NEW YORK — Don't be fooled by how mild-mannered Ben West seems. He's the musical theater world's Sherlock Holmes and Victor Frankenstein rolled into one.
As artistic director of the nonprofit UnsungMusicalsCo. Inc., West scours libraries, newspaper archives and databases for overlooked and undervalued musicals. Then he breathes life into them.
"The intention is to return them to the canon," he says as he puts the finishing touches on the latest of his "lost" shows — "Bless You All!" a 1950 revue with songs by Harold Rome and sketches by Arnold Auerbach.
West, who also directs, has restructured the show, trimmed a few numbers, restored a sketch and streamlined the story. "I always try to stay true to the original author's intent," he says from the company's temporary home at the Connelly Theatre.
Now celebrating its fifth year, UnsungMusicalsCo. has produced 13 shows that range from developmental readings to fully staged off-Broadway productions, including "The Fig Leaves Are Falling" and "Make Mine Manhattan."
West, who grew up in Miami but visited New York regularly to see shows while his mom came for business, is a walking encyclopedia of the golden age of musical theater, roughly 1931-1971.
He and his three-person staff operate on a shoestring budget, and West supplements his income as an administrative assistant. ("Bless You All!" will cost about $40,000.)
He finds potential works in various places, getting a clue from an old newspaper review or from archival collections. He found a never-produced Arnold Horwitt musical in the copyright office, so obscure that even the lyricist's children were unaware it existed.
He stumbled across the manuscript for the concert "Gatsby" at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts in the papers of its lyricist, Carolyn Leigh, while looking for another show.
He tries to make sense of the manuscripts' often chicken-scratch longhand and, if the work is unfinished, he'll stitch in new music or characters. "The material is there," he says. "It's just finding it and making it usable."
West also seeks out permission to mount his revivals from the creators' heirs, many of whom are thrilled that shows never produced or forgotten from 60 years ago will be seen and heard.
He sat down with The Associated Press to explain the process.
AP: How do you pick shows to revive?
West: The criteria that I look for is obscure but artistically sound. Which is to say, not flops. For example, "Make My Manhattan," which was our first full production, was a huge hit in 1948. But its authors never became household names. But the show ran almost a year and went on tour with Bert Lahr.
AP: Why did it — and other shows — disappear?
West: I think there are certain criteria that cause shows to be forgotten, mainly the style. The traditional revue, for example, is gone. And also if an author has not become a household name, I think they tend not to be investigated.
AP: Your new one — "Bless You All!" — apparently got good reviews. What happened?
West: I think it was actually behind its time. It was this homage — they didn't bill it as an homage, of course — to a 1930s revue in 1950, when variety shows are on the air and the revue is not popular. And yet it got good reviews but it just did not run.
AP: How have shows changed since the golden years?
West: It seems like a heavy emphasis is now being put on the concept and the drive to be original and new, in terms of the architecture of the show, with the story taking a back seat to that.
AP: Most of these old shows were never recorded. Would that have helped you?
West: If I did have the opportunity to hear an original, I don't think I'd pass it up. But, at the same time, I'm not digging through cabinets to find it. I try to come to it with fresh eyes. I sort of like not knowing what it was because then we get to create it new.
AP: What is the ultimate goal of UnsungMusicalsCo.?
West: I would love the shows to live on in whatever form that may be. I may have the touch of an idealist. I'm not sure that all of the stuff we're doing I would love to see in a Broadway house. An off-Broadway house would be fabulous or for regionals to do it. Essentially I want the shows to live on.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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