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August 14, 2019

Rediscovering the Musical, Johnny Manhattan


 A word of introduction: I’m Dan Goggin and many of you know me as the Nunsense guy. But long before Nunsense, I wrote the music for a show called Johnny Manhattan. It was recently rediscovered by my friend Lyle Saunders, and it was an amazing success. This is Lyle’s story of how he first got involved in the show and ended up a producer of Johnny Manhattan.

A vanished world of showgirls and society dames. A Manhattan nightclub, circa 1958, alongside the likes of the El Morocco and the Copacabana was Johnny Manhattan’s. The club’s owner, a world-­‐weary Johnny Manhattan, who’s always burned the candle at both ends, now presides over a boozy evening when he’s called all his “regulars” together — to mix and mingle, yes, but also because he’s got something important to tell them. A bunch of characters that include Johnny’s aging actress “friend” Rita, a playwright Edward facing the decline of his career, the house’s former torch-­‐song singer Rosie, who has quite a long history with Johnny, and a  married couple, David and Dorothy Darling, whose marriage is on the rocks as David’s eye continues to rove. And the chorus girls and the gigolo and the other assorted denizens of New York after dark…

Sounds like more than enough to entice anyone to spend some time at Johnny Manhattan’s, right? But what first drew me to the musical was meeting Bob — Robert, actually — Lorick, the book writer and lyricist behind the show. See, in another lifetime, I was the U.S. creative director for Chanel, the French fashion and fragrance house. And Bob, a jack‐of‐all-‐trades, was also a much sought‐after voiceover artist and, for more than ten years, was the mellifluous voice in Chanel commercials.  

When I first met Bob, though, I asked him what he did, and he said he was a lyricist. As we got to know each other, I asked him to play me a typical song of his. He had written Johnny Manhattan with Dan Goggin a couple of years before and he played “Quiet, Intimate Little Restaurants”. It’s a solo sung by a woman having an illicit affair with a married man. Very proper, Upper East Side people, even though that wasn’t Bob’s background. It’s very, very funny of course, but with wonderful craftsmanship in terms of word choices and rhyming patterns, in the spirit of Cole Porter. And every now and then, he intentionally — and humorously — butchers the language.  

We can’t go on meeting like this.
Crammed in nooks, watching calories.
Knowing looks in East Side galleries.
Throwing hooks in bowling alleries.

Another number is called “Mr. Producer”. It’s about a showgirl in the Johnny Manhattan lineup. In an all‐singing and dancing showstopper, she walks you through the story of her life, first as a doe-­‐eyed beginner:

Mister Producer, how do you do sir? Pleased to meet you, sir, today.
Fresh from the closet here’s my composite And here’s my re-­‐su-­‐me.

 Eventually, she vamps to full bump-­‐and-­‐grind music and declaims in a baby­‐voiced vocal:

Mister Producer, yeah, how do you do sir? I’ve got something for you, sir, that’s hot
I’m more than a cut-­‐up, so please sit down and shut up And let me show you what
I’ve got.

Bob had the ability in his lyrics to tell you so much in terms of the advancement of the story. When Bob wrote a song, it had a very clear purpose that was all we needed to be told, like aging actress Rita ruminating over the parade of men in her life:

He sang me a song. Sang it just for me. He sang it out strong
Though he sang it off key.

There are twenty wonderful songs in the show. And Danny’s so resourceful at creating melodies. I sat in with Bob and Danny later when they worked on projects together and the dynamic between the two of them was just fascinating. Bob was very intricate in his craft, his wordsmanship, and Danny was very spontaneous in responding to that same craftsmanship. They would both sit at the piano and come up with the score. I witnessed one song that they wrote in a little over ten minutes and it pretty much stayed exactly the way they wrote it in those ten minutes!

I never saw the original Johnny showcase. I had read the script and found some of the music, recorded with a Walkman at a club in the Village. All you hear on the cassette are cigarette lighters, ice cubes and clinking glasses. When Bob died in 2016, he left me his intellectual property. And all I had for Johnny was the memory of those songs and a tattered script with lyrics. The music had never been published. 

So, I got in touch with Danny. We actually had been friends in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and I used to stay at his house on Fire Island. We cranked up our old friendship and together read the script again. At the same time, a friend of Danny’s who had been in the original showcase, Jana Robbins, called him up and said, “Whatever happened to Johnny?” She had stumbled on it again — and the timing seemed like more than a coincidence. Danny called me and said, “Let’s do this show.” I said, “Well, maybe we should do a reading.” And Danny persisted. “We’re not gonna live long enough to do a reading, if we’re gonna do it, let’s just do it! I’ll call somebody…”

Amazingly, a couple months later, in association with me as producer, the curtain went up on a production at the Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, Michigan. Johnny finally made its world premiere in September 2017 and garnered enthusiastic reviews — more than 40 years after it debuted as a showcase in 1975. Directed and choreographed by Mark Martino, the musical with book and lyrics by Bob (later known for The Tap Dance Kid) and music by Danny (Nunsense, of course!) featured a full 14­‐person cast and wonderfully designed sets and costumes. And Jana, who had played ingenue Maxie all those years ago in the original production, returned to the musical in the heartrending role of Rita. 

Hope you’ll fall in love with Johnny as much as I did.

To purchase your copy of Johnny Manhattan, click here. For performance rights, click here.