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re: Confidence Man?

Posted by:
rockfenris2005 09:18 am UTC 04/29/21
In reply to: Confidence Man? - Evan 07:46 am UTC 04/29/21

Here are Ray's liner notes for the 2003 album:

I have always been a sucker for irony. That element, as much as any other, was wat attracted me to Herman Melville’s novel, “The Confidence Man,” as distinctive source material for a musical. So, I can’t help but be struck by the irony of today’s date, April 1, 2003, as I begin to write these notes. “The Confidence Man” takes place on April 1, 1861.

The history of “The Confidence Man” is laden with irony. In 1973, Joe Papp’s office called me to ask if I would meet with an exciting young composer who was in production with an original musical at The Public Theatre. The composer was Jim Steinman, the musical was “More Than You Deserve,” and the call was a request for my services as lyricist—to contribute new lyrics and rewrite some of those in the existing score. The meeting never materialized. But the troubled show did, and on seeing it, I immediately recognized what the excitement regarding Steinman was about.

As the result of another telephone call several months later, Jim and I met for the first time via an appointment at the Robert Stigwood Office. I don’t remember who arranged it, but recall that Clive Davis was one who encouraged it.

That first day, Jim and I went to a grant piano outside Peter Brown’s office and wrote a song we were both very happy with: “Nocturnally Yours.” Jim loved the title of the song and the novelty of having a lyricist. We didn’t anticipate the song becoming a part of any score (much less this one). But we agreed that a musical was our next step.

It was undoubtedly the enduring influence of the of the first musical I ever saw, a revival of “Showboat,” that led to my proposing that we collaborate on Melville’s “The Confidence Man,” for which I would write the libretto as well as the lyrics. Like Melville’s opus, the Kern-Hammerstein classic was set on a Mississippi riverboat.

The work developed quickly. We discovered that our leading man, William Atherton, had a beautiful tenor voice he’d never had occasion to use, so we tailored the soaring notes of “Milady” to him. Our leading lady was radiant Andrea Marcovicci and our director was Leon Russom, an actor would have been brilliant at the helm. All three had worked with Joe Papp in the past, as had Steinman. And wasn’t Joe inadvertently responsible for this new collaboration? Before we had even finished the score, we presented it to him.

Joe said he loved it and wanted to do it right away. He summoned Bernie Gersten to set a production date. I remember Bernie asking him, “Are you sure?” Joe was sure. We weren’t about to tell him how much work we still had to do. Bernie, I believe, wisely suspected it.

Jim and I worked even faster, interrupted only by the initial casting sessions. The Public Theatre was also in casting for a much-publicized performance of “Julius Caesar.” When they couldn’t complete their targeted triumvirate of “hot” young actors for Brutus, Antony and Cassius, they “raided” us for Billy Atherton. When Leon and I confronted Joe about it, he merely said, “You lost your leading man; get another one.” Joe wasn't a man you could reason with. Every time we thought we had acquired another leading man—the list grew lengthy—Joe stripped him away from us, justifying it only by contending that he needed him for another production. Finally, when no viable candidates remained, he said, “Well, you have no leading man. I'm canceling production.” Joe could be chummy or churlish, Cap’n Andy or Captain Ahab.

I sent script and score to Len Cariou, who was in residence at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Len not only wanted to star in it, but also came to see me, patting the script as he pronounced it the best musical he’d seen since “Sweeney Todd.” To my everlasting regret, we were never able to reconcile a production with his busy schedule.

Howard Da Silva became interested in directing it. Maintaining that we should go to The Public Theatre first, he called Joe from my apartment. He hung up the phone uttering, in that inimitable deep, resonate voice of his, “He’s a naughty boy … he’s a very naughty boy, Joe Papp is.” Joe had told him he would do it if Howard would bring him a star. Joe Papp buying into the star system—Howard found that beyond reprehension.

I took it to Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Lynne has always stood for what’s good for theatre; she and Barry Grove opted to do it. These were the days that MTC was on East 73rd Street and every available space was pressed into creative service. “The Confidence Man” was assigned to the Cabaret. We opened a capsule version of the show on April 6, 1976, for a one-month run. How’s this for irony?: no one from our production ever attained fame commensurate with our favourite waitress, whose name, I subsequently learned, was Mary Steenburgen.

Steinman called me to work on several additional productions he was sporadically offered. Nothing came of any of them. Eventually, our divering work habits and career aspirations ended the collaboration. Steinman wrote all night and slept all day; I wrote all day and knocked off for the evening, more often than not bound for the theater. But for Jim occasionally rousing himself in daylight for an appointment at my apartment with a producer or a working session with me, we generally conferred by telephone in the middle of the night. It was during one of those calls that he poured out his frustration to me—he had just come from a Bruce Springsteen concert and he had “seen the light”; he wasn’t doing what he wanted to be doing. Enter Meat Loaf, into my apartment and into Jim’s incipient pop music career. And there went Jim, out of mine. Jim wanted to be the next Bruce Springsteen. I wanted to be the next Oscar Hammerstein. Neither of us got our wish.

With Meat Loaf’s album, “Bat Out of Hell,” and the hits that followed, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” Steinman became a major pop songwriter and record producer. With the lyrics for the Broadway production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” and several off-Broadway revues behind me, I wrote for newspapers and magazines, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, “Preserving the Past to Ensure the Future.”

In 1986, “The Confidence Man” was given a full production, billed as a “world premiere,” at New York’s Queen’s College. Staged beautifully by director Susan Einhorn, the production, limited only by a student orchestra that struggled with Steve Margoshes’ elaborate orchestrations and by a talented-but-uneven student cast, brought Steinman and me back together, prompting and inspiring us to write several new songs for it.

During a performance, Steinman turned to me to declare that “Milady” was a hit song and he was going to seek a major recording of it. He sent it to Clive Davis, who chose it for Barry Manilow’s next “big” record—and chose Jim to produce it. In the studio, the tracks for our elegant thirty-two bar love song ballooned into a nine-minute production. (Jim’s assistant began referring to it as “Steinman’s Ninth.” Jim told me he thought “Milady” was the most beautiful song he’d ever written. Clive called me to say he thought it was the next “Moon River” and that someday they’d be singing it at weddings everywhere. Barry briefly sang it in his act, but objecting, quite reasonably, to the leviathan production it had become, never recorded it, and I’ve yet to hear it at a wedding.

Over the years, Bruce Yeko would periodically remind me that he’d always wanted to record the score. I never saw the point in it until, finally, he gave me a good reason to say yes: he offered to donate all profits to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Given such a worthy cause, I suggested that rather than to cast each role, we “cast” the songs, inviting many of the most talented people in the theatre and cabaret to participate. The results do better than spark—they sing—for themselves. Wishing to perserve the original character of the full production, we adapted Steve Margoshes’ original orchestrations.

My thanks to Bruce, to Jeffrey Olmsted, a producer who merited everyone’s utmost confidence, and to all the extraordinary performers who extended themselves for the making of this CD of “The Confidence Man.”

> Reminiscing about Jim’s body of work brought me to the
> Confidence Man. My question, how did Jim come to work on
> this little seen project? What’s the origin story? What’s
> your opinion on the songs?

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