The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

'50s Also Rans

No one thought of it at the time as the Golden Age of the Bway Musical, but in retrospect the culmination of talent, prestige, cultural influence and dominance was at a peak as the '50s gave way to the '60s. Elvis may have set the future on a different path, but the R&H revolution was then the more reaching, ubiqutious, and lucrative American cultural expression. In turn, the evolution of the Bway musical led to the decline of the original Hlwd tuner, to the point of extinction. But conversely, the steady stream of Bway hits--sold in escalting bidding wars, shot in ballooning extravagance, and rewarded with an avalanche of awards and chart-topping grosses--made the '60s the decade of the Bway musical in Hlwd. At the start of the '50s, On the Town--the first Golden Age arrival in Hlwd--was given traditional studio treatment: rape & pillage. By decade's end, even the most frivolous musical comedies like Li'l Abner and Bells Are Ringing, were filmed with greater reverence to their source.

With Bway growing in cultural prominence (helped in no small measure by the first LP recordings of Bway shows) the typical Hlwd musical looked more & more inconsequential. With the added insurance of being a proven bill of goods, a hit from Bway became a hot commodity on the Coast. Unlike today, when, ironically, Bway is dominated by musicals--some running for decades--few ever make it onto the screen; including some of the biggest financial hits in stage history. (Isn't it astounding that Disney, or someone hasn't made an animated movie of Cats?--not that I'm complaining.) By contrast, there are very few Golden Age musicals that Hlwd neglected to make. And of those, at least half were in active development before being shelved. But aside from the aforementioned High Button Shoes, none of the great un-made are much of a puzzlement.

Among the first to take the R&H example to heart was Harold Arlen--who up to then had more success in Hlwd (The Wizard of Oz, for starters) and only a spotty record on Bway. But Arlen & E.Y. Harburg's Bloomer Girl--arriving a year and a half after Oklahoma!--proved that (r)evolution was on the way, and gave Arlen & Harburg the first big post-R&H hit. Continuity was provided by Agnes DeMille, Celeste Holm and Joan McCracken, among other alumnae of Okla. The show gave DeMille the showcase of a lengthy "Civil War Ballet," and Holm quick passage to Hlwd. But ironically, Arlen, a longtime studio-hire got bum deals for his latter Bway output. Bloomer Girl was a film natural; a period Yankee tale concerned with women’s struggle for love, equality and comfortable underwear. But a secondary plot concerned with the Underground Railroad made it an iffy proposition for the racially volatile south, so a film lay dormant thru the '50s. But a highly-abridged version for television was broadcast on NBC's monthly Producer's Showcase in February '56, starring Barbara Cook and Keith Andes. Bloomer Girl was only the second musical done on the drama-heavy series, following the sensational showing of Peter Pan--fresh from Bway. In the dozen years since its premiere Arlen's show had become a staple of stock and straw hat theaters, but as the catalog grew with more Golden Age classics, Bloomer Girl fell off the list of standards--no doubt in some measure for not having been filmed. And then in the mid-'60s it was suddenly back on track at 20th Century Fox. Shirley MacLaine was contracted for $750,000 to star. (Unverified sources claim Katharine Hepburn was to play Dolly Bloomer; and George Cukor to direct). When Fox shelved the film in '66, MacLaine sued for payment and won (a case that is still much debated by law students as a measure of contractual law). It's a shame, for it might have made a charming film--MacLaine was certainly more right for it than for Can-Can. And the score by Arlen & Harburg deserves more exposure.
Just as R&H topped themselves in their sophmore show, Arlen took another leap forward in his score (with Johnny Mercer) for St. Louis Woman. The show itself, a slight piece of "Negro folklore" concerns a quartet of players similar to those in Carmen Jones, with a racetrack background in 1890s St. Louis. Lena Horne was initially attached, but objected to the playing a "loose" black woman and pulled out. The show also  had Pearl Bailey and the Nicholas Bros. but the central role--a role designed to showcase Lena--went to Ruby Hill--a gal so obscure today as to lack even a cursory entry in Wikipedia. The show labored thru book and direction problems, and arrived severely compromised on Bway--for a short run of 13 weeks. But St. Louis Woman had been partially financed by Arthur Freed as an investment in a project for Lena Horne, which is how it ended up on Freed’s plate at MGM in 1953. Rouben Mamoulian came to the show's rescue on the road to Bway, but shortly after lost MGM a lot of money going over-budget on Summer Holiday--an early attempt at the R&H musical on screen, a tuner of O'Neill's Ah Wilderness! (Which didn't stop David Merrick from taking another stab at it a dozen years later with Take Me Along). With Mamoulian persona non grata at MGM, St. Lou might have been a good fit for Vincente Minnelli. But could the script be revised enuf to satisfy Lena Horne? Who else could have done it? Well, there's Dorothy Dandridge; but that just about exhausts the pool of female black stars in the '50s. Horne did eventually make it to Bway, in another Arlen/Harburg musical, Jamaica. But this was little more than a concert with scenery--and even Hlwd was looking for more substance in a musical by then. But with St. Louis Woman  you can see why they tried; the score is remarkable. The Original Cast recording prevented it from slipping into obscurity, but suffers from brevity and early technology. Happily, a fully restored Encores! production was preserved on audio in 1998. It showcases how nuanced and varied Arlen & Mercer's score is, and really makes you wish a decent story could have been found to support it. Arlen wrote two other post-R&H musicals, neither of which were Hlwd bait. House of Flowers was a triumph of atmosphere over substance, and instantly earned its cult status. A confection written by Truman Capote; a sort of bordello caramel, with Caribbean spicing, the musical reeked of "specialness"--of the sort that never draws crowds. It ran a few short months in 1955. Saratoga was Arlen's final Bway show in late '59; and a sad occasion it was, despite bringing Howard Keel to Bway, with Carol Lawrence, in a tuner of the Edna Ferber novel, and Ingrid Bergman/Gary Cooper film, Saratoga Trunk. Poorly written, and likewise reviewed, the show closed in ten weeks. Sadly, Arlen never wrote an original film musical after The Wizard of Oz, and certainly none in the post R&H mode. Unless you count his animated feature Gay Purr-ee from '62, which featured the voice of Judy Garland. And tho he stamped his signature on Judy's '54 A Star is Born (most noticeably with "The Man Who Got Away"); Arlen wrote but a few songs for the movie; the rest culled from various sources. Whether by fate, bad luck or indifferent selection, Arlen never quite found projects equal to his talent.

On the other end of the spectrum: Even before his first Bway success, Alan Jay Lerner negotiated himself some Hlwd deals incommensurate with his Bway track-record. In 1946 MGM bought Lerner & Loewe's Day Before Spring (a mild college reunion story) for producer Jack Cummings, who then threw out everything about the (failed) show but the title. A new score was written by Johnny Green & Frank Loesser, but the movie was never made. After Gigi, Arthur Freed tried to interest MGM in any & every Lerner & Loewe property, including Camelot and Paint Your Wagon, to no avail--the latter-day president Joseph Vogel was allergic to musicals. But the studio already owned Day Before Spring, so another go-around was attempted, with Bway  librettist   Joseph  Stein  adapting  the original script and score. This, too, was shelved, and Vogel denied Freed even the highly coveted Camelot--which he wanted to make with Vincente Minnelli and the original stars. As early as 1953, Paint Your Wagon was reported to be a candidate for Cinerama treatment. But this, and a few others that looked like time had passed them by (Song of Norway, The Boy Friend) would come back to life in the coming decade. As well as Finian's Rainbow-- which was long in development as an animated cartoon, but was finally shelved in April '57.

Two George Abbott/Jerome Robbins shows from the ‘40s were sold to Hlwd, but neither Billion Dollar Baby nor Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ were ever made—to no great loss. Having filmed Betty Smith's novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in '45, Fox had first pass on the '51 Bway tuner. Pass they did, tho it would seem a natural for the pics during Hlwd's craze for musical Americana. A daughter's reminisence ("I Remember Papa") in the usual sentimental manner; the tale is another rose-colored apologia for alcoholism ("I Forgive Papa"). Despite a rich score by Arthur Schwartz & Dorothy Fields, the show wasn't quite the hit on Bway it was expected to be. Ethan Mordden blames director George Abbott, whose style of expediency hadn't the patience necessary to nurture the folkloric qualities of the R&H template. The musical shifted heavily into a vaudeville turn for the beloved Shirley Booth in what was, at heart, a supporting role. (In a season that featured Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, Gertrude Lawrence in The King & I, and Vivian Blaine in Guys & Dolls; Booth easily won the NY critics poll.) Shortly afterward she broke into films, winning an Oscar for another stage triumph, Come Back Little Sheba. But Hlwd must have realized the story of A Tree isn't Booth's--and without her the musical was a different animal. Still, it could easily have been refocused, putting parents Johnny and Katie at the center. Abbott, who also co-wrote and produced the musical, initially wanted Gene Kelly & Ginger Rogers for Bway but settled for unknowns. It's not hard to see the show as a screen vehicle for Kelly--his natural  Irish  charm  perfect  for tempering a luckless booze-hound. But there were plenty of casting options: Sinatra, of course, or Gordon MacRae--even Bing Crosby (tho by then a little long in tooth). No less a variety for Mama: Jane Powell, Kathryn Grayson, Maureen O'Hara. Relegated to a subordinate position in the narrative, Aunt Cissy could be Betty Garrett, Angela Lansbury, Ann Miller. In the right hands it could've been a charming musical valentine in the mode of Meet Me in St. Louis or On Moonlight Bay. A film, albeit in revised form, might have saved the show from the obscurity it now endures. The musical has never had a major revival, tho for many years back in the '70s there were rumors of an all-black version to star Sammy Davis Jr. coming down the pike. It might have worked. At least there was no mention of Pearl Bailey playing Aunt Cissy.
Wish You Were Here seems a no-brainer. Less a story than a series of episodes with a motley group of characters--young adults trying to have the time of their meagre lives in a Pocanos summer camp--any studio could cast the whole thing in an afternoon with their available contract players: Virginia Mayo, Gene Nelson, Danny Thomas, Mitzi Gaynor, Polly Bergen, Buddy Hackett, Tony Martin; you get the idea. It was fairly much a stinker of a show on Bway, but it ran and ran. Joshua Logan + an onstage swimming pool = you do the math. Harold Rome's score was conspicuously forgettable--but for the title tune, which Eddie Fisher rode to the Hit Parade. He could as easily have been in the movie. With a score so disposable and a story scarcely less so, the show would seem easy bait for any studio. The musical was based on a play called Having Wonderful Time, filmed in 1938 by RKO--which presumably held some rights to the property. But RKO was virtually defunct by the mid-'50s, which suggests one possibility why the musical was never filmed.

Columbia bought Plain & Fancy for $135,000 sometime in late ’56. It’s a shame they didn’t make it. With some revision and an abridged score it might have been a good vehicle for Judy Holliday & Jack Lemmon (twice paired already, and quite nicely--in time they could have been another Tracy & Hepburn.) They were just right for the jaded city dwellers slumming among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Here we have another unmarried couple; a bourgeois East Side Nathan & Adelaide. He's a cold fish; she makes wisecracks and drinks --not unlike Joanne in Company. (You can easily mistake Shirl Conway on the OCR for Elaine Stritch). Her musical lament in the show, "It's a Helluva Way to Run a Love Affair." has this wonderful passage--that not only drips with character, but is self-referential about musical comedy:
               One enchanted evening
               in my quiet living room
               candle-lit and heavy with perfume
               love songs I played him
               that sent shivers down his spine
               and he fell in love with
               . . . Oscar Hammerstein!

For the young Mennonite lovers, how about Pat Boone (as He who would be Shunned), and Gloria DeHaven, the bride promised to his brother, a dull pragmatist: Karl Malden. Janet Leigh would suit the sassy Amish lass (played by Barbara Cook on Bway) who falls for Lemmon. As the village elders: Charles Bickford and Reta Shaw. It's a multi-storied narrative, much of it about the struggle of breaking and keeping tradition; a subject the show's librettist Joseph Stein would later use to greater effect and mammoth success in Fiddler on the Roof. But Plain & Fancy is an offbeat subject in its own right, and a fresh one for the movies. The score by Albert Hague & Arnold B. Horwitt had one modest pop hit, "Young & Foolish," and was pleasant enuf in the R&H manner, giving songs to eight different characters. There's a Carnival Ballet, and a barn-raising sequence that could be shown far better on film than it was in the theater. The simplicity of the location would also be an asset; this needn't be a big-budget, Roadshow entertainment. When Columbia acquired the show, Judy was already deeply involved with Bells Are Ringing on Bway--which kept her occupied for nearly 3 years. Perhaps Harry Cohn shelved P&F when it became clear that Holliday wouldn't be available. He could have made it without her, of course--but they'd already gone that route once before on My Sister Eileen, with meager results.

Even R&H had their misfires. Their concept musical from '47, Allegro may have inspired Stephen Sondheim to no end, but it was a headscratcher to most, and not for a moment a lure to the studios. Likewise, their '53 backstager, Me & Juliet, suffered from a stiflingly dull book filled with utterly generic "show biz" characters. Audiences wanted their R&H magic front & center, not scenes of stock backstage dealings. Tellingly, Hammerstein was as deficient in creating vivid original characters as he was masterful in developing memorable ones in adaptation. Pipe Dream, from '55, the last unfilmed R&H production suffered from conflicts of tone between Hammerstein and Steinbeck--whose gritty Cannery Row milieu was compromised for familiy consumption. It could have been wonderful; there's much in the score that is beautiful. But the show was born in strife; health problems for the both R&H; a director (Harold Clurman) alien to musicals; a dull cast (why not John Raitt, Mr. Rodgers?); and the miscalculation of booking Wagnerian soprano, Helen Traubel, as a bordello madame. Here's where Shirley Booth was needed--in Cannery Row, not Brooklyn. The show opened at the peak of R&H's fame and popularity--right on the heels of the Oklahoma! movie--and was a tremendous disappointment. It had the shortest run of any of their productions, including the filmed Oklahoma! which ran for a solid year at the Rivoli. In a world in which there was never enuf R&H to revive or resucitate, it surprises me that Pipe Dream hasn't been reworked. The score can stand up nicely (even lesser R&H measures up to the best of many others) and a rewrite of the book, with a stronger dose of Steinbeck could breathe new life into the score, and reveal another R&H treasure. But this is too much to expect from a film adaptation--particularly from R&H, who by then were anything but interested in revisiting this failure. To his last days, Hammerstein had but one desire: to go back and "fix" Allegro. Tho on paper it would seen a natural, somehow Cannery Row eluded the R&H treatment.

So here's the decade's biggest hit that wasn't filmed: The Most Happy Fella. Surprising? Not really. At first glance, Frank Loesser's hybrid of musical comedy & operetta, was a show virtually drowning in music (the OCR was released on 3 LP's--the entire show-- virtually wall to wall music); but just as there was a single album of "highlights," the score could likewise be pruned for the screen. After all, it's Frank Loesser!--Hlwd's homeboy made good on Bway. And if there's a good deal of "opera" in the score, there's no lack of pop tunes: "Standing on the Corner," "Joey, Joey, Joey," "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance." "Big-D." The story (from Sidney Howard's play They Knew What They Wanted), which ostensibly takes place in the 1920's, is so period deficient that it not only feels, but more importantly sounds like the '50s. Three film versions of the play already existed; the last in 1940 with Charles Laughton & Carole Lomabard. But the challenge was also in finding a credible box office lead for Tony--the aging Italian farmer, confined to a wheelchair for most of the action--with a genuine Opera voice. That is unless the studio preferred to dub everyone, and go for dramatic chops or Star power over musical talent--as was becoming more and more the norm. In that case we might have seen Paul Muni, Charles Boyer, or even Edward G. Robinson as Tony. (Here's one show with no part for Sinatra). For Rosabella, Joanne Woodward somehow comes to mind--doesn't she seem just right, emotionally? Of course there were plenty of young studs in the late '50s to play the sex bait, Joey. How great would it have been to snag Brando for his second Loesser musical? Can't you just picture him, in his field-hand dungarees, crooning "Joey, Joey, Joey":

     That's what the wind sings to me--
      --When I've had all I want of the ladies
               in the neighborhood--

Sounds crazy, no? Wait till the '60s for some real absurd casting. Yes, they could've taken the Zinnemann or Preminger approach; cast actors for dramatic strength over musical ability. Or they could have gone the old MGM route of using actual musical talent: a legit Opera baritone, Robert Merrill, perhaps; or the original Tony, Robert Weede. Shirley Jones for Rosabella, with Janis Paige or Mitzi Gaynor for Cleo, and Stubby Kaye as Herman. Dean Martin as Joey. Perhaps Loesser nixed the idea of a film himself. This was his dream pet project; written at the peak of his Bway clout, with near absolute creative freedom. A film would not have been within his control; nor was it likely to have been realized in anywhere near its full operatic glory. In any case, here's one musical that keeps coming back despite no celluloid incarnation to sustain its fame in the canon. Loesser's name alone does that. Yet, The Most Happy Fella has the curious distinction of being the focus of an episode of I Love Lucy. The usual hijinx ensue when Ricky & Lucy & Fred & Ethel attend the show, only to find that Lucy lost the tickets. Two box seats are left. . . and you can take it from there. But there are at least half a dozen moments when we are hearing songs from the musical (off the recording, no doubt)--as we watch them watch the show. 
The episode was broadcast far into the play's Bway run, and had no discernible impact on perking up the box office. Of course, the irony is that this bit of exposure has been seen--in reruns for over half a century--by many millions more than had ever seen, or heard of, the musical.

For awhile it looked like Redhead, would be filmed; and it's a great loss that it wasn't--not because it was the Tony winning musical of 1959 (over weak competition -- Tony's absurd calendar rendered some of the season's best shows, like Gypsy ineligible until 1960), but for Gwen Verdon's heroic performance. Never before and never again--even more than the grueling demands of Sweet Charity--would she have such a strenuous role (Verdon's own assessment was that she only mastered the show in a handful of performances). United Artists bought the screen rights, with the intention of using Gwen, as well as her future husband, Bob Fosse, as director. He'd proven his mettle on Bway with the show--joining Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd in the hyphenate club. This would have been his maiden directorial effort in Hlwd, and we can only imagine what he would have done with the material. It's possible he might have cast himself as well, as the hero's sidekick (and ultimate culprit); a part he wanted to play on Bway initially, until his duties as director proved all consuming. It's easy to forget that Fosse had his moments on camera before he ever staged a dance step on Bway. The show had a pleasant, if undistinguished score by Plain & Fancy's Albert Hague, with lyrics by the estimable Dorothy Fields; but also a complicated and nonsensical story, involving a mousy waxworks custodian, an American stage-strongman, two spinster aunts, a redheaded murderer, a jailhouse tango., and a spooky/slapstick chase. It worked because Fosse spun it into one dazzling production number after another, peppered with frequent solo turns by Verdon, who was pushed like a thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby. Another asset was the plush velvet Victorian atmosphere, the London of Jack the Ripper, Madame Tussaud, dockhouse pubs, and music hall stages. It was all gaslight, black tights and pink champagne. Which was likely to be rather costly. Perhaps the bottom line was the measure of expense against the unknown commodity of Fosse as film director and the still rather unproven draw of Verdon as a Screen Star, despite Damn Yankees. At any rate, in short order Gwen got pregnant and had baby Nicole; and Bob went back to staging shows on Bway, and even performing as Joey in City Center's revival of Pal Joey. It would be another eight years before he'd get his shot in Hlwd--and then again, with a show that was written for Verdon, tho this time she was considered replaceable. Tho Redhead never got into rotation on the strawhat & summer tent circuit, it had some life without Verdon for a few years. Gretchen Wyler and Juliet Prowse had a go at it here and there. As did Allyn Ann McLerie--Verdon's Bway standby, who went on whenever Gwen was sidelined by the arduous role. Verdon's showmanship, as well as her beatific generosity, was demonstrated on one occasion when, with sprained ankle, she made the understudy announcement to the audience herself, and asked them to join her in watching the show--a luxury she hadn't had yet herself. Few dared ask for refunds. (McLerie, whose major film appearances were in Where's Charley? and Calamity Jane, was apparently quite the dancer if she was thought fit to fill in Verdon's shoes. She succeeded Chita Rivera as Anita in West Side Story as well, which shows a real diversity in her abilities, and a indication of her skills as an actress--yet another underappreciated stage talent) It's a shame Verdon & Fosse didn't see their handiwork preserved on film; Redhead remains but a tasty fantasy one can concoct while listening to the album.

At the start of the '50s, Hlwd was pouring forth such concoctions as An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, The Bandwagon, 7 Brides for 7 Bros.--studio originals that won respect from critics and audiences alike. By decade's end Hlwd was throwing in the towel in competetion with Bway product. And thus was born an unspoken creed: If you can't beat them, buy them. And buy them they did--at record-breaking prices, with ever-growing budgets and cinematic ambitions.
                                                           Welcome to the Sixties.

Next Up: Fanny 

1 comment:

Hushpuppy212 said...

THE MOST HAPPY FELLA is one of my all-time favorite musicals. I've listened to the 3 LP set (and later the CD) over and over again, and yet I've never once thought about how it would've worked on screen, so thank you for giving me that to ponder over my morning coffee. But PLEASE don't suggest anyone other than the glorious Susan Johnson for the role of Cleo. As a young kid, watching I LOVE LUCY and hearing Johnson's 'aha' in the 'Big D' snippet you describe made me jump on my bicycle and run off to the library to see what she was all about. I was smitten. Susan Johnson will always and forever be Cleo, the waitress with the sore feet.

BTW, Desilu, invested in THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, which is why the show is so prominently featured in that episode of I LOVE LUCY. The episode aired in March 1957 and she show ran until December 1957, so LUCY may or may not have helped promote the show. 1956 was an especially good year for Broadway. Just think, in December 1956, you could've seen the original cast of MY FAIR LADY at the Mark Hellinger, Rosalind Russell in AUNTIE MAME at the Broadhurt, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA at the Imperial, Ethel Merman in HAPPY HUNTING at the Majestic, Judy Holliday in BELLS ARE RINGING at the Shubert, and Judy Garland at the Palace. Kinda makes your head explode).

Incidentally, Lucy didn't lose the tickets, they were for the matinee and they missed the curtain, thinking the tickets were for the evening performance. I think the exterior of the theater was the Pantages on Hollywood Blvd. Seems to me I recognize the doors.