Musicals Tonight!

Not long after nytheatre.com got off the ground, I got an email from a fellow named Mel Miller inviting me to the opening of his new project. It was a concert-style revival of a VERY obscure musical comedy called Let It Ride!. It was at the Lambs Theatre near Times Square. Would I like to review it?

Of course I would.

I wrote (in part):

Producer Mel Miller, the guiding light behind this revival, has assembled a terrific cast of ten appealing young singers and actors who put over all nineteen numbers with enthusiasm and style, as well as read and enact an abridged version of Let It Ride!‘s dopey, simple-minded book. The result: pure theatrical magic—a happy, funny, utterly charming entertainment offering a couple of hours of pleasant diversion and, not incidentally, a terrific showcase for some very deserving, very talented musical theatre performers.

Thus began the life of the Obie-winning indie theater company Musicals Tonight!, and the first of many many delightful, edifying, and surprising evenings in the theater for yours truly. Musicals Tonight! begins its 20th (!) season this fall; check it out.

Musicals Tonight! has accomplished two important things. First, it provides an honest-to-goodness showcase for musical theater performers who are currently at the chorus-level on Broadway, giving them a chance to play much larger roles in front of an audience, which can only be valuable training for them. (Mel also produces a series of concert shows called “At This Performance,” in which current Broadway understudies sing and dance the numbers they are understudying; a marvelous and awesome concept!)

The other important achievement of Musicals Tonight! has been to provide musical theater fans and aficionados a chance to see and hear work that, in general, has long been out of circulation or (sometimes) has been heretofore thought entirely lost. My favorite memories of Musicals Tonight! are the shows I’d read about and knew would never be done again:

No one but Mel Miller and Musicals Tonight! would have revived Chee-Chee. No one else should. This strange musical comedy, written by Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Herbert Fields, ran for a month in 1928 and then disappeared; now that we can see it, it’s clear why that was the case. Chee-Chee is not uninteresting, but it certainly isn’t good. Indeed, it’s probably the worst show any of its illustrious creators every worked on. A price-y Encores presentation is far more than Chee-Chee merits; but a cozy two-week stint at the 99-seat 14th Street Y main stage is entirely appropriate: musical theatre diehards will want to take advantage of this unique opportunity to see this weird curiosity.

Of course there’s one other, very important achievement, the one that has ensured Musicals Tonight!’s longevity: the work that Mel and his collaborators do is invariably entertaining. I’ve seen more than two dozen of his revivals over the years, and I have never regretted one of those evenings. And I really adored many of them, usually when I least expected to: King of Hearts, Mademoiselle Modiste, and Face the Music are three that instantly come to mind.

The full record of nytheatre.com reviews of Musicals Tonight! shows is here.

***

Mel has a history kind-of similar to mine: he worked in the business world for a long time, all the while maintaining a true love for theater. After he left the business world, he followed his dream and became a producer of musicals.

It’s easy to get to know Mel, because–following in the footsteps of Ellen Stewart–he introduces every performance of every show personally. Here’s me talking about that in my review of Cabin in the Sky from 2003:

In 15 previous reviews of Musicals Tonight! productions, I’ve neglected to mention the charming way that producer Mel Miller opens each and every one of his shows. He climbs onto the stage, introduces himself, and then offers three or four minutes of background—about the show and its creators, and about the moment in history when this particular revival originated. So we learn, for example, that 1940-41 was the leanest Broadway season up to that time: just Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark, Gene Kelly in Pal Joey, Al Jolson in Hold on to Your Hats, and of course Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky.

There are few folks in the indie theater world whom I respect more than Mel. He pursues his passion full-out and shares his discoveries with audiences with an enthusiasm and aplomb that never seem to waver.

***

One final point: soon after my review of the that first Musicals Tonight! show, Let It Ride!, appeared on nytheatre.com, I received the following note in the mail:

rayevans

For someone still relatively new to theater reviewing to receive a personal note from Ray Evans (Oscar-winning lyricist of “Buttons and Bows,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Que Sera Sera”) — and to be thanked for bolstering his ego! — well, let’s just say that my ego got bolstered quite a lot, too. Thanks, Mel, for that.

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