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Not dinner theater-- but a theater dinner

January 19, 2009 |  1:42 pm

Susan_birkenhead_and_charles_stro_3 Stephen_schwartz_3

It wasn't the night they raided Minsky's, just a Saturday evening at Kendall's Brasserie at the Music Center.  Three legends of musical theater  -- composer Charles Strouse ("Bye-Bye Birdie," "Annie" ), lyricist Susan Birkenhead ("Jelly's Last Jam") and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin," "Godspell," "Wicked") -- were discussing their bread and butter, musicals, over the bread and butter.

At first, the conversation was about scheduling a moment to dash in to see each other's work. Difficult from a time standpoint, but easy geographically: Rehearsals were going on at the Ahmanson Theatre for the world premiere of the new musical about the world of burlesque, "Minsky's," inspired by the 1968 film "The Night They Raided Minsky's," with music by Strouse and lyrics by Birkenhead. The show opens Feb.6.

And just across the plaza at the Mark Taper Forum, preview performances had begun for a new production of Schwartz's "Pippin," which opened on Broadway in 1972 and opens Sunday at the Taper. This time, the story of young Pippin's search for himself has a new twist: it is performed by DeafWest Theatre with a combination of hearing and deaf actors singing, speaking and signing.

A touring production of Strouse's "Annie" was onstage at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre and was to close "tomorrow, tomorrow"  (that is, Sunday), ending a six-day run. With a wicked grin, Strouse admitted that, after all those years of "Annie," he is pleased to be working with showgirls, not schoolgirls, on "Minsky's."      

Pippin

Strouse turned 80 in June, and the musical theater community is continuing to celebrate his birthday in various official ways through 2009. On this evening at Kendall's, Strouse seemed to be having his own little birthday party, ordering steak and fries at a table dominated by seafood.  Hey, the man's been on the planet for eight decades and written some of the most successful musicals in history -- pass the cholesterol. 

Birkenhead enthusiastically observed that with the creative teams of both musicals crossing paths on their way to and from their respective rehearsals, the Music Center plaza these days has become a little slice of Broadway. Unlike the large and corporate entertainment industry, the musical theater world was described by the trio as a close-knit community, where they rely on each other for all the help they can get because "what we do is really hard," Birkenhead said.

But what they want from each other, Schwartz said, is practical advice, not theoretical. "We want to know what doesn't work, what isn't clear, but not the analysis of why," he said. "We rely on each other to be really honest, before it opens. After that, it doesn't help."  In a sense, musicals are never finished: more than 35 years after it opened on Broadway, Schwartz has added a new song, "Back Home Again," to "Pippin" for the Taper production.

Not that these people are strangers to Hollywood. Strouse's credits include the score for "Bonnie and Clyde" and the "All in the Family" theme song ("Those Were the Days"). Schwartz co-wrote the score for Disney's "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback of Notre Dame " and the music and lyrics to DreamWorks' animated "The Prince of Egypt"; the mega-musical "Wicked" was conceived as a feature film, having its first reading at Universal Studios.

Strouse and Birkenhead collaborated on the music for the movie "The Night They Raided Minsky's," but insist that they are not basing the new music on the old music. Birkenhead said she would "crawl over broken glass" to work with Strouse again. Strouse and Schwartz are also former collaborators; they worked together on the 1986 musical "Rags."

Luckily, no broken glass was involved in getting Strouse and Birkenhead back together. While trading scallops for a sample of Schwartz's mussels, Birkenhead explained the checkered past of "Minsky's."

The show was the brainchild of British director Michael Ockrent, and Strouse and Birkenhead had already begun writing songs for a book by Evan Hunter when Ockrent died of leukemia in 1999. The musical languished until Birkenhead brought it to director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw of "The Drowsy Chaperone," another show that made its pre-Broadway premiere at the Ahmanson. Nicholaw brought in Bob Martin, one of the authors and star of "Chaperone," to provide a new book.

Schwartz -- who said that musical theater is enjoying a heyday in part because of an infusion of investment cash from Disney and other movie studios -- said that words of wisdom from Birkenhead always pop into his mind when he starts to write a new song: "What is the next logical sound out of the character's mouth?"  Both Schwartz and Birkenhead say that their most difficult challenge is to bridge the credibility gap between speaking and bursting into song.

And what is Strouse's secret?  He had been been pretty quiet, polishing off the steak: "I'm kind of deaf," he explained. Or maybe he's just not that into all this talk about musical theater history or the key to a musical's success. Workshops? Phooey. Although he admitted to having some pretty good instruction along the way in counterpoint and musical theory, he believes that a musical workshop that he founded for ASCAP "was of no particular use to anybody."

"There really aren't 'eras' in musical theater," he mused. "To much as been written about what you're asking about.  You're a good composer, or you're not a good composer. A great song is a great song."    

-- Diane Haithman

Top photos: Charles Strouse, Susan Birkenhead and Stephen Schwartz. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times. Bottom: Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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