Theater Workers

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ATW’s seminars; a trove of lore; Barbara Cook’s heartfelt tributes

In this day of dwindling thoughtful coverage of the arts, the presence of the American Theatre Wing’s “Working In The Theatre” seminar is all the more essential. Broadcast on CUNY-TV and open to the public (call 212-817-8215 to reserve $10 tickets), they offer an invaluable look at what it takes to actually put on a show. The last two I attended, dealing with Tennessee Williams, April 8, and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” April 14, were particularly rewarding.

The creative team of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” proved as entertaining offstage as their combined efforts are onstage, in this supremely enjoyable, brilliantly hip show—the funniest I’ve seen since Phil Silvers lit up the revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Genius choreographer Jerry Mitchell had fully staged the show in San Diego, when he went away to do “La Cage Aux Folles.” Director Jack O’Brien said, “Jerry came back to us, fluffed and glossy, and changed every single thing we did.” “That overture started,” Mitchell recalled, “and I thought, ‘I wanna dance to that!’ I immediately saw the cast in full tableau on the Riviera swirling it up.”

Composer David Yazbek recalled the hell of trying to come up with the 11 o’clock number for stars John Lithgow and now-fully legendary Norbert Leo Butz to sing: “Jack and [writer] Jeffrey Lane kept at me, saying ‘We need this Roxy and Velma moment!’ With these jazz hands! It was everything that scares me about Broadway. I thought, ‘I’m too hip for that.’”

It took Yazbek about a month, before O’Brien’s line “You gotta learn when to leave the table” and a Steely Dan-ish bass hook, in a simpatico minor key, inspired him to write the “Dirty Rotten Number,” which Butz described as “a wonderful moment. John and I connect on a very deep level there. And we get standing ovations for a full minute afterwards. That’s never happened in any show before. David has to write another refrain for us!”

The actor added, “For the Norbert Leo Butzes out there—and you know who you are—this show is a godsend for anyone, like me, who falls into that crack between leading man and character actor.”

There’s an ever-present danger to actors engaging in hysterical antics, however, and O’Brien described some he’s seen push to get laughs, especially during a long run, as comparable to “collecting slave bangles. You can hear them clunking in the show. I put a sign on all their dressing room mirrors: ‘You’re not funny. It is.’”

The show’s CD will be released May 2, and, in a switch from the usual major label, is being produced by Sh-K-Boom records, owned by “Scoundrels”’ delightful star, Sherie Rene Scott. It promises to be a must-have, done with complete artistic control. It will be given out to everyone who pays a full-price ticket at the theater for an extended time, emblematic of this show’s savvy marketing plan. I sat behind its very pleased producers, Marty Bell and David Brown, and peeked at drafts for souvenir coffee mugs and T-shirts, which deliciously reek of the show’s cleverness (“Ride me like a wild, bucking stallion”).

Yazbek said his father used to bang on his teenaged door when he played Black Sabbath too loudly, but also recalled his dad reminding him that he also played “Bobby Short is K-k-krazy for Gershwin.”

Contact David Noh at