In the opening moments of "My Favorite Year," a young man in an argyle sweater extols the year 1954, which fell within the golden age of television. For its first 15 minutes, in fact, it seems as if the show will recreate not only the energy and craft of early TV comedy but even the polish of musical theater in those vintage years.
Alas, the virtues of that period are not easy to recapture.
The reason, I'm afraid, is simple. We had writers then.
If "My Favorite Year" succeeds in being an enjoyable evening, it's because it has a sensational cast- all of whom deserve better material.
The musical is based on the 1982 film that starred Peter O'Toole as an aging, washed-up alcoholic film swashbuckler, Alan Swann, who is making a guest appearance on a TV comedy show. A young writer is assigned to keep him sober and make sure he shows up.
The high point of the film was a dinner in the depths of Brooklyn given by the writer's classically overbearing Jewish mother. The movie was fresh, likable and a bit far-fetched.
It is, however, easier to camouflage a story's shortcomings in the flexible medium of film than it is in a musical.
The show begins promisingly because the early scenes depict backstage TV, which we've seen in countless sitcoms. Since they depict it in gags and shtik, Joseph Dougherty's book can get away with the same.
But sketch material is not enought to narrate the rather tenuous, strained story. Also, if a show is about '50s TV comedy, there has to be at least one payoff number with humor on a "Your Show of Shows" level. Here, the big comic number, a hobo duet, would not even be clever enough for "Hee Haw."
If the book is largely leaden, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's score is even moreso. One song has the star off for a night in Manhattan. Although the chorus sings it as if it were dynamite, it has all the pizzazz of a paean to Sheboygan.
The best numbers are the opening, about how nerveracking live TV is, and a song Swann sings wishing life were like the movies: "We could correct our little blunders/ And select our better takes."
The dinner scene in Brooklyn is feeble, and the most you can say about much of the score is that it's workmanlike.
This does not stop the cast from performing with enormous zest. Particularly winning is Evan Pappas, as the young writer. He sings with great passion, dashes about the stage and almost makes us believe this is funny. Tim Curry gives Swann all the flourishes of a once-great actor. What he lacks is a vulnerability that might make us care.
There are two great comediennes. One is Lainie Kazan, as the Jewish mother, dolled up in Patricia Zipprodt costumes of inspired outlandishness, belting her big song as if it were "Rose's Turn." The other is Andrea Martin, who has such a wicked gleam in her eye and such perfect delivery she can make the lamest line sound funny. Martin, Pappas, Josh Mostel and Ethan Philips have one marvelous scene as four comic writers.
Tom Mardirosian is splendid as the tyrannical TV star. So is Paul Stolarsky as his ulcer-ridden producer. But Lannyl Stephens is rather cold as the love interest.
Thommie Walsh's choreography is routine except for a Bob Fosse parody. Director Ron Lagomarsino has mined every nugget from the material.
Max Liebman: Come back! We really need you.
What is it about movie screenplays that make the irresistable to the musical bookmakers (if you see what I mean) of Broadway? Is it the familiarity of the subject matter, the looseness of the thematic treatment, perhaps the special visual zest of the characterization, or conveivably all of the above shouting in unison for fresh words and new music?
Well, for "My Favorite Year," the avowedly new musical starring Tim Curry, opening last night at the Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont stage, and based on the 10-plus-year-old movie with Peter O'Toole, to be frank the words are not that fresh or, for that matter, the music that new.
We are only tramping on familiar ground here, we are doing our tramping to sounds if not familiar, at least not especially original. But- nothing to the extent of the glorious O'Toole behind and before him -- Curry is at the very least medium-hot, and indeed at times much of the rest of the cast also work out comparatively dandy.
The Joseph Dougherty's book, doggedly quite faithful to outlines of the original screenplay by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo, music has been added by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the team that previously gave us that Caribbean pastiche, "Once on this Island." Big, vital mistake.
The music and lyrics contribute very little. And already I exaggerate. The time is 1954, set determinely in the days of live television and dead jokes. the music -- and I suppose the energentically unmemorable lyrics -- do not simply suggest the period, they grind our ears into a Muzak-like paste copy of it.
When I say that the best tune is a brief quotation from Khatchaturian's Saber Dance, and -- at the performance I saw -- the biggest laugh came (unintentionally, I admit) from the sight of two of Patricia Zipprodt's more outrageously camp costumes, one gets an idea of the musical's general artistic quality, which reminded me in some important respects of last season's musical clinker "Nick & Nora."
But whereas that little number was completely submerged by its incomprehensible story, what goes some small way (by no means far enough, mind you) to rescuing "My Favorite Year" from utter dismality is the strength and charm of the original movie. It remains a very attractive concept.
Benjy Stone (Evan Pappas) is a junior sript-writer (he could be a youthful Neil Simon without the wit) working for King Kaiser (Tom Mardirosian) a star comedian with his own network show (he could be a Sid Caesar without the talent) and a gift for bullying his underlings.
To fill a guest spot on the show they hire a washed-up British Hollywood screen star, Alan Swann (Tim Curry), who has been shipwrecked on a sea of booze (he could be an Errol Flynn without the charisma), and Benjy lands the job of getting him in front of the cameras on time and in condition.
Keeping Swann off the sauce -- and capable of performing the apparently brilliant sketch Benjy has, unknown to his boss, written for him -- is clearly a mammoth undertaking, complicated by sub-plotting which endows Benjy with an archetypical home in Brooklyn complete with archetypical mother, Belle (Lainie Kazan -- she played the same role in the movie, and could, with better material, still be a Lainie Kazan), and a shy, tentative romance.
So it's a good story. Some people might have made a good musical out of it. But these people haven't.
Apart from the musical fabric, Joseph Dougherty's book is notably unfunny and cliche-infested. Sure, it retains what was the film's classic line -- Swann, on being informed that he's going to have to perform live before the cameras, expostulating: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" -- but the humor of the rest has all but evaporated.
Nor is the staging, by the inexperienced Ron Lagomarsino, much assistance. Certainly Lagomarsino keeps the actors out of the way of Tom Lynch's pleasantly lavish and furiously sliding sets (a certain logistic achievement this) but, unhelped by Thommie Walsh's choreography, the show come on in the two falvorless flavors of poor drama and muddled action.
Turning to happier matters, there is always the cast. Curry sings well and exposes a lot of seedily rakish charm, although he does appear more like a former confidence trickster than a former Robin Hood. Still he's fine, as is Pappas as the boy on the move and, even more, so is Kazan as the mother with a heart as big as Brooklyn.
As Alice Miller (a wry fellow-scriptwriter of Benjy's, one who once had a duo act with Kaiser), Andrea Martin, a truly gifted comedian, does absolute wonders with weak material, Mardirosian provides neatly crude moments as the bullying Kaiser, while Josh Mostel wuivers appealingly as the pusillanimous main target of his bullying.
But no one is going to pull any irons out of a fire such as this. They melt.
Who wouldn't want to go back to the New York City of 1954, the year celebrated in the new musical "My Favorite Year"? As Benjy Stone (Evan Pappas), the show's young hero, reminds the audience, 1954 was the time of beefy Buicks and a hit parade dominated by Kitty Kallen. A time when Fifth Avenue was a two-way street and "everything had chlorophyll in it." Most of all, as far as "My Favorite Year" is concerned, it was the Golden Age of live television, as exemplified by "The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade," a weekly 90-minute NBC variety show that resembles Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" and for which Benjy is the bright-eyed freshman gag writer.
"My Favorite Year," which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, not only wants to re-create that halcyon time, from its Breck girls to its Formica decor, but it also wants to do so in the wonderfully retro Broadway musical-comedy style of the same period. Nineteen-fifty-four was also the year of "The Pajama Game," whose Bob Fosse choreography this show passingly mocks. From its opening number, a sort of "Comedy Tonight" set in a television studio, "My Favorite Year" offers the happy promise of a new musical in the hilarious manner of "Pajama Game" successors like "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Little Me" written by "Show of Shows" alumni.
So why does "My Favorite Year" fail to sustain that lighthearted spirit, or even to replicate the modest farcical charms of the nostalgic 1982 Hollywood movie that is its source? These are questions that can be answered only by its gifted creators: the writer Joseph Dougherty (of Off Broadway's "Digby" and television's "Thirtysomething"), the songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (of "Once on This Island") and the director Ron Lagomarsino (of "Driving Miss Daisy"). Whatever the cause, "My Favorite Year" proves a missed opportunity, a bustling but too frequently flat musical that suffers from another vogue of the 1950's, an identity crisis.
The evening's assets, which include a superior supporting cast led by Andrea Martin and Lainie Kazan, a few good jokes and a zippy physical production, are outweighed by such major failings as the questionable casting of the starring roles and a disappointing score. But this musical's overriding problem, from which all the others spring, is its wayward tone.
For a few scenes, "My Favorite Year" follows its screen progenitor, telling the dizzy backstage yarn of how the green Benjy must baby-sit his television show's guest star, a drunken and reckless Errol Flynn-like movie legend named Allan Swann (Tim Curry), during a frantic week of marathon rehearsals. But by the end of Act I, the musical has radically altered its focus and mood (and dismantled its plot) to concentrate on Swann's tortured relationship with his neglected, nearly adult daughter (Katie Finneran) and on Benjy's courtship of a humorless production assistant (Lannyl Stephens) far drippier than the equivalent heroine of the film.
Certainly Mr. Dougherty and company have no obligation to be faithful to their source, but they never give the audience a reason to care about the new direction they take. The two women who captivate the male leads for most of Act II are bland, underwritten nonentities whose interchangeability extends to their Barbie-blond hair. Concurrently, the relationship between Swann and Benjy turns dour, to the extent that it is dramatized at all. Swann's comical drunkenness all but evaporates, and Benjy becomes psychologically fixated on replacing the father who abandoned him in childhood.
As Sid Caesar, King Kaiser or Molly Goldberg might say, oy!
It is impossible to tell whether the casting of "My Favorite Year" or its libretto is responsible for the transformation of Swann and Benjy from clowns to sentimental straight men. While Mr. Curry and Mr. Pappas are both first-rate musical performers, each seems out of sync here, at least as directed with a heavy hand by Mr. Lagomarsino.
In the Peter O'Toole role, the fit and young Mr. Curry seems neither dissipated by drink nor remotely old enough to have starred in the 58 swashbuckling movies Swann is said to have made. His huge comic talents are hardly called upon after his initial entrance, and he eventually is capsized by repetitive back-to-back songs (before and after intermission) that require him to engage in melancholy introspection. The hyper energetic Mr. Pappas, whose intense antihero dominated last year's Off Broadway revival of "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," plays Benjy (Mark Linn-Baker on screen) as a moody literary cub, more of a cloying, aspiring novelist than a Hollywood or Broadway-bound purveyor of punch lines.
You know a musical is in trouble when the minor characters consistently upstage the leads. It's no secret that Ms. Martin, of SCTV reknown, is a terrific comedian, but in "My Favorite Year," she brings to the role of a wisecracking comedy writer not just dry timing and nutty voices, but also razor-sharp skills as a burlesque dancer, pratfall artist and satirical chanteuse in the Imogene Coca tradition. It's one of the authors' more conspicuous lapses that the big number they give to the deserving Ms. Martin, "Professional Showbizness Comedy," fails to live up to its title.
As for Ms. Kazan, who repeats and expands upon her film role as Benjy's meddling Jewish mother, her uncompromising excess is hard to resist. She steams through "My Favorite Year" like a top-heavy ocean liner that has lost its compass, and she has been costumed accordingly by Patricia Zipprodt, the wittiest artist in the production's design team. Ms. Kazan also retains a belter's singing voice and, fittingly, has been handed the only two melodies in Mr. Flaherty's score with immediate staying power. But one of them, "Rookie in the Ring," is a digression that brings the show to a deadening halt, and the other, "Welcome to Brooklyn," is robbed of its potential theatrical bravura by the woefully stock musical staging of Thommie Walsh.
Tom Mardirosian (whose King Kaiser recalls Carl Reiner's Sid Caesar impersonation on "The Dick Van Dyke Show"), Josh Mostel (as a dyspeptic head writer), and David Lipman and Mary Stout (as the embarrassing relatives of any Jewish boy's nightmares) also have their scattered amusing moments. Usually these occur when Mr. Dougherty reproduces shtick from the film, most notably in the sequence in which Benjy takes Swann to his mother's home (or, as Ms. Kazan famously calls it, her "humble chapeau"). For the leads, Mr. Dougherty has written some talky emotional scenes whose prosaic quality is too often matched by Ms. Ahrens' earnest lyrical essays on the differences between pastel-hued celluloid fantasies and the harsh realities of life.
In "Once on This Island," Ms. Ahrens and Mr. Flaherty also wrote in an anachronistic style; their nominally Caribbean songs had a Rodgers and Hammerstein lilt. Here they are just as consciously evoking the brassy, competing sound of the same Broadway era, even to the point of writing a Manhattan night-life production number, complete with dancing cops and sailors and loose women, of the sort that seemed de rigueur in every musical with a New York setting from "On the Town" to "Mame" to "Annie." But this time the echoes are pale and the gaiety forced. "My Favorite Year" uncorks the intoxicating vintage of 1954 only to send its audience crashing right back into the morning-after sobriety of that less-than-favorite year, 1992.
Has it been just a year since "Nick & Nora" crashed shortly after takeoff? Now comes the latest musical based on a popular movie, and while "My Favorite Year" doesn't disgrace anyone associated with it, the show is unlikely to set off a run on the Vivian Beaumont box office. Affable to the point of cuddliness, "My Favorite Year" is no "Nick & Nora" - but it's pretty thin, man.
Drawn from the 1982 Peter O'Toole vehicle of the same name, "My Favorite Year" is based on a movie about a television show - "Your Show of Shows" - which featured movie stars in sketches dreamed up for the new medium by the best writers from radio and vaudeville. So its a backstage musical, sort of, with a tremendous amount of baggage, not the least of which O'Toole's lubricious performance as the sweetly sodden swashbuckler-in-decline Alan Swann.
To get the wrost news out of the way: Tim Curry as the stage Swann is many things-- suave, occasionally brittle, deft with a rapier and light on his feet -but he is no matinee idol, present, former or otherwise. Think Kevin Kline, and you know what's missing. And as the young writer enlisted to keep Swann unpickled through his performance on the "King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade," Evan Pappas' Benjy Stone is all pinchable cheeks and no grit. Too easily do we believe this is the boy who, as he recalls, liked to sit inside a cardboard box and pretend he was a radio. Think Matthew Broderick and you know what's missing.
As a followup to their modest Caribbean-style folk musical "Once on This Island," Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' score for "My Favorite Year" is a big old-fashioned Broadway book musical (the book being by Joseph Dougherty, based on Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo's screenplay and Palumbo's story). There are 18 musical numbers, and several of them are right on target. But none of them is memorable, a couple wasted through understaging - particularly the second act romantic duet, "Shut Up and Dance" - and they add up to the kind of generic wash that also kept the earlier show from taking flight.
It's an unquestionably accomplished generic wash: Flaherty, Ahrens and Dougherty know how to tell a story, and they've been extremely well served by director Ron Lagomarsino, set designer Thomas Lynch and lighting designer Jules Fisher. The designers unveil one witty location after the next, beginning with the sound stage, shrinking to the writer's room (the names listed on the door in descending point size as well as rank), moving to Swann's suite at the Waldorf, to Benjy's mother's home in Brooklyn, etc. Among the best scenes are a couple revolving around a Tree Musketeers sketch for King and Swann.
And there is plenty of appeal as well in some of the characters we meet (or meet again after a 10-year absence): the self-loving King Kaiser, played with an odd droopy-faced arrogance by Tom Mardirosian); Alice Miller, the sole femme on the writing staff, portrayed with rubber-limbed, double-taking glee by Andrea Martin; and Benjy's skeptical love interest, K.C. Downing, played with a light touch by Lannyl Stephens.
Much less felicitous are Josh Mostel, who plays chief writer Sy Benson as a sputtering, gluttinous slob (where Bill Macy brought a zoological sprectrum to the role - pig, yes, but also shark, weasel and lap dog, too) and Lainie Kazan, repeating her film role as Benjy's astoundingly vulgar but big-hearted mother, Belle, here even more over the top than then. Choreographer Thommie Walsh is underused but perhaps justifiably, and Patricia Zipprodt's costumes disappoint.
But perhaps a major social sea change has also affected the fate of this screen-to-stage transfer. Call it the "Arthur" syndrome. A decade ago, you could still squeeze laughs and pathos out of a charming drunk as long as he demonstrated some class in a pinch. The musical stage versions of both "Arthur" and "My Favorite Year" take a primmer view of alcoholism, and that's probably all to the good. Certainly we are more skeptical of attempts to romanticize drunken behavior. But when Alan Swann temporarily renounces his drinking ways without so much as a grimace or, more in character, a wink, something has been lost. Maybe only a wink, but "My Favorite Year" needs all the winks it can get to rescue from terminal chirpiness.