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Coming up RosesThe Broadway Musical in the 1950s$

Ethan Mordden

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780195140583

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195140583.001.0001

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The Street, 1952

The Street, 1952

Chapter:
(p.48) 4 The Street, 1952
Source:
Coming up Roses
Author(s):

Ethan Mordden

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195140583.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

It is the coming together of Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, Ethel Merman and Vivian Blaine, Moss Hart and Michael Kidd, slambang musical comedy and the stimulating musical play—the old guard and the newborns—that tells us how vigorous the musical was. Here is a community of old and young talent egging each other on, everyone a student and teacher at once. Cole Porter was probably as old time as one could have been, counting a Broadway debut in 1916. Yet his Can-Can (1953) was somewhat new wave, an old-fashioned show bursting with relative newcomers—producers Feuer and Martin, book writer Abe Burrows, choreographer Michael Kidd. Can-Can was all for fun. It had a look and a style, vaguely suggestive of Paris in 1893. But what it mainly had were the Cole Porter things—sex, speed, great songs, and a lot of personality in the cast. Other musicals during the period are discussed.

Keywords:   Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Ethel Merman, Vivian Blaine, Moss Hart, Michael Kidd, Cole Porter

It is the coming together of Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, Ethel Merman and Vivian Blaine, Moss Hart and Michael Kidd, slam-bang musical comedy and the stimulating musical play—the old guard and the newborns—that tells us how vigorous the musical was. Here is a community of old and young talent egging each other on, everyone a student and teacher at once.

Cole Porter was probably as old time as one could have been, counting a Broadway debut in 1916. Yet his Can-Can (1953) was somewhat new wave, an old-fashioned show bursting with relative newcomers—producers Feuer and Martin, book writer Abe Burrows, choreographer Michael Kidd, and, in a featured part, the biggest musical comedy star to arrive since Mary Martin sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in another Porter show fifteen years before.

So here is more Big Broadway, the kind of project whose first full-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times would address a wide and eager public. And, of course, with “I Love Paris,” “It's All Right With Me,” “Cʼest Magnifique,” and “Allez-Vous-En,” it's a classic show—or is it just a classic score? It has been (p.49) revived, but without success, even in revision. Yet its tale of a dance-hall hostess defying the judge who wants to close her place because he doesn't approve of it should be timely in any age.

Can-Can was, like Call Me Madam, a typical piece of work. Let Guys and Dolls popularize a new vocabulary, even sing in it; let A Tree Grows in Brooklyn wrestle with generical problems as it balances tragedy with comedy. Can-Can was all for fun. It had a look and a style, vaguely suggestive of Paris in 1893. But what it mainly had were the Cole Porter things—sex, speed, great songs, and a lot of personality in the cast. Quick, what's the opposite of Guys and Dolls?: period sets and costumes; so much dancing that it intrudes on the thin storyline, but so much the better; a clear hierarchy of star, co-star, featured and lesser players; bait-the-censors bawdry; and a brass section that gave poor Sandy Wilson, visiting from London to discuss the New York production of The Boy Friend, the shakes.

Can-Can showed its strength as early as 8:35 of an evening, as the orchestra struck up the overture and the Shubert Theatre's house velvet rose on the “show curtain” (as they called it then), an amazingly detailed “Plan de Paris.” This was the inspiration of the show's designer, and the greatest Broadway designer of the middle third of the twentieth century, Paris-born Jo Mielziner.* As I've said, there were no real innovations made in stage design in the 1950s, but that was because Mielziner had anticipated all of them in the 1930s and 1940s. He was not only an artist but a brilliant technician. What more to say than that every producer always called Mielziner first?

With Can-Can's overture ended, the action began as the lights came up behind the show curtain, turning it transparent and thus revealing the stage as the show curtain lifted. Can-Can began in court, real fast, as our hero, Aristide Forestier (Peter Cookson), (p.50) was introduced and les girls—charged with lewd dancing—were hustled in, screaming, grabbing the gendarmes’ hats, and generally carrying on. The accused were then called by name, apparently assumed ones:

BAILIFF:

  • Duchess of Clichy.
  • GIRL:

  • Here.
  • BAILIFF:

  • Catherine de Medici.
  • GIRL:

  • Here.
  • BAILIFF:

  • Josephine Bonaparte.
  • GIRL:

  • Here.
  • BAILIFF:

  • Marie Antoinette.
  • GIRL:

  • Here.
  • BAILIFF:

  • Martha Washington.
  • GIRL:

  • Here.
  • Forestier notes that “The only one that seems to be missing is Joan of Arc.”

    GWEN VERDON:

  • Here.
  • That was the moment when a semi-featured ensemble dancer took hold of her green card in stardom. Yet Verdon, who was for the next few scenes bound into the ensemble, was not Can-Can's star. Verdon was the heroine of the subplot. The nominal star was Lilo, as La Môme Pistache, who ambled into the piece about five minutes later in her Bal du Paradis to reprove her dancing girls for their habit of supporting their boy friends in “Never Give Anything Away.” A robust blond doll with a solid belt and great comic delivery, Lilo set one foot on a chair with her girls ringing her in a semicircle and put the number over with the self-confidence of a duchess, the erotic oui of a Bardot, and the curious tendency to stick an “m” onto the ends of words ending in a vowel (as in “Try to remember, ma belle-em”).

    Can-Can's action really gets going when Judge Forestier appears to see this place of sin for himself. He asks for mineral water but the waiter can't serve him: “The sink is broken.” Meanwhile, Burrows nudges the subplot along: Verdon's Bulgarian sculptor boy friend (Hans Conried) wants Verdon to “be nice” to an influential (p.51) critic (Erik Rhodes). Trouble begins when Rhodes presents Verdon with a wardrobe and Conried bristles:

    VERDON:

  • But you never buy me any good clothes.
  • CONRIED:

  • You don't make enough money.
  • Can-Can is a show with everything that the form can afford. If Mielziner (and costumer Motley) provided the look, choreographer Michael Kidd provided the style, in highly physical dances that brought the apache to Broadway, not to mention a lengthy ballet on how sin came to Eden, with Verdon as Eve. The look and style came together in one moment that serves to showcase the pace and timing of fifties musical comedy. This occurs just after Lilo and her judge have touched base. She has been whining, excusing, throwing her breasts in his face, changing her clothes as he stands there; and she has had an effect. After he more or less staggers out, she raptly cries, “My first judge!,” and, as the audience roars, the orchestra immediately breaks into an Offen-bachian gallop, the lights black out, and Mielziner's technology demands only seconds before they come up again on a new set for Michael Kidd's “Quadrille,” a mad dash of a ballet more or less devoted to the eroticism latent in dance-hall etiquette. Thus, Can-Can has taken us fluidly from plot scene to atmosphere scene, from comedy to dance, from dialogue to music, all without a break, simply using the public's laughter as a transition.

    Burrows was Can-Can's weak link. By the second act, the sharp and funny book has degenerated into nonsense. The supposed through-line about democrats fighting censorship is forgot. There's something about Conried getting into a duel and the Judge and Lilo opening a dance hall. What? All right, Can-Can is a leggs-and-laffs show, but an altogether too loopy one for its era. The critics didn't know what to make of it. “It is generally agreed,” wrote Theodore Hoffman in Theatre Arts, “that Can-Can has first-rate dancing, second-rate music (for Cole Porter, that is) and an also-ran book.” Hoffman thought Lilo “a frenetic, wiggling, yapping device designed to cut men to pieces.” Actually, Lilo afforded New Yorkers a rare chance to enjoy the type of sportive droll that the French call a “fantaisiste” (as opposed to the more dramatic (p.52) “réaliste,” like Edith Piaf), and gave Can-Can a well-needed shot of authenticity. Whom did Hoffman envision singing “I Love Paris” in Lilo's place? Gwen Verdon?

    Verdon was the critics’ darling; the show was not. Yet it ran a bit over two years, lasted nearly a year in London, and underwent major Hollywood translation, in one of those sleazy (in tone) yet chaste (in plot) jobs that pass tricky subject matter off as family entertainment and make a bundle. True, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchof, visiting the set on an American tour, found the climactic title dance shocking, but you can't please everyone. The movie suggests that the show was worse than it was, losing Michael Kidd for the inferior Hermes Pan, lacing what was left of the score with tired Porter standards, and actually expanding that worthless storyline. Worst of all is the lack of Parisian flavor, emphasized in the casting of Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra. Somehow or other, the French Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier got into this thing, Jourdan as the judge and Chevalier as his uncle. This was the same relationship that they had had in the as it happens infinitely more evocatively Parisian Gigi.

    Interestingly, after the movie, Can-Can started bombing—on Broadway in 1980 with Jeanmaire and in 1988 in London with the score again eviscerated and amplified. A new book favored the Hollywood storyline, with uncle Milo O'Shea, nephew Bernard Alane, and a vastly miscast Donna McKechnie, who at least was no less French than Shirley MacLaine and does not claim to be reincarnated.

    Clearly, what saved Can-Can at first was the score and the production; at length, its dippy book destroyed it. To paraphrase Mussolini's famous remark about governing the Italian people, it is not impossible to revive Can-Can, it is simply unnecessary. For Can-Can never really had a story to tell; it had a collection of entertainments to present. These are very different things. Rodgers and Hammerstein were worshipped as the authors without a formula, but they did have a sort of very loose formula: Start with a good story. No wonder Can-Can baffled the critics. By the early 1950s, even the bad shows had stories.

    Or, let's say, even the shows that didn't go over. Take, for instance, Three Wishes for Jamie (1952). Charles OʼNeal's 1949 (p.53) Christopher Award—winning novel, The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin,* told of an Irish lad who “had taken to dreaming as other Irishmen took to drink, and at times grew almost as drunk upon dreams as they upon poteen.” Jamie claims that the fairy queen Una has granted him three wishes for his having returned her stolen gold. The wishes promise travel, true love, and a son who speaks “the ancient tongue.” Matchmaker Tavish, however, has arranged a marriage for Jamie with Tirsa Shanahan, and when an altercation with Tirsa's brothers ends in Jamie and Tavish's appearing to have been swept away in a torrent, Jamie allows everyone to think them dead and takes Tavish to America. That's travel; and Jamie meets Maeve, and she's true love. But their marriage is barren. Then the couple adopt an unwanted boy, a mute named Kevin whom Tavish befriends in a curious symbiosis that finds Kevin able to speak only in dreams—and only in Gaelic. When Tavish dies, leaving Kevin a legacy, the boy's father suddenly demands legal rights to the terrified child. Unable to recognize him, the father will know him by his inability to talk. But Tavish, from beyond the grave, has one last thing to say to Kevin—or, rather, through him. “Cuevin moc Ruin is ainm dom,” the boy cries, “agus se seo mo baile”: Kevin McRuin is my name, and this is my home. The third wish has come true.

    I have recounted this story in detail because one cannot comprehend the musical in the 1950s without understanding that, ten years earlier, this novel would have all but unthinkable as a source. All that auld sod Irish lore, the whimsey, the fantasy! A beloved character dies, a cute little boy is mute, and the heroine is barren! Charles OʼNeal, like Betty Smith with George Abbott, collaborated on the script, with Can-Can's Abe Burrows, and they hewed remarkably close to the original. The show opened with the wake of Jamie (John Raitt) and Tavish (oldtime baby-faced comic Bert Wheeler), so we could be theatrically surprised—and relieved—when they turned up among the spectators, albeit outside, unseen by the others. The unwanted bride, Tirsa, who gets (p.54) two or three pages in the novel, was built into a featured comic (Charlotte Rae) who comes chasing after Jamie with her father (operetta veteran Robert Halliday, the original Red Shadow in The Desert Song) but ends up paired off with Me-Dennis OʼRyan, the name from his mother's constantly addressing and referring to him as “me Dennis.” As with much of OʼNeal's heavy Irish coloring, this was gentled down in the show to plain Dennis (Peter Conlow).

    Otherwise, Three Wishes for Jamie was in every respect a faithful retelling, even including Maeve's genetic inability to bear children and letting a spurned suitor angrily invade the first-act finale, her wedding, to pass the information on to a stunned Jamie, and later letting Anne Jeffreys express Maeve's regret in one of those introspective monologue song scenes that Rodgers and Hammerstein had introduced into the musical's vocabulary.

    The critics were very mixed, and the show failed, despite an engaging score (by Ralph Blane) and wonderful performers, especially Rae, who made the most of her trick contralto-with-Lakmé-extension in her wooing of Dennis, “I'll Sing You a Song.” Maybe the show's ethnicity was too heavily explored. Maybe the “barren” thing was too dark even for a musical play—a number of the reviewers expressed reservations about it.

    If Rodgers and Hammerstein made certain shows possible, they also re-empowered certain writers by inspiring them to develop their talents. Surely Lerner and Loewe, after one musical comedy flop, were thinking Rodgers and Hammerstein for The Day Before Spring (1945), a succès d'estime, and particularly Brigadoon (1947), the show that made them. Cole Porter openly noted that his Kiss Me, Kate (1948) score, teeming with character and situation, was a response to the Rodgers and Hammerstein challenge.

    Most encouraged of all was Harold Rome, famed in the late 1930s for Pins and Needles, a long-running amateur revue with a distinctly working-class voice. Except for one book musical called The Little Dog Laughed (1940) that closed out of town, Rome was strictly a composer of variety shows. But revues were getting thin on the ground in the story-conscious 1950s. So, while retaining his natural inflection, Rome moved into the story show, abandoning the revue forever.

    (p.55) Wish You Were Here” (1952) was the reconstituting title. Arthur Kober and Joshua Logan wrote the script, from Kober's 1937 comedy “Having Wonderful Time” about a long-vanished institution: the upstate summer camp for Jewish singles from New York City, where the women hoped to snag a husband and the men tried to settle for a date. Though no historian ever says so, “Having Wonderful Time” is part of the twenties-thirties folk play movement, in which a work incorporated a subculture in its very language and lore. Here's a sample of Kober:

    MR. G.:

  • (To SAM) I'm just now telling a story is something funny heppening this munning. So like I say, I'm looking on Pinkie's puttch—Pinkie is here in camp a fella. And I see this girl, and she's coming fomm the bungalow, and right away quick she's jumping in lake.
  • SCHMUTZ:

  • Dijja see her face?
  • MR. G.:

  • A question! Of cuss I see the face!
  • Just as two more famous folk plays, Porgy (1927) and Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), on southern black and farmer-cowboy cultures, respectively, sired Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! while keeping the originals’ dialect and worldview intact, so did “Having Wonderful Time” endow “Wish You Were Here”.

    Rome was the ideal songwriter for this milieu; he had virtually grown up with the characters—heroine Teddy Stern (Patricia Marand) and her boy-mad sidekick Fay Fromkin (Sheila Bond), the drab older businessman whom Teddy's mother wants her to marry, Herman Fabricant (Harry Clark), the young hero she falls for, Chick Miller (Jack Cassidy), Itchy Flexner (Sidney Armus), the ambitious yet frustrated camp social director, and sly Pinky Harris (Paul Valentine), Teddy's would-be seducer. (As the quotation of Kober's 1937 script suggests, he is unsuccessful.)

    The “Wish You Were Here” book, by Kober and Joshua Logan (who also co-produced and directed), provides the many details to develop these stereotypes into people, as when we note that Fabricant instinctively calls Teddy by her given name of Tessie, as if reproving her independent spirit. But it is Rome's score that really paints campers and staff-r-in Fay's boogie-woogie flirtation number, “Shopping Around,” certainly, but also in her utterly colloquial (p.56) gossip song, “Certain Individuals”; in Itchy's numbers, “Ballad of a Social Director” and the mock-tango “Don Jose of Far Rockaway,” which manage to be frantic, wistful, intelligent, and nutty all at once; in the chorus's exploration of courtship rituals, “Tripping the Light Fantastic.”

    Better yet, Rodgers and Hammerstein's opening up of the standard score into a program with bite and point liberated Rome. His Chick is vocally extraordinary, a tenorino who has to field musical comedy's equivalent of “Stouthearted Men” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” For surely Chick's are “power” numbers: “Mix and Mingle” is a camp waiter's somewhat bitter review of his status as a law student paying tuition as a laborer by day and an escort at night. “Where Did the Night Go?,” lyrically soaring, exalts these unsophisticated people by revealing their hunger for romance. “They Won't Know Me” is one of those so useful character-undergoing-personality-development numbers, and “Wish You Were Here” is a rapturous torch song to a rhumba beat. With his tense delivery and dramatic high notes, Jack Cassidy got as much out of Chick's music as any Ravenal or Billy Bigelow got out of his; it's strange to learn that Cassidy had spent much of the preceding decade on Broadway in choruses.

    Perhaps “Wish You Were Here'”s best quality is its ingenuousness. For these naive people, Rome somehow contrived a canny yet artless-seeming score. There's technique—Teddy's first number, “Goodbye, Love,” consists of verse, chorus, and middle section, after which the other girls sing the middle section while Teddy repeats the chorus; and “Relax!,” Pinky's attempted seduction of Teddy, is a conversation in music. Still, above all, there's naturalism: a score made of the way this culture speaks and thinks.

    Maybe that's why Joshua Logan, when Rome and Kober offered him the project, wanted to stage it around a swimming pool: show the camp, the fun, the flirting. The pool, built right into the Imperial Theatre, prohibited the show's traveling out-of-town, so Logan scheduled three weeks of previews in New York, common now but unheard of then. The reviews were a shock—almost entirely negative, as if “Wish You Were Here” were truly grisly, like Happy as Larry (1950) or Great To Be Alive (1950), to name two (p.57) deservedly excoriated shows. “Joyless,” said Atkinson, of Logan's baby. “Amateur Night,” said Vernon Rice of the Post. The premiere occurred on an especially humid June evening; was that the problem?

    Any musical that gets “Wish You Were Here'”s reviews closes promptly; co-producer Leland Hayward shrugged and sailed off to Greece with Alexander Korda. But Logan—with two weeks of good ticket sales ahead and very little after—decided that the critics were wrong and plunged into a heavy rewrite job. It had suddenly dawned on him that the piece did have one flaw, a small mistake that, ironically, threw the entire evening off. Opening with Teddy blithely casting off her awful fiancé, Logan had unwittingly made him sympathetic and her seem hard. Now Logan went back to Kober's original plan, in which the fiancé is a cross that Teddy bears almost to the end of the story. Out went Teddy's revelling “Goodbye, Love” (replaced by “Nothing Nicer Than People,” not as snappy but sweeter) along with virtually a quarter of the script. Jerome Robbins jumped in to restage Logan's deliberately clunky choreography (again, striving for naturalism; it had worked for South Pacific), and Eddie Fisher's hit recording of the title tune was a staple of summer radio listening, amusingly repeating the show's name ten times per chorus. With all the tinkering, Harold Clurman called “Wish You Were Here” “the last experimental theatre in New York.”

    All this redeemed the show. After a couple of half-empty weeks, word of mouth pushed the box-office above breakeven through profitable to sellout, one of the very few instances in which a musical ignored a bashing and ran. Theatre Arts dubbed it “the season's most successful flop,” and when it closed it had lasted a year and a half and also took London, where the English tradition of “holiday camps” broke the ice for this intensely ethnic exercise. Summer theatres favored it throughout the 1950s, pool and all, and Equity Library Theatre gave it an airing (without the pool) in the 1980s. Now it is all but gone—not dated, just no longer performed. Like many fifties musical comedy hits, it played its role in American civilization not by joining the canon but simply by keeping a theatre warm and a cast and crew employed and a huge audience entertained. The cast album survives on CD.

    (p.58) Of all those influenced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe are virtually acolytes, for Paint Your Wagon (1951) could be seen as Oklahoma! by a different route. Like the earlier show, Paint Your Wagon is a period western (set during the California gold rush) with little plot but a lot of Agnes de Mille and background color. Both works deal with murder, intolerance (farmers versus cowboys; whites versus Mexicans), and the sometimes homemade lawfulness of a frontier community. And there are the Rodgers and Hammerstein this-time-only touches: the protagonist, founder of a mining town, charms rather than sings his way through three numbers, including one of the score's major ballads; the male chorus (“miners” in the program) are mainly singers and the female chorus (“fandangos” = saloon girls) are exclusively dancers; and a Mormon with two wives provisions an arresting episode when the womanless town persuades him to auction off one of his spouses.

    Like so many of the shows we'll be considering in these pages, Paint Your Wagon raises its curtain on a tootle from the pit and a book scene—a funeral, it develops, led by our non-singing charmer, Ben Rumson (James Barton, the original Hickey in The Iceman Cometh). During the eulogy, Ben's daughter (Olga San Juan) becomes distracted by something shiny in the dirt. It's gold! As the kneeling mourners catch on and prepare to “call” ownership of the land as soon as Ben pauses, he wraps up his speech with “So, anyhow, here's Jim, Lord. I hope You'll make him happy up there [suddenly planting his foot on the soil] and forever-and-ever-I-stake-this-claim-Amen!” He lets out a roar of laughter. A blackout follows, as the orchestra stokes it bigtime, and the lights come up on the first number, a musical scene in rondo form—spoken vignettes each capped by a refrain, showing all the different men heading west for Rumson Creek, a little melting pot that even yields one chorus sung in Chinese. “Got a dream, boy?” the men lustily carol. “Got a song?” The scene's title is “I'm On My Way,” but it includes the phrase “Paint your wagon” and is in feeling a kind of title song, especially when it reappears to round off the evening. In the ensuing decades, shows enclosed at either end by essentializing anthems became almost ordinary. Think of Cabaret, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Grand Hotel. Rodgers (p.59) and Hammerstein surrounded South Pacific with “Ditesmoi,” but this little throwaway tune is not thematically central.

    Was anything in Paint Your Wagon not Rodgers and Hammerstein in style? Even the love plot, between the daughter and a Mexican (Tony Bavaar), was somewhat anticipated in South Pacific's Cable and Liat. At least de Mille's dances jumped in at unexpected moments on unlooked-for subjects—but then, isn't that Rodgers and Hammerstein all the way? One wonders what the two men thought of de Mille's work here. The first dance number, “Lonely Men,” rises out of a book scene of miners discussing their past and speculating about their future. An alto saxophone sounds a slow, keening minor-key tune, the tenor sax echoes it, and the tempo picks up as other instruments enter to create an Irish jig that soon moves into the major key as the men triumphantly career about the stage. Then, as they cool down, one remarks that it was his wife's idea that he come west. “‘What do you want to do, work in a factory all your life?’ I says, ‘No.’ She says, ‘Then put your fat carcass on the wagon and go out there and dig.’ That's how she is. Always thinkin’ of me.’” Another man starts picking at his banjo, and the first man encourages him: “Let's hear somethin’ besides the wind blowin’ through them damn hills,” the cue for the banjo player's big solo, with the men's chorus ganging up, fortissimo, behind him: “They Call the Wind Maria.”

    That male chorus gave Paint Your Wagon its tinta, its unique sound. “There's a Coach Comin’ In,” relating the miners’ eagerness to get acquainted with the town's first influx of women, is one of the biggest choruses (in sheer breadth of vocal power) of the postwar era, the kind of thing one thought had died with operetta. Then, capped by an F Major chord that took the tenors to a high A, came the coach itself and the entrance of the fandangos, which de Mille staged as a kind of tease-off, as they sauntered appetizingly among the lonely men and finally broke into a mad dance with them.

    Choruses and ballets, that was Paint Your Wagon, along with a semi-hit tune, “I Talk To the Trees,” and while all that was on the show was in trim. But it really did lack story; Barton, though the protagonist, served mainly as a kind of emcee. Lerner eventually (p.60) reckoned that, while the show was strongly realistic as a composition, the staging counted on unrealistic sets and abstract choreography, creating a performance at war with itself. It was a bold show, to be fair—husky and romantic where musicals are usually racy and contemporary. But then, the. musical play so changed the rules that no one knew what the rules were any more. Maybe the science was more an alchemy, magical rather than procedural.

    Let's compare two musical comedies (as opposed to the many musical plays of the time) to show how right and how wrong a work could go—and, to illustrate how rich and unpredictable musical production was in the early 1950s, let's use a pair of wholly un-alike shows, Seventeen and Flahooley. They have three things in common—their year of production (1951), their playing venue (the Broadhurst), and their geographical setting (Indiana).

    Seventeen is a period domestic comedy from Booth Tarkington's 1915 novel about a coquettish summer visitor to Indianapolis in 1907 who drives all the boys crazy. (As so often in Tarkington, the aim is to get down the flavor of American life, not to show who gets what in the end. These aren't quest novels: they're social studies.) Nobody famous had anything to do with the production, except Milton Berle, who co-produced it—and of course he was famous only as a comedian. Seventeen was a little show, a sleeper.

    Flahooley brings us to some big names in a contemporary satire on an original story set in a toy factory. Paint Your Wagon's producer, Cheryl Crawford, was in charge, though the real muscle behind the production was its lyricist and co-librettist, E. Y. Harburg. There was a star, sort of: Yma Sumac, a kind of Inca goddess who sang in a reported four-octave range (“I'll give her at least seven,” said the stunned Vernon Rice) that ran from bird calls that only dogs would receive to the suggestion of Eldorado subsiding in an earthquake.

    Seventeen first. This was the ultimate in unassuming storytelling. Miss Lola Pratt comes to town with her baby talk, her flattery, and her insufferable lap dog, Flopit, accepts the helpless homage of smitten Willie Baxter, and finally departs, leaving the boy bereft. There was no opportunity for spectacle or production numbers. There was not even a chorus as such, their duties being (p.61) assigned to the fourteen boys and girls who played the friends of Willie and of May Parcher, Lola's hostess. There were as well Willie's father, mother, and sister, Jane, and Mr. and Mrs. Parcher, plus a collegiate visitor, George Crooper, who throws alarm into Willie by making a play for Lola, and the Baxters' black servant, Genesis, and Genesis' father. Other than the Mr. Baxter, Frank Albertson, known to movie buffs as Katharine Hepburn's impedient brother in RKO's Alice Adams sixteen years earlier, the cast was all unknowns. There were some promising young newcomers such as Dick Kallman, Richard France, Ellen McCown, Ann Crowley, and especially the Willie, Kenneth Nelson, later to originate The Boy in The Fantasticks and Michael in The Boys in the Band, both off-Broadway in the 1960s.

    With so little plot, scriptwriter Sally Benson concentrated on character relationships, as indeed she did in the New Yorker stories that were the source of MGM's Meet Me in St. Louis, like Seventeen a piece of smalltown, period Americana. So librettist and novelist should get along. Once a canonical figure in American literature and now never mentioned, Tarkington specialized in what we might call the de-stereotyping of middle America. What could be more conventional than puppy love with a visiting flirt during an idyllic middle-class summer? But the novel Seventeen is anything but conventional in its characters. Willie is self-important, precocious, and so desperate to win Lola that he courts her in his father's tails suit and perfects an imitation of Flopit's barking that has Mr. Parcher ready to kill him. Lola is so over-the-top in her self-presentation (“Fwopit an' me think nice-cums” is a typical statement) that she approaches science-fiction. Mrs. Baxter is a lovely creation, holding her at times vexing family together through intelligence, tact, and a sense of humor.

    Tarkington's masterpiece, however, is little Jane, so absurd yet so true, showing up at the tenderest times with her dress half off, her hands holding bread and butter doused in applesauce and powdered sugar, and her voice shrill and demanding. She sees and, worse, tells all, relentless as an Old Testament prophet. Reading the novel, one is impressed by how constantly Tarkington surprises one with his everyday honesty.

    Sadly, Benson left out a lot of this. She re-stereotyped (p.62) Tarkington—and the score, by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, is a tuneful collection of songs that reinforces the stereotype. The senior Baxters were completely betrayed by “A Headache and a Heartache,” a limp generation-war piece, and George Crooper got to sing “Ooo-ooo-ooo What You Do To Me” on the most transparent pretext since Rose-Marie asked Jim if he'd like to learn an Indian love call. “Say—how's it happen you got this [record] out here?” Crooper says, as the gramophone is wound up at a party. “Why, I saw a fellow do that at the opening night of the Ziegfeld Follies on the New York Roof. It went like this …” and he goes, like that, into the number.

    Critics singled out the trio “I Could Get Married Today,” which Willie sings with Genesis and his father, who, it turns out, got married for his first time when he was seventeen, like Willie. The number had Tarkington's charm. But the authors' failure to delve into their material is encapsulated in the finale. Remember, this is a story that has no real ending. Lola Pratt leaves town; Willie's wrecked; curtain. But Tarkington found an amusing way to round off his book, by telling us that Willie, last seen shouting furiously at Jane's mischievous little confederate, Mary Randolph Kirsted, will most certainly fall in love and marry one day. The future is always in tune with the present, Tarkington states, and “the bright air of that June evening, almost eleven years in the so-called future, was indeed already trembling to ‘Lohengrin.’” If only Willie—or any of us—had the sensitivity to see more than the moment, now, today. It's the Our Town thing, the epic of plain life. Willie doesn't get it. He just goes on shouting, and the little girl runs off, and Tarkington springs his surprise in the very last line: Mary Randolph Kirsted is Willie's future bride.

    That's so Tarkington, so life-is-lovely-if-we-only-stopped-to-look-around. How beautifully a musical might have fixed that aperçu for us. But this musical opted for a trick ending that has nothing to do with Tarkington. Willie misses seeing Lola off, and enters the railroad station set inconsolable, his hands covering his face. Genesis tries to cheer him up, visualizing his wedding. As offstage voices carol the show's main ballad, “After All, It's Spring,” the lights come up behind the station scrim, revealing Willie's wedding party—Willie and Lola united, surrounded by (p.63) friends and family with that ghastly Flopit in Willie's arms (for, of course, the Willie in the train station was a double). It's cute, but it misses Tarkington's wonder and rightness.

    Now, Flahooley. The word itself is Irish for “flighty,” “whimsical.” (Charles OʼNeal uses it in The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin.) Those two words surely describe E. Y. Harburg's conception. Where Seventeen is methodical, Flahooley is volatile. Seventeen is sweet; Flahooley spits. Seventeen is daily life; Flahooley is fantasy, complete with Aladdin's lamp and a genie. Finally, Seventeen is about American culture; Flahooley is about America. It's a big, wild thing, an omnium-gatherum that took in not only the Machu Picchuan Sumac but the Bil and Cora Baird marionettes, not only a host of references to high art and low art but to McCarthyism and American business, not only the—can I say irrespressible?—Irwin Corey* but the very young Barbara Cook. Now you know that we're dealing with a cult flop.

    Flahooley was a bomb, in fact, and commentators have been trying to figure out why ever since. That it has an excellent score is beyond rebuttal: Harburg, teamed with the sometimes on-and-off but here gushingly melodious Sammy Fain, was at his best; Cook and her vis-à-vis, toymaker Jerome Courtland, essentialized dynamic youth in the ballads and charm songs; and Sumac went off like a volcano in her chant-of-the-untamed-fire-deity-in-headdress-and-sandals specialty material (by her husband, Moises Vivanco).

    But a good score can't save a terrible script (by Harburg and his habitual collaborator, Fred Saidy). Seventeen has a very light story, which is already dangerous for a musical. Flahooley has no story whatsoever. Instead, it has a premise: in a land of Betsy-Wetsys and crying dolls, a doll that laughs—she's called Flahooley—would be a sensation. But then what happens? Well, the doll's inventor wants to marry his girl friend. Okay: the love plot. And Sumac wants her broken lamp fixed. Okay: the subplot.

    (p.64) But then there's Harburg's eagerness to take on capitalist economics, a Harburg trait since he wrote the anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (with composer Jay Gorney). Harburg's Finian's Rainbow (1947) was almost obsessive in its jokes on the interior contradictions of American money culture; now Harburg wants Flahooley to fight McCarthy as well. Okay: topical satire, endemic in the musical since the nineteenth century.

    However, while stacking romance and magic and satire and Yma Sumac on top of each other, Harburg never developed his premise. Some forty minutes into Act One, nobody in the audience had the vaguest idea what was happening. A rival doll is underselling Flahooley … The genie comes out of the lamp and produces too many Flahooleys, precipitating an economic crisis … A sort of McCarthyist riot breaks out, as people hold Flahooley-burning rallies … The toy executive turns up in Arab dress, mainly for no reason … The genie disappears, reappears, dies, and is reborn … Puppets sing cheer-up songs and dance around, as alive as Pinocchio … It's chaos without a through-line. As Atkinson wrote, “More plot crosses the stage than Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But it seems to this columnist to be a colossal non sequitur

    One thing we have to credit Harburg with: he was absolutely fearless of McCarthyism. Flahooley's witch-hunting spoof includes, one, the toy executive (Ernest Truex, the original title-role player in Jerome Kern's Very Good Eddie in 1915) protectively saying “God Bless America” when he answers the telephone; two, the worried cry, at a strange noise, “A concealed dictaphone!”; three, the voice-over PA system announcing a meeting with “Bring birth certificates, citizenship papers, list of magazine subscriptions, library cards, and receipted gas bills.”

    Unfortunately, Flahooley's dialogue veers too often from the clever:

    GENIE:

  • What is science, after all, but magic with an Oxford accent?
  • to the puerile:

    (p.65) SYLVESTER:

  • I don't know how to make wishes any more.
  • GENIE:

  • Nonsense! You've read the Arabian Nights! You've seen Finian's Rainbow!
  • to the clever again:

    GENIE:

  • (as he expires) I am dying, Egypt, dying.*
  • Some may marvel at Harburg's open defiance of McCarthy. However, the witch hunt for Communists, former Communists, fellow travelers, mere liberals, utter innocents, and even guys who had simply joined leftist groups to meet girls only took hold in radio, television, and movies. There, corporation thinking dominated, and of course the corporation is profit driven and thus willing to accommodate market pressures amorally. In the theatre, everyone was freelance and most were liberal in the first place and defiant of the blacklist that terrorized other media. In fact, Harburg wrote Flahooley specifically to use Broadway to retaliate against Hollywood's surrender to the Red Scare: a cartoon feature based on Finian's Rainbow was scuttled in mid-production when Harburg's name was Mentioned to a Committee.

    On the other hand, Harburg's timing could not have been worse. The Korean War had started in June 1950, grimly informing Americans that, having barely finished fighting Fascism, they were now going to have to fight Communism. Worse yet, the war was going badly. On April 10, 1951, General MacArthur was recalled, an almost universally depressing event stateside, and the Communists launched another successful offensive on April 20. On May 14, Flahooley opened; this was simply not the time to lampoon—in effect, to criticize—American society. While praising the show's handsome production, most of the reviewers hit hard at the intricately errant narrative, and John Chapman of the Daily News called the show “the most elaborately coated propaganda pill ever to be put on a stage.”

    Then, too, Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were all playing at the time, stiff competition (p.66) indeed. Seventeen failed at a disappointing if not shameful 182 performances, but Flahooley was an embarrassing dud at 40. There have been attempts to revise it, most notably on the West Coast as Jollyanna, with Bobby Clark and Mitzi Gaynor. But for all the lovely music, delightful puppets, and gorgeous scenery, Flahooley was an act of revenge, a show without content.

    Seventeen and Flahooley illustrate two different facets of musical comedy as it was before Rodgers and Hammerstein, If operetta is passion and the musical play is drama, musical comedy is lively fun, sometimes sweet and sometimes satiric. Seventeen as a novel was something of a sweet satire, but Seventeen the musical is entirely sweet, all for youth and nostalgia. Its only wish is to charm. Flahooley emphasises the satire side—imagination, tempo, mockery. Its wish is to excite. One form is a valentine, the other a cartoon. Seventeen virtually capped a fifty-year-old tradition—of the fondly eccentric, small-cast, even smalltown show—whose high point may well have been the Princess Theatre musicals of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton, and P. G. Wodehouse in the late 1910s. By the 1950s, that tradition was over. Flahooley's tradition is even older, yet it was still vital at this time.

    Consider Top Banana (1951). This salute to the comics of burlesque (featuring some of them in its cast) made a cartoon of Milton Berle, who besides being one of Seventeen's co-producers was one of the nation's biggest celebrities because of his Tuesday night television variety show. Berle's Texaco Star Theatre was so popular that many people bought their first TV set simply to see Berle. Seizing this new piece of American mores, Top Banana took a look at the world of egomaniacal TV star Jerry Biffle.

    Like Berle, and like Phil Silvers, who played the role, Biffle has come up the long way, learning his trade as comic till he is its ranking expert—and does he know it! Entering, Biffle cries, “The king is here! Kneel, you swine!” Actually, Top Banana did not make all that much of Biffle's self-importance; nor was it very interested in the triangle love plot involving Biffle, his girl friend (Judy Lynn), and a singer on Biffle's show (Lindy Doherty) or even in the fact that Biffle ends up with the girl friend's roommate (Rose Marie). The main thing in this show was comedy, the lower the better. “Burlesque with antennas” is how Biffle describes television, (p.67) because in its infancy it had not yet developed its own comic style and simply inherited styles from vaudeville, radio, and especially the burlesque of zanies and show girls. Much of this was pure corn:

    MAN 1:

  • Where are you going, Elmer?
  • MAN 2:

  • How'd you know my name was Elmer?
  • MAN 1:

  • I guessed it.
  • MAN 2:

  • Then guess where I'm going!
  • or:

    MAN 2:

  • (remarking on MAN 1's heavy outfit of bandages and cane) What happened?
  • MAN 1:

  • Everything was lovely. I was living the life of Riley …
  • MAN 2:

  • Well?
  • MAN 1:

  • Riley came home!
  • More humor came out of Silvers’ unique character: that of the tense, fast-moving wise guy who thinks he's the only one on the planet with smarts. He's suspicious:

    JERRY:

  • (When someone starts to help him retrieve his dropped money) Just stand there. (Clapping) Do this. I want to know where you are all the time.
  • He's sarcastic:

    JERRY:

  • They don't use actors in Italian pictures—they use people.*
  • He's the star, and don't you forget it, as when he shouts at a noisy animal in a Dog Number, “Not on my lines! Just wag your tail!” And he's a kind of mad control freak, as he coaches his girl friend for her big debut as Miss Blendo (after the soap company that sponsors Biffle's show):

    (p.68) SALLY:

  • I'm standing on my Blendo soap—
  • JERRY:

  • Who's standing? I'm standing. This is your big moment in the show and you've got to make it mean something. I'm standing. Say it with conviction. You're as good as anybody else. (Stamps his foot) Sock it across.
  • SALLY:

  • (Stamps her foot) I'm standing on my—
  • JERRY:

  • No. Remember, soap is a romantic article. … Flirt with the audience … be a girl. Okay!
  • SALLY:

  • (Wiggling her hips) I'm standing on my Blendo soap box—
  • JERRY:

  • Honey, we don't want to be investigated. (To BETTY) Better warm up another girl. (Back to SALLY) Go ahead, do the lines.
  • SALLY:

  • You won't let me.
  • JERRY:

  • (as if shocked) I hardly know you.
  • This goes on till Biffle loses it in a long monologue, a paranoid harangue taking in Freud and Spinoza and as much a performance as it is a release of tension. Finally, we get to the number, the first-act finale, “Meet Miss Blendo,” and just before the chorus hits its last line with high notes and upraised arms—the works—Jerry calls out, “If this scheme doesn't work, you bastards are out of a job!”

    Top Banana is a very funny show, the kind you forgive for slipping into a number on almost any pretext. Rose Marie meets one of Biffle's staffers (Bob Scheerer) and asks what he does in the show:

    SCHEERER:

  • I'm the leading dancer.
  • ROSE MARIE:

  • So dance.
  • Scheerer swings into “My Home Is In My Shoes” and the ensemble sneaks on to turn up the heat for a dance number with no purpose but to supply one of the essential ingredients of the fifties musical, as I've probably made clear by now: the choreography. Top Banana even had a dream ballet, late in Act Two, after Biffle's show has been canceled and he looks back on his career.

    Top Banana's choreographer, Ron Fletcher, made no major history, and the score, by Johnny Mercer, is one notch above terrible. As lyricist, Mercer was without question one of the best of the Third-Age names who never quite made it into everybody-knows-him (p.69) fame. Let me run some of his titles by you, to demonstrate his vernacular poetry: “AcCent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “Blues in the Night,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “My New Celebrity Is You” (a Porter list song with Mercerian spin), “This Time the Dream's On Me,” “Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-To-Be” (a murderous lullaby), Moon River,” lovely stuff. Unfortunately, Mercer also composed—seldom, and Top Banana's music shows why. What lifeless ballads and bossy choruses! Top Banana ran a year but failed to pay off, and this time a flop musical had not book problems but score problems.

    The same trouble haunted the revue. After 1950's Alive and Kicking, Michael Todd's Peep Shaw, Pardon Our French, and Tickets Please, the variety format desperately needed an infusion of class talent. It got that in the star revues Two on the Aisle (1951) and Two's Company (1952), the first with Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray and the second with Bette Davis.

    Jule Styne and Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote Two on the Aisle's score around the fact that Lahr and Gray sang but that featured comic Elliot Reid and featured dancer Colette Marchand did not. It's music for two. Kathryne Mylroie and Fred Bryan contributed a ballad called “Everlasting” and the chorus spelled the stars now and again, but this was a Lahr and Gray evening. In matching checked suit and dress they closed Act One as vaudevillians taking over the Metropolitan Opera (an allusion to new impresario Rudolf Bing's “theatricalizing” the house with movie directors, English translations, and a sellout Die Fledermaus) in “Catch Our Act at the Met”: “I'll be Lucia,” sang Gray, to Lahr's “And I'll be Sextet.” They also acted in a sketch on adultery played first in burlesque style, then as written by T. S. Eliot, and last as in a Cole Porter show.

    The two stars worked better alone, however, possibly because Gray was infuriated that Lahr had top billing (and in larger print). But, after all, he had been a top banana since the late 1920s; all she had in her kit was a sensation as Irving Berlin's Annie in London. Lahr could be difficult, an anxious performer (though never unprofessional), and Gray had her turbulent side: the ensuing feud was the second biggest in the fifties musical. (The first was that of Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas in Happy Hunting; (p.70) in good time.) So Lahr no doubt rejoiced to bound onstage alone in 6/8 meter, carolling in his characteristic gloomy hysteria, “A clown! A clown! A clown! They call me a clown!” Thank God, a spot without Dolores.

    Gray was one of the musical's great singers. Hers was a suave belt, a smooth, smooth contralto with absolute pitch and phrasing that placed a song on the first hearing. Her most noticeable number was “If,” which began with a torchy verse and led up to “I hope I don't miss you,” whereupon Gray revealed a gun and shot the dude. But her triumph was “There Never Was a Baby Like My Baby,” a slow one that rises to the line, “There never was a doll or guy baby who looked exactly like my valentine”—so sturdily vaulted, yet caressed, that one feels that no one else should dare sing the song.

    Two on the Aisle did not succeed; Two's Company did even less well. Again, top names furnished the score—composer Vernon Duke with lyricists Ogden Nash and Sammy Cahn—and they did mostly good work. Certainly, as an opening number, “Theatre Is a Lady” outshines Two on the Aisle's dumpy “Show Train,” in which the chorus sings stupid digest versions of current hit shows.

    Then came what the French call the sortie, as Bette Davis made her entrance in the second spot to sing “(Just) Turn Me Loose on Broadway” and … let George Jean Nathan tell us: “She can't sing; she can't dance; she has no knack for comedy.” Two's Company wasn't as star-centered as Two on the Aisle, so Ellen Hanley and Peter Kelley could make the most of some lavish ballads, and two supporting comics, David Burns and Hiram Sherman, were busy all night. Still, Davis was why the show was put on, Davis in all her versatility—in a Sadie Thompson takeoff, in a Hatfields-McCoys spoof, in a painfully unfunny eleven oʼclocker, “Just Like a Man.” “She is attracting trade,” said Nathan, “not by an expectation of talent but whimsically to delight in the courageous demonstration of a lack of it.”

    As it happened, the outstanding revue of the day lacked both stars and famous bylines: New Faces of 1952. In fact, this was probably the last first-rate revue ever—revue, that is, as an agglutinative vaudeville, as opposed to the songwriter's anthology so popular today. Leonard Sillman had been producing New Faces (p.71) revues since 1934, with the eponymously stated intention of presenting fresh talent. Alumni included Imogene Coca, Henry Fonda, Van Johnson, Irwin Corey, and Alice Pearce, but the 1952 edition was stuffed with gifted debutants, such as Ronny Graham, Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde, Robert Clary, Alice Ghostley, and Carol Lawrence (though the last was given no opportunity and wasn't noticed till West Side Story five years later).

    More important, this edition harked back to the revue's prime in the 1920s and 1930s as a showcase for wonderful new writers: the time of George Gershwin and B. G. De Sylva; Noël Coward; De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson; and Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Unlike Two on the Aisle and Two's Company, New Faces of 1952 had no set writing team but rather a crowd of contributors (mainly Graham, Arthur Siegel and Sillman's sister, June Carroll, and Sheldon Harnick as both composer and lyricist). Somehow or other, they wrote what may have been the most consistently entertaining vaudeville in history. There were rather a lot of spoofs, of Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, canasta, Johnnie Ray, Restoration comedy, and Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Medium. Here was one show that required a smart audience. Still, much of the piece simply offered the one-of-a-kind, self-contained scenes that integrated musical comedy couldn't use.

    So there was Alice Ghostley in a motheaten sweater alone in one to deliver Harnick's “Boston Beguine,” the lament of a wallflower who knew one night of passion in the most exotic city on earth. There was “Love Is a Simple Thing,” a harmless ballad suddenly handed over to creepy June Carroll to extoll Charles Addams's idea of romance (“… soft as a mummy's hand”). There was Paul Lynde, in Safari attire and a mile of bandages, recounting the thrill of an African vacation (“… and so, my late wife and I would like to thank you …”). There was “Nanty Puts Her Hair Up,” a Scots thing, indescribable, though the word “twee” comes to mind. There was the Siegel-Carroll “Monotonous,” Eartha Kitt's long-remembered solo on the boredom of international celebrity. There was a sad, even cruel nostalgia piece, as a woman of means looks back on her Lower East Side youth in “Penny Candy.” There was June Carroll singing “Guess Who I Saw Today?,” (p.72) a wife's monologue to her her husband, unseen behind his newspaper, on her shock at seeing an adulterous couple in town that afternoon. “Guess who I saw today,” she concludes—”I saw you.” And the newspaper slowly begins to lower as the lights fade. Through it all, there was the dishy Virginia de Luce, as the emcee, ever trying to steal the show with “He Takes Me off His Income Tax,” and ever being silenced by an offstage voice.

    The revue had nowhere to go from here. Narrative was now the musical's absolute, and television was loaded with revues, with star talent, for free, Besides, the best writers disdained revue. Even specialists—Harold Rome, for instance—were abandoning it.

    Another form on shaky ground was the revival, for old shows disappointed a public now used to sharper storytelling. Such classics as the Kern-Hammerstein Music in the Air (1932) and the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing (1931) returned to Broadway in 1951 and 1952, and both failed. A rewritten Shuffle Along (1921), with co-author Flournoy Miller, composer Eubie Blake, and lyricist Noble Sissle in the cast, collapsed within a week.

    True, a new mounting of Porgy and Bess with Leontyne Price achieved the biggest success for this title since the original had failed in 1935. But this was in fact a larger-than-Broadway project, an international tour that lasted four years, taking in a sellout booking at La Scala and a Russian visit. Anyway, Porgy is an opera, and operas live not in original runs but in revival. The sole profitable revival of a musical in this time was that of Pal Joey (1940), so successful in 1952 that a legend grew up telling us the first staging had failed. No; but the second ran longer, almost certainly because of the immense popularity of an LP that Columbia had published, with Vivienne Segal and Harold Lang, in 1950. The revival even used Segal and Lang from the disc: as if making a show out of a recording. (Segal, of course, had starred onstage in Pal Joey in 1940 as well.) It is also worth noting that a revival of another Rodgers and Hart show, On Your Toes (1936), in 1954, bombed. “Dated,” the critics said.

    This flurry of revivals in the early 1950s—there were few in the 1940s and none in the late 1950s, except off-Broadway and in the City Center's annual spring season of classic shows in (p.73) authentic stagings—suggests a feeling that the musical now had an honorable history to look back on: an ontology in American culture. And it is interesting that this occurred right in the middle of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, because that was when the musical realized that it had an opulent future, that it was still in development. So it is amusing to drop on the pair at this time, because this is when they decided to abandon the musical play for a snazzy here-and-now piece, a musical comedy: Me and Juliet (1953).

    A backstager exposing the personal lives of the cast and crew of a six-month-old musical, Me and Juliet was the most taken-for-granted hit of the decade, a very enjoyable yet somehow not quite distinguished piece that was never sold to the movies and never managed to endear its score to the public in the way any classic title must do. In fact, the cast album sold sluggishly, went out of print early on, enjoyed a brief reissue, and did not appear again until the CD era.

    What went wrong? Nothing—with the writing of the show. There was something very wrong in its staging, and I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's consider what Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't want to write.

    They didn't want any of that phoney geschrei that Hollywood's backstagers had invented—the youngster taking over for the star, the backer threatening to pull out at the last minute, the producer's talentless girl friend, the hit tune that turns a flop into a smash, the failing director who, this time, must have a hit.

    What they wanted to write was what it's like to be in a show—the bare stage with the lone work light, auditioning for replacements, rehearsing numbers that have grown untidy, the personal attachments (and alienations) within the company. Even the audience* was on view, in “Intermission Talk,” set in the theatre's downstairs lounge, where buffs chat about the first act, Broadway in general, and whatever else is on their minds. (“I don't think it's (p.74) right to be sulky all night,” one woman tells her husband, “over one little bill from Saks!”).

    Also unlike virtually every Hollywood backstager, Me and Juliet does not range all over town. It is set almost entirely in the theatre in which its play-within-the-play is running, venturing only as far as the alley outside the stage door and the bar across the street. Rodgers and Hammerstein intended a valentine to their profession, full of naturalistic detail that only veteran insiders could share. It's a dramatic piece as well, centering on a triangle involving a soft guy, a bully, and the woman they both want. She wants the soft guy, which leads the bully, one of the show's electricians, to drop a sandbag inches away from her during a performance and then to come after the soft guy with the intention of killing him.

    Another of Hammerstein's many villain figures that seem to enjoy humiliating and hurting people, the electrician, Bob, is Me and Juliet's most arresting character. Unlike the somewhat conventional bullies who proliferated in twenties operetta, Bob has an emotional motivation, an undernourished sense of self-esteem that leads him to strike out at anyone who thwarts his will out of sheer ego-defense. That sounds like Jud Fry, Oklahoma!'s villain, but Jud is so low he seems beyond human; Bob is almost reachable. He has a sweet side—as long as he's in control—and a sense of humor. Moreover, the author-producers assigned the part to Mark Dawson, a giant hunk with a boyish face and a charming lyric baritone, exactly the contradiction that Bob presents to those he works with: appealing but dangerous. At one point, he actually picks up his girl friend and carries her offstage like a caveman.

    The show gives Bob a great first act, revealing his sadistic side within the first fifteen minutes, then, pulling a characteristic Rodgers and Hammerstein switch, giving him Me and Juliet's main charm song, “Keep It Gay.” This would be too ingratiating a piece if it were Bob's character song; rather, he sings it on the lighting bridge over the stage, again during a performance. “Sh!” his partner whispers. But Bob sings it anyway, aggressively selfish yet, because of the way the number shows off his voice, attractive.

    Bob's soliloquy, “It Feels Good,” his second-act number in the (p.75) bar after the sandbag incident, develops this contradiction of a man capable of rationalizing his own irrational behavior. A wonderful touch: Hammerstein has Bob refer to his inferiors as “weasels” full of “lousy weasel talk.” It's a Nietzschean conception. Ultimately, Bob is defeated by a banding together of his coworkers: Hammerstein believes in community.

    Flanking Dawson in the love triangle were Bill Hayes and Isabel Bigley (of Guys and Dolls), like Dawson wonderful singers, better than the average for musical comedy. The stars of the play-within-the-play were either singers (Arthur Maxwell and Helena Scott) or dancers (Bob Fortier and Svetlana McLee, who is then “replaced” in her part by Joan McCracken). Two other roles are speaking parts—the magisterial stage manager (Ray Walston), who has been dating McCracken but coldly breaks it off when she joins the show because of a personal rule against intramural romance, and the haughty conductor (George S. Irving), whose fond habit it is to drown out Maxwell on his more soaring phrases, carefully holding the orchestra to pianissimo for Scott. All told, it was a highly personable cast; it had to be, for the story as such was ordinary after the exotic coloring of Indian Territory, old New England, the south Pacific in wartime, and Yul Brynner's Siam.

    The authors made an extremely crucial decision about the play-within-the-play, also called Me and Juliet. In order not to detract from the complex proceedings of the real-life people, the onstage scenes could bear neither plot nor character relationships. Instead, the audience would encounter iconic types that it could easily place—the hero, Me; his heroine, Juliet; Don Juan; and Carmen. Then, too, their surroundings must have a look all their own, airy and pixilated, to contrast with the real life going on behind the scenes.

    That's brilliant. Then the authors made a second extremely crucial decision, one that guaranteed that Me and Juliet would last no longer than its first season and disappear thereafter: they hired George Abbott to direct and Robert Alton to choreograph.

    True, this was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein title to call itself a musical comedy, and Abbott and Alton were musical comedy honchos. But Abbott was mystified by the play-within-the-play, (p.76) and Alton was all danced out. What Me and Juliet should have had, as both director and choreographer, was Jerome Robbins, who would have exploited the bizarrerie of the onstage numbers as he did “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and made something marvelous of them. Unfortunately, the age of the director-choreographer had not quite kicked in, though Robbins would do double duty on a show one year after Me and Juliet*

    I'd like to say that, with Robbins, Me and Juliet would have entered the golden book of classics, but the score isn't good enough. It's tuneful, no question. But with half the songs devoted to the—remember, characterless—onstage doings, the authors had little room in which to create those “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone” or “Twin Soliloquies” numbers in which something superb hurls the very center of the show into the ear. There are enjoyable titles—”No Other Love (have I),” adapted from Rodgers' symphonic accompaniment to TV's Victory at Sea, “Marriage Type Love,” “I'm Your Girl,” “We Deserve Each Other.” Some of them even swing, as befits Rodgers' return to his roots in musical comedy. But not a one of these songs, deleted from the show, would hurt it. Even “No Other Love,” the show's basic love song, is from the play-within-the-play, not from the real-life romance (though at one point it is used subtextually, as the soft guy rehearses his girl friend in it). Worse, any one of these songs could have been smuggled into any other musical and sounded fine. That can't be Rodgers and Hammerstein at their best.

    At his best in this show was the set and lighting designer, Jo Mielziner. I have said that stage technology did not appreciably advance during the 1950s, but Mielziner did pull off some nifty stunts for the first time, tricks with time and place that gave Me and Juliet the fluidity of cinema. Mielziner's greatest feat was the “moving” of the very stage of the theatre ten feet to the right, as if a camera had panned ten feet to the left, to catch up on what's happening in the wings. We see the soft guy kissing the girl—but (p.77) so does the hard guy, because he suddenly swings a light on them from overhead. As the girl makes her “entrance” into the onstage number, a crowded nightclub scene, that light stalks her from on high like the wrath of God, while the dancers, heading for the first-act finale of both Me and Juliet and Me and Juliet, stare upward in terror, the aforementioned sandbag crashes down, and the curtain falls.

    Mielziner got the reviews, “No Other Love” hangs on as a standard, and that's the all of Me and Juliet. It's tempting to blame Rodgers and Hammerstein for setting into motion a revolution that overwhelmed even them, that left them unable to write musical comedy on the level on which they wrote musical plays. But that's not what happened. Me and Juliet is a fine but not great show from authors of greatness. That makes for a bad press. What's key here is that the American musical had room not only for classics like Guys and Dolls or ephemeral smash hits like Call Me Madam but for a second level of ephemeral smash hits that utterly fade from view. Call Me Madam wasn't half the show that Me and Juliet was. But Merman is Merman, and its score hung on, and the title has ring.

    In other words, it isn't feast or famine, as we have today, a Phantom of the Opera or Big. There was a valid midpoint, a means of paying the rent and giving pleasure without having to become a Craze. One could even survive a critics' attack. We've seen “Wish You Were Here” and Can-Can do so. And our next show opened in the midst of certain death—a newspaper strike—and then got critically attacked, yet went on to become one of the immortal titles, at that in the form of operetta, the corpse that refused to die. Well, we all know that Cinderella's reviews are written by the ugly stepsisters.

    “Only five dinar for that lovely lyrical thought.”

    Notes:

    (*) The show curtain was de rigueur for musical comedy, disdained by the musical play and operetta. Basically just something for the public to look at while listening to the overture, the show curtain created atmosphere—in Seventeen's smalltown trees and fences, in “Wish You Were Here’”s collection of souvenirs (the summer camp's brochure, a timetable, a map, and, at center, a postcard bearing the title clause), in Mr. Wonderful's impression of Newark's after-dark neon, in The Music Man's collection of band instruments.

    (*) The Christopher Award singled out works promoting “Christian principles and the welfare of all men.” Charles OʼNeal was the father of movie actor Ryan OʼNeal.

    (*) Corey's career as a comic was based on his ability to spiel gobbledygook that sounded authoritative even as it produced logorrheic nonsense, a likeness of the academic poseur that once was exaggeration and now, in the age of “semiotics,” is descriptive. Oldtime Johnny Carson viewers might recall Corey, always announced as the “Professor.”

    (*) From Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, so elevated from Flahooley's wild-ride spoof that its evocation is, in effect, a stroke of wit.

    (*) This is a reference to the habit of neorealist directors such as Rossellini and De Sica of using non-actors to perfect their films' realism. Think of the father and son in De Sica's Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), utterly convincing in their naturalism and in fact naturals: not actors, people.

    (*) There's an odd playwrighting error in this scene, for a member of the audience does little reprises from the score, confusing one song with another. Fine—but one of the snatches that she sings is from “It's Me”—a character song in the real-life plot, not an onstage number, and thus a melody that she couldn't possibly have heard.

    (*) Very late in tryouts, Rodgers and Hammerstein realized their error and asked Robbins to take over the show. He said no, apparently seeing how much he could do with the numbers and knowing that this would destroy Alton. As it was, Alton did one more show and retired.