Graves: A rough road to the Heaviside Layer; a Broadway legend passes

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I was lucky enough to meet Tyne Daly when she was appearing in a show at the theater in Dorset. I told her how much I admired her performance as Mama Rose in "Gypsy" when she played the demanding role on Broadway way back in 1989. I was so impressed, I took my daughter to see the musical and I told Ms. Daly that I thought the experience instilled a love for the theater in Emily.

She looked at me and said, "So, do I owe you an apology?"

She most definitely did not.

My wife and I took both of our children to see "Cats" when it was playing in New York. The entire theater was refitted in a junkyard motif and the show was as much an experience as it was an entertainment. The kids were pretty young and we weren't sure how comfortable Luke was with these strange looking creatures prowling around, but Emily went down and talked to Old Deuteronomy, who was enthroned on the stage, during intermission.

The estimable Judi Dench plays the part of wise Old Deuteronomy in the film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that recently thudded into movie theaters. Based on a series of poems written for his godchildren by T. S. Elliott in the 1930s, the stage production compensated for a conspicuously thin plotline with dazzling music and spectacle. The Heaviside Layer referred to above is a heaven-like place to which all the cats aspire to undergo a kind of rebirth.

I have not, I hasten to add, seen the film, but I think that it is probably safe to state that what might pass for an awe-inspiring spectacle on a stage is, by now, fairly ho-hum in a movie in this age of "Jumanji" and "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" (which my son said moves along at such a fast pace that its sheer dumbness is only apparent upon recollection).

"Cats" cost Universal somewhere in the neighborhood of $95 million and the film's dismal reception by critics and meager box-office receipts sent the spin mill at the studio into high gear. It probably occurred to anyone who has watched the trailer for the movie that the results of the computer-generated effects that supplemented the make-up for the humans into cats transformation were more creepy than thrilling. (I always thought the same about the computer generated Tom Hanks in "The Polar Express," but then I have never been much of a fan of the real life one either.)

For the first time in my memory (no pun intended), a film was withdrawn from theaters and a different version was substituted that has improved effects. "Cats" evidently was not ready from technical standpoints when it opened in theaters to benefit from the Christmas season when Hollywood traditionally releases its crop of year's end blockbusters. At least that's how the excuse runs.

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One of the giants of the American musical theater, who undoubtedly had his own frustrations with the film adaptations of his work, passed away on Dec. 26. Jerry Herman was 88 years old. Herman wrote the music and lyrics for the kind of shows that had audiences coming out of the theaters humming something they just heard.

Many of Mr. Herman's songs didn't need lavish shows built around them. Their gorgeous melodies and uplifting messages stood proudly on their own. They were much closer in both heart and spirit to Rogers and Hammerstein's universality than to Sondheim's sophistication. If Sondheim inspired soul-searching, Herman seemed much more concerned with toe-tapping.

He had three huge successes on the Great White Way with "Hello, Dolly!," "Mame," and "La Cage aux Folles," but the musical that he cited as his personal favorite, a show called "Mack and Mabel" about two legendary figures during the silent era of movies, lasted for only eight weeks on Broadway despite having Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the lead roles.

(On a personal note, "Mack and Mabel" contained my favorite Jerry Herman song, a bittersweet eulogy to a doomed love affair called "I Won't Send Roses." And it isn't easy to choose a favorite from the Herman canon that also includes the title songs from "Dolly" and "Mame," as well as "It Only Takes a Moment," "Before the Parade Passes By," "The Best of Times" and "If He Walked Into My Life.")

His biggest success was one of the biggest hits in Broadway history, but when "Hello, Dolly!" opened at the St. James Theatre on Jan. 16, 1964, expectation were tempered by lukewarm receptions in both Detroit and Washington during the play's try-out runs. The musical was originally written for Ethel Merman, who turned it down. Mary Martin also said no. The part of Dolly Levi was eventually offered to Carol Channing, who would play her signature role for over 5,000 times on tour and in two Broadway revivals.

Given their respective successes on Broadway, it was inevitable that Hollywood would opt to inflate "Dolly" and "Mame" on the screen. The cost of adapting musicals into movies, however, dictated that they feature stars with some potency at the box office. Neither Channing nor Angela Lansbury, who originated the role of Mame on Broadway, was a bankable film star.

With that in mind, Fox cast 25-year-old Barbra Streisand as the middle-aged Bronx matchmaker in their mammoth, colorful, and somewhat lumbering version of what was, at its heart, a fragile little comedy by Thornton Wilder. Warner Bros. gave the part of Mame to Lucille Ball, who couldn't sing and looked as if she was photographed through a smear of Vaseline on the camera lenses. Neither film was particularly successful.

The man who encouraged the world to "open a new window" will be sorely missed at a time when many have us have closed them and drawn the curtains.

Alden Graves writes a regular column for the Journal.


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