“Oh, it was a flop! This was a flop. I’ll say it. I can say it,” Ann Harada tells Playbill while we’re dancing around not calling Dear World a flop.
Featuring a score by Jerry Herman and a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Dear World opened February 6, 1969, staring Angela Lansbury. It closed just four months later on May 31, having played 45 previews and 132 performances.
Dear World is the latest not-so-successful-in-its-time musical to be presented at City Centers Encores! It began performances March 15 and runs through March 19 only. Donna Murphy stars as Countess Aurelia, who, along with her two best friends, Gabrielle and Constance, try to stop greedy corporations from digging up their beloved Parisian neighborhoods when oil is discovered beneath. Harada plays Gabrielle and Andréa Burns is Constance. Along with Murphy, the three form the trio of “madwomen” in the musical, based on the 1945 French play The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux.
When Dear World opened, it made Herman the first composer in Broadway history to have three shows running at once. The original productions of Hello, Dolly! (1964) and Mame (1966) were still running.
“I think it tried to be a lot of different things,” says Burns of why Dear World was not as big of a hit. “I think Jerry Herman was probably stretching and flexing and wanting to try something a little bit different than what he was known for. I think he was digging deep into some really different kinds of writing. And the producers said, ‘Where are those Jerry Herman tunes we all know and love?’ So, the show is kind of a mashup of those two ideas.”
The score does have a couple of those Herman tunes that audiences who didn’t see the show on Broadway may still recognize, including “Kiss Her Now” and “I Don’t Want to Know.” And, despite the short run, the show still garnered a second Tony win for Lansbury, who had previously won in 1966 for Mame.
“What's really fascinating about it is how unbelievably relevant it is,” says Harada. “The whole point of the show is ‘We’ve got to save our world against corporate greed.’ It feels like today’s news.”
Adds Burns: “It’s eerie. Part of the beauty of the madness is that there's also wisdom in it. It just comes in a really kooky package.”
Now in its 29th season, Encores! has a rich tradition of presenting rarely performed musicals to new audiences. The series, now under the leadership of Artistic Director Lear deBessonet, Music Director Mary-Mitchell Campbell, and Producing Creative Director Clint Ramos, Encores! continues to dig deep into the lost canon to revive hidden gems (with over 80 productions to date!). At times, an Encores! revival has even led to a Broadway transfer, such as the most recent production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods.
"You’re digging up these gems from the past, these unproduceable shows, and you’re going to see why nobody does this show anymore, but you’re also going to see what makes it kind of great,” says Harada.
The show’s quirky characters—the madwomen, the sewer men, oil prospectors, corporate lawyers and businessmen (who all get their own song)—make Dear World ripe material for some of Broadway’s best character actors. This production includes Brooks Ashmanskas, Christopher Fitzgerald, Caesar Samayoa, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Ben Frankhauser, and more. And, of course, Burns and Harada. “We’re a couple of twisted sisters,” says Burns of their madwomen. “I keep turning to Ann and saying ‘Wait a minute! I kind of relate to this. Does that mean I’m a crazy old lady now?’”
Harada and Burns laugh as they see themselves reflected in their onstage counterparts. Although Harada might not have an invisible dog like Gabrielle, or Burns might not have daily chats with her hot water bottle like Constance, the two have definitely locked into the madwomen's wistful nostalgic tendencies. “Every time one of us has a line about, ‘How beautiful it was then. Isn’t it amazing how things have changed so much?’ Somebody else will go, ‘It’s like Kodama. We miss it so much,’” says Harada, lamenting the now-closed Japanese restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen where one could almost always spot Broadway performers grabbing a bite after a matinee on two-show days. “Or we’ll miss something else in the theatre district. Things that are gone now, things that we took for granted when we were young and now exist no more and only live in the minds of people who were there at the time.”
Adds Burns: “Post-pandemic, everything’s changed. And I think that speaks to the heart of this piece. People will be surprised that these lines were written in the ’60s, based on people in the ’40s, and that they feel like they were updated for today.”
Encores! productions traditionally have a very short run. But what makes Encores! so special, besides its starry cast, is the opportunity to see these rarely performed musicals staged with a full orchestra. The series is also famous for its equally short rehearsal periods.
“There's nowhere else on the planet where you're going to find this many people who have the skill set to throw up a rare musical in two weeks,” says Harada. “But it's also terrifying because you have such a small amount of time to try to get a handle on the material. And you notice I didn't say master because I think given this time frame, I don't know if anybody can master anything. But I feel like that's part of the challenge and the fun of that.”
Burns has a more colorful analogy for the Encores! process:
“I always say it’s like jumping out of an airplane together. You’re sweating it until the very last second together and nobody else knows except the people who are jumping out of the plane with you.”