Teach me how to love

Little Me (now at Encores!) is a marvelous example of a type of musical comedy that was common in the Golden Age, but is sadly rarer in recent years. It has no point to make, no social ill to examine, no ax to grind: It merely exists to entertain.

I don’t know why more of us aren’t engaged in writing “mere” whimsy. So many shows are created, it seems, as acts of social activism. Which may be fine for the cause, good for the wordsmith’s soul, but not so fun for the audience. Such shows are often a chore to sit through. At Little Me, you sit back, relax, and wacky goings-on make you howl with laughter.

York, Borle

I’ve mused before about star vehicles, which can be a dicey proposition for Encores!, which can’t always attract major stars and then affords them only a week and a half of rehearsal. Little Me was created for Sid Caesar by Neil Simon, who’d penned countless great sketches for Caesar’s TV show in the 1950s. The show is episodic, and plays like a series of sketches in which the star dresses up as seven different characters, ages 16-88, with different wigs and accents. Given Simon’s experience doing something so similar, Little Me seems like a show that might have been easy to write.

And it was originally directed (a shared credit) and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Fosse had many talents, but the most pertinent one here is his ability to shape a show, to get writers to put their ideas into a form audiences will eat up. So, one thing I noticed at Little Me is that many or most of the songs are extremely short. (Not Goodbye, which makes a joke out of going on too long, explicitly.) I sense Fosse used his sixth sense for an audience’s attention span. And all the creators understood that, with Caesar’s name over the title, they had an audience that came to laugh. They were not of a mood to take in a serious moment.

And yet the score, by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, sneaks in a couple of emotions that manage to get to you, amidst all that laughter. These are the two best songs in the show, which is no coincidence. The young heroine, early on, discovers an intense desire to escape her impoverished circumstances. Her I-Want-song, On the Other Side of the Tracks is a masterpiece of the song. Coleman’s music, while sitting on one note for an unusually long stretch, builds rhythmic drive and forward-hurtling harmonies into the accompaniment. It’s exciting to hear. (And even exciting to play.) Carolyn Leigh’s densely-rhymed words sparkle with fresh turns of phrase.

I can’t afford to relax
‘Cause the whole caboodle commences
On the other side of the tracks.
So I’m off and running
Over the rail
I’m going gunning
After the quail.
Off and running
Send me my mail
To that great big world on the other side

“Send me my mail!” is a particularly winsome example, and isn’t there something delicious about the word “caboodle” in there?

What got to me more was the far-sillier doughboy waltz, Real Live Girl.

Gotta give a little broader context here. Little Me is about a woman so sexy, various males’ desire for her gets them to do crazy things. They take one look at her – hell, WE take one look at her, and understand that blinding lust is present in every inter-gender interaction. But when we meet a hayseed with no experience with women whatsoever, the songwriters amplify his feelings in a way that’s both funny and touching. That’s a hell of a hard thing to pull off, an example of musical comedy heaven. Then, amazingly, they top the whole thing by introducing a chorus of wounded soldiers. (I know what you’re thinking: what are wounded soldiers doing in a comedy?) They take up the song, expressing something similar to South Pacific’s There Is Nothing Like a Dame, but far more tender. Is this too sweet a moment? No, because it’s undercut by the surprisingly hysterical sight of soldiers in casts, crutches and slings attempting to waltz.

Encores! throws this star vehicle on the shoulders of Christian Borle, one of the most experienced and adept musical comedians of his generation. I was lucky enough to catch him over a decade ago opposite his then-squeeze Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie, where he was thoroughly engaged and thoroughly winning. (And now I’m tired of typing “thoroughly.”) He’s wildly funny on stage (Elegies, Legally Blonde, and Peter and the Starcatcher, which won him the Tony) making it deeply disappointing that his television role in the awful nighttime soap, Smash, gave him so few opportunities to be remotely humorous. In Little Me, he’s truly in his element, a versatile entertainer in the grand tradition. Also enormously appealing (although playing only two roles) is Rachel York as the protagonist. She and another Smash veteran, Megan Hilty, were the two ladies at the center of Encores’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which leads one to draw a comparison between the two shows. Each was the second Broadway score of a composer who went on to an amazing career – Cy Coleman, and Blondes’ Jule Styne. Each involves men going weak-kneed over the sight of a blonde bombshell. But what’s smarter about Little Me is that each man is so distinct, so wonderfully wacky as a character. (In other aspects, I prefer Blondes.)

Little Me is so successfully silly, I suggest you hustle over to City Center – and, with this weather, seats can be had. You’ll learn quite a bit about what makes a truly funny musical comedy work, what a star vehicle looks and feels like, and if even you don’t learn anything, your sides will ache from laughing so hard: a good ache to have.

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