Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye!'

It's not easy to stump Stephen Peithman about musical theater, so I was tickled to have seen a musical that he'd never heard of.

It was called "Turn to the Right" — a musical about baking apple pies — written and produced by "Beverly Hillbillies" actor Buddy Ebsen. It was, without a doubt, the worst musical I'd ever seen.

I'm not sure that it survived into a second week, before fading into obscurity.

And the man who can speak with authority on shows such as Irvin Berlin's 1940 nonhit "The Louisiana Purchase," or Cole Porter's 1929 "Fifty Million Frenchmen," never had heard of my apple pie musical.

There can't be more than a handful of musicals that Peithman hasn't seen, studied, written about and purchased as an original cast recording. His vast library of musical theater recordings — he doesn't know exactly how many ("a couple thousand, I'm sure") — had a lot to do with his weekly radio show, Capital Public Radio's "Musical Stages."

"I pitched the show back in 1983," he recalled. "I told them I thought this was a niche that their programming wasn't handling. I thought a good market existed for it. No one else in the area was doing it.

"And I said I could provide all the recordings myself."

The station agreed, and the show soon developed a loyal following.

But times change. On Sunday, "Musical Stages" will broadcast its final show.

Peithman felt, for many reasons, that this was the time to pull the plug. For one thing, fewer new musicals are coming onto the scene, and he found he was repeating himself more. Additionally, musical theater no longer is the proving ground for "pop songs," as was the case for so many years. We all remember songs from musicals that became juke box hits.

Once the need to build hit tunes was gone, composers began to write songs that were ... quite different.

"Ultimately that probably worked just fine," Peithman said, "but when you're listening, it takes more time than people are willing to give to them, because they may be very complex. And some of them just aren't that interesting. You see them on the stage, and you can enjoy them because they're part of the larger picture."

Not to mention the content issue of many new musicals making it to Broadway.

"I felt I couldn't do some shows. I did edit some, like 'Spamalot,' and remove objectionable words so the FCC wouldn't get on my case."

I actually stumped Peithman with a question that seemed rather obvious: Where did he get his love of musical theater?

"Good question," he responded. "I'm really not quite sure."

While he can't pinpoint any one event or show that had a major impact on his life, he does remember listening to a recording of "South Pacific" because his father had served in the South Pacific, and they had the record album at home.

"My mother did community theater. She didn't really sing, and I don't remember any musicals," he recalled, still struggling with the question.

He remembers seeing the old Hollywood musicals. ("I probably saw every screen musical that came out from the 1950s on.") He always had a love of music, but he never saw a live stage show until he got to high school, when he appeared in "Oklahoma" and "South Pacific."

"They were huge musicals, and everybody was in them."

By the time he reached Humboldt State, he had begun to collect recordings of musicals. He remembers buying "Kiss Me Kate," and his sister had a recording of "The Pajama Game" and "Carmen Jones."

"It was a rather eclectic mix," he admitted.

"I'm not sure how people pick music that appeals to them. The thing with a musical is that it's a self-contained world, and it has an organizational principle to it. It's not like listening to separate pieces of music, although I'm sure some people listen to musicals that way.

"I also was writing plays, and my grade school was very big into music and theater, so I was already writing and performing in my own plays — sometimes with a cast of thousands — which my mother dutifully came to see, no matter how embarrassing they might have been.

"I think I understood the construction process of how these things work. It was intriguing, watching how songs interrelate."

When Peithman moved to Davis in 1970, all the pieces began to fit together.

"I started seeing more shows here, and being in them. I was finishing up my graduate studies. The drama department at that time looked down on musicals, and didn't want to do them, so some faculty and students got together, got some funding from the Associated Students and created what they called the ASUCD Student Musical Theater Company, which was a wondrous thing.

"We did summer shows on the main stage, and that's where I really became involved with theater. I met Lenore (Turner) Heinson that year."

He was not cast in the fledgling company's first show, "The Fantasticks," but he did win the role of Dr. Carrasco in the next big musical, "Man of La Mancha," and met people in the production who have remained lifelong friends.

Peithman quickly became a staple in the Davis theater community, and was a founding member, actor and director for the Davis Comic Opera Company throughout its 30 year history.

In 1991, became the writer and emcee for the annual Citizens Who Care fundraising winter concert, a project that is remarkably similar to some "Musical Stages" broadcasts.

The meat of "Musical Stages" was playing the recording of a show, with Peithman adding background information and describing what was taking place on stage.

"I did all the shows that were great, and a lot of shows that weren't so great.

"Those are always the fun ones."

He introduced his audience to many short-lived shows, such as 1951's "Flahooley," by Sammy Fain & E.Y. Harburg, which starred Yma Sumac and Barbara Cook in their first Broadway roles ... and Sumac's only Broadway role. "Drat! The Cat!" (1968), by Milton Schafer and Ira Levin — the latter best known for "Rosemary's Baby" — concerned a female cat burglar and starred Elliot Gould as an inept police detective, and Leslie Ann Warren as the cat.

Or consider "Minnie's Boys" (1970), by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady, which starred Shelley Winters as the mother of the Marx Brothers.

That type of format permits only so many things over the years, however, and Peithman began to do variations on the original theme.

"I started having fun by doing things like an all-star 'Annie Get Your Gun' or an all-star 'South Pacific,' in which case I'd play the whole score, but sung by different people from different recordings.

"It's interesting to hear different takes and different styles."

Another variation was the compilation show, where Peithman would fit music to a theme.

"I've always been intrigued by the connections between things. If you're really into the subject, at some point you start seeing how this connects to that, and that connects to this. Sometimes you see things that people totally miss, because it's such a part of your life or your thought process.

"It occurred to me, for example, that almost every American musical for many decades always had a working woman a female lead. I thought that was interesting, because you tend to think of women in the work force as something that hit big during World War II, and then went down the drain a bit, and then crawled back out again later.

"But in musical theater, the female lead is almost always someone who works.

"There are some good reasons for that. If the woman is to meet her man, it's hard if she stays home all the time. And where she works has an impact on the show."

Peithman based an entire show on awful title tunes.

"The worst one was 'Her First Roman,' which was a musicalization of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra. It's actually a rather tuneful, enjoyable little song, but totally stupid and actually one of the worst songs.

"Another was a Jerry Herman song that was the title tune for 'Dear World.' It was just dreadful. The words are dreadful; the tune is good. I don't think Herman could write a bad tune, but the words are just stupid."

Please take your medicine, dear world,
Please keep your pressure down, dear world.
Promise to thrive on each word your doctor speaks,
He'll bring the roses back to your cheeks.
For you've been a pallid and blah world,
Stick out your tongue and say "Ahh," world.
We'll give you plasma and tonic, by the spoon,
So be a dear world,
Take your medicine, dear world,
Keep your pressure down, dear world,
And get well soon!

Peithman did a show about songs that say "I love you" without saying the actual words.

"Musical theater writers, over time, began to think 'I can't write another I love you song,' so they wrote songs that are love songs but don't say 'I love you' ... songs like 'People Will Say We're in Love' or 'This Can't Be Love' or 'It's Almost Like Being in Love.' That was fascinating."

This fascination with themes leads directly to life after "Musical Stages."

Starting in January, Peithman will present what is scheduled as a six-week series called "Connections" — a sort of music-based nod to James Burke's famed PBS television series of the same title — where he'll examine the musical links between seemingly unlikely people or events.

"I'll do a series of shows that will find the connection between composers, between musical works, maybe look at styles or some concepts.

"The first one is 'The Beggar's Opera' and 'The Messiah.' That basically talks about Handel making his name in England. He's a German who's writing operas in Italian and living in England. Go figure.

"It is true that Italian operas were losing their appeal by the time 'The Beggar's Opera' came along, but that one put the nail in the coffin. So Handel realized there wouldn't be a market for his operas any more, so what was he going to do?

"There were several issues: He was running his own opera company, and it was falling apart because they were too expensive. You have big shows, lots of people, sets and costumes ... because almost all of the operas he wrote were classical mythology. You had to pay the theater folks, you had all these costumes, you had set changes ... everything was very expensive.

"And they were all in Italian!

"So he realized he had to do something in English, which didn't take sets and didn't need costumes. Ta-dah ... oratorio! That's absolutely true. So that's one sort of connection.

"Another one is the Paganini 'Caprice for Violin,' which for some reason just took off; everyone wanted to make music based on that one tune. The one that most people use nowadays is Rachmaninoff's 'Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,' but there were lots of others, including one by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

"His brother, Julian (the cellist), bet that Lloyd Webber couldn't write a classical work based on rock music, so he wrote variations based on Paganini's 'Caprice for Violin.'

"Also in that show, I have Benny Goodman playing something he did, as well as all 22 minutes of the Rachmaninoff, but also pieces by Schumann, Brahms and Liszt ... all based on Paganini."

Peithman insisted he could devote 18 shows to music that has been written around the Faust legend alone.

The future of "Connections" will depend on audience response, but listening to Peithman's fertile brain churning, he clearly has enough ideas to give it a life at least as long as that of "Musical Stages."

Sunday's finale of "Musical Stages" will be a rebroadcast of an earlier show, devoted to songs about New York City, at the end of which the curtain will come down on a long, successful run.

But it's clear that Sacramento radio audiences haven't heard the last of Stephen Peithman.

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