Why Revive? (Part 1): “Call Me Madam”

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Why do we return to revivals of musicals? To reconfirm what we know, or to learn something new?

This question rumbles beneath the reasoning for revivals themselves. Why bring a show back in the first place? On Broadway, of course, the answer is: To make money. How best to maximize that haul? With a name-brand. But there are all kinds of musicals revived for reasons beyond remuneration; revivals of rebirth, rediscovery or reinvention.

I saw a bunch of revivals in February. Each had its own reason for being now. Virtually all of them gave me something to think about… if not always to sing about. I’m going to tackle them one-by-one.

Call Me Madam was the first, resuscitated by Encores! as only that estimable City Center enterprise can. Written in 1950 as a star vehicle for Ethel Merman with a made-to-measure score by Irving Berlin, Call Me Madam does not come up much in conversation today. I’d never seen it.

The Encores! revival was a delight and a failure — a failure as a star turn for the usually fine Carmen Cusack, who struggled to inhabit the songs Berlin had fashioned for Merman, scaled to her breath-defying brass — a delight in almost every other way. Written by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse as a sendup of Washington’s then-Beltway “hostess with the mostess,” a lady named Pearl Mesta, who held sway in post-World War II D.C. with ballsy Mermanesque charisma, Call Me Madam still exudes a light-headed political wit. The show also dances a lot; Jerome Robbins created the original choreography, which was not recreated here by Denis Jones but which still filled the City Center stage with light-footed sass.

And the songs! “Second-tier Berlin,” I’d read somewhere. We should all have such a tier. As my now-teenaged daughters, Lea and Sara, deliriously crowed as the curtain came down: “We loved every song and we only knew one of them!” That one would be the timeless tag-team duet, “You’re Just in Love,” which even bucked up Ms. Cusack here, abetted by her partner in contrapuntal bliss, Jason Gotay.

Does Call Me Madam evince a somewhat dated view of women? Of course it does. Does it also boast, not one, but two powerhouse female characters who wilfully determine their own fate — both the Mesta-like leading lady character, Sally Adams, and the ingenue, Princess Maria, from the fictional nation of Lichtenburg (where Sally Adams is sent as America’s Ambassador). The princess — played here with a winsomeness far more droll than dewy by the brilliant Lauren Worsham — falls in love with Mrs. Adams’ cute American attache and, against the wishes of her royal family, bags him in the end, via endless reprises of Berlin’s irresistible “It’s A Lovely Day Today.”

Chalk one up for a revival mounted for revisiting.

 

NEXT: Day Before Spring & Lolita

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