Why has "She Loves Me" always occupied such a special place in the hearts of musical-comedy aficionados? Its original Broadway run wasn't very long. None of its songs became "standards." And yet, within the last five years, I have seen four revivals, including the splendid one Scott Ellis has directed for the Roundabout.
One reason for its popularity is that, unlike a lot of golden age musicals, "She Loves Me" is a kind of miniature, a Vermeer in a room full of Rembrandts. It commands respect and affection for the fineness of its every detail, for its serene glow rather than any customary Broadway boisterousness.
Much of its charm comes from its setting - pre-war Budapest - and the unusual gentleness of its characters, the lovelorn employees of a perfume shop. Perhaps as the real world grows ever uglier, the tender world of "She Loves Me," whose shy heroine grows ecstatic over a gift of vanilla ice cream, seems more and more appealing.
That appeal is very evident in Ellis' production, with its candy-box settings by Tony Walton. The show builds slowly, but by the end of the first act it has built up all the steam it needs.
The first act finale takes place in a theoretically romantic cafe, where the inept staff constantly destroys the management's efforts to maintain a romantic atmosphere. The scene is partly farce, but also very poignant, as the heroine waits in vain for a pen-pal admirer she has never met to join her.
The comedy comes off smashingly, thanks to Jonathan Freeman as the oily headwaiter and Joey McKneely as a clumsy waiter. The poignance is also in great hands, with Judy Kuhn as the heroine and Boyd Gaines as the shy lover who realizes the woman to whom he has been writing warm letters is the new employee he has been treating coldly.
The second act is a series of scrumptious (forgive me - Budapest conjures up confectionary images) solos. Howard McGillin is cast against type as a heartless Lothario, but his rendition of the flamboyant "Grand Knowing You" is wonderfully elegant. The sly sexiness Sally Mayes brings to a song about falling in love with an optometrist makes it pure whipped cream.
Boyd Gaines has a Jimmy Stewart vulnerability as the hero, and he sings the title song with irresistible abandon.
Judy Kuhn makes the heroine unusually appealing and sings "Vanilla Ice Cream" with great soul.
There is delightful character work by Lee Wilkof and Brad Kane. Louis Zorich could be more charming as the perfumer, but he sings "Days Gone By" well. The show's most impressive moment, though, is the shopping ballet, "Twelve Days to Christmas"; it's been staged in a way that magnifies its comedy brilliantly.
It's always wonderful to have "She Loves Me" back, but especially in a revival as loving as this one.
The 1993/94 Broadway season is off and galloping, and, at least for starters, everying is coming up roses. Great galloping roses!
It opened last night with the Roundabout Theater's magical and faultless (faultlessly magical, magically faultless - Polonius himself would be at a loss for words if not enthusiasm) restoration of the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joe Masteroff 1963 musical "She Loves Me." And I loved it.
1963 - a strange and vintage year. Broadway's last year of innocence.
A president had not been killed, Beatles had not invaded, a sexual revolution had not revolted. America - and Wall Street - knew its place, and that place was good. New York was the imperial city. Innocence, ah, innocence!
But Broadway also embraced the wiseguy strutting of Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell, and in that naive yet brash New World, the original "She Loves Me" seemed like a nostalgic Old World refugee.
It was essentially a chamber musical, ostensibly set in the Budapest of 1934 (halcyon days before first Nazism, then Communism), telling a sweet story of unsmooth love between romantic pen-pals working, unbeknownst to themselves, in the same Parfumerie in what could be Hollywood's Ruritanian suburb.
Masteroff's book (before he wrote "Cabaret") retains its elegant period charm, while the exquisite music and lyrics by Bock and Harnick (yes, of course, before they composed "Fiddler on the Roof") have the same scented air of times gone and loves past.
And surely this time round, the time for "She Loves Me" has very certainly come. It has been lovingly and wittily staged by Scott Ellis, provided with almost edibly stylish settings by Tony Walton and precisely the right costumes by David Charles and Jane Greenwood. And all that is only the beginning of the good news.
When "She Loves Me" was first on Broadway, Harold Prince's staging (it ran 302 performances, by the way) was blessed with a near-perfect cast led by Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey and Jack Cassidy. Perhaps the show was born lucky, for near-perfection has struck again.
Fortunately, the play on which the musical is based (Miklos Laszlo's "Parfumerie," already adapted for two Hollywood movies, "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summer Time") has a happily sentimental plot set in cast-iron, or more aptly cast-gold.
Not only is each and every one of the eight leading roles a gem of character, but the musical goes one better and ensures that each character has an charmingly apt number.
It is, happily, virtually impossible to pick and choose between the Roundabout players - they are all so good. Judy Kuhn as the heroine is perhaps particularly adorable, well-matched by her "dear friend" of a pen pal, an exuberant Boyd Gaines.
But everyone else, a neatly unctuous Jonathan Freeman, a bouncy Brad Kane, a world-weary Sally Mayes, an attractively sleazy Howard McGillin, a survival-conscious Lee Wilkof, an urbanely expansive Louis Zorich, even Joey McKneely as an acrobatically silent waiter, are universally terrific.
Now for Roundabout, it seems that the only problem is to decide where to move their new hit for a hopefully extended run.
The first time I ever walked out of a Broadway show was to see "She Loves Me" a second time. It was Christmas week of 1963, and "She Loves Me," a sensitive flower among hard-edged comic blockbusters like "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," was surely a goner with the New Year. It was now or never. I bolted out of the 2 o'clock matinee of another flop (remember "Jennie," anyone?) to take one last look at "She Loves Me" at 3.
Though I didn't know much about anything else in 1963, time has borne out my youthful infatuation with "She Loves Me." The proof is at the Roundabout Theater Company, where this musical has finally received the exquisite revival of its fans' dreams and where surely new fans will soon be made by the legion. An intimate work with nothing on its sophisticated mind other than romance, "She Loves Me" is no less an anomaly on Broadway today than it was 30 years ago. Given how the world has aged since then, audiences may be hungrier than ever for this summons to a continuously melodic evening of sheer enchantment and complete escape.
That escape is to a civilization that doesn't exist anymore, the Mitteleuropa of the mid-1930's. Based on the same Hungarian play that inspired Ernst Lubitsch's Hollywood comedy "The Shop Around the Corner," the musical is about the lovelorn clerks in a Budapest parfumerie. Georg Nowack (Boyd Gaines) and Amalia Balash (Judy Kuhn), perpetually bickering colleagues by day, are also unwitting, passionate pen pals by night, brought together pseudonymously by a lonely hearts' classified. Inevitably, Georg and Amalia must realize the truth about each other and their own feelings, but not before there are a few farcical mix-ups, sad misunderstandings and hard-won journeys to self-knowledge.
Though Joe Masteroff's economic, Schnitzler-flavored book for the musical is a model of construction and taste, it is the exceptional score by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) that most make the piece endure. Even this team's classic songs for "Fiorello!" and "Fiddler on the Roof" lack the consistency of tone of "She Loves Me," which has almost as much music as an operetta, all of it written in a lilting style that respects the story's milieu (and occasionally its waltz-time). The score boasts no Broadway brass, no out-of-character numbers intended for the hit parade. And Mr. Harnick's frequently funny lyrics are as intelligent and adult as the characters, who read Flaubert, listen to Chopin and know far more than most musical-comedy lovers of their day about sex.
For a cult show, "She Loves Me" has not lacked for revivals and concert versions since its original nine-month Broadway run; there was even a BBC adaptation, heavily cut, broadcast on public television. But the Roundabout production has succeeded where all the others have failed. The main, though far from only, reason is that the director, Scott Ellis, has assembled a company that can act as well as sing. Like the original cast, which included such serious actors as Daniel Massey and Barbara Baxley, the Roundabout cast is gifted and idiosyncratic enough to ward off any saccharine cliches.
Mr. Gaines, a fine character actor best known as the rueful gay doctor in "The Heidi Chronicles," is a revelation as Georg: a handsome, light-footed leading man with a strong voice and a sweet, rectitudinously earnest air reminscent of Jimmy Stewart. His delivery of the title song, a leapfrogging explosion of joy, sets the house ablaze in Act II, but he is just as affecting when wounded by Amalia's callous rejection early on. Ms. Kuhn, faced with the unenviable task of re-creating Barbara Cook's signature ingenue role, rises to the occasion with the first breakout performance of her career. Stood up for a big date at a plush cafe in Act I, she offers a poignant reading of the crestfallen ballad "Dear Friend," then tops it with "Ice Cream," the incomparable Act II showstopper in which Amalia's stream of consciousness carries her out of one love affair and into another while spanning at least that many vocal registers and moods.
This musical is remarkably generous to all its performers: a half-dozen supporting characters are given show stoppers, too. Sally Mayes, with the blond curls, belting voice and lopsided grin of Joan Blondell, is a wonderful, protofeminist Ilona, the parfumerie's most unlucky woman in love. As her smarmy suitor, Howard McGillin is sleaze in flight, a narcissistic song-and-dance man nonpareil. Lee Wilkof and Brad Kane, as the parfumerie's most comic employees, are perfection, and Louis Zorich's Maraczek lacks only European refinement to be so. The evening's one elaborate production number, a wrong-step fandango for illicit lovers titled "A Romantic Atmosphere," receives a riotous performance from Jonathan Freeman as a pompous headwaiter and from Joey McKneely as the wayward busboy who ignites Rob Marshall's impressively dizzy choreography.
"She Loves Me" demands a refined romantic atmosphere to embrace these performances, and Mr. Ellis delivers it, re-creating (sometimes literally so) the bittersweet delicacy of Harold Prince's original staging. "She Loves Me" was the first major Broadway musical Mr. Prince directed, and along with "A Little Night Music" (which Mr. Ellis has also revived, at City Opera), it is one of only two in his prolific career to aspire to the elegantly witty Lubitsch touch. One glaring compromise aside -- a thin onstage band substitutes for the lush pit band of 1963 -- Mr. Ellis's "She Loves Me" still re-creates a vanished Old World in which Garbo might have been at home.
Tony Walton's two-story, turntable-driven set is a miniature Art Nouveau wonderland graced by this designer's characteristic painterly details. (Even a kiosk poster looks like a Kirchner canvas.) David Charles and Jane Greenwood's lavish costumes are a throwback to a 1930's M-G-M notion of the cosmopolitan, while Peter Kaczorowski's lighting often adds a wintry violet glow that suggests both an Eastern Europe twilight and the twilight of an era.
As much as the evening evokes the past, however, it does not leave the melancholy aftertaste of nostalgia. "She Loves Me" is far less dated than many of the more successful musicals of its vintage -- including the Tony winner of its season, "Hello, Dolly!" -- because its unsentimental romantic emotions never age. As Georg and Amalia gradually overcome their cynicism and melt with affection, we melt, too, in defiance of our own cynical 1993 instincts. "She Loves Me" turns out to be one love affair that, against Broadway's odds, has grown only deeper with time.
With new musicals rare and hits rarer, revivals seem to be the primary lot for Broadway's top musical talent -- and revivals, happily, are in vogue. So cheers to the Roundabout for finishing its second season on Broadway and, simultaneously, launching the 1993-94 season with a charming, first-class revival of Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's 30-year-old bonbon "She Loves Me."
This show, Bock and Harnick's tune-up for "Fiddler on the Roof" and Hal Prince's debut as both producer and director, was foiled by its split personality: It was an intimate chamber musical that wanted, occasionally, to be bigger.
That dichotomy is still evident in Scott Ellis' lively mounting, which fares better in the sentimental moments than in the silly production numbers.
But this production is a triumph of casting, featuring some of the musical theater's most accomplished -- and hungry -- young talents. Boyd Gaines and Judy Kuhn are perfectly matched as the shop manager and the new salesgirl who battle like Beatrice and Benedick by day and correspond like Christian and Roxane by night.
Too often boxed in by the roles he's played recently, Gaines here lets loose with great verve, and he's sensational in the title number, recalling Dick Van Dyke in his prime.
Kuhn is more impressive when singing than when not, but she proves herself equally comfortable with the show's memorable comic songs ("No More Candy" in the first act; "Vanilla Ice Cream" in the second) as with the ballads, "Will He Like Me?" and "Dear Friend."
Sally Mayes and Howard McGillin are equally endearing as the second couple, he the unctuous Lothario, she his thankless, ever-optimistic doormat of a girlfriend.
Lee Wilkoff and Brad Kane are fine as the shop's other employees; Louis Zorich exudes a kind of comic dignity as the cuckolded shop owner; and Jonathan Freeman is hilarious as the supercilious headwaiter at the Cafe Imperiale.
Tony Walton has solved tougher design challenges than those posed by the Roundabout's stage, notably at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. But his solutions here, at first promising -- the exterior of Maraczek's Parfumerie -- never quite deliver on that promise with the right Mittel-European eclat.
The various interiors, on a bi-level set with a spiral staircase and the orchestra creating an uncomely cavity on the upper level, are slightly tacky-looking. Rob Marshall's musical staging is equally inelegant, with most of the dances being crude rather than vivacious.
But the costumes and lighting are fine, David Loud's musical direction is suave, Frank Matosich's adaptation of the great Don Walker orchestrations are lithe, and Ellis' design for the movement of the show is always engaging.
This is the first major revival of "She Loves Me," based on a play by Miklos Laszlo (reborn in the musical as the delivery boy Arpad Laszlo) which was also the source of two movies, "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summertime."
Though "She Loves Me" failed on Broadway, it wasn't for lack of one of the most appealing scores of its era, the twilight of the book musical.
"She Loves Me" was one of the last major Broadway book musicals, and the Roundabout has made a thoroughly delightful case for the many pleasures it offers the ear, if not always the eye.