Los Angeles Theater Preview: BUSKER ALLEY (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on August 13, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

ALLEY HIGH

There are many reasons why some previously produced Broadway musicals are rarely performed: The sheer size of the show makes it prohibitively expensive (The Most Happy Fella, 1956); the terrific score is hampered by a troubled book (Chess, 1986); or the material is so hackneyed that modern audiences won’t go for it (Bajour, 1964). Fortunately, musical theater aficionados have organizations such as Musical Theatre West, which offers one-night only concert stagings that invariably prove even troubled musicals from the past are far better than current long-running spectacles (MTW’s exceptionally joyous production of Mack & Mabel is one example).

Tommy Tune in BUSKER ALLEY - POSTERThis brings me to Busker Alley, the 1995 vehicle from Mary Poppins’ The Sherman Brothers and TV/film writer A.J. Carothers. For one night only, August 17, MTW’s Reiner Staged Reading Series offers an exceedingly rare chance to see this musical. The story centers on street performer Charlie Baxter, who is past his prime and decides to mentor a young performer named Libby, a gutsy thief whose talent ends up surpassing that of the veteran street star.

Phillip Huber, Tommy Tune in Busker Alley on tour.

Busker Alley is another type of rarely produced Broadway musical: The one that never opened on Broadway. This is the category for producers who shuttered a show after out-of-town tryouts or during previews in New York. Some shows, such as Schwartz and Stein’s The Baker’s Wife (1976), were diamonds-in-the-rough that proved unpolishable. Others were wrong from the start: Consider Chu Chem (1966), one of Mitch Leigh’s seven consecutive flops following his Man of La Mancha (1965); the subtitle was “A Zen Buddhist-Hebrew Musical Comedy—in English” (Ernie Schier of the Evening Bulletin dubbed it “The King and Oy”).

Tap_Happy

Then there are shows such as Busker Alley, which receive tinkering during an extended tryout national tour. Tours are a great way to fix a show while producers don’t lose their shirts; short runs of a pre-Broadway musical tend to sell quite well. Busker Alley was still receiving mixed to favorable reviews during its 6-month, 16-city tour when, 6 weeks prior to the Broadway opening, star Tommy Tune broke his foot during a performance in Tampa, and the show lost its impetus and never reached New York (hmmm, there’s a “6-6-6” there).

Stage Door Charley with Tommy Tune (Program Cover)

You may wonder if the show had that much potential, why not just recast the lead and forge ahead? Producers and investors naturally get skittish when millions of dollars are involved, and the gamble rarely pays off on the Great White Way. In this instance, closing the show and taking the insurance money was a logical choice.

Here is Tommy Tune and company working the title song in an open rehearsal.

A.J. Carothers created the TV show Nanny and the Professor and penned successful films, including Never a Dull Moment and The Secret of My Suce$s. As a Walt Disney staff scriptwriter, he collaborated with songsmiths Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (Mary Poppins, 1964) on The Happiest Millionaire in 1967. Two years later, he approached them with the idea of musicalizing St. Martin’s Lane, a 1938 British, black-and-white comedy/drama starring Charles Laughton as a busker, someone who entertains on the street or in a public place (the film was released in 1940 as Sidewalks of London in the U.S.). Thus, Piccadilly was born, but the fits and starts were just beginning. The project languished until 1982 when renewed interest had it rewritten and renamed Blow Us a Kiss. But it wasn’t until Tommy Tune—a major bankable Broadway name at that time—became attached to the show that it finally hit the road, where it had more name changes: Stage Door Charley and Buskers. In 2003, the creators revised the book and score, changing the name back to Busker Alley.

busker-alley-a-musical-cd

Having never heard the show, I assumed that all those name changes represented the shifting-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic syndrome. But then I heard a 2006 CD of the musical, a recording of a one-night-only York Theatre benefit-concert performance starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, and directed by Tony Walton (costume designer and visual consultant on Mary Poppins which starred his then-wife Julie Andrews). The pastiche score is rife with music hall-type songs that are pleasant, tuneful, and entertaining.

Tommy Tune & Darcie Roberts in Busker Alley on tour.

Busker Alley was once again slated for Broadway in a new production with Dale being directed by Walton. But in 2009, producers regretfully withdrew from the project, citing “the loss of one member of the writing team and the health issues of another” (Carothers died in 2007).

Marcia Lewis in Busker Alley on tour.

Now, 45 years since its inception and 18 years since the So Cal premiere, you will get to hear the best Broadway talent in L.A.–terrific singers who will be directed by the show’s original star Darcie Roberts and music directed by David Lamoureux and David Catalan. This particular production of Busker Alley is a bit like radio theatre—actors perform with no costumes or a set and with scripts in hand—but it’s all done with a complete libretto and score performed by an orchestra. The cast includes James Leo Ryan as Charlie Baxter, Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Libby, Cynthia Ferrer, Michael Hawkins, Laura Killingsworth, Ashley Fox Linton, Zachary Ford, and Tom Shelton. The ensemble is Gabriel Kalomas, Jordan Lamoureux, Marc Ginsburg, Maurice Murphy, Allyson Turner, Natalie Storrs and Kirklyn Robinson. The show also stars Christopher Carothers, son of the late A.J. Carothers.

Tommy Tune in BUSKERS - POSTERBusker Alley tour photos by Martha Swope

Busker Alley
Musical Theatre West
produced by Michael Betts and David Lamoureux
University Theatre
California State University, Long Beach
Sunday, August 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm
for tickets, call (562) 856-1999 x 4
or visit www.musical.org

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cris Franco August 13, 2014 at 10:23 pm

“Busker?!” I hardly know ‘er! Tony thanks for this well-researched look at a the show that could have been. And thanks for including the rare rehearsal video. Please keep doing these types of historical pieces.

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