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‘Hundreds of Hats,’ A Musical Revue, Opens Off-Broadway

June 14, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ ``Hundreds of Hats″ is an aggressive yet affectionate musical celebration of Howard Ashman, one of the most popular _ and least-known _ lyricists of the last decade.

Ashman has had his songs memorized by a generation of little and not-so-little filmgoers _ at least those songs he wrote for 2 1/2 animated Disney movies. After all, the man put words to Alan Menken’s music for ``The Little Mermaid,″ ``Beauty and the Beast″ as well as for several numbers in ``Aladdin.″

The revue, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway’s WPA Theater, features many of Ashman’s Disney numbers as well as material from ``Smile,″ his one Broadway show; a couple of off-Broadway efforts including ``Little Shop of Horrors″; and several unfinished works.

Not a prolific output but then Ashman died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 40. It was a loss for an American musical theater that these days needs every gifted artist it can get.

And that loss seems even greater now when you listen to the spirited songs that are included in ``Hundreds of Hats.″ The title, by the way, is a haunting ragtime reverie about growing older _ and the joys of watching baseball in years gone by, when baseball was a game and not a business.

Ashman was a lyric writer who appreciated masters of the form like Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin. Like much of their work, the best of Ashman’s lyrics tell stories as well as reveal emotion and character. Yet his words have a contemporary sound, too, fitting comfortably in the pop and rock rhythms of today.

A quality of yearning informs many of Ashman’s lyrics. His characters sing of wanting more or, at least, something different: for example, ``Somewhere That’s Green″ from ``Little Shop of Horrors,″ ``Disneyland,″ a hymn to escapism from the unjustly neglected ``Smile,″ ``Part of Your World″ from ``The Little Mermaid.″

It’s those quiet moments _ when the songs simply are sung _ that are the best in the revue. There are not enough of them, particularly in the relentlessly active second act when the five eager performers whirl in what seems like campy perpetual motion. Director Michael Mayer doesn’t let the show stop and catch its breath. It, like the audience, eventually ends up exhausted.

The overdirected performers try very hard. For the most part, their personalities cut through the directorial clutter. Amanda Naughton possesses a gamin quality that would do Leslie Caron proud. Nancy Opel is an expert at tomfoolery, able to make the most of Ashman’s wisecracking lyrics.

One of the most ambitious numbers is entitled ``A Day in the Life of a Fat Kid in Philly,″ written as an opening for an unfinished musical called ``Fatty Goes to the Opera.″ With music by Jonathan Sheffer, the song sets the stage for a comic and poignant story. It leaves one wondering what the rest of the musical would have been like. And the robust-voiced John Ellison Conlee tackles the song with the skill of an opera star delivering a major aria.

The evening’s most heartfelt moment occurs late in Act 2 when Bob Kirsh sings ``Sheridan Square,″ which Ashman wrote with Menken more than a dozen years ago, just as the horrific consequences of AIDS were first being realized. It is a eulogy for the disappearing gay men who congregated in the landmark Greenwich Village park. The song sounds even more chilling today.

``Hundreds of Hats″ also refers to Ashman’s many talents. Besides being a lyricist, the man was a playwright, director, actor and one of the original guiding lights of the WPA Theater. Yet what will be remembered are the songs. Definitely not a bad legacy, after all.

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