Sunday, February 7, 2021

464. SEESAW. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975.

Ken Howard, Michelle Lee.
SEESAW [Musical/Romance] B/D/CH: Michael Bennett; C0-CH: Grover Dale; M: Cy Coleman; LY: Dorothy Fields; SC: William Gibson’s play, Two for the Seesaw; S: Robin Wagner; C: Ann Roth; L: Jules Fisher; P: Joseph Kipness and Lawrence Kasha; James Nederlander, George M. Steinbrenner III, and Lorin E. Price; T: Uris Theatre; 3/18/73-12/8/73 (296)

Michelle Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, John Gavin, Cecilia Norfleet, and company.

Seesaw was an enjoyable, far from remarkable, musical based on a popular two-character play of 1962 that had starred Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft, each of whom was considered ideal for their roles. It concerns a love affair between a Jewish girl from the Bronx, Gittel Mosca (Michelle Lee), and a square, WASP lawyer from Nebraska, Jerry Ryan (Ken Howard; replaced by John Gavin).

Judy Gibson, Michon Peacock, Baayork Lee, Anita Morris.

The musical remake was written, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, a couple of years before he became Broadway’s hottest creative commodity with A Chorus Line. Bennett’s libretto opened up the story considerably to allow for new characters and exterior scenes. The original had shown only Jerry’s apartment on one side of the stage and Gittel’s on the other. A new scene, aimed at bringing the life of New York City into the show more dynamically, was set at a mobile theatre’s Spanish-language street production of Hamlet.

Tommy Tune.

Seesaw was rather faithful to William Gibson’s script in its depiction of the romance between the lovable, ulcerous, pathetic wait Gittel, who wants to be a dancer, but is mired in her life as a seamstress, and Jerry, the married man who desires her, but can’t pull free of his Omaha wife, to whom he eventually returns.

Michelle Lee, John Gavin

Some, like Clive Barnes, liked much of Seesaw, but had strong reservations as well. Barnes appreciated the book (“literate and interesting”), was less well-disposed toward the “tuneful but not especially memorable” music by the distinguished Cy Coleman, and felt likewise about the equally distinguished Dorothy Fields’s lyrics, which he described as “deft enough but [they] seem to have more dexterity than lyricism.” Brendan Gill was irked by the way the book “shuttled” the spectator back and forth between the two principals,” and John Simon felt the broadened scope diluted the impact of Gibson’s cozy world. “Worse: the additional characters and situations are trivially observed and glibly slapped on. . . . [T]he book remains an untimely hodgepodge.” Yet Walter Kerr called Seesaw “a love of a show that knows just when to keep the pressure low and when to open up.” He asserted that "the evening’s end now seems more necessary and more moving than it did in the original play.”

Greater homogeneity of opinion greeted Robin Wagner’s splendid scene designs and Sheppard Kerman’s cityscape projections. Also admired was the effective, abundant, and inventive Bennett choreography (developed with several assistants and co-choreographer Grover Dale); the warmth and charm of Michelle Lee’s Gittel; and the stolid, supportive Jerry of Ken Howard. However, what may have been the show’s principal contribution to Broadway was an attractive, young 6’6” dancer from Texas named Tommy Tune. Tune’s performance as David, a gay choreographer, practically stole the show during his dance routines. “Tommy Tune, as long on talent as on legs, is an exquisitely animated beanpole as well as a gracefully sinuous vine,” gushed Simon.

Cast members of subsequent note included Giancarlo Esposito, Michon Peacock, Anita Morris, Cecilia Norfleet, Baayork Lee,

Giancarlo Esposito, Ken Howard, Michelle Lee.

The consensus was tersely expressed by Martin Gottfried: “The show isn’t great, but it works.” While it didn’t work well enough to turn a profit before closing, it did compile an impressive list of awards and nominations. The show itself was nominated for a Best Musical Tony, and Bennet was Tony-nominated for his book, direction, and choreography. Coleman and Fields were Tony-nominated for their score, while another Tony nomination went to Lee for Best Actress, Musical. Only Tune, though, actually won a Tony, for Best Supporting Actor, Musical. Lee won an award from the Outer Critics Circle, and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. And Robin Wagner garnered a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award.