The year 2013 ended on a positive note for the new musical Naughty/Nice, the holiday-set four-actor show that I co-wrote with composer Gerald Stockstill. A producer circled us, and we got some nice exposure in December.
A couple of years ago I pitched a simple idea to Gerry: A revue of songs featuring broken kids writing twisted letters to Santa Claus, with four adult actors playing the children. Piano and voice. Simple set. Lyrics by me, music by Gerry. It would be comic, dark and tuneful, with a large dollop of pastiche — a lullaby, a tap specialty, a bossa nova tune, a Kurt Weill tribute, a brassy diva number and more — plus a continuous thread of our own songwriting style (melodic and sincere) stitching it together.
Free of the constraints of a book or conventional “story,” Gerry and I drew on skills that we had already sharpened in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where we met. That is, each song would tell a complete story — beginning, middle and end, with specificity of character evident throughout.
Naughty/Nice was the right show for us at the right time. We were each coming off of writing book musicals and we wanted something that was more of a lighter musical buffet — servings that would allow us to wander from portion to portion, but something that still ended up as a complete meal. You can find more information, including some demo tracks, at NaughtyNicetheMusical.com.
In recent seasons, Gerry and I — with the help of a lot of talented artists and organizers, including Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the Broadway musical supervisor who runs ASTEP/Artists Striving to End Poverty — developed the show in rehearsals and presentations.
With Mary-Mitchell serving as musical director, two performances were staged as benefits for ASTEP, one at Ars Nova in midtown west and one at The Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. Those versions were public and utilized a large cast of guest stars who performed “turns” in tandem with our core foursome, who performed all the group numbers, including the opening number (“To Old St. Nick/Dear Santa”) and closing song (“Part of Me”), as well as a series of carols (called “Winter Wondering,” Gerry’s sly riff on The Carpenters) and the title song.
A third presentation, for invited guests and industry, was performed at the TACT Studio, where Off-Broadway’s TACT/The Actors Company Theatre rehearses, using our intended four-actor format of two men (tenor/baritone) and two women (soprano/alto with belt). All along, at the piano, Mary-Mitchell brought her keen sense of music/lyric phrasing to the experience, and we were lucky to have wildly wonderful actors Chris Hoch, Cindy Marchionda and Sally Wilfert on board for each presentation. (Daniel C. Levine, Jason Ma and J.R. Bruno were also pretty brilliant playing the tenor male track in the separate earlier presentations.) Inventive Jeff Talbott directed each version.
We’ve also been lucky in recent seasons that Broadway music director and arranger Lynne Shankel invited a song from the show (“Wish for a Daddy”) to be performed (by Sally Wilfert) in the starry annual New York City Christmas concert, first at the now-gone Zipper Theatre in midtown and subsequently at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater (including a Dec. 16, 2013, performance).
Lynne’s frisky arrangement and Sally’s vivacious performance are captured on the studio concert-cast album on the Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records label. Proceeds from the concerts and the album go to the not-for-profit ASTEP, which “connects performing and visual artists with underserved youth in the U.S. and around the world to awaken their imaginations, foster critical thinking, and help them break the cycle of poverty.”
In late summer 2013 we were approached by The Producer Circle Co. about their shepherding Naughty/Nice toward a commercial future. Co-presidents Dan Gallagher and Michael Milton, co-workers and right-hand men of late producer Martin Richards — the man who founded PCC and produced Broadway’s La Cage aux Folles, Chicago, The Will Rogers Follies and Sweeney Todd — had fallen in love with the material after seeing our earlier presentations.
As part of their goal to revive Richards’ office, they hoped to dip their toe in the Naughty/Nice waters by presenting a benefit concert reading of the show for The New York Center for Children, which Richards founded and on whose board Michael Milton sits.
Given the show’s history as a moneymaker for ASTEP (we like the idea of dysfunctional kids supporting charities that help children), we turned material over to Dan (the concert’s primary producer) and began discussions with Producer Circle co-president and resident general manager Cheryl Dennis toward PCC taking a commercial option, eyeing regional, touring and New York possibilities for the property. (Naughty/Nice is one of several stage and film projects the producers are working on as their office begins its second life. As PCC is still getting its act together, we’re on their wish list, but we’re still seeking production opportunities elsewhere.)
Working with funding from The Mary Lea Johnson Richards Charitable Foundation, Naughty Nice was presented in its most complete form on Dec. 3, 2013, in that benefit concert reading directed by the imaginative Stephen Nachamie, whose work in regional and New York City theatres has been embraced.
The house at Caroline’s on Broadway was packed and raucous, with Chita Rivera — a longtime pal and colleague of Marty Richards, who produced her The Dancer’s Life on Broadway, as well as the original Chicago — having the best seat in the house in the middle of the room, with her friends and family. Yes, I kept looking over to see her response, and she beamed throughout. She also led a standing ovation in mid-show (!) following a number called “The Shadow of Corcovado,” a plaintive song about a poor, sick kid from Rio writing Santa and asking him for healthcare.
The lyric’s bridge goes like this:
I dream of when I am healthy again:
I leave Rio behind,
And I live in New York.
It is clear in my mind:
No more uninsured poor,
No more wait for a cure,
No more ghettos or hate,
My new statue of God
Will be the Empire State!
I see it gleam in my dream!
But I’m losing my steam
And I’m losing my stream
Of thought, I’m caught,
I’m stuck in the mud,
It’s the blood, it’s the blood, it’s the blood.
The song, inspired by Jobim’s “The Waters of March,” had always been a question mark for us. In a room filled with people invested in the welfare of children, it stopped the show and gave us faith that its sweet, sad, tragic message might have a place in the mix of our often buoyantly comic score. (It also proved that George Salazar of Broadway’s Godspell was more than just a clown with vocal chops; he’s an actor of depth and feeling.)
When we met Chita (yes, you just have to call her “Chita”) after the show, she gave me a big hug, called me wonderful and asked how I came up with the idea for “that Rio song.” She cradled Gerry’s face in her hands and told him he was brilliant. Well, what more do we need?
Naughty/Nice at Caroline’s was music-directed by smart and game David Gardos, who was Mary-Mitchell’s associate in the orchestra of Broadway’s Big Fish. In addition to Salazar, the talented cast included Alexandra Frohlinger, Timatha Kasten and Eric Michael Krop. The Accidentals, a vocal-jazz group made up of Emily Bindiger, Dennis Deal, Carolee Goodgold and Jim Vincent, stepped in throughout the show to perform those “Winter Wondering” carols and provide depth and variety to the world premiere of a number called “Trunk Song,” a complex, richly harmonic tune about all those past Christmas presents that kids never wanted.
The concert sound design was by Kurt Bradley. Alexis M. Qualls was the stage manager.
Previously, Naughty/Nice was a membership-recommended finalist in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals. Material from the show helped Gerry and I win the 2010 Dottie Burman Songwriting Award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC).
Learn more about the show at our website. www.naughtynicethemusical.com.
Happy New Year!