When half the cast of your musical goes on to appear on Broadway, well, that’s bound to be the thing everyone remembers. Today marks the tenth anniversary of Lunatics and Lovers and I’ll struggle to recall something other than the “then these guys went on to…” stuff as well.
But I won’t bury the lead: Eric William Morris went on to take over the role of Sky, the groom, in a little-known musical called Mamma Mia. Michael Wartella later became Bok in an obscure Broadway effort by the name of Wicked. Go to the current revival of Les Misérables and you can hear Alan Shaw singing the songs of angry men.
Ten years ago they were all singing my songs. Thirteen numbers I’d written for various shows, delighting a big crowd at The Triad (yes, a lot were in the balcony). And it all happened because of the ingenuity and industry of a young actress named Rachel Broadwell. Over the years she’s racked up an impressive number of regional credits, but in the summer of 2005, she was a student in a conservatory. Thinking ahead to the “What did you do on your summer vacation?” query, she devised a project for her and five fellow students. She booked The Triad for the last day of August. And then set about putting together a show.
All six were flatteringly enthusiastic about doing a revue of my songs. Each would have a solo; they’re be three pairings for duets, each gender would get a trio, and the whole group would sing an opening number and a closing number. Rachel got rehearsal space, made sure everybody showed up at appointed times, and, effectively, directed the entire show. I don’t remember their being any dialogue. The two of us sifted through my trunk, finding apt songs for people and combinations of people. We used two songs from the musical I was then writing, Such Good Friends, and they went over like gangbusters more than two years before the show got produced. The physicality of the title song from Not a Lion suited the expressive movement abilities of Mike Wartella and Tamara Laine. If her name is familiar, you’ve probably seen her on your local TV newscast. The mature ire of my rant called Stuff was in the wheelhouse of Eric Morris. Kristin Scafuri and Alan Shaw soared the heights of A Tenor, A Soprano.
I wish I had a video of them to show you. (Above are some Brits I’ve never met.) From the present perspective, it’s puzzling we didn’t have a camera running. But these were the days before YouTube, and the pleasure of seeing a half-dozen students warbling a baker’s dozen of my songs was limited to those who paid to get in. I can’t imagine the cover was more than $10, but it was enough for the project to turn a profit. It therefore counts as one of many musicals of mine to take in more than was spent.
But focusing on profit and loss is as unhealthy as focusing on who went on to Broadway. What matters most, to me, at least, is how well the material connects with the audience. Over the years, I’ve played a very large number of cabaret shows at The Triad, including another revue of my songs, back when it had its previous name. Some of these have gone over exceedingly well. And it’s certainly possible that I have a false perspective – it’s obviously different when you’re responsible for all the music and lyrics than when you’re “mere” musical director, accompanying other people’s songs. But I’ve never heard an audience reaction like the one that greeted Lunatics and Lovers. The paroxysms of delighted that greeted Mike Wartella on She Smelled Like Chocolate, for instance, were a combination of a lovable performer, serving up punch line after punch line, getting an audience to eat out of the palm of his hand.
He bounded on stage with the sort of magnetic energy that compels a crowd’s attention. He looked to two sides, as if he had an amazing secret to spill. His grin was not plastered-on pleasantry, but the grin of a fellow with a sexy secret. And you could feel well over a hundred people lean forward, wondering what it could be. “I had a date: …She smelled… like chocolate!” The accompanying beguine would come to sudden stops and starts, so that each punch line could be put across with the timing Mike chose. We could also hold for audience laughter. The song goes through various implications and consequences of dating someone who smells like chocolate, and not all of them are positive. In writing it, I thought of Sheldon Harnick (the Greatest Living Lyricist) and how his comedy songs list so many humorous connections to their premises (such as Fish, from The Apple Tree, or When the Sea Is All Around Us).
Which reminds me that I might not have remembered the tenth anniversary of Lunatics and Lovers were it not for the massive media coverage about the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We went to some other bar to toast our achievement, and, in the background on TV screens, barely noticed, were horrific images of flooded wards. It seems callous, but we were in a show business bubble, our minds directed towards entertaining an audience. And, for that hour, everyone was laughing, enjoying tunes and rhymes, minds a thousand miles away. Quite the contrast. I’m reminded of the Cole Porter line,