Friday, July 6, 2018

Celebrating the Divine Liliane Montevecchi

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. "Gotta Getaway, 1984" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1984. 
Celebrating the Divine Liliane Montevecchi. Also — My Early Theater-Going and my (Hopefully!) Future Theater-Going.   
by Denis Ferrara

“New York has neon, Berlin has bars, But ah! Paree!
Shanghai has silk and Madrid guitars.
But ah! Paree! In Cairo you find bizarre bazaars.
In London ‘pip! pip!’ you sip tea.
But when it comes to love, None of the above Compares, compris?

“So if it's making love
That you're thinking of,
Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah! Paree!”
Kathie Dalton and Fifi D'Orsay in the original Broadway production of Follies, 1971.
IT WAS Fifi D’Orsay whom I first heard and saw perform “Ah, Paris,” in the original production of “Follies” back in 1971. For reasons of nostalgia and because it was such a deliciously delivered little ditty, I’ll most always think of Fifi when I hear the song.  But many years later I took in the exquisite Paper Mill Playhouse revival of the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical, and watched the legendary Liliane Montevecchi do her stuff with “Ah, Paris.” She was magnificent, as was everybody connected with that production, which included Ann Miller, Laurence Guittard, Donna McKechnie, Tony Roberts, Kaye Ballard and Phyllis Newman.  Liliane gave Fifi a run for her money, and in my mind and heart, I jump happily between the two versions.
Stephanie Cotsirilos and Liliane Montevecchi  in n “Nine." Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts
By that time I’d already seen Montevecchi in “Nine” for which she won a Tony, and in “Grand Hotel,” Tony-nominated in the “Garbo role” of the lonely ballerina. (Theater and movie mavens will recall that Cyd Charisse, who had starred in the MGM movie “Silk Stockings” based on the 1932 film of “Grand Hotel” took over for Liliane, to delirious curiosity.)

Montevecchi was a dazzling, inexhaustible force of nature. She simply never stopped working.  I saw her for the last time in 2015 at a “Grand Hotel” anniversary concert at 54 Below (now Feinstein’s/54 Below). 
If time was not quite standing still, it appeared to be moving with an admirable lack of wear and tear. The years seemed for her a gently trickling country stream. (Last July she performed at a Carnegie Hall celebration of Dean Martin!)

Before Broadway there had been childhood training as a ballerina, small roles in films (“The Glass Slipper,” “Daddy Long Legs,” “Meet Me in Las Vegas” and even one of Elvis Presley’s better early offerings, “King Creole.”) But Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her, and so she sashayed her saucy lusciousness to the Folies Bergere for nearly a decade.  As with so many — Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Alexis Smith — it took Broadway to truly appreciate Liliane Montevecchi. 
Liliane in her early Hollywood years.
Liliane with her chic papa and mama.
Montevecchi died on June 29th, at 85, and likely planning to go on working.  I never really met her or spoke to her in any way more significant than gushing my admiration, which she accepted charmingly.

Given her age and accomplishments, not to mention a battle with cancer that she — to my knowledge — did not address — her passing is not exactly tragic, but more a sense that there is less glitter, less dazzle, less delectable flamboyance in our world — will there ever be a woman to work a 30-foot feather boa quite like she did in “Nine?”   I think not.  Au revoir, mon cheri — that great Folies show in the sky awaits. In fact, I’m sure the act is already in progress.
Liliane and Laura Kenyon in "Nine."  (Photo: Peter Cunningham)
MONTEVECCHI’S final journey has put me in a nostalgic mood, thinking on some of my earliest theater-going, and the friends who allowed me to experience those valuable things, back when I had no entrée and no money.

Liliane Montevecchi in a scene from "Nine." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1982. 
Bill Goulding, who took me to see Angela Lansbury’s closing night in “Gypsy” in 1973. (My very first closing night — flowers tossed onstage, people tossed in the aisles, paparazzi batting to get the best shot of Angela’s tears.)  Richard Rosenhoch who treated me to Anne Baxter, replacing Lauren Bacall in “Applause” (Some of you surely recall the fun of Baxter’s casting — she, the scheming young actress in the 1950 movie “All About Eve” opposite “aging” stage star Margo ChanningBette Davis.  Now, she was a singing/dancing version of Margo 21 years later!)

And a variety of gentlemen — let’s call them all “John” — with whom I took in, among other shows, “Dames at Sea,” “Mack and Mable” and “No, No, Nanette.” (At “Nanette” I’ll never forget the tumultuous audience reaction when Ruby Keeler appeared at the top of a stairway, and it was clear that the one-time movie darling of “42nd Street” was about to go into a tap-dance finale, “Take a Little One-Step.”  Keeler was no more gifted or graceful than she’d been as a youngster, but her game, cheerful efforts whipped us into a hysterical frenzy. My companion, “John” was irritable about my “making a spectacle.” I reminded him that I was actually not his “nephew” and we could skip dinner and dessert.)

Later, working with Liz Smith, I saw more theater than I can possibly recall without going through several bookshelves jammed and groaning with Playbills. (More fire hazards masquerading as valuable memorabilia.)

But those early days, before I could have imagined I’d be obliged to offer an opinion on what I saw, how I felt, and don’t forget to mention the people who did the lighting — well, they were the sweetest times.
Liliane Montevecchi and David Carroll in a scene from the Broadway production of the musical "Grand Hotel."  Martha Swope/The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1989.
AND NOW for the future!  Thrilled to learn that Cole Porter’s masterpiece “Kiss Me, Kate” returns to Broadway next year, starring the great Kelli O’Hara (“The King and I,” “The Pajama Game,” “The Light In The Piazza,” and all that high-toned Metropolitan opera stuff) and Will Chase — he’s done lots of stage, but is perhaps best known to TV fans as a country singer during four seasons of the series “Nashville.”  Directed by eight-time Tony-nominee Scott Ellis, previews begin in February. There are still pleasures to be found and anticipated in this old world!  Ah, to hear “Where is the Life that Late I Led” and “Always True to You In My Fashion” once again.
Finally, the delicious concept of “The Devil Wears Prada” as a musical continues apace with composer Shaina Taub joining Elton John and Paul Rudnick as they put together the tale of a girl with no fashion sense, working for a top fashion magazine, alternately tormented and tempted by her sadistic boss, Miranda Priestly.  Can anything be better — or simply as good as — the film, with Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci?  We shall see. The musical is still in its “development” stage.

All I want is for Elton to concoct some fabulous musical version of Miranda’s epic “cerulean blue” monologue. 
Certainly I expect songs to correspond with some of the movies more famous lines:  “Everybody wants this.  Everybody wants to be us”…”Please bore someone else with your questions”…”Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand this morning”…”By all means move at a glacial pace—you know how that thrills me”…”I thought, take a chance, hire the smart, fat girl”…

And of course, “You sold your soul to the Devil when you put on your first pair of Jimmy Choos!”
Contact Denis here.