VILLAGE VOICE OBIE TO MUSICALS TONIGHT!
May 17, 2004 Webster Hall, New York City
OBIE Citation – Musicals Tonight!

There are many lost masterpieces in the American theatre. So many plays have been forgotten and, if they still exist at all, merely gather dust in libraries and archives. This is especially true of what is in fact America’s most distinctive contribution to world theatre: the musical. These days, if a musical written before Oklahoma! is produced at all, it is usually radically rewritten, with new songs, new orchestrations, new characters, and new plots. This company has been unique in New York for its very elaborate and skilled staged-readings of early musicals in their original forms. These range from the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good!, to Rodgers and Hart’s Chee-Chee, to Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce. For helping to keep these early musicals alive, the OBIE judges have awarded a Village Voice OBIE and grant to MUSICALS TONIGHT!

The Village Voice OBIE Awards were created soon after the inception of the publication in 1955 to publicly acknowledge and encourage the growing Off-Broadway theatre movement. The Village Voice OBIES were purposely structured with informal categories, to recognize those persons and productions worthy of distinction each theatre Season. The OBIE Awards are an important part of the Voice’s long history of championing Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway.

The Village Voice put the new downtown theatre movement on the map with in-depth coverage and support. The paper was a forum for conflicting viewpoints, which helped generate excitement about the new theatre.

The OBIES have become a theatrical tradition, a meaningful way of acknowledging the best of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. The list of actors, directors, writers, and designers whose careers have been launched by the OBIES is a who’s who of theatre. The categories for the awards have changed almost annually, but the spirit remains the same. The Village Voice OBIE Awards continue to salute a theatrical movement that’s as important -- and as vibrant and dynamic -- as it was in 1955.

Stagestruck by Peter Filichia:
It’s Miller Time - Producing on a Shoestring
Playbill On-Line June 2nd, 1999

Young producers tell me all the time. There’s nothing out there to produce. It’s too expensive. It can’t be done without a dozen partners.

Attend a tale of Mel Miller, who, back in the ‘50s, sure didn’t expect to be theatrically producing after he was graduated from Bronx Science High School. Nevertheless, in the last year, he’s put on the stage two vintage and under appreciated musicals, and starting on June 16th, will do a third: By the Beautiful Sea.

Miller looks like neither Broadway nor Hollywood’s idea of a theatrical producer. He’s pencil thin, from face to feet, and is no fashion plate. He has a nasal voice that would never be chosen for a luxury car national commercial. Yes, he went to an Ivy League school, but hardly Yale Drama: he was graduated from Columbia with a chemical engineering degree.

That led to a stint at Procter and Gamble, before he got a job peddling computers for IBM, before he invented a tennis instructional device that didn’t sell, before he started an automotive testing service that examined a car’s exhaust system for hydrocarbons, before he conceived an Internet coupon business with a partner who absconded with the funds.

Not the most usual or impressive resume for a producer. Not much of a theatrical pedigree, either. "My father died when I was three, and my mother knew bupkis about the theatre," he says frankly. (Miller never wants to be thought of as having the slightest pretense.) "Whenever I took my mother to the theatre, she always fell asleep."

Like many producers, Miller eventually got an MBA in business, but from Xavier in Ohio. That led to a job running focus groups for new projects -- for the next two years. He asked people on their recreations to products (Levis), companies (Charles Schwab), and institutions (Dime Savings Bank).

Finally, in 1998 -- "after knowing 300 questions to ask about bread"-- Miller found himself in his late 50s, and fully aware that he’d had enough jobs and bosses. Now it’d be Miller time. What did he really love?

Why, musicals, of course, from the time he saw Fiddler in 1964. "After that, I started buying all the soundtracks." (He means original cast albums. Miller, as you’ll see, is still finding his way.)

Buoyed by the success of "Encores!", Miller thought that he too might try concert versions of musicals. "And so I started ‘Musicals Tonight’" he sings, to the tune of "Comedy Tonight."

Getting started wasn’t easy. "I never heard of Tams-Witmark, of Music Theatre International," he says of the licensing houses. Instead, he went to his cache of cast albums, and looked at the most obscure that he liked. Like Let It Ride!, Ray Livingston and Jay Evans’ (and Adam S. Ginnes’) adaptation of Three Men On a Horse that ran 68 performances in 1961-2.

"I made a lot of phone calls before somebody suggested I try the Dramatists Guild. They had the addresses to both Livingston and Evans. I didn’t know if they were alive, or were still friends, but I wrote them, and they wrote back. On typewriters!"

"They were the sweetest guys," he kvells. "They’re in their 80s, living in California, have been partners since 1934, when they met at the University of California. They sent me the book, music, and lyrics."

Miller decided to do it– -- but who’d direct? "I have to let other people do the work," he says, hands up, with a don’t-look-at-me demeanor. "All I can do is write checks.

While "Yalies" rely on their school ties for connections, Miller’s approach is decidedly more old-world. "Well, my cousin’s husband’s best friend’s father is Joe Stein. Is that right? Yeah -- my cousin’s husband’s best friend’s father. Joe was working on a show called Miracles, and so was Thomas Mills, a director he thought would be good for me." Miller even mentions that key pluses in hiring Mills was that "we both lived on the Upper West Side and could meet at a Starbucks near both our houses."

Miller also does well while just milling about, too. Once, when he was in a buffet line, he started talking about Let It Ride!, and the person next to him told him about the New York Sheet Music Society.

Here’s where we separate the men from the boys: when Miller hears of something, he doesn’t forget it, but makes phone calls. He joined the society, where he met Mark Hartman, who became his musical director.

A cast was rustled together, a June 1998 date was set, and Miller brought his marketing expertise to the fore. "Because Let It Ride! wasn’t a well-known show, I stressed that its authors wrote 'Tammy,' 'Mona Lisa,' ‘Que Sera, Sera’ and ‘Buttons and Bows." Then I did some guerrilla marketing, putting up flyers on lampposts. I also put them in those places where other shows put their flyers -- and then found out there were services to handle just that type of advertising. They came around, took mine out, and threw them away."

Still, he sold half of the 99 seats at the Lamb’s. Says the magnanimous Miller, "I lost $10,000, but it was a wonderful time and I had a transforming experience getting all these people together, and then watching it all come together. It was almost like Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker when she figured out what water meant."

He also enjoyed the smattering of star power. "Ray and Hay are friends with Robert Stack, so he came to see the show with them. In one song, ‘I’ll Learn Ya,’ there’s a lyric about Elliot Ness," he says, citing Stack’s famous role on TV’s "The Untouchables." "The crowd went wild. I love hearing the material go over, that immediate and stupendous audience reaction when they get the joke or love the song. One guy was laughing so hard I thought we’d have to give him mouth-to-mouth."

Miller didn’t want it to be over. So he went back to his albums, especially looking for those that sported the name of his cousin’s husband’s best friend’s father -- a.k.a.: Joe Stein. He fondly remembered listening to Stan Daniel’s score for So Long, 174th Street, the 1976 musical version of Enter Laughing that lasted 16 performances at the Harkness, a theatre that has since been razed and now is a wall on which you can simulate climbing a mountain. (I am not making this up.)

Says Miller, "Joe told me he only had one copy of the libretto, and I said, ‘I’ll copy it and bring it right back.’ And I did."

Miller found it worth the price of photocopying. "It was a hoot, charming, and drop-dead funny. I’m not into high art," he immediately feels the need to say. "I’m into a Let’s-have-a-good-time-tonight-Mabel show that puts smiles on our faces. No Tony winners."

By this point, Miller had enrolled in the Commercial Theatre Institute, the town’s premier producer of producers, albeit in its one-weekend course. "I met someone there I hadn’t seen since Fire Island 20 years ago. ‘I’m putting on a show,’ I told her, and she said, ‘Do you have a casting agent?’ ‘Are you kidding?’ I told her, ‘I can’t afford pencils.’ ‘How about pro bono?’ she said. ‘That I can afford.’"

So Miller was put in touch with Steve De Angelis, who’s occasionally been known to do pro bono casting. He signed on. Soon KT Sullivan and Jana Robbins did, too.

Miller was close to hiring an actor to play the George S. Irving role when -- here’s his happenstance luck again -- he met someone who had Irving’s phone number. "I called him and said it’d be fine with me if he just came on, and did ‘The Butler’s Song’,’" he says, citing the notorious number in which a gentleman’s gentleman cites all the sexual activities his master is enjoying with Hollywood starlets. "I told him he wouldn’t have to deal with any rehearsal, and could get a big round of applause, and go off. And he said, ‘No, I want to do the whole thing.’"

This March, Irving did just that at the American Place Sub-Plot Theatre, at a schedule as atypical as his background: "Sunday night, Monday matinee and evening, Tuesday matinee and early evening," Miller adds with pride.

Mills again directed. "He has a feel," says Miller. "Sometimes performers want to be macho and discard the books. But Tom lets them know that that hurts you because that conveys to the audience a level of expectation that we can’t possibly deliver, not with our few days of rehearsal time."

This time, he almost sold out. "And I only lost $5,000," he says brightly. "I know, because I ran the box office, too. I think we did better because people saw the flyer, and said, ‘Carl Reiner and $12, how bad can it be?"

Now a shrink might make something of the fact that both shows, which respectively starred early ‘50s sensation George Gobel and early ‘60s sensation Robert Morse, had lead characters who are nebbish-like, a trait that could be applied to Miller. What’s more, the show Miller wanted to do next -- Schwartz- Fields- Abbott- and- Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- has the quintessential dreamer as its lead.

But once Miller was told that it’s being rewritten for a possible future New York engagement, he dropped the dream and opted for the next best thing: the next best show on which Arthur Schwartz, Dorothy (and Herbert) Fields, and George Abbott collaborated: By the Beautiful Sea. That’s one with a larger-than-life heroine, which Shirley Booth originated, and which KT Sullivan will now recreate.

As he readies the reading, Miller suddenly finds that a number of people know who he is. "A radio personality from Kalamazoo sent me a tape of Beggers Holiday, a Duke Ellington musical. Then Michael Kerker (Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP) helped me to learn about another one he wrote called Jump For Joy. Then Bruce Yeko (who produces Original Cast Records) wants me to do another Ellington show, Pousse-Café. Maybe I’ll do three! I’ll do Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ next spring. Hugh Martin sent me all the sheet music."

And despite that boost from his cousin’s husband’s best friend’s father, Miller may do King of Hearts with the original book that Steve Tesich gave it before Joe Stein took over. "Peter Link bought back the rights lock, stock, and barrel, and got together with Tesich and (original director) A.J. Antoon before they died. I’d love to have George S. Irving and Maria Karnilova as the duke and the duchess. Every time I’ve seen them they’ve been arm-in-arm, and I’d love to see that love on stage, even for a nano-second, and hear all the applause they’d get."

Miller never loses sight of the fact that he’s in the labor-of-love business. "I’m not anti-new musical, but that’s not what I want to do. Besides, the shows I want to do are new musicals to 99.44 percent of the people in the world. I’m so honored that these creative geniuses entrust their babies to me. Stan Daniels has eight Emmys (many from The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and here he is dealing with me."

Not only that: Mel Miller’s flyers for Musicals Tonight are now distributed by the official flyer service, and stay in the slots in which they’re put.

I'd Like To Propose a Toast - Peter Filichia's Diary
Playbill On-Line November 31, 2003
Love From Judy

... I'll raise a glass also to Mel Miller, the man who founded Musicals Tonight in 1998 and who is still in business, offering staged readings of neglected tuners. If not for Miller, we'd never have had the chance to see such obscurities as Chee-Chee, That's the Ticket, and Foxy. He's currently doing his 23rd show, Love from Judy, which had a two-year-plus run in London from 1952-1954 but never made it to our shores -- until now. How fascinating to see a musical, first produced 25 years before Annie, that deals with an orphan girl who's rescued by a woman named Grace. But our orphan here is 18-year-old Judy Abbott, undoubtedly named for the daughter of George Abbott, who mentored Love from Judy composer Hugh Martin through five shows in the '40s. Judy is played with perfect insouciance by Vanessa Lemonides, about whom I'd heard great things before I saw her deliver on the promises. She's one reason why I'd like to toast Miller, for he's launching many youngsters on musical theater careers by giving them their first jobs. He's even scheduled evenings where Broadway understudies perform the songs that they seldom, if ever, get to do on the Main Stem. The next one is coming December 7 before Miller starts to prepare for readings of Gershwin's Primrose, Porter's Gay Divorce, Kern's Have a Heart, and Rodgers and Hart's The Girl Friend. Good for him!

How a Show Picks a Producer - with Mel Miller
NYTheatre Voices 2001-02 Theatre Season Interviews
That's The Ticket

Before we could write a series of questions for Mel Miller, producer of Musicals Tonight! about their new show That's the Ticket, we received the following. It was such a fun read that we decided to forgo our usual format and, with his permission, reprint it in its entirety. So please enjoy the story of How A Show Picks a Producer.

Musicals Tonight does look long and hard for neglected musicals worthy of a two-week "dusting off." And so flipping through the pages of the book The Musicals No One Came To See at the New York Library of Performing Arts was not just an exercise in idle curiosity. And there was That's The Ticket! with the following provenance: Music and Lyrics - Harold Rome; Libretto - Julius & Philip Epstein; Director - Jerome Robbins; Music Director - Lehman Engel; Starring - Lief Erickson, Kaye Ballard, Jack Carter and George S. Irving.

It was hard to believe that all this talent could only keep the show afloat for one week - and in Philadelphia no less. Maybe the library had more information, and it did - Act I.

The Epstein brothers tell the wonderfully loopy story of the Election of 1948 and an enchanted prince whose campaign for President is thwarted by being turned into a frog! Okay, I'm hooked.

Sargent Aborn at the Tams-Witmark Music Library puts me in touch with Josh Rome (Harold's son) who points me to the Rome archives at the Yale Music Library. Their Public Services Librarian, Suzanne Eggleston, helps with the research and my visit confirms that all of the music and lyrics are available (and charming) - but I find no Act II.

Julius and Philip Epstein were also the librettists for Stephen Sondheim's 1954 musical, Saturday Night. That show had recently been revived by The Second Stage and they suggested I contact the brothers' long-time agent in Beverly Hills. That office tersely replied that there was no interest in trying to resurrect this 54-year old work. Curses!

A few months later - in December of 2000, Julius Epstein passes away. His twin brother had preceded him and I thought that their agent might now be convinced to help with the revival if I positioned it as a memorial to the brothers' work. No such luck. It was time to dig deeper.

George S. Irving had been kind enough to reprise his Broadway role for us when we revived So Long, 174th Street! three years ago. Might he have kept his 54-year old script? No. However, he did remember that the last time he had been in Jerome Robbins' apartment he had seen a script! But now that Jerome Robbins was deceased....

Chris Pennington works for the Robbins estate and told me that the Dance Collection of the Library for the Performing Arts had just been given boxes of Robbins material. Madeline Nicols, Curator of the collection confirmed that the boxes had been received but cataloging had not begun and an untrained person could not be given access to the material. I understood completely but she must have been moved by the disappointed tone in my voice and said "Well, the boxes are right here, let me just open one." The script was on top! Jackpot!!

Well, not exactly, I would still need the permission of the 'underlying rights holder' before I could get a copy. In other words, I needed to find a live Epstein!

Since the Epsteins had spent most of their careers in California's movie industry (they wrote the screenplay to Casablanca), my New York contacts were of no help. However, the very first Musicals Tonight revival was Let It Ride! by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston - two darling men who "spent most of their careers in California's movie industry" (picking up four Oscars).

A phone call to Ray resulted in pay dirt. "Jay and I played poker with the Epstein brothers for years, I was just at Julius' memorial service. Do you want to speak to Phil's boy or Julius'?"

Leslie Epstein, Philip's son, teaches at Boston University. He returned my call immediately and faxed his permission to the Library. I was home free! Almost.

Because the script had been annotated by Jerome Robbins, I would also need his estate's permission. Chris Pennington explained that a response to an official request might take quite some time and volunteered to re-type the script and thus eliminate the Robbins annotations.

Act II of That's The Ticket arrived and after reading the very first scene I was more determined than ever to secure the rights to revive the show - the Supreme Court of the United States decides that a frog cannot run for President.

Josh Rome says "Yes" as does Leslie Epstein. Leslie suggests I also clear it with his cousin James, Julius's son. James, who lives in California, is thrilled at the prospect of a revival but recommends that, as a courtesy, I touch base with his mother's long-time business manager - Beverly Freeman. One more hurdle.

Beverly is just as enthusiastic about the project as were Leslie and James and, in parting, asks me to summarize the plot. I do, and she replies, "I was in that show in high school!" "Not possible," says I. "It never got out of Philadelphia in 1948!" "It got to Carmel, California in 1949," says she. "Not this show." "Have you ever heard of any other musical where a frog runs for President of the United States?"

Well, starting on April 9 you to will be able to find out who really won the Election of 1948.

Reviving musicals with bare sets, lots of heart
The Villager October 23, 2002
Reviewed by Roslyn Kramer

Mel Miller prepped for the role of theatre impresario by listening to the radio. And that was his formal training.

With nothing but a head full of tunes he has risen to unlikely eminence as founder, producer and heartbeat of Musicals Tonight, a series of musical comedy revivals about to start its fifth season at the 14th Street Sol Goldman Y, located between First and Second Aves.

And what tunes: "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Spring is Here" - songs by Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter - American classics available today primarily as restaurant background music or as the riff-laden core of jazz numbers.

Oh yes, there’s also Encores, the wildly popular, increasingly pricey and frequently sold-out City Center series of musical theatre revivals. But, all in all, there’s not much out there, considering that our musical comedy canon has spawned uniquely American classics.

At Musicals Tonight performances, you’ll have to sit through some wobbly moments by inexperienced performers and eye-rolling run-ins with ossified plot and script lines. Yet a generous mind-set will be rewarded by energetic and charismatic talent., surprisingly snappy dialogue and those breathtaking songs. There’s even an occasional dance routine, all for the low price of $19 a ticket.

This season Miller has expanded the number of shows and performances, and added Monday salutes to movie musical stars and the songs they sang. "We’re expanding because I’m a lunatic and I couldn’t leave well enough alone," he cheerily explains. But it’s not all folly: he wants to increase his audience to include more members of the theatre community who can only come Monday nights when most theatres are dark. He’d also like to see younger people in the audience, the better to keep a great American heritage alive. He wants grandparents to take their grandchildren to weekend matinees. The shows are a great birthday party idea, he points out. (It’s been done.)

The Monday night series will feature songs made famous by Dick Powell, Alice Faye, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Betty Grable, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and two unrelated Martins, Tony and Mary, sung cabaret-style by three or four performers around a piano.

Musicals Tonight theatre productions are concert versions, with everyone carrying scripts and without full sets or period costumes. The season opens tonight with Stop! Look! Listen! By Irving Berlin, first performed in 1915, about theatre producers sailing to Honolulu desperate to find the AWOL star in their show. The beat is ragtime; the most familiar song, "I Love a Piano." November brings Chee-Chee, an early Rodgers and Hart musical about two Peking aristocrats fleeing from town, only to run into a series of improbable and dangerous adventures, a low Candide. First produced in 1928, it’s never been revived. The year of 2002 concludes with Roar of the Greasepaint by Bricusse and Newley; the most memorable song: "Who Can I Turn To?"

After a two-month break, Musicals Tonight resumes with Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers, the tale of a society girl, in love with a bootlegger. The score includes "Love for Sale" and two catchy anthems to New York: "I Happen to Like New York", and "Take Me Back to Manhattan".

Rounding out the season are My Favorite Year, based on the legendary prime-time Sid Caesar and the circle of great comic writers around him, by Ahrens and Flaherty (the team that wrote Ragtime), and Lady, Be Good! witten by the Gershwin brothers for another sibling team, Adele and Fred Astaire.

Each production runs about three weeks.

"There’s so much neglected work and so many wonderful performers who deserve an opportunity to showcase their talents," Miller says. "And there’s nothing like the theatre for giving an audience member and emotional high. It’s an experience you never get watching television."

Not only does the impresario of 14th St. not have a theatre arts background, he can’t read music. No problem. The determining factors in choosing which musicals to put on are the quality of the script and the dependable luminaries who wrote the music. "Once I find the scripts have charm and a few laughs we’re off to the races," he says. "The odds are a Rodgers and Hart flop would be a lot more fun than a Frank Wildhorn [Jeykl and Hyde] success."

The charm isn’t only in the script, but in the stripped-down concert version productions. The minimal sets are often witty, and the young, frequently stylish cast exudes a sprightly sense of irreverence that melts away decades and gives productions a contemporary aura.

For Miller, preparing a Musicals Tonight production has its perils, among them a contract option with Actors Equity allowing cast members to leave any time if they get a better offer. And it so happened halfway through rehearsals for I Married an Angel. His male lead left; Miller and the director couldn’t find a replacement. But learning of their dilemma, the cast whipped out their cell phones. A replacement was found in a bar. Miller called the next day, hoping he still had a male lead. He did - and a rave-quality performance.

Miller’s musical comedy career started in a health club. He had met a really interesting guy as much in love with the theatre as he was. But this guy knew a lot more, particularly more performers whom he claimed to have met at Alcoholics Anonymous. The two men decided to produce an obscure musical as a lark. Miller was basking in his role as acolyte when his supposedly more experienced partner vanished with $10,000 of his girlfriend’s money.

Miller decided to go through with the planned production, though he knew "zip about the inside of a theatre." He learned, mistake by mistake. And it worked: "I found a theatre, I found a music director, I found a cast; and I fell in love with producing," Miller sums up. He had found his ideal day job.

As a kid growing up in the Bronx, Miller, who’s in his mid-50s, would listen to the radio drama Grand Central Station, which was followed by original cast albums of the latest Broadway shows.

Because of his radio days, he understands how important the imagination an audience brings to a show can be, and how a production can inspire the process with a hint of a costume or set. The Musicals Tonight team thinks low budget, but never cheap. "There’s nothing worse than cheap," says Miller. "We create a hint and then the audience’s imagination kicks in." One example: a cartoon cardboard tour bus transports the audience to Paris in Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen.

Miller has a bachelors and masters degrees in chemical engineering. He sold computers, worked for huge corporations and has led focus groups. Who knew that someday - now, in fact - he’d be trying to coax the copywright holders of Irma La Douce for permission to do the show.

"Because I do this for love I only want to produce shows that will give me joy and give joy to the audiences that have been so loyal to us."

His scientific background, too, has come into play. He’s a good problem solver and "I have a more logical bent than most people in the theatre," he says. Not to mention his determination and stamina.

Starting out, he’d hand out flyers to everyone: in elevators, at Starbucks, on the street. And that’s how he measures success: "Now," he says, "our audience has expanded beyond the length of my arms."

Oldness but Goodness by Michael Feingold:
Some old pieces of theater can be amazingly up to date; others are just an amazing up
The Village Voice.com June 8th, 2004

People complain that the theater audience is too old. I suspect the main reason, other than high ticket prices, is that the plays are too new. Broadway, admittedly, prefers pre-sold items from outdated 10-best lists, but it needs to dress even these in "new" gimmickry -- new "darker" (yawn) approaches, ruinous new "adaptations." While Broadway's "new" musicals mostly rehash old songwriters' catalogs, its old ones are invariably "revisals." Only rarely does uptown theater convey enough genuine love for an old work to empower a revival as good as Dinner at Eight or A Raisin in the Sun. Lacking any big institution with a sustained commitment to the past -- the Roundabout is a travesty in this regard, while Lincoln Center varies its archival forays with new-play business -- theatergoers who want to relish old treasures have to turn downtown, where smaller groups with sparser resources struggle for attention, and audiences are generally younger.

That older folk prefer the old dressed up in denatured newness is no surprise: Nostalgia isn't the same thing as history, and Americans notoriously prefer fond memories to accurate recollections. A gesture toward the past is enough for oldsters; it affirms that they actually had one. If the kids and grandkids on whom they inflict this simulacrum are less enthused, the problem's assumed to be generational; nobody asks whether they might prefer a living past to both the laminated uptown version and the culture that mass marketing carves out for them.

Which makes it all the more reasonable that New York should have at least one theatrical institution, midsize or larger, where the past is a living force, instead of either a reliquary or a decorator's salon. Such a theater should probably have a consortium of artistic directors, not a single self-proclaimed (or hype-proclaimed) genius: The days when the sensibility of an Eva Le Gallienne or Ellis Rabb was both broad enough and cultivated enough to motivate an undertaking of this scope are over. Today's directorial visions are altogether too partial; it should be the function of such a theater to unite, not to subdivide, helping New Yorkers see that their many different groups are a continuum, just as the past and the present are one.

This old daydream regrew in me while I was watching a series of rarities from the American past, one revelatory and two diverting. The revelation was Peccadillo Theater's production of Elmer Rice's 1931 drama Counsellor-at-Law, directed by Dan Wackerman. The production is gone, but it attracted so much enthusiasm that rumors of its imminent return are flying. Rice's large-scale piece, hectic with action and packed with juicy urban characters, turns out to be nearly as fine in its brash way as the half-dozen best American plays. A Depression-era quintessence, complete with bankrupt jumpers from skyscraper windows, its sharp-nosed chronicle of an upwardly mobile attorney's struggle to harmonize his tenement roots with his haughty wife's old-money world is full of lines and situations that might crop up tomorrow, differently accented.

Using 20 actors in 23 roles on a kitchenette-sized stage, Wackerman not only kept the traffic orderly and the pace breakneck, but built at least half a dozen performances of major substance. The show belongs to its title character; John Rubinstein, pacing and growling, evoked the jut-jawed bulldog tenacity of late-period Cagney. High among his most able supporters were Mary Carver as his mother, Lanie MacEwan as the ultimate faithful secretary, James M. Larmer as a high-class lowlife, and Tara Sands, channeling the spirit of Isabel Jewell as the office's frenetic receptionist.

That Wackerman, with the skimpiest resources, could not only bring off Rice's busy mosaic, but also give it a contemporary vividness without trashing its period tone, suggests that he has both love and respect for our predecessors, unlike the uptown names who so often turn antique plays into a dog's dinner. His achievement dramatizes the extent to which New York's theatrical resources are misapplied just now. That, even more than high ticket prices, explains why the young don't go to the theater. Imagination, energy, and passion, always the province of youth, are scarce among the established institutions, with their heads off in media-land. Audiences who want theater require people who want to make theater, not corporate content providers.

Even when the imagination falls short, the passion to make theater can carry the day. Nobody would claim that Mel Miller and Thomas Mills, who produce and direct Musicals Tonight!'s staged concerts, are a match in artistry for Flo Ziegfeld and Ned Wayburn. But their beginner-laden casts clomp through these barely known shows with a zest impossible to resist. Magical voices sometimes ring out, and astonishing gems turn up. (Who knew that Richard Rodgers once remade "Turkey in the Straw" as a Charleston?) Admittedly, the young don't come; this isn't their musical world, and odd titles in an odd venue don't attract. But the troupe's moving to midtown next year, and young ears may find the dapper cynicism of the '20s and '30s more to their taste than the amplified solemnity that clogs Broadway: When the future seems all downhill, the past can be an up.

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