By Ron Fassler
In 1970, about a week before Christmas (and at the height of my teenage theatre-going years), I had the pleasure as a thirteen-year-old of attending a preview performance of the musical The Me Nobody Knows at the now demolished Helen Hayes Theatre. Having premiered Off-Broadway seven months earlier, it opened on Broadway December 18th to enthusiastic reviews, and enjoyed a healthy 11-month run (making it the 3rd longest running musical that season). Though nominated for five Tony Awards, The Me Nobody Knows never became a staple of the regional theatre circuit. It’s a hard musical to categorize, and it had a very unusual genesis. But make no mistake: this was a highly entertaining, thought-provoking and challenging show, especially for audiences at a time when the Vietnam War was raging and America’s inner cities were facing tremendous difficulties.
Based on the collected writings of nearly 200 New York City students, aged 7 through 18, schoolteacher Stephen M. Joseph took on the task of editing hundreds of stories and poems, which resulted in The Me Nobody Knows being published as a book in 1969. Composer Gary William Friedman and lyricist Will Holt, along with the show’s original director Robert H. Livingston (with an assist from additional lyricist Herb Schapiro), authored the fully sung-thru revue. Perhaps its lack of a cohesive storyline is what has kept it from becoming better known over these past forty-eight years, even though there have been many international productions in cities as diverse cities as Tel Aviv, London, Paris and Hamburg. Sadly, what was proven at last night’s performance, is that the show remains as current as it was in 1970. The problems of the inner city are still with us, unsolved and ever growing.
Under Laura Pietropinto’s direction of this one-night only concert, the sixty-minutes of non-stop music made for entertainment of the first order. It might have been nice to have set the show up with a little theatre history (the sort I’m providing in this review), but even without that, the words and music still worked their magic. And the cast reflected exactly as it should the voices of the original writers of the stories and poems, since the age range on stage consisted of pre-teen to early twenty-somethings. The entire ensemble was strong, but particular notice should be paid to Ashly De La rosa, Analise Scarpaci and Jelani Remy, who were standouts. In addition to musical director Deniz Cordell’s fine coordination of the instrumentals and his expert piano playing, the cello, bass and drums of Clay Ruede, Peter Brendler and Jeff Davis (respectively) were all top notch.
Gary William Friedman, the production’s sole surviving creative member, was in attendance last night, applauding and smiling and I am sure, thrilled to hear his musical again. At the end of the evening, I was able to tell him that I saw the show in its original production, which made him positively beam. I mentioned how I used to listen to the cast album in my room over and over again, which was the truth. And happily, I was once again able to hear it in its entirety at Feinstein’s/54 Below, invigorated by new voices, bringing an added depth to an old and rich score.
The Me Nobody Knows at Feinstein’s/54 Below.com
254 West 54 Street (Cellar) NYC
October 22, 2018 (two performances at 7:00 and 9:30 p.m.)