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This 'Windy City' Makes

September 28, 2006 By:
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Tony Macaulay
It doesn't take an Einstein to come up with a hit like "Build Me Up, Buttercup." Or does it?

It took this Einstein: Tony Macaulay, the evergreen song's ever-popular composer, wasn't always a Macaulay. "No, actually, I took that name out of the phone book. I was born an Einstein, and my family name, Instone, was an Anglicization of Einstein."

It's written in stone: But is E=MC2 really a reference to Einstein equals Macaulay two steps removed?

"It is alleged," he alleges, "that my great-grandfather's first nephew was Albert Einstein."

What's relative now is that the Brit-born composing genius with designer genes has generated one of the season's most anticipated new musicals. Making front-page news is his musical of "The Front Page," blowing into the Walnut Street Theatre under the bylined name of "Windy City."

It's all aces, says the composer of the show about ace reporters, their deceptive editors and stories so hot they make Hilton Paris look like yesterday's news.

But this is yesterday's news: "The Front Page" is that classic Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur colorful combination of journalism yellow and black and bruised blue way back, when typewriters often clanked out stereotypes and copyboys copied their writer heroes, hoping their otherwise dead-end jobs would lead to their own deadlines and upbeat careers.

It's jazz journalism trumpeted by playwrights who had their own ballsy beat some 80 years ago when "The Front Page" fronted Broadway.

Back of the Book
And now, more than 30 years after Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were cast to type in the onscreen roles of wicked Walter Burns, an editor and living linotype machine adept at putting periods at the end of his reporters' requests, and "Hildy" Johnson, one of those reporters who went mano a mano and headline to headline with Johnson, the story enters another stage as musical.

Why would Einstein-cum-Instone-cum-Macaulay come up with this now? Well, it has shown plasticity in the past, especially as the gender-bender flicks "His Girl Friday" in 1940 and "Switching Channels" in 1988.

It's a case of switching on another light with a different sensory beam; actually, Macaulay did it first 24 years ago, when "Windy City" wound up on London's West End.

But the prolific songwriter, whose work has been featured in films ("There's Something About Mary," "Starsky and Hutch") has a hunch that now is the time this "Windy' can blow good will.

"I've always loved theater, always wanted to write for theater, ever since I was 8 and did puppet shows," he says.

You can put that ambition and stuff it into a sock, however, as soon, "I was seduced into pop music."

Pop goes the honors, too, as, over the years, Macaulay was named "Songwriter of the Year" twice by the British Film Academy and won the English Oscar nine times.

Not that he was the coolest dude makin' de rounds: "If you were really cool, Elvis was your hero; mine was Buddy Holly and he was for nerds."

Revenge of the nerds is oh-so-nice these days as Macaulay discovers that musical theater offers the overture he had always wanted -- a position as a player, with its front aisle seat to the creation of a show.

"A thousand people laughing to your music" is an eye-opener, even if the rock sounds of "Buttercup" kept him in his cups as did "Don't Give Up on Us, Baby" and other songs he raised to "hit-dom" alone or with co-composers. (Librettist/lyricist Dick Vosburgh is his collaborator on the "Windy City" score.)

Macaulay gives up the past gleefully now -- Chicago is is his kind of town, after all -- even if rock provided a fortune, if not a fortuitous way of life, by "keeping me in Valium and alcohol."

What rocks his world now at age 62? When you go from the milieu of teeny-boppers to the medium of "Tiny Alice," it's all a case of maturity.

What's not new about "Windy City" is that the newspaper saga "always called out to me."

Was it a shout of "Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite?" No need of rewriting the past; the dialogue contains much of the punchy poetry of the playwrights whose op-ed "Page" in motion read between the lines of society. As for any tendency to snip and paste with the past ... the show's creative team had the ultimate editor watching over them: Legendary actress Helen Hayes, widow of MacArthur, owned the rights so they knew she wouldn't let it go on stage if they got it wrong. "She was our unofficial consultant."

But how to build on a classic?

Well, they got the right one to engineer such a transition from straight stage to musical in Macaulay although he'll tell you his engineering talents fall a little flat in some other aspects.

Originally a civil engineer, he knew he should cross the musical theater bridge early on. "I engineered a water tower that fell over in a storm and killed a cow," he recalls.

Better he should build up buttercups than flatten faulty towers, he reasoned.

For the record, not everyone has been a fan of his rockin' role. "I once performed a song for my mother -- a classical pianist -- and at the end, she said, 'That was terrible.' She hated it."

Not all Jewish mothers build up their own boychicks, he concedes in that instance. Yet Macaulay went on to name his own tune in the business, including a musical made up of his own music. "I did one show, it sold out, and that was enough for me."

Movin' on ... He'd rather be part of the line credits in the journal describing creators of a show about old-style journalism. Collaboration is key, claims the composer

And if his ultimate critics, racing to deadlines on a wing and a prayer for the Heaven Help Us Herald, were to look down and see what's become of their "Windy City," would they blow their tops or feel satisfied its gotten its second wind?

"I'd like to believe," says Macaulay of Hecht and MacArthur, "that they'd be happy about it."


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