, but here are such sublime items as Arlen & Koehler’s “When the Sun Comes Out,” Rodgers & Hart’s “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street,” Arlen & Capote’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” and Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry”—the latter two from musicals that flopped. Now we know all four, and Streisand is largely responsible for turning them into standards as she determinedly bucked the tide of American popular music.

So you need this CD in your collection—it’s a disc that has “old soul” written all over it. As her star was rising, the old guard was falling, desperately seeking a champion for their music and lyrics. Streisand was the last young singer to win acclaim honoring them, and oh, how grateful they were! On one of her early LPs, Richard Rodgers—a man not given to overstatement—summarized the feelings of his brethren when he used the entire back cover to write: “Nobody is talented enough to get laughs, to bring tears, to sing with the depth of a fine cello or the lift of a climbing bird. Nobody, that is, except Barbra. She makes our musical world a much happier place than it was before.”

It’s all there at the Bon Soir.

TMTP Highlights a ‘Cultural Phenomenon’

The Musical Theater Project just closed its 15th annual “Christmas Cabaret” with sold-out performance at Edwin Too on Shaker Square—and once again audiences were surprised to hear an often-forgotten fact revealed by NANCY MAIER, NATALIE GREEN and JOE MONAGHAN.

Namely, that most of our best-loved Christmas songs—from “White Christmas” to “The Christmas Song” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were penned by Jewish American songwriters. Oh, everybody knows about Irving Berlin—the quintessential Jewish immigrant—and his “White Christmas,” but not so much when it comes to Mel Torme’s “roasting chestnuts” and Johnny Marks’s “shiny-nosed” four-legged one.

In our show, I call it a cultural phenemenon!

And that’s to say nothing of composer Jule Styne. Styne is the Funny Girl and Gypsy guy, of course, but of the songwriters whose work comprises the Great American Songbook, he also the major Christmas-song guy.

With fellow Jewish American Sammy Cahn he wrote “The Christmas Waltz” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” But Styne also wrote no less than three Christmas musicals for television: “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962 – from which we performed the beautiful “Winter Was Warm”), Liza Minnelli’s The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood (1965) and The Night the Animals Talked (1970).

I had the privilege of interviewing Styne near the end of his life, and this is what he told me about his attraction to the holiday season: “Look, Christmas is the time of year when Americans want to sing more songs and hear more song than at any other time. And it’s a season about love. How could I not want to be part of that?”


November 26 marks the first year of Stephen Sondheim’s passing, and like you, I have been thinking a lot about the loss of this great artist. No doubt there have been hundreds of us—men and women who found the confidence to make a career in musical theater thanks to Sondheim’s generosity of spirit and dedication to teaching.

I bet I’m typical. I wrote to him in 1969, when I was an 18-year-old living in a small town in Ohio. Topic: Anyone Can Whistle. I sent him a blank reel-to-reel tape, asking him (such chutzpah) to respond to my questions. Lo and behold, he brought in collaborator Arthur Laurents so they could do it together, with Sondheim commenting that since I was writing “a master’s thesis” (!), he felt I deserved the “most pretentious possible reply.” (High praise indeed from Sondheim.)

I promise you I didn’t misrepresent myself—but for whatever reason, he took me seriously, and our correspondence officially began. Two years later, I was teaching a course in musical theater history while a student at a tiny Ohio college. Displaying more chutzpah, I invited him to speak to my class, but though he declined (graciously explaining that he hated to fly), he invited me to interview him at his Turtle Bay townhouse. In 1973 he even invited me to attend the recording session for A Little Night Music. I took notes! Nirvana! And after the epic 14-hour session, he took me and a friend of his out for a nightcap across the street from the Columbia Records studio.

Then in 1975, when I was working for Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, he gave us the first non-aquatic rights to do The Frogs. He and Burt Shevelove made revisions, and we premiered the heart-piercing Sondheim-Shakespeare song, “Fear No More.”

By 1979, I was living and working in Manhattan, and I decided not to trouble him further (except sporadically!). Forty-three years later, I’m artistic director of The Musical Theater Project, an educational nonprofit in Cleveland. We have a national record label, Harbinger Records, and a few years ago I asked him to do a liner note for a CD retrospective on Hugh Martin, a songwriter I knew he admired.

Amazingly he remembered me and wrote a splendid note. In gratitude I sent him a CD we had produced of piano rolls that nobody knew existed, recorded in the 1920s by Richard Rodgers. Imagine: I finally had the chance to teach him something.

In 1994 New York Magazine famously asked, “Is Stephen Sondheim God”? It’s my favorite rhetorical question.

I am so grateful to the godlike man who believed in me…

Discover Broadway’s Hidden Gems

As the winter weather rolls in and the pandemic rages on, now is the perfect time to hunker down and get cozy with your favorite cast albums. It’s also the time when new releases usually become available from the current Broadway season. Sadly, new musicals are on hold for a while, but TMTP is here to introduce you to a few old ones you may have missed. Here are the staff picks for “hidden gems” they truly love, but have fallen through the cracks over time.

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Life Is a Cabaret!

Every October Manhattan is usually bursting with song as the Mabel Mercer Foundation presents the annual Cabaret Convention. The artform specializing in live and intimate song interpretation certainly wasn’t created with “social distancing” in mind, but nobody’s gonna rain on this parade. For the first time ever, audiences around the world can enjoy a virtual version of the event jam packed with star power. You can register to attend one of many sessions at the link below. In the meantime, here are TMTP’s selections for must-listen cabaret albums. 

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What’s Bill Up To?

We’re thrilled when our participants tell us they have learned, laughed, cried and loved (our
slogan) at one of our events—but I must confess I’m just as happy when I learn something,
which happens all the time.

Example: Now available on our Let’s Go to the Movies series is my preview of the Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress (1937). We’ve provided the link to the film, and you can be part of our live-streamed Q&A on October 15.

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What’s Bill Up To?

Bill is up to what all of us at The Musical Theater Project are up to—and this goes for most arts organizations in Cleveland as well. We’re creating online programming as a means of serving our participants during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of TMTP, that includes our new weekly series, “Let’s Go to the Movies…at Home!,” an adaptation of our acclaimed school program, “Kids Love Musicals!,” and specially selected song playlists that can be streamed on Spotify. (And of course our two long-running radio programs on public stations and Sirius continue, unaffected by the virus.)

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Binge-Worthy TV Shows to Get Your Musical Fix

The 72nd Annual Emmy Award nominations just came out and as usual, Broadway is well represented. We thought this would be the perfect time to look back at our favorite musical TV shows. Everyone at TMTP was tasked with selecting a gem from the small screen that would satisfy our hunger for musical theater while we’re stuck home on the couch.

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