Lyric Theatre steps away from mainstream

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Lyric Theatre steps away from mainstream

HOW TO GO

What: “Closer Than Ever”

Where: Middletown Lyric Theatre, 1530 Central Ave., Middletown

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 14-15, 21-22

Cost: $15

More info: (513) 425-7140 or www.middletownlyric.org

When asked, Charley Shafor, managing director of the Middletown Lyric Theatre, stops short of saying the impending opening of the relatively obscure musical revue “Closer Than Ever” is a rebuke to the ubiquitous presence of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“I wouldn’t put it that harshly,” he said with a slight laugh. “I was drawn to this revue because it has music that many people haven’t heard. There are songs that were cut from other shows.”

“Closer Than Ever” was written by the theatrical team of lyricist/director Richard Maltby Jr. and songwriter/composer David Shire. Shafor said that Maltby and Shire aren’t particularly well known unless you’re a theater aficionado or went to a lot of Broadway shows in the 1970s. The unifying theme of “Closer Than Ever” is life, love and relationships.

“It’s like an operetta. There’s a through line,” Shafor said. “There are songs about identity issues, facing your fears, closing the door on old loves and opening the door for new ones.”

Maltby Jr. is responsible for the only two musical revues to ever win the Tony Award for Best Musical, 1978’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and 1999’s “Fosse.”

“People (typically) don’t like (musical revues),” Shafor said. “They’re often just regurgitations from shows they’ve already seen. Rodgers and Hammerstein are still Rodgers and Hammerstein no matter how you slice it, and people can’t see past that fact.”

“Closer Than Ever” distinguished itself from the herd not only because it included shows cut from previous productions but also because it boasted several all-new numbers. After achieving success with smaller versions of the show in the 1980s, producers encouraged Maltby and Shire to add more songs and expand the production to two acts. The final song list is 25.

“It was huge when it debuted in the 1990s,” Shafor said. “And when off-Broadway brought it back a few years ago, it was big hit again.”

One of the added songs included “Another Wedding Song,” written by Shire and his wife, Didi Conn (best known for playing Frenchy in “Grease”).

“It’s about two people getting married, but it’s not the first time they’ve gotten married,” Shafor said. “The song goes on with (mutual) reassurances that they’ll do better the second time.”

One highlight among the cut songs is “The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole,” which was originally part of the 1983 Maltby/Shire musical “Baby.”

“That song is about a female scientist who works with animals but can’t come to terms with (human) relationships,” Shafor said. “She starts to wonder that since certain animals can inseminate themselves, she may not need a male at all.”

The Lyric Theatre’s decision to pursue more obscure productions such as “Closer Than Ever,” Shafor said, was driven as much by economics as art.

“This is our 34th year, and for most of that time we did do run-of-the-mill community theater productions,” he said. “But the market is saturated. Most people are surprised to learn how many theaters are out there. So we decided we had to do something different. So we did ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and Neil LaBute’s ‘Fat Pig,’ and those all sold out for us. We’ve found a niche for theatergoers who don’t want to spend big-ticket money on big shows.”

“Closer than Ever” may promise to be lighter than those shows, but it will bear its own local experimentations and interpretations.

“There’s a song called ‘I’ve Been Here Before,’ ” Shafor said. “It’s about two women who are talking about their failed relationships. One of the twists we did was to have them start as opposites and come together in the end, suggesting the female bond can bring them together more than any relationship with a male. (The show) is all about that no matter what we do, or what we go through, we’ll all be closer together because of love.”

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