From Collar Pop To Total Flop: Preppies The Musical, 1982

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It was the summer of 1982, not quite two years after Lisa Birnbach wrote “The Official Preppy Handbook,” and I got a call from my agent in New York. After several rounds of auditions, I (then known as Susan Dow) was cast in “Preppies” and was rehearsing at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.

The show was being directed by Pete Masterson, a fellow Texan, and straight off of his hit “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  His oldest daughter, Lexi, was in the show and his younger daughter who was still in high school would come and visit on the weekends. I don’t think any of us would have guessed Lexi’s baby sister would go on to be the movie star Mary Stuart Masterson. After performing the show for future backers, our four weeks were up we said our goodbyes and headed back to Manhattan.

Twelve whole months would pass before I got another call from my agent informing me that they were now ready to do “Preppies” Off-Broadway. Of course nothing is easy in show business, and my agent informed me that the show had a brand new director/choreographer named Tony Tanner, and we would all be required to audition for him. After singing and dancing several times, I was cast as Lallie deForest. I was more than surprised to learn that I was the only one from the workshop that had been cast in this new production.

Some fun little tidbits about “Preppies” are that the music was written by a very young Gary Portnoy, best known for writing the theme song to the hit TV show “Cheers.” The cast, of course, was in head-to-toe madras and Lily Pulitzer, had taps attached to our Top-Siders, and even did a number in the show with flippers on our feet. You can find copies of both the script and cast album on eBay, and I understand that “Preppies” is quite popular with high school drama departments.

I always thought that our producer, Anthony Fingleton, was a true blue-blood preppy, but I did a little research to refresh my memory and discovered that Tony came from quite humble beginnings in Australia. But he did go to Harvard, and that probably counts for something.

I would love to wrap this story up with a wonderful opening night, rave reviews and a long run, but that isn’t the way this show turned out. “Preppies” received less-than-stellar reviews and closed within a matter of weeks.

But great things did come from being in “Preppies.” I made and remain friends with most of the cast. We all got along, which I will tell you is quite rare. The saddest thing about closing was not being able to laugh every day with those funny and talented actors. I became best friends with fellow castmate, Karyn Quackenbush, and two years later she would set me up on a blind date with a guy named Scott Bartlett.

Scott and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and have two terrific sons. — SUSAN BARTLETT

Susan Bartlett — we kid you not — makes preppy clothes for dogs and sells them on Etsy (where she also occasionally sells vintage menswear). Her son Sam, a jazz pianist, graduates from SMU this spring and can be seen here performing the classic “Straight, No Chaser.”

10 Comments on "From Collar Pop To Total Flop: Preppies The Musical, 1982"

  1. Jeff Jarmuth | April 5, 2013 at 7:29 am |

    I lived in Brooklyn back then in ’82. Wish I would have seen this show.

  2. J. Press is included in the lyrics, some clothes on stage and signature suit boxes in one of the scenes. Unfortunately the garments and the boxes enjoyed longer life than the show.

  3. What a coincidence! I was on her Etsy just a few days ago looking at those two very nice madras ties. I am looking forward to watching “Straight, no chaser” while I eat lunch, at my desk.

  4. Old School | April 5, 2013 at 8:27 am |

    NY Times review:

    August 19, 1983, Friday
    THEATER: ‘PREPPIES,’ A MUSICAL SATIRE

    By MEL GUSSOW
    ”PREPPIES,” the new musical that opened last night at the Promenade Theater, might have an appeal for past and promising preppies, but for others the interest should be largely academic. In keeping with the subject matter, the show is intentionally traditional, upholding the J. Press dress code of button-down shirts, khakis and loafers.

    For one production number there are nine blazers on stage. The evening’s credits are shared by the composers, the authors, Tony Tanner as director and choreographer, and the various clothing manufacturers who contributed to Patricia McGourty’s costumes.

    ”PREPPIES,” the new musical that opened last night at the Promenade Theater, might have an appeal for past and promising preppies, but for others the interest should be largely academic. In keeping with the subject matter, the show is intentionally traditional, upholding the J. Press dress code of button-down shirts, khakis and loafers.

    For one production number there are nine blazers on stage. The evening’s credits are shared by the composers, the authors, Tony Tanner as director and choreographer, and the various clothing manufacturers who contributed to Patricia McGourty’s costumes.

    However, a musical has to be more than a back-to-school fashion catalogue. Clothes do not make the musical. In terms of social satire, the show has nothing to say about WASP America that has not been said better and funnier by, among others, A. J. Gurney Jr. and S. J. Perelman.

    The best-selling Preppy Handbook (not the source of the current musical) was encyclopedic in imparting preppy (the variant spelling) lore.”Preppies” merely taps the surface as it busily goes about its aim of becoming a musical comedy. The book by David Taylor with Carlos Davis is still another variation on an old Hollywood theme. Struggling parents (in this case, the household help of a childless millionaire) give up their only baby for adoption so that he can grow up as a rich little poor boy while they lurk in the background as their own offspring’s servants.

    If the young man, nicknamed Cotty, can prove by age 21 that he is the purest preppie, he will inherit a lavish trust fund that includes Central Park and the state of Wyoming. The show is an abject lesson in how to succeed by conforming, as we follow the hero from his crucial kindergarten interview through his Yale graduation.

    The plot repeatedly paints itself into corners and, especially in the second act, cannot stand the scrutiny of common sense. Finally, in its romantic conclusion, it even contradicts its own preppie ethic. With effort, the authors have managed to replicate all the complex inefficiency of a musical book of the 30’s. There is, in fact, a period feeling about the show, and it is not just in the costumes. An early line of dialogue, ”Everything in life is deja vu,” echoes throughout the evening.

    The score by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo is a pastiche of familiar sentiments, but it is several cuts above the book. There are a few catchy numbers, including ”We’ve Got Each Other,” a vaudeville song and dance for the hero’s self-sacrificing parents (engagingly played by Beth Fowler and Michael Ingram), and ”Bring on the Loot,” a patter song sung by the hero’s self-serving rival (Dennis Bailey).

    The songs are at their most predictable in the numbers for young lovers. However, the leading actors, Bob Walton (as Cotty) and Kathleen Rowe McAllen (as his Muffy), are a nice match. He has the boyish ingenuousness of Charlie Brown and she is appropriately wide-eyed and love- struck. They and their preppie colleagues are in good voice, as are their elders, who also include David Sabin in a variety of character roles.

    Mr. Tanner, who is becoming an expert at enlivening intimate musicals, has given the show a polished production. He keeps his cast dancing on a dime even as the story repeats itself. In the evening’s liveliest production number, he has the chorus switching from Top-Siders to flippers in the middle of a tap.

    David Jenkins’s set is cheerful; a four-piece band, tucked into a corner of the stage, sounds as if it is tuning up for a tea dance; and the Promenade Theater itself, dark for four years, has been spruced up for the occasion. Set in this background, the show demonstrates that appearances can be deceiving. The evening is affable but lacking in character. For ”Preppies,” the musical, this may be a kind of poetic justice. J. Press Dress Code

    PREPPIES, written by David Taylor with Carlos Davis; music and lyrics by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo; directed and choreographed by Tony Tanner; sets by David Jenkins; costumes by Patricia McGourty; lighting by Richard Winkler; sound by Tom Gould; musical direction and vocal arrangements by Jeff Lodin; dance music and orchestrations by Peter Larson. Presented by Anthony Fingleton and Carlos Davis; associate producer, Valerie Gordon.At the Promenade Theater, Broadway at 76th Street. Bitsy Wingate Tudi Roche Steffie Palmer Karyn Quackenbush Joe Pantry Michael Ingram Parker Richardson Endicott 3d David Sabin Marie Pantry Beth Fowler Lawyer Tom Hafner Botsworth Norvil Bogswater 2d Dennis Bailey Cotty (Parker Richardson Endicott 4th) Bob Walton Admissions Officer David Sabin Bogsy (Botsworth Norvil Bogswater 3d) Dennis Bailey Muffy (Angelica Livermore Atwater) Kathleen Rowe McAllen Bookie Bookbinder John Scherer Skipper Seabrook James Gedge Lallie deForest Susan Dow Mr. Atwater James Gedge Mrs. Atwater Tudi Roche Head Master David Sabin Jinks Deerborn Tom Hafner Majordomo/Mr. Bonifacio/Bishop David Sabin

  5. Gary Portnoy has the song “People Like Us” from Preppies embedded on his site: http://www.garyportnoy.com/

    It’s on page 2 of “The Cheers Story”

    M

  6. Christian | April 6, 2013 at 7:27 am |

    Love the interaction when we do a post and you guys do further research. Fun!

  7. I wrote a musical , it was a very disappointing experience as no one would produce it. It was called, “Henry David Thoreau: Philosopher or Ivy League Hobo”.

  8. I saw it.

    And it was wonderful!

    Loved it so much, my theater company did it the following summer!

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