When director Jonathan Van Dyke first moved to New York in 1990, the hot show off-Broadway was Closer Than Ever, a revue of “the anguish, amazement and human comedy of contemporary living” by lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. and composer David Shire.
Van Dyke has fond memories of its intricately personal story songs, so when MNM Theatre Company’s plans to produce Bye Bye Birdie this summer were axed –- a victim of the COVID epidemic –- he suggested instead a streamed production of Closer Than Ever, which is available now through Dec. 31.
“I’ve always been very taken with the show,” says Van Dyke. “And I just felt the title said so much as well about our situation today. It’s kind of an irony, that physically we cannot be close, but in other ways we have become closer. That just kind of resonated with me.”
Maltby and Shire never intended to be known for writing musical revues. But after several failed book musicals -– you’ve probably never heard, or heard of, The Sap of Life, Love Match or The River, right? –- they raided their own scores and repurposed some of their favorite numbers into 1977’s Starting Here, Starting Now and, a decade later, Closer Than Ever.
“It’s been kind of a blessing and a curse, in a way,” says Shire of their unintended reputation. “We never wanted to write revues, but we had a lot of songs cut from book musicals that we got produced and from ones that didn’t get produced, that were abandoned halfway through. Our trunk gradually built up, and Richard said at one point, ‘If we write a few new songs, I think we’ve got the makings of a revue.’ It’s strange that we’ve become widely known to people for something we never wanted to do in the first place. We’re kind of the kings of recycle.”
Writing for very specific moments in a book musical -– “the milieu, the character, the emotional event, whether it advances the plot” -– may be why so many of their songs work out of their original context, suggests Shire. “Because they were written to be acted in specific situations, they’re not just pop songs,” he says. “There’s an acting necessity to them.”
Ever since the Outer Critics Circle Best Musical Award-winning original production of Closer Than Ever, the show has played somewhere around the world for the past 30 years, Shire believes. Until 2020, when virtually all theaters were shut down by coronavirus.
Then this summer, Maltby and Shire heard that a small stage company in West Palm Beach wanted to do a streamed version of the show. Was Shire apprehensive about his material being presented this way?
“Maybe initially when people were starting to do shows that way,” he notes. “But I said to Richard one day, ‘A whole new art form is going to develop of presenting things in Zoom.’ And sure enough, shows are being written now to be presented in Zoom.
“You like to have your stuff produced, anywhere, anyway,” he concedes. “If somebody wanted to do ‘Closer Than Ever’ in a Times Square subway station, I’d say ‘Why not?’ It can’t hurt, as they say in Yiddish.”
Beyond merely recording and streaming his performers — Aaron Bower, Johnbarry Green, Shelley Keelor and Elijah Word, all MNM veterans –- Van Dyke came up with a novel visual approach to the production. “I’d done some work with projections in the past, in a different way other than just scenic. And I wondered if we could incorporate some of that into Closer Than Ever. So I did some storyboards of the cast and a series of doors which double as projection screens,” explains Van Dyke.
“Not only are these rolling doors part of the set, but they end up taking over a lot of movement that our performers were not able to do. Keeping the cast six feet apart when they’re in a group and moving them is very challenging. So with the rolling doors, we call it ‘door-ography.’ ”
By recording the piano and bass musical accompaniment first, then playing it back as the cast performed the show together -– albeit socially distanced –- at MNM’s Boca Raton warehouse/studio, Closer Than Ever was not only shot in a tight five days, it cost a lot less than a live production. The company typically spends $200,000 on a show, but this Zoom version was made for a mere $15,000. No wonder MNM is contemplating doing more shows in this format.
To Van Dyke, this Maltby-Shire revue is the perfect show for these COVID times. “It’s a very deceptive little show. It’s not costume-heavy or set-heavy, but it is so heavy in lyrics and harmonies,” he says. “Some of the lyrics definitely say to the audience what this time has meant to us all, how different what we are going through is.’Closer Than Ever’ is absolutely a show for today.”
CLOSER THAN EVER, MNM Theatre Company, available online through Thursday, Dec. 31. At www.mnmtheatre.org or www.facebook.com.mnmtheatrecompany. Tickets: $20.