Throwback Thursday - I Love My Wife
I'm currently in a Cy Coleman state of mind. Whilst I would never go so far as to say he is 'underrated', I do often think that casual fans of his shows don't always connect the dots to consider his contribution to musical theatre as a whole, and a lot of that I think is down to style. Whilst Sondheim, Rodgers and even Lloyd Webber have distinct styles that lead many to make bold claims such as "oh I HATE XX's musicals", Cy Coleman isn't someone whose work is ever judged in that vein.
The reason for that I feel comes down to diversity and longevity. Whereas many composers seem to sit in a particular period of time, and their work reflects that, Coleman's scores span four decades, making him (in my mind at least) one of the most prolific contributors to the musical theatre canon.
Most people know the 1966 musical Sweet Charity through either the film, countless stage productions or the 'second life' the score has enjoyed thanks to performers such as Shirley Bassey. The musical is considered to be a 'classic' thanks in part to its associations with Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and belongs to a very particular period of musical theatre history. Cut forward to the late 90s, and The Life, a musical that explores the underbelly of Times Square's 42nd Street pre-Disneyfication. Whilst the two shows share similar themes, they couldn't sound more different.
Compare these two shows again with On The Twentieth Century, the musical that is currently revived on Broadway to great acclaim by the Roundabout Theatre Company. With its mix of quasi-operatic style and pastiche European arias, many are surprised to hear that it is again a Cy Coleman score as the sound and style couldn't be more diverse to the rest of his body of work.
This game could continue for a while, comparing the brassy sounds of Barnum with the intricate vocal arrangements of City of Angels, all proving the same point that as a composer, Cy wrote explicitly for the material he was working with, and proved himself to have one of the most eclectic and impressive stage composers of his time.
Some may argue this lack of distinct 'style' is a bad thing - audiences generally know what they're in for when they sign up to see a Sondheim musical for example, but I find it fascinating, and wholly impressive.
The gap in my Cy Coleman knowledge came in the form of the 1977 musical I Love My Wife, the unlikely hit that opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 17 April 1977 and closed on 20 May 1979, after 857 performances. Described as a "satire of the sexual revolution of the 1970s", the musical is set in New Jersey on a Christmas Eve where two married couples who have been lifelong friends find themselves contemplating a 'ménage-à-quatre'. Not your average theme of a musical.
Post Hair (which had opened ten years earlier), audiences were becoming more accustomed to having their musical theatre served with a slice of sex, but in a season that also included the original production of Annie and revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar, Man of La Mancha and The King and I, Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart's chamber musical was certainly a head turner.
The original production was directed by Gene Saks and choreographed by Onna White, and was particularly praised due to the staging of musical numbers which saw the band onstage and part of the action - something that elevated the show in concept terms and allowed it to be taken seriously as progressing the art form.
Clive Barnes of the New York Times called the show "bright, inventive, amusing and breezy," noting that Gene Saks' concept "is breathtakingly simple, but none...has ever done it before. They have taken the band and put it up on stage...The musicians are welded into the play, as a kind of Greek chorus." This love letter helped the show gain traction, and the sex wasn't seen as such a gimmick.
A London production of I Love My Wife opened on 6 October 1977 at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where it ran for 401 performances. It was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Musical of the Year, losing out to The Comedy of Errors, and originally starred the star of 'Porridge' and 'Rising Damp' Richard Beckinsale.
Listening to the cast recording (which features James Naughton as Wally, Joanna Gleason as Monica, Lenny Baker, as Alvin and Ilene Graff as Cleo) you can't help but be immediately struck by the tunefulness and energy of the songs. Although deceivingly simple, Coleman is able to catch the spirit of both the moment and the era as a whole, resulting in a strikingly original and pleasing experience.
"Love Revolution" and "Sexually Free" capture the essence of the show, with the expositional "We're Still Friends" setting up the show along the lines of a more familiar musical. So different in style to Seesaw which was written just three years previously, I Love My Wife once again proves Cy Coleman's ability to write in a mixture of styles with sheer artistic success.
Watch this montage of footage from the original production. Once you get past the hairstyles, you'll find much to enjoy, and hopefully go out and listen to the whole show!
Did you see I Love My Wife? Let us know your comments below!
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