Word of mouth roared through the North Coast Repertory Theatre: “Burt Bacharach’s coming Friday night!” At first, Steve Gunderson went into deep Waiting for Guffman denial. Then the lifelong devotee of Bacharach’s music faced the consequences of a dream coming true.
In 1993, Back to Bacharach and David opened off-Broadway at Steve McGraw’s Cabaret. The New York Times called Gunderson’s arrangements “musically impeccable” and hailed Kathy Najimy’s direction as “a nearly perfect balance between tribute and comedy.” BTB&D ran for five months. Bacharach never attended.
In the summer of 2006, the North Coast Rep needed to fill a slot in August. They contacted Gunderson, and the show opened with four singers and a three-piece band.
A week later, guess who’ll be in the house? At first Gunderson thought it was a “cruel joke.” He’d heard that Bacharach was never happy with revues of his work. But what if...?
“The dream of a lifetime” or — the fear grew talons as the day drew nearer — “a nightmare! What if he hates what I’ve done to his music?”
“I wasn’t born a musical talent,” says Gunderson, 52. In his youth, he liked to plunk out TV themes on a piano but never wanted to study. He still can’t play his scores like a trained pianist. Music was a hobby. When he was 8, it became an obsession.
“That’s when I heard ‘Walk on By.’ ” His parents bought him a songbook of Bacharach’s music and Hal David’s lyrics. He became fascinated with the “odd time signatures and uneven measures” and grafted them onto his musical lexicon.
“When I was first aware of the Oscars, I wanted ‘Look of Love’ [from Casino Royale] to win Best Song. But ‘Talk to the Animals’ won for Dr. Dolittle, and I knew right then that the Academy Awards were STUPID!”
At Horace Mann Junior High, and later at Crawford High, Gunderson “inducted” Kathy Najimy into Bacharach and David’s music “by sheer persistence!” They wrote skits and musical revues and always included a medley by their favorites. “I can still see us,” says Najimy, “B&D albums strewn across the floor, Steve playing a little Casio [keyboard]. That music became the soundtrack of our lives.”
Gunderson discovered a knack for creating revues. “But most only do the familiar stuff. And what’s the point of that? Why just replay the song?”
Several revues later, including the extremely popular Suds (with Melinda Gilb, Bryan Scott, and Javier Velasco), Gunderson envisioned his dream project. “Burt’s songs are so familiar, people don’t hear how complex and unusually hip they are. Many are like one-act plays.”
Amid all his reveries, Gunderson never dreamed that “you know who” and family would have aisle seats, row D, at the North Coast Rep. When Gunderson sang “Alfie,” Bacharach would sit on a 45-degree angle to his right, maybe 20 feet away.
“Thirty-minute call,” stage manager Elizabeth Stephens announced in the dressing room.
“He CAN’T walk out,” Gunderson assured himself a half hour before curtain. “Being with his family’d make too big a scene, wouldn’t it?”
The last thing Gunderson wanted was “to embarrass him — okay, that and the next day’s headlines shouting, ‘BACHARACH BACKS OUT OF BACK TO!’ ”
“Omagod!” whispered Melinda Gilb, peeking though the curtain. “There he is!”
“Where?” asked another performer.
“Row four, house left aisle. White shirt, powder blue pullover!”
Bacharach was in Del Mar for racing season. His wife Jane saw a poster for BTB&D while grocery shopping and bought tickets. Though word was good about the New York production, which Hal David enjoyed, Bacharach admits he was “tentative” when he entered the theater.
“I’m tough on things,” Bacharach says today. “I’ve seen other shows based on my music and they didn’t work.”
Bacharach went to the Broadway opening of one “as a civilian with no vested interest.” He sat next to Elvis Costello and Mike Myers. They watched “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” done as a barbershop quartet and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” as a tap number. The songs had no meaning — just vehicles for pizzazz. “This isn’t working,” Costello grumbled, “at all.” Bacharach and Myers nodded amen’s.
“It was very hard to be there,” says Bacharach, “and I went to North Coast not knowing what to expect.”
In the audience, Bacharach’s presence became one of those badly kept, well-kept secrets. Neighbors elbow-nudged neighbors and pointed fingers, stomach-level, in his direction.
Gunderson refused to peek through the curtain. “Truth to tell? I lost confidence, and I pride myself in being a pretty easygoing performer. But as everyone who knows me knows, my music GOD was out there.”
The show began. Buoyed by an appreciative audience, which welcomed each song like an old friend, the cast overcame nervousness and settled in, happy to have Bacharach on hand.
Except Gunderson. Some arrangements turned the originals on their head (“Are we really doing ‘Close to You’ with a quartet of codependent beatniks?”). He also dreaded what would surely be one of the most — if not the most — vulnerable artistic moments of his life. He would sing “Alfie” solo. When the song asks the famous question, Gunderson would be saying, in effect, here’s what I’ve been all about.
He stood center stage. The lights awoke softly. He began singing and — “panic! My most out-of-body experience as a performer. Ever!
“But you know, ‘Alfie’ ’s amazing. Hal David’s masterpiece journeys to where songs rarely go. I found myself in a drama — and that kept me from focusing on Burt and the music and the band and my voice.”
Bacharach, it turns out, was won over from the start. “I was tapping my feet and humming along, relaxed and impressed.” The arrangements “truly honored the songs. It was my work and it was done classy. Steve didn’t just do obvious choices, either. He did a great job with ‘I Just Have to Breathe,’ which is rarely done.”
After the show, Bacharach asked to meet the cast. They filed out onstage, exhausted and flying high. “Who did the charts?” Bacharach asked the musicians. “Steve,” they replied. He asked the singers, “Who did the vocals?” Heads nodded toward Gunderson, who stood in a “flop sweat,” one-foot onstage, the other angled toward the EXIT sign, should a need to flee prove urgent (“Okay, so he loathed the arrangements, but he stayed for the whole show, didn’t he?”).
They shook hands. “It’s a shame this is such a small venue,” Bacharach said, putting an arm around Gunderson. “More people should see what you’ve done. I’m calling Hal.”
Gunderson drove home that night feeling “a flood of relief, awe, and choked up.”
“Burt called the next morning,” Hal David remembers. “He fell in love with the show and urged me to see it.” David and wife Eunice drove down from L.A. that day. He was struck by the note-to-note sophistication and how Gunderson combines the songs. At the beginning of his career, before he wrote the lyrics for a song, David wrote a short story. He then composed lyrics from the story. “Steve turns these songs — these little stories — into a motion picture!”
That same day, Gunderson saw an unfamiliar number on his cell phone. The message said: “Steve? Burt Bacharach. Give me a call.”
“You’re a unique musical talent,” Bacharach told him on the phone. “I’ve had a lot of revues, and you’re the first I trust to get inside of my music. I want to help the show any way I can.”
Gunderson and Najimy met with Bacharach and his lawyer at the Los Angeles office of BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.). On the way up the stairs, Najimy lectured Gunderson on proper take-a-meeting behavior: “He’ll be a businessman. So you be too. Professional, okay? Don’t go all gushy!”
Inside, Gunderson sat erect, contained: business, not personal. When Bacharach began complimenting the arrangements, Najimy, “so proud to be part of this moment, just lost it!
“Burt, abso-LUTEly! Steve’s a genius…we’re best friends… how long?? (What’s 1972 from…?) — Thirty-seven years! School together…skits, revues like you WOULD NOT BELIEVE! So happy for him…one of the best moments of my…
“Burt nods at me,” Najimy recalls with a self-mocking laugh, “then turns and says, ‘Now Steve.…’ ”
In the parking lot afterward, Gunderson and Najimy “screamed like little kids!”
The meeting led to an expanded, “spruced up” version of BTB&D in Los Angeles at the Music Box last April. The 23 performances drew rave reviews, and a producing team is currently shopping the project around the U.S. and Europe.
“It’s such an exciting time for the show,” says Gunderson. “And without a doubt, having Burt and Hal so into the project and having this relationship with them will be the great event of my life.
“And you know? It’s all by accident. It was something I never would have asked for, let alone dreamed of coming true.”