A Tin Pan Alley musical? The nostalgia-drenched notion suggests a tuneful journey to a simpler time. But while it cheerfully resurrects both the songs and character types of a century ago, Hello! My Baby, which opens this weekend at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, cannot be dismissed as quaint.
Consider its themes and how strongly they still resonate in today’s America — the challenges of immigration and assimilation; the enormous gap between rich and poor; the roadblocks faced by independent-minded women; and the unifying power of music.
Okay, that last one feels a bit dated at a time when everyone has their own personal soundtrack on their iPad. But for most of the 20th century, infectious pop tunes helped to define and unite a diverse, rapidly growing nation. And during the century’s first decades, the creative and commercial hub of the music industry was a tiny stretch of Lower Manhattan known as Tin Pan Alley.
“A journalist wrote that when all the windows were open, and you could hear all those pianos playing at once, it was like tin pans clanging in the kitchen,” noted veteran television and theater writer Cheri Steinkellner, who created the show. “This is the story of the people who created this music, and the kids who sold that music on the street.”
Sheet music, that is — the Tin Pan Alley equivalent of today’s downloads for MP3 players. Like newsboys hawking the latest edition of the Times or the Post, “song pluggers” would perch on busy street corners and convince passersby that they needed to buy the latest hit, which they could take home and play on the piano in their parlor.
While the panoramic Hello! My Baby has a wide variety of characters (it boasts an enormous cast of 22), at its center are a pair of “pluggers” who are also aspiring songwriters. Their story, and those of the people they come into contact with, is told using period songs such as “You Made Me Love You,” “Ain’t We Got Fun,” and the title tune.
“Identity is a huge part of the piece,” said director Brian McDonald. “It was for America at the time. For all the immigrants, the question was, How much of my culture will I be able to hold onto, and how much do I have to let go, in order to be a part of this new society?”
An Emmy Award-winning television writer, Steinkellner is best known for her work on the classic sitcom Cheers and the recent stage musical Sister Act. (George Wendt, a regular on that TV show, is in the cast, along with Santa Barbara’s Rich Hoag and Ojai’s George Ball.)
“My goal was to put everything I love about musicals into one show so I would never get tired of it no matter how many times I saw it,” she said. “My grander mission was to infect the people who saw the show with this music, and to give them a taster’s menu of these elements of our heritage which have come to feel like antiquities: Gilbert and Sullivan, vaudeville, Yiddish theater.”
The result is a mash-up of these almost-forgotten styles, presented in a way that she hopes will appeal to contemporary audiences.
“The way to do that,” she said, “is to put a modern pace to it and add a modern complexity of storytelling. Our modern attention span demands that we move from story to story quickly. There are a lot of jokes — and a lot of romance. It’s a boy-meets-girl story, featuring a Jewish immigrant, Nelly Gold, and an Irish immigrant, Mickey McKee. They dream of making music together: She’s the music, he’s the lyrics, and together, they’re magic.
“One of the tropes we call on is the Yiddish trouser comedy, which was drawn from Shakespeare, in which a girl changes her identity, puts on pants, and goes out to live in a man’s world. (Think Yentl.) In our version, the girl, Nelly, adopts the male persona of Ned and becomes Mickey’s arch-rival as a hawker. He’s at odds with the male and in love with the female.”
The show bubbled up from Steinkellner’s own unconscious quite gradually. The Santa Barbara resident traces its genesis to directing a production of Anything Goes at Goleta Valley Junior High School four years ago. “I loved young kids singing old songs,” she said. “I wanted to do more of that.”
A workshop and subsequent summer staging at the Rubicon, both directed by McDonald, featured teenage actors. Given the enthusiastic reception they received, he and Steinkellner became convinced the material could work as an adult show.
“We’re going to take it to the Lobero on May 5 and 6,” McDonald said. “Our hope is we will be able to do a couple more productions of it after that.”
A Broadway production is not impossible — producers are coming to see it — but Steinkellner isn’t focusing on that quite yet. “It’s a show about creating community,” she said, “so it’s really important to me that we’re premiering this in Ventura and Santa Barbara, with my homies.”
Hello! My Baby runs March 24-April 15 at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St.); tickets are $35-$64. For information, call (805) 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org. The show plays May 4-5 at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.); tickets are $24-$75. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.