Filichia Features: BIRDS OF PARADISE Blooms Again

Filichia Features: BIRDS OF PARADISE Blooms Again

By Peter Filichia on March 07, 2019

Has there ever been a more apt show for community theater than Birds of Paradise?

It does, after all, concern community theater.

If you're in New York on Monday, March 18, see a concert version at Feinstein's/54 Below. If not, there's an original cast album from the 1987 off-Broadway production and an MTI script to peruse.

Do you perform in a church? If so, you'll be at home with Birds of Paradise, for that's where the Harbor Island Players mount their shows, too. You'll recognize the musical's eight characters, because you've known them and worked with them for years.

Marjorie's the grande dame who gets all the leads. Dave's the high school music teacher who's now composed A Diva by December that the group will stage.

Homer, Marjorie's son, wrote a musical, too -- of Chekhov's The Seagull - but that was rejected. The decision has disappointed Julia, who would have been its star, and has infuriated Hope, who thinks Dave's show is trite and Homer's isn't.

Stella is the troupe's secretary, so her mechanic husband Andy often helps with sets. But Andy's brother is Lawrence Wood, once a Harbor Island leading man who's made it to Broadway. Not a star, mind you, but someone who gets the occasional role.

Even that modest success makes him the envy of all. Marjorie remembers their Hedda Gabler in high school: "The play was Norwegian; the kiss was French."

Lawrence is coming for a visit, so the troupe will show him Dave's musical. Alas, Lawrence brands it as all-too-similar to My Fair Lady while seeing Homer's take on Chekhov as startlingly original.

Because Lawrence has neither irons in the fire nor any fire sparking his career, he agrees to stay and direct Sea Gull. That's good news for Julia, but bad news for Stella, who has hundreds of A Diva by December posters already printed.

(Mercifully, co-librettists Winnie Holzman and David Evans did not add an exclamation point to Sea Gull. That cliché about musicals is not particularly accurate. Of the 883 Broadway musicals since Oklahoma! only 42 have sported exclamation points - meaning fewer than 5%.)

The honeymoon between Homer and Lawrence is soon over thanks to the director's cuts and changes. Along the way, though, Lawrence gets the cast to see things in themselves that they've never noticed. Lawrence is right, too, when he gives his take on community theater: "how precious this is, what you've got here in this place with these people."

Yes. Irving Berlin wrote about "t he headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops" while noting "Still, you wouldn't change it for a sack of gold."

(And you wouldn't, would you?)

Holzman and Evans are enjoying this revisit to what they wrote a third-of-a-century ago. "Winnie and I were in the first class of the NYU Musical Theater Graduate Writing Program," says Evans, who also composed the show's music. There they caught the eye of Arthur Laurents.

"Arthur became our mentor," says Evans, "and we continued to run our stuff by him as we wrote even after the program was over."

Laurents had recently directed La Cage aux Folles -- so you can imagine how thrilled the writers were when he chose their show as his next directorial project.

"It was a magical time," says Holzman. "The concert is bringing back so many memories and some of that magic. It's like rediscovering an old friend, getting the chance to spend some time with one's younger self... to return to something that you wrote long ago and have new insights about it, new ideas. Songwriting is something I really love, but it's not something I'm known for."

No - what Holzman is really known for is writing the book to Wicked.

And that's a good way to advertise your production of Birds of Paradise: "From the author of Wicked."

Here's predicting that concert attendees will swoon when hearing "Imagining You," one of the most beautiful songs that off-Broadway has ever heard. Even if you don't know Birds of Paradise from Hotel Paradiso, the song may sound familiar. Todd Graff, the musical's original Homer, when writing and directing his 2003 film Camp, decided to have it played throughout the movie.

Many Birds of Paradise original cast members have done well for themselves. Barbara Walsh (Stella) later received a Tony nomination; Mary Beth Peil (Marjorie) and Crista Moore (Julia) now have two; Donna Murphy (Hope) has actually won two Tonys and J.K. Simmons (Andy) has captured an Oscar.

And they all started in community theater …

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