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August 15, 2017

Inner City Lives Again at Feinstein’s/54Below

Feinstein’s/54 Below is one of the best venues for revisiting lesser known or forgotten musicals, but its August 17th reunion concert of the short-lived 1971 musical Inner City has a greater goal. It’s an important step for a show trying to make a comeback. Director Michael Boyd and music director Rob Baumgartner, who realized their mutual love for the show in a Facebook group, joined forces in 2012 with a mission to get Inner City produced again.

Inner City: A Street Cantata opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on December 19, 1971. After receiving mostly bad reviews it closed on March 11, 1972, playing 97 performances. Blues and gospel singer Linda Hopkins won a Tony Award for her performance.

Many believe this musical to be the first all-female collaboration on Broadway. The lyrics were by poet and playwright Eve Merriam, whose 1969 book The Inner City of Mother Goose was the basis for the show. The book took Mother Goose rhymes and changed the lines to reflect the lives of inner city dwellers, returning to the Mother Goose roots of social commentary. The poems depicted street violence, slums, and corrupt politicians. Many thought the children’s book glamorized crime, and it became, according to Merriam’s son, the second most-challenged book in U.S. libraries in the early 1970s and, according to Merriam, “just about the most banned book in the country.” An Orange County, California, teacher was fired for simply loaning his copy to a student.

Most of Merriam’s work explored feminist themes, with other books such as After Nora Slammed the Door: the Women’s Unfinished Revolution (1964) and a children’s book called Mommies at Work (1960). She also wrote the first network (CBS) documentary on women’s rights (“We the Women”) and wrote another musical called The Club (1976) that had men, played by women, making derogatory marks about women in a private club.

For Inner City, Merriam teamed up with Helen Miller, a composer of popular 1960s songs such as Gene Pitney’s “It Hurts to Be in Love” and the Shirelles’ “Foolish Little Girl.” Neither wrote another score for Broadway. Another player of note is associate producer Harvey Milk, who began his career as the director’s assistant on his previous shows. After the show closed, Milk moved to San Francisco and began a political career.

Boyd was 15 when Inner City opened on Broadway, and he estimates seeing it five to 10 times during its run (student rush tickets were $3 back then, he reminded me). He found the show by following the work of the show’s director and conceiver Tom
O’Horgan, who had directed Hair, Jesus Christ Super Star, and Lenny (a play about Lenny Bruce), all of which were still running when Inner City opened. “If his name was attached to it, I was going,” Boyd said.

The poor reviews frustrated Boyd, and he recalled that many believed that there was a backlash against the director—he had four shows running on Broadway, all about the counter-culture. Boyd’s experience in that theater was not what he saw reflected in the reviews. “I saw the show a number of times in the days when obligatory standing ovations were not the norm,” he said. “And people were standing and cheering.

As time went on, Boyd knew the show needed another life.

Boyd had been trying to get the show revived since 1990, but had gotten nowhere. Even if producers were intrigued enough to look up information on the show, they saw that it had been a failure. There was nothing to draw them in. “It was like pulling teeth,” he said. “If you didn’t get a name in there, they weren’t interested.

But now the
Feinstein’s/54 Below reunion concert will introduce, or re-introduce, Inner City to New York audiences and features a cast of favorites such as Annie Golden and original cast member Allan Nicholls. The show will also have a full non-union production in October at Hamilton Stages in Rahway, New Jersey. “Ideally, you’d see it on stage,” Boyd said.

The Feinstein’s/54 Below concert will also be the first time since 1972 that audiences will hear the show in its original form. After the show closed on Broadway, the writers rewrote the show as more of a book musical and changed the title to Sweet Dreams, which became the only version licensed by Samuel French. Through an exhausting but exciting process, Boyd and Baumgartner put the original show back together.

Over the years, Boyd befriended the authors, now deceased, and their families. Merriam’s son Dee Michel sent Baumgartner boxes of manuscripts from his basement, which Baumgartner recalled came covered in mold. Baumgartner worked to reconstruct the manuscripts from the roughly 25% that had been left, as well as from an audio bootleg of the Broadway version. “The Broadway scores exist on my laptop and nowhere else,” he said. “I had to piece the show together.

Boyd has also helped with the process. Soon after the show closed he’d had conversations with the writers about their intent and why certain songs were cut, which has made the reconstructing the show easier. “What we have is very pure and very true to the original,” he said.

While the concert will introduce many theatergoers to the musical, today’s technology has already helped the show find a larger following. Back when Baumgartner discovered Inner City, he had to order the record, but now it’s on iTunes. And while many may be hearing the songs for the first time, there’s one song that may sound familiar: “Deep in the Night,” the song that helped Linda Hopkins win the Tony, was recorded by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, and Etta James.

In its short time on Broadway, the show touched many, both old and young. Boyd recalled one performance during the original run with a group of high school kids from Harlem. The students, all black, attended a post-show talkback, and at one point, one of the actors saw Merriam in the theater. He asked the students if they’d like to meet the woman who wrote the show. When the students saw a small, white woman walk out on stage, there was silence. Finally, Boyd recalled, a student asked, “Lady, did you really write this show?” When Merriam confirmed that she did, the student continued with, “All I have to say to you is when the revolution comes we’ll take care of you.” The students cheered.

Like those students, Boyd strongly identified with the show, as he did with other
O’Horgan shows “There were people who looked like me,” he said of his first time seeing Hair. “I felt like I could be cast.

The show is ready for audiences to discover it anew. Though Baumgartner never saw the original production, he loves it as though he had been there on opening night. “I couldn’t believe people were riffing so hard in a Broadway musical,” Baumgartner said of his first listen. “I imagine people sitting there with their mouths open.

Inner City The Musical Reunion Concert plays Feinstein’s/54 Below on August 17th at 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.

Posted at 1:25 PM

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