January 11, 2012

Broadway Musical MVPs

What is a reviewer to do when a book shows up for review that has a pull quote from him praising the author to high heaven? Is it a conflict of interest to praise the new volume as well?

When Peter Filichia’s newest book hit my desk I was presented with this conundrum. What to do?

Then I read the pull quote … “Peter Filichia – the well-known, well-liked and well-respected reviewer and writer about musical theatre – is famous for his eye for detail, fascination for trivia, love of the genre and the generosity of his coverage. — Brad Hathaway, DC Theatre Scene.”

There isn’t a word in that quote I’d take back. In fact, if I hadn’t already written it, I’d write the same paragraph in a review of the new book. So, let it stand and move on to the task of spreading the good news that Filichia has done it again. He’s produced another highly readable, thoroughly enjoyable and uniquely idiosyncratic volume – something that could have come from no other pen.

In Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010, Filichia applies to musical theater something of the fascination of sports fans, especially baseball fans, for awarding favorite player trophies for “Most Valuable Player” and other categories.

It seems that the bent of mind of baseball addiction explains a great deal about Filichia’s thought process as a maven of musical theater. Apparently he comes by it honestly, for he shared with his father a fascination for baseball that ran concurrently with his own immersion in the world that spills over the footlights on Broadway.

In his introduction he makes clear that he believes that July 26, 1961 was about “as close to a perfect day as I’ll ever experience.” It was on that date that he saw his first musical on Broadway. After the matinee, his father picked him up to go to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees and the White Sox in a game where Roger Maris “thwacked two round-trippers” en route to breaking Babe Ruth’s record for the most home runs in a season.

It isn’t unusual, I suppose, that a baseball fan would relate the statistical importance of a game he has witnessed. But theater fans often confine themselves to things such as how good or bad the performance was, how the score worked and what the audience enjoyed or not. But this book isn’t by the usual theater fan.

In typical Filichia style, he reports not just that the show he saw that afternoon was My Fair Lady, but that it was the show’s 2,229th performance.

Filichia takes a distinctly sports-like approach to theater appreciation in this volume. For each season over the half-century 1960 to 2010, he picks not just MVPs, but a whole host of award categories that sports writers often confer on baseball efforts: Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, Greatest Comeback, Best Reliever, etc.

The book is no mere list of awards, however. Each choice is explained in a brief but detail-filled essay that reveals stories, statistics and situations that make for fine reading.

Check out his 1962-1963 Rookie of the Year write up for Neil Simon who that season gave the world the fun of witnessing Sid Caesar play all seven men in the life of fictional Belle Poitrine by writing the book for a musical version of Patrick Dennis’s Little Me. He tells of Simon’s pre-musical career, the origin of this show and the future career of which this first musical was a harbinger.

Not all the kudos go out for actions that took place on the Great White Way. He gives his 1965-1966 Most Valuable Player to Mary Martin for eleven performances of Hello Dolly! before a total of twelve thousand soldiers and sailors in war-torn Vietnam.

Picking which year to give some people their awards must have been difficult. He gives Stephen Sondheim the Most Valuable Player award for 1970-1971 for Follies but his write up makes it clear just how many seasons Mr. Sondheim enriched. Consulting his calendars and records as he is wont to do, Filichia reports that “there have been only nine years in his half-century-plus career where none of his work was heard on Broadway. Since 1987, theres only been one: 1982.”

Filichia doesn’t limit himself to giving the award only once to each recipient, however. He names Sondheim again in 1978 – 1979 for Sweeney Todd and also bestows the Comeback of the Year award on him for 1969-1970 for Company.

Nor does he limit himself to one award to a person who deserves more than one in a given year. Chita Rivera receives kudos as MVP, Comeback of the Season and Reliever of the Year for Kiss of the Spider Woman. He takes the opportunity to write a four page encomium to Rivera that, while going on as long as a Kennedy Center’s Honors tribute, is a fascinating survey of her career.

Christina Appelgate gets four awards for 2004-2005 for her work on the revival of Sweet Charity.

One category that seems particularly fascinating to Filichia for the opportunity to tell seldom-told stories is “Reliever of the Year.” His 1975-1976 honor goes to Liza Minnelli for her emergency stint in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago when Gwen Verdon had to undergo surgery on her throat. Not only does Filichia relate the fairly well known facts of that legendary stint, he works in a much more obscure story from before his own time saying that “South Pacific … had to drop the character name of ‘Ensign Lisa Minelli’ (sic) that Oscar Hammerstein II glibly put in as his tribute to Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli’s daughter” long before the then three year old Ms. Minnelli became a star in her own right.

It is also typical of Filichia that all of these “awards” are for positive accomplishments. He doesn’t deal in negatives if he can help it. No “flop of the year” award or “worst performance” trophy. It isn’t that his standards are low, or that he gives unjustified breaks to those who let their audience down. The only place for negatives in his world is as a set up for a positive. Of Raquel Welch’s stint as Reliever of the Year for 1981 – 1982 when she filled in for Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year he says “Her voice, however modest, was substantially better than Bacall’s.”

It is apparent that he is so appreciative of success in creating the magic of musical theater that he is more interested in kudos than in complaints. For this, I say “bless him.”