Imagine seeing the original leads, creative team, and some of the opening night orchestra on the anniversary of a classic Broadway musical's opening night...forty years later. Imagine being in an audience full of fans of this musical, as well as other industry professionals associated with this legendary musical. The energy and anticipation for what is about to unfold onstage is crazy.
On February 11, 1979, They're Playing Our Song opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. On February 11, 2019, the 40th anniversary concert, presented by the Actors Fund, played for one night only at the Music Box Theatre (current home of Dear Evan Hansen), right next door. Original music director Larry Blank returned to conduct, and original costume designer Ann Roth designed dresses for star Lucie Arnaz for the anniversary performance.
I was there. The only thing was - I'm not a lifelong fan of They're Playing Our Song. I'm ashamed to admit that I only knew of it because my favorite performer, Donna Murphy, made her Broadway debut in the show as a swing. I'd originally bought the ticket because I thought she'd be part of the show. This was also my second Actors Fund benefit concert; last year I was lucky enough to attend the 15th anniversary concert of Thoroughly Modern Millie, again with the original Broadway cast. That night was a dream come true for me, as I imagine this performance of They're Playing Our Song was for longtime fans of the show.
My perspective as an audience member was a little different then, since this reunion show as my first exposure to this witty book by Neil Simon, and incredible songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager. The leads, Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, played roles meant for maybe 30-somethings, but there was nothing unbelievable about Klein's portrayal of serious (and successful) composer Vernon Gersch and Arnaz's performance as eccentric lyricist Sonia Walsk, even at their current ages. Forty years ago, this was a cute (although perhaps typical) love story for songwriters in their prime. Forty years later, maybe these two have never found the love that mattered, or the perfect match to their songwriting talents, until now. It made for an interesting dynamic, and also fun to imagine seeing the show on Broadway in 1979, maybe even with future stars Donna Murphy and Debbie Gravitte (who also appeared in this anniversary concert) in the chorus as Vernon and Sonia's alter egos.
Along with Debbie Gravitte, appearing as the "Greek Chorus"-type alter egos, were Ivy Austin and Housso Semon for Sonia, and Andrew Fitch, Hugh Panaro, and Hal Shane for Vernon.
The musical is about Vernon and Sonia's collaboration as songwriters that eventually turns to romance and is based on the real-life relationship between Hamlisch and Sager.
Highlights were Klein's performance of "Workin' It Out", both versions of "They're Playing My Song", "Just for Tonight", and Arnaz's show-stopping "I Still Believe in Love" - which earned her a standing ovation mid-performance. Every song was a show-stopper, though, with raucous applause after each one.
The actors carried scripts, which made sense, because both Vernon and Sonia are songwriters. Lucie Arnaz was clearly more comfortable with dialogue and hilariously, it was Robert Klein who missed a cue. Arnaz handled it perfectly, offered to sing her song again, and when Klein finally appeared on stage, she said, "No bathroom breaks until intermission!" The audience laughed, and Klein exited and re-entered in character. Even this "mistake" was cherished and well-received by this audience, which shows how loved this show truly is. This audience knew every word to the songs, every joke.
For this Broadway enthusiast who didn't know the show before, consider me converted. I am honored I was there to witness such a special performance of a beloved musical, and I'm proud of call myself a They're Playing Our Song fan, not just because my favorite star made her Broadway debut in it.
After I got out of the theatre, I looked into the show more, and it was really interesting to see all the stars who have appeared in They're Playing Our Song throughout its history (and not just on Broadway): Stockard Channing, Victor Garber, Ellen Greene, Lea Salonga, Jason Alexander, and Stephanie J. Block. Seth Rudetsky and Sutton Foster also appeared in Actors Fund benefit a few years ago.
I look forward to future reunion concerts presented by the Actors Fund - perhaps I will see old favorites I never got to see live, or experience new shows in the best possible way.