Monday, September 10, 2012

Megan Hilty Shines as Broadway's "Blonde"

If there was one good thing about NBC's pretty wretched "Smash," which purported to show how a Broadway musical gets from cradle to stage, it was introducing a lot of us to Megan Hilty. She plays Ivy, the chorus girl who yearns to be a star but keeps getting shoved aside, and she's been terrific, no matter what nonsense the script throws at her.

Because the musical they were working on in Season 1 of "Smash" was about Marilyn Monroe, and because Hilty was so good at it, I'm sure it seemed like a no-brainer to the Encores! folks to cast Hilty as Lorelei Lee, a character Monroe played in the movie version of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Monroe famously wore a bright pink dress and sang "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in a number whose style was appropriated by Madonna when she sang about being a "Material Girl," making the number even more iconic.

But as a Broadway show, "Gentleman Prefer Blondes" was a different affair, with Carol Channing as Lorelei, the innocent (if materialistic) Little Girl from Little Rock. Lots of other things are different, too. Yes, Lorelei still has a best friend, Dorothy, but Dorothy's on-stage beau, Henry Spofford, is turned into a little boy in the movie, with a handsome (poor) private detective added to the mix, plus Lorelei and Dorothy are showgirls girls instead of Follies girls. The music is also very much changed in the movie, with "A Little Girl from Little Rock," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Bye Bye Baby" the only holdovers from the score Jule Styne and Leo Robin wrote for "Gentlemen" on Broadway. Oh, and there's a lot more French in the stage musical, for that c'est la vie/très jolie feeling.

To be perfectly honest, the plot makes a lot more sense in the Anita Loos/Joseph Fields stage version, based on Loos' novel. The whole button/zipper thing, for example, with Lorelei showing some smarts at the end, is pretty fun.

Megan Hilty fans who only know the movie "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," which is coincidentally airing tonight on Turner Classic Movies (at 10:45 pm Central time), may be a bit confused as to why she's singing about how delightful it is down in Chile, or even why she does an encore of "Diamonds" with a mood change, on the cast recording of the Encores! "Gentlemen" just released by Masterworks Broadway. It doesn't really matter, after all, because she sounds just as sparkly and adorable as anybody could ask for in a Lorelei. The cd booklet from Masterworks also has enough pictures of Hilty in various fetching costumes to let you know she looked great on stage, too. All three of her "Little Rocks" are fun and fizzy, and she navigates her way through "Diamonds" (and its encores) and the title song with loads of charm, never losing her way with Lorelei, who is, after all, a golddigger, even if she's sincere about it.

Rachel York is another standout, channeling a brassier 50s feel for her portrait of BFF Dorothy, who matches nicely with Aaron Lazar's goofy rich boy Henry. York gets "It's High Time," a hilarious ode to booze that sets up her character as a saucy dame as well as placing the scene in the 1920s during Prohibition. And Lazar does a very pretty "You Say You Care," with all kinds of romance from him as she expresses her doubts about marriage. Poor York also has to deal with "Keeping Cool with Coolidge," a novelty number that, again, sets the time period but is otherwise a little odd. Still, she gives it her all and makes a good impression, even singing about Calvin Coolidge.

Lorelei's suitors also come off well, from Clarke Thorell's sweet Gus Esmond, Jr., on "Bye Bye Baby," to Stephen A Buntrock's robust Gage on"I'm A'Tingle, I'm A'Glow," and Simon Jones as silly Sir Francis on that "Chile" number.

The orchestra is also sharp and on target throughout, with Rob Berman, the music director at Encores!, adding a program note about Hugh Martin, who did the original vocal arrangements. I never would've figured out why the vocal mix sounds different, but Berman's comments about Martin's use of eight-part harmony, "in which the men sing the same four parts as the women, but down one octave," resulting in a "thick, textured sound that resembles a saxophone or brass section in a jazz band" are fascinating.

Encores! performances are limited, and the chances of the show transferring a few blocks to Broadway for a longer run are not good, so let's all say thanks to Masterworks Broadway for making this more permanent record of an Encores! show available. To show proper gratitude, let's all buy lots of copies of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."


  1. This was a truly fun show to attend (all the more so because it's never produced any more, and it was unfamiliar to all of us). All the cast was entertaining and fit the "types" called for, and the staging stayed true to the way things were done in 1949, including all those encores prepared in advance.

    It really is kind of funny how, midway through act 2, the show remembers, "Oh right, this is the 20s," and we get the Homesick Blues that lists all the things happening right then in NYC, and then Dorothy's out-of-nowhere Charleston about keeping cool with Coolidge. But it's all delightful, and that was enough.

    Hugh Martin was quite a figure. He was a vocalist himself (appeared in a couple of musicals), a wonderful songwriter (best known, I guess, for "Meet Me in St. Louis," and we know what classic songs that has), and a vocal arranger with a real style of his own -- all those swingy vocal rhythms and harmonies. If you've ever heard "Sing for Your Supper," with all those Andrews-Sisters-type effects, that arrangement is his. And his work on those snazzy vocal sounds in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is really something. (I must also mention the contribution of one of my favorite orchestrators, Don Walker.) Thanks for writing about this, Julie!

  2. I don't get why this wouldn't be performed anymore, when other stuff keeps getting revived. The score has a few hits, there was a movie with Marilyn Monroe, it's got less difficult casting requirements than a lot of stuff I see on a regular basis. But then, I'd like to see someone pull out SWEET LITTLE DEVILS, too, and that's even more unlikely. It just doesn't make any sense to me to keep doing these "new" Gershwin shows when there are perfectly good old Gershwin shows sitting around doing nothing. But that's an argument for another day.

  3. Of course I don't get it either, as I would like to see all these. I guess for audiences less specialized than I am, interest has more to do with the story than the music -- whether the show "says" something that audiences want to buy. And I guess "Gentlemen," if it's about anything more than fun songs and personalities, says being a gold-diggger out for the main chance is a successful option in life. And maybe that's offputting or uninteresting.

    This would explain why "Follies" is never a big hit in the end: it says that you can't go back to when things seemed better, but there's not much hope they'll get better in the future, either. But it still doesn't clarify why "She Loves Me" never really hits big, despite it being a well-constructed statement that love will find a way, even for lonely working people. I don't know, this theory is all still a work in progress.