Photo by Carol Rosegg
“Cafe Society Swing,” a new musical that opened in New York on December 21, has so many good parts it’s a shame they don’t fit together.
The play tells the story of Barney Josephson, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants who scrapped together a few thousand bucks and, in 1938, opened a Greenwich Village nightspot he called Cafe Society. A fan of jazz, he wanted to bring downtown the music he’d seen uptown at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
But with a difference: In Harlem, the audiences were almost all white (black customers were seated in the back behind partitions) and the entertainers all black. Even legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington had to come in through the back door.
Influenced by the political cabarets of Prague and Berlin, Josephson integrated both the Cafe Society entertainers and audience. Billie Holliday, bluesman Big Joe Turner, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, folk singer Josh White, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn graced the club’s stage. Jack Guilford was a long-time MC, as was Zero Mostel. Imogene Coca and Carol Channing, among others, also appeared there.
Frank Wildhorn will be appearing at 54 Below this week.
For those who don’t know, 54 Below is a supper club located essentially underneath what was Studio 54 (where all the action used to take place).
For those who don’t know Frank Wildhorn, he wrote “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” a number one international hit for Whitney Houston.
He also is the most successful contemporary writer of musicals on Broadway. In 1999, he had three shows on the Great White Way simultaneously: “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Civil War.” His musicals are hits all over the world.
When we spoke, he had just returned from Tokyo and Seoul, where he celebrated openings and re-openings of his work. In fact, it’s estimated that some 40,000 people attend a Wildhorn musical every day of the year. Everyone, it seems, loves Wildhorn’s work.
Except the Broadway critics. Wildhorn spoke to the Forward about the lack of love he gets from them, the Jewish project he promised his dad, and how he taught himself to play an instrument.
Curt Schleier: Critics don’t like you, do they?
Photo: Joan Marcus
Joel Fields had me at “Hello.”
He began our phone conversation like this:
“A quick hello and let me tell you I can’t believe I’m getting a chance to talk to someone at the Forward. It was such a big part of my childhood. My dad, who passed away in January, was a rabbi [Harvey Fields, long time head of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles]. I grew up in East Brunswick [N.J.]. We lived in Israel. We moved to Toronto where I attended the Bialik Hebrew Day School and learned Yiddish. And the Forward was always present in our lives.”
Eat your heart out, New York Times.
Fields made his bones as a television writer. He worked on “Ugly Betty” and “Rizzoli & Isles” and is currently writer and executive producer on “The Americans,” one of those hot water cooler shows on FX.
But that’s not the reason we’re talking. Along with writer David Lee (“Wings,” “Frasier”), Fields took on the daunting task of re-writing “Can-Can,” which opens October 1 at the Paper Mill Theater. The Abe Burrows-Cole Porter musical, featuring ageless songs such as “I Love Paris” and “C’est Magnifique,” was a success in both its Broadway and West End productions and spawned a Frank Sinatra movie. But subsequent revivals failed to wow audiences.
Fields spoke to his favorite paper about how this production came about, why it took more than a decade to make it to the stage, and why he doesn’t count his Broadway chickens before they hatch.
Curt Schleier: You’re a TV guy. How did come to make a musical?
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Growing up in Australia, Danny Ginges was both fascinated and fearful of the atomic bomb, and as an adult delved deeper into the story of the scientists who created the monster. The more he discovered of these men (and woman) and their top-secret Manhattan Project, the clearer it became that one name was lesser known than the others.
Ginges was working in advertising in Sydney in 2002 when he wrote a screenplay revolving around Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-American, Jewish physicist who conceived nuclear chain reaction. A decade later Ginges?s project has evolved into the big, polished, off-Broadway musical ?Atomic,? on through August 16 at Theatre Row?s Acorn Theatre.
?When I came across Szilard?s story it both engaged me and enraged me,? Ginges said. ?My anger that such an important figure should be forgotten by history is the fuel that?s driven me this far, and continues to drive me every single day. I feel very strongly that Szilard has a message for today. Fifty years after his death, it?s high time it was told.?
Oppenheimer, performed by Euan Morton, narrates the fleet-footed show that includes a surprising mix of gleeful dancing and rock music (by Philip Foxman), a daring contrast with the tragedies of the Holocaust and World War ll (cue ?Springtime for Hitler?). Book and lyrics are by Gregory Bonsignore and Ginges, who hopes ?Atomic? restarts a dialog. ?A lot of people don?t want to deal with this event, even after this much time. But it?s better not to have things locked up in a closet.?
Photo: Jenny Anderson
Bert Berns is the best pop songwriter you never heard of.
“Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” is the best new musical of the summer, and you heard that here first.
Berns was an angst-ridden Jewish kid from the Bronx, haunted by a weak heart and a doctor’s predictions that he wouldn’t live beyond 30. He died at 38, but not before writing a slew of hits including “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Cry Baby” (among many others). He also produced early hits for Neil Diamond, Solomon Burke and Van Morrison (among others).
“Piece of My Heart” is a highly entertaining (if not entirely factual), toe-tapping retelling of Berns’s story. Book writer Daniel Goldfarb (“Modern Orthodox,” “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie”) has taken an imaginative approach.
Bert’s daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzler) gets a mysterious phone call urging her to return to New York, to her father’s office. When she gets there, she meets Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia (Joseph Siravo), her dad’s best friend, manager and supporter, who has mob connections.
He’s concerned because Jessie’s mom, Ilene (Linda Hart), is about to sell Bert’s catalogue. Jessie, who ostensibly was only 10 days old when her father passed away, knew nothing of this. She didn’t even know he had an office, so Wassel takes her on a journey into the past.
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