Just because a musical is corny doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get a second chance.
“They do that a lot, take an old musical and rewrite the book, then go to the composer’s catalogue to refresh it,” points out Joey McKneely, director of Crazy For You. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1992, will roll into Asheville March 14.
The predecessor, George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, debuted in 1930. Reviewing opening night, a New York Times critic applauded the talents of relative newcomers Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers. But no one fawned over the plot: “The [script] is serviceable, rather than distinguished,” wrote the reporter. “It gets its characters in and out of the proper entanglements and tears its hero and heroine apart at the end of the first act as every orthodox musical show libretto should.”
Set in the Southwest, Girl Crazy featured a New York playboy who just happened to be running a dude ranch, where he fell for an Arizona girl.
The need for a rewrite, as opposed to a revival, “has to do with the datedness of the [script],” says McKneely. “The humor now is very hokey. A lot of the punch lines just don’t land. Today’s audience expects a lot more — they’re a lot more intelligent.”
Modern theatergoers may be more sophisticated — however, as with later versions of the script, the original story line was really just an excuse to trumpet some of the popular tunes of the Gershwin brothers (both now deceased). In 1932, Girl Crazy was remade as a film with a similar “playboy heads south to escape girl troubles and ends up with more girl troubles” theme. Then, a decade later, the script was rewritten again. Mickey Rooney starred as a rich city boy sent to an all-guys school (again in Arizona), where he meets a girl (Judy Garland) and saves the school from financial ruin by turning it into a co-ed establishment.
But never mind the flimsy plot and interchangeable characters — the important thing is that all those Gershwin favorites (“Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm”) were still there.
The play’s latest incarnation shares some common threads with its forerunners. There’s the privileged New Yorker (Bobby) who happens to be in theater. Bobby’s sent out west (Nevada this time) to foreclose on a property, and there he meets Polly, who happens to be the daughter of the man whose property — surprise, an old theater — Bobby is supposed to repossess.
Lots of opportunity for song and dance. Cue the symphony.
Crazy For You was created in the late ’80s, according to production press, as “a reaction to the conservative backlash” of the time. Multimillionaire Roger Horchow (who considered Girl Crazy his favorite show) wanted to bring the chestnut back to the stage, but when playwright Ken Ludwig got an eyeful of the original book, he remarked, ” … It was dumb, silly, beyond silly … I decided I had to rewrite it from scratch.”
And a new script meant a new lineup of Gershwin tunes. Crazy For You draws from its original score (“Biding My Time,” “Could You Use Me?”) as well as from other Gershwin catalogues (“Things Are Looking Up” from Damsel in Distress). It also includes a few tunes not originally intended for musicals — “The Real American Folk Song,” sung by Ella Fitzgerald, and “K-ra-zy For You,” from which the show takes its name.
“It’s America’s classical music,” McKneely says. “When the show opened up in the ’90s, it felt fresh and new.”
And a decade later? “There’s a whole generation — a couple generations — of people who haven’t heard that music,” the director says.
Indeed. If you believe the show’s press release, a couple was overheard one night discussing the live wires behind all the drama: “The woman asked, ‘Are George and Ira Gershwin still alive?’ And her husband said, ‘They must be. They’re still writing musicals.'”
Broadway in Asheville presents Crazy For You at 7 p.m. at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Monday, March 14. Tickets run $20, $40 and $52. For reservations, call 251-5505. For more information, call 259-5544.