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: Nine

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sweet Charity

April 1, 1969   Universal   152 minutes
Shirley MacLaine has very thin lips, but the way they fold into the corners of her mouth makes her positively twinkle. She bewitched me from the moment I first laid eyes on her, and the more movies I saw her in, the more I read about her, the more I dug her. In looks, intelligence and personality she was my ideal gal. So news of her casting as Sweet Charity was a national holiday in my brain. It couldn't have been anyone else--not even, dare I say it, Gwen Verdon, who was even then my very favorite Bway star in large measure because of this very musical. But MacLaine was not just a Movie Star, but my favorite Movie Star. As Verdon was my favorite Bway Star--even without my experiencing her greatest talent: dancing. Verdon had such vocal presence, so much humor and character--that matched with her photos--made her irresistible to me. And of course, similarities between the two women are hard to miss. So, I had a type: long-legged redheads with comic timing. And that certain indefinable spark that melts my heart and smokes my brain.

During my first year on earth, Verdon was enjoying her initial taste of stardom in Cole Porter's Can-Can while MacLaine was in the chorus of Me & Juliet, just one theater away on West 44th St. A year later Shirl, still in the corps, was back across the street in The Pajama Game, dancing steps by a first time Bway choreographer, one Bob Fosse--who a year later was giving moves to Verdon that would forever seal both their lives: Damn Yankees. She had trained and assisted with Jack Cole and became a star under Michael Kidd. He wed and worked with dancers, Mary Ann Niles and Joan McCracken, then turned Carol Haney into a star in Pajama Game--his first Bway assignment. And of course it was as Haney's understudy that MacLaine made her legendary leap to Hlwd--whew! it's all so incestuous. Shirl became a movie star, and Gwen became Fosse's greatest Galatea--the perfect vessel for his expression. She never danced anyone else's steps again, but had enuf charisma on her own to become Bway's greatest dancing star, winning four Tony Awards for four successive shows. She would not win a Tony for Charity despite it being her greatest role (Angela Lansbury charmed all skeptics in a late opening Mame.) But Bob got his 5th for choreography (losing direction to Albert Marre for Man of La Mancha) and finally the respect and attention he was craving from Hlwd. Even so, at that time common wisdom about Charity along The Street was rather short-sighted concerning its longevity.  What then seemed like a trifle became emblematic of the adult mid-'60s. Bway has already seen two major revivals, three editions played London, and road tours and local productions abound. And of course it doesn't hurt that Charity was one of four musicals from the 1965-66 Bway season made into movies (and no less than 12 plays) --a new record, but a false signifier, as so quickly this Golden Age would pass. None of the four pics used their Bway heroines (even with such unimpeachable talent as Verdon, Barbara Harris, and Angela Lansbury), but reached for bigger Stars: MacLaine, Streisand, Lucy & Sophia--which proved no insurance against failure.


It's a shame Bob Fosse hadn't gotten his hands on the train set earlier. If not with the once-promised Redhead movie, why not How to Succeed to test his cinematic muscles? Alas, it fell to Sweet Charity to suffer the learning curve of Fosse's filmaking eye. He's a kid in a candy store and doesn't know what to pick. So he tries it all: stop-motion, freeze-frame, slo-mo, reverse action, color negative flips, dolly tracking shots, creative framing, staccato editing, fast zooms. It's a veritable Camerapalooza. But instead of generating excitement it quickly turns wearying and annoying. The whole picture is overscaled to begin with. Neither the scope nor the story call for Roadshow treatment; it needed to be slimmed down, like its Vegas tab-version--modest in the way Pajama Game was on screen. But the studios had lost their minds over 70mm tentpole musicals when they invited Fosse into the tent. Universal hadn't much of a track record with them, tho they did well with an original, Thoroughly Modern Millie in '67. MacLaine and Charity seemed a pre-sold title, but she insisted on Fosse for director, giving him a leg up to Hlwd, where 14 years earlier he'd--inadvertently--done the same for her. Of course he'd have preferred Gwen, who was 43 by then, and not quite the movie draw of MacLaine, who was, after what already seemed a large body of work, only 34.

Aside from the Whorehouse Ballet he did for the turn-of-the-century New Girl in Town (which George Abbott cut prior to Bway) this was really the first show where Fosse could indulge his taste for the tawdry.  Bob had suffered some lumps since he'd ascended to the elevated rank of Director/Choreographers in '59 with the Tony winning Redhead. But a fast flop (his first) on the strangely-chosen Preston Sturges adaptation, The Conquering Hero, left him vulnerable enuf to come late into How to Succeed in Business to fix the work of a novice. Cy Feuer wouldn't relinquish his hand on Little Me, which had Fosse again on the dances only. He was given full reins once more on Pleasures & Palaces--the next Frank Loesser musical, which unhappily was also the last Frank Loesser musical. Who can say what drew any of them to the material, which was based on a recent Sam Spewack play about John Paul Jones and Catherine the Great--that on top of being a one performance Bway flop--let's fix it!--simply sounds like a terrible idea. It starred John McMartin., Phyllis Newman and Jack Cassidy. And closed in Detroit. Moving on, Fosse turned to one of his heroes: Federico Fellini, who had a similar marriage & muse thing going with his wife, Giulietta Masina. One of their greatest collaborations, some say the best, was the '57 film about a hapless but eternally optimistic prostitute, Nights of Cabiria. You can see why Bob saw this as a perfect fit for his own partner and wife. Verdon and Masina had a similar rare quality evoking the comic and heartbreaking within a beat. Fosse began work in earnest on the show, writing the libretto under the pseudonym Bert Lewis. Interestingly it was first conceived as a one act piece, to be paired with another written by Elaine May. For the score Bobby recruited Cy Coleman, with whom he'd become friends during Little Me. Cy and his lyricist Carolyn Leigh had split up, but Fosse had worked well with Dorothy Fields on Redhead, and Coleman & Fields hit it off. The unique thing about Dorothy--who despite her rep as an unrepentent lush--got younger and hipper with her lyrics the older she got. Eventually Fosse realized he needed a real writer and brought in another friend from Little Me: Neil Simon. Fellini's story--all his stories--are mostly episodic, which played up to Simon's roots as a sketch-comedy writer for Sid Caesar. There's plenty of Simon gags in the libretto, and Verdon excelled at them as well. Fellini didn't shy away from Cabiria's profession, and Irma La Douce had shown Bway could accept a singing/dancing harlot in a starring role (which circles back to MacLaine, who played Irma on screen). 


In truth, Malina makes an unconvincing whore  (ever seen another in calf-length skirts and socks & sandals?) Fosse sexed up Charity considerably (Verdon's hip-thrust stance for the show's poster made that clear), but went softcore about her profession. (The film doesn't even merit a PG rating but a pure G; bring the kiddies!) Why do you suppose Fosse skirted the issue? Did he feel that tacky dance hall necessary for his dance numbers? But were there still Tango Palaces and Taxi Dancers in 1966 New York?--let alone 1969 (the year of Midnight Cowboy)? By then Times Square had deteriorated into peep shows & sex emporiums--with whores of every stripe working 42nd St. Ten cents a dance was as obsolete as the Studebaker or the Victrola. (Actually the price at entry is posted $6.50) There's a strange dichotomy in the show: the seedier the element, the greater the fantasy. In a NYTimes interview Fosse made, according to Kevin Boyd Grubb's 1989 bio, "Razzle Dazzle," he explained that New York hookers were either posh or trash, "There is something ugly about a prostitute in this country. It's all right in Italy. I wanted to get the nearest thing to a prostitute, a promiscuous girl who sold something for money--a dance, understanding, conversation, something." Allegedly Fosse (and Verdon) did much research hanging out in seedy dance halls--an anthropological expedition that became witness to a dying breed. If Grubb's account gives me pause it's because in re-reading his single chapter on Sweet Charity, I encountered half a dozen easily-recognized factual errors.


It's hard to think of another musical that has such a poor opening number and a weak first act curtain yet overcomes both so easily. Verdon barely put over "You Should See Yourself," and in later performances--when the show was wearing her out, cut it entirely. (An amusing item in Variety reported her response to a patron's complaint by refunding him the price she calculated as a percentage of the show: 41 cents). It's not really such a bad song, just misdirected: Isn't it better she be expressing her feelings, rather than extolling the virtues of a schmuck who's about to dump her in a lake? The song has a feeling of compromise, something settled on out of frustration or lack of time. Fosse had Coleman & Fields write a new one for the movie. "My Personal Property" is somewhat of an improvement, but not in any substantial way. (It doesn't help that the song is filmed with incessant focus pulling--dissolving to blur between each & every jump in location.) The irony is they actually had the perfect song, one they replaced with "I'm a Brass Band" in deferenece to Gwen's stamina. Too strenuous at that point in the show, "Poor Everybody Else" would've made a dynamic opening song that does well to describe Charity's optimism.

     Poor everybody else
     How I pity everybody else but me
     I'm sorry they're not loved
     Like I'm being loved
     In this world there's no girl alive got
     the goose bumps that I've got

Too good to waste, it eventually wound up in Seesaw. As for the first act curtain: they simply broke a comedy sketch in half; and not a very funny one at that. Worse, it was set in an elevator--which made for about as limited and dull a scenic picture as possible on a Bway stage. The show didn't have much in the way of scenery anyway--Fosse was well on his way to stripping down the musical, first the sets, next the book, finally the score (at least a newly composed one) as he marched toward absolute control--and deprived us of new musicals at the expense of his dance recitals: Dancin' and Big Deal. Yet more than any other show, Sweet Charity wasn't just Fosse's major career turning point, it was also in many ways his most satisfactory Bway musical. He was in the throes of remounting a road company with Donna McKechnie when he finally collapsed on a sidewalk in Washington D.C. and expired in Sept '87.

Cy Coleman wasn't one to give up easily. The title tune was another song much reworked. It was originally written for a very different characater; a brasher Sinatra-like Oscar--titled, "You Wanna Bet." Streisand even recorded it, on a B side. With its new lyric for John McMartin's foresquare dullard, it seemed a weed among flowers. Simply by changing the syncopation. Coleman perked it up some for the film--which continued thru subsequent revivals. (Michael Rupert's version in the '86 Debbie Allen revival approaches redemption) Another song that felt a throwaway was "I'm the Bravest Individual"--Charity's pep-talk to calm the claustrophobic Oscar. Its a harmless melody with amusing lyrics but not exactly a moment that cries out for music. Coleman, who was a rare Bway composer nominated for his film's scoring adaptation, cut the song; but wrote another, that's unfortunately worse. "It's a Nice Face" is barely a ballad, sung with almost indifference by MacLaine in a virtual whisper while McMartin lies in a deep faint. And as either song preceded an act break with no emotional pay-off, its a serious flaw in the musical. But otherwise Coleman & Fields harvest a crop of musical comedy heirlooms. Even Cy couldn't know which songs would break out: "If My Friends Could See My Now," "Where Am I Going?" and "Baby, Dream Your Dream," got pop singer coverage; and even "Big Spender"--which you'd imagine wouldn't work out of context. But Shirley Bassey and Peggy Lee made hit recordings of it. No less brilliant, but confined to the show are such delights as "The Rhythm of Life," "The Rich Man's Frug," "I'm a Brass Band," and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," a Latin-fueled anthem with driving electric guitars. The film cut another filler number, Vittorio's snooze of a ballad, "Too Many Tomorrows," happily without attempting a substitution. You can see the argument for cutting "Charity's Soliloquy"--an entirely expositionary number, tho with very choice lyrics by Fields. On stage the action changed as Charity told her story, flowing from a lenghty intro into a nice bossa nova refrain. Whatsmore the tune supplies ample visual possibilities--adding another layer of info beyond her own words. And that bossa nova beat feels so perfect, and unexpected. (It's reorchestrated for the 2005 revival--and sans bossa nova, deflates the song considerably.) It's even more difficult to square with the omission of "Baby, Dream Your Dream." For one thing, it's depriving the great--virtually unseen--Chita Rivera of screen time, and a song right up her alley (in duet with Paula Kelly's Helene.) Rivera, tho Bway's other great Dance Star, also had a fantastic vocal presence; more of a belt than Verdon, but with velvety undertones. What were they thinking? Not only that, "Baby, Dream..." ranks with the best songs in the show and had some crossover action. Tho nearly half of Coleman's dozen Bway musicals were hits, Sweet Charity is the only one to date that became a movie.
I hadn't noticed before how much Charity follows in the footsteps of Little Me. Aside from the talents of Fosse, Coleman & Simon, it has a plot told in sketch comedy, a hapless heroine, and a pair of dances that bookend each other. Little Me's "Rich Kids Rag" was a turn-of-the-century juvenile romp. Charity's "Rich Man's Frug" was a grown-up, very '60s shuffle. This show introduced the electric guitar and bass to the Bway pit (Birdie only used them for its rock parodies); integrated so beautifully in Ralph Burns' orchestrations--among the most exciting of the decade. The show also has something rare among even the best of musicals: a bounty of second act goodies. What need is there in the story for "The Rhythm of Life," aside from giving Gwen some breathing room? But who would want to be without it? A beatnik cantata that presaged the flower children, and became in the movie a liturgical hullabaloo--complete with Sammy Davis Jr. as "Daddy," preaching the beat to his flock. In my church this ranks among the better hymns. "Where Am I Going" is a ballad swirling in beautiful tumult--a melody so immersive it's nearly trancelike. Tho I wonder if my passion would've been so aroused without the peerless recording of the song on the OCR. Verdon's plaintive vocal has fifty shades of emotion, but the orchestra is the real star here; go listen to the instrumental middle section--such an evocative urban sound, a real loneliness-among-the-crowd feel. Verdon's final answer: "You tell me," is choked out in heartbreak, but oh how the orchestra then picks it up and tosses it to the sky--it's a shattering ending. Can you tell I like this sort of thing? 
You don't expect another five-star number so soon, but "I'm a Brass Band" is nearly gilding the lily. Gwen leads a band of boys thru a joyous parade--spreading bliss to immunize us against the coming downer ending. (In fact the original album tracked this as the final number). We get another dose of Rahadlakum with the show's eleven o'clock number, "I Love to Cry at Weddings." But this is no matrimonial finale, for Charity is shortly dumped once again--left to pick herself up, dust herself off and start all over again. Neil Simon's libretto provides her with a fairy godmother in Central Park (Ruth Buzzi--pre-Laugh-In) assuring "Dreams will come true, tonight! Tonight!," Of course this fairy is just plugging a TV show, but Charity, like Peter Pan, needs to believe.

Much of the framework came from Fellini's Cabiria, the opening push into the lake, the night out with the film star, the search for faith among believers (tho Fellini is far more Catholic); the unexpected boyfriend: Oscar. But he's far more suave in Cabiria, Simon remakes him as a modern neurotic, and Fosse cast a veteran of two of his flops, John McMartin--whose physical resemblance to Fosse should be noted. He was also the sole principal from the Bway cast to graduate to the movie. Yes, he suits the role, but must he be so dull? It's a stretch to believe this character would even know about, let alone attend a "Church-of-the-Month Club." You can see why Cabiria falls under the spell of her Oscar, but Charity only seems more pathetic for clinging to such a bore. Perhaps another actor, someone like Austin Pendleton, could have made him endearing in his neurosis, but McMartin has the sex appeal of a turtle and is not one to charm the birds out of the trees. On the other hand, Fosse did right in casting Ricardo Montalban as Vittorio Vitale (Vidal on Bway), and losing his dreadful song (The show's one real turkey, I think). And tho there's barely a part there, it was right to bring back Stubby Kaye to rally another eleven o'cock number, as he seems wont to do (See: Guys & Dolls, Li'l Abner).

Poor Helen Gallagher. She stood out thru the dancing corps of successive '40s musicals (Billion Dollar Baby, Brigadoon, High Button Shoes) worked her way up to a Tony in '52 as sassy Gladys in the resurrected Pal Joey produced by Jule Styne, who was so taken with her he determined to write a show to make her a Star. Bway had its Mary & Ethel, but it didn't have a real Star Dancer then, and Gallagher was a very prime candidate. Unfortunately Styne's vehicle, Hazel Flagg, came up short. (Tho, it did become a Martin & Lewis movie, see: Living It Up) And shortly after, another hoofer would steal the spotlight, beginning an unbroken string of hits as Bway's Prima Danceuse: Gwen Verdon doing the Can Can. After that Gallagher's next job was replacing Carol Haney (and in a way, Shirley MacLaine) in Pajama Game. She then played a few leads in 2-week City Center revivals, until landing with a thud in one outright stinker: Portofino. She'd been off the Main Stem for seven years before coming back for Fosse, now in support of Verdon. Her reward was being understudy to Gwen, covering her many absences (from exhaustion) and eventually succeeding her entirely (but sadly unable to sustain Verdon's draw, the show closed in 3 weeks.) After that, Helen was a replacement Gooch in Mame--retiring her dancing shoes. But she had one last hurrah, coming back for some nifty stepping with Bobby Van in the surprisingly sensational '71 revival of No, No, Nanette--and even won a Tony Award over Elaine Stritch's Joanne, to boot. As Charity's dance hall cohort, Nickie, Gallagher was hard-as-nails perfection, and had three numbers of her own to strut her stuff. Or rather with her sidekick, Helene--who seems to always be an after-thought next to Nickie. None of the actresses who've played her seem to gain any traction. But among Nickies, besides Gallagher (who got a Tony nom, but lost to Jane Connell's Gooch in Mame), there was Bebe Neuwirth (who won a Tony) in the first Bway revival, and no less than Chita Rivera in the movie--my other favorite Bway star. By 1968--years after West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie--she was convincingly "shopworn"--tho she would be trodding the boards for another forty years--a career unsurpassed in its longevity for a dancer. It's delightful to see her here, even if it demonstrates why the camera doesn't love her. Her features are large, long and not a little harsh. And that's not all attributable to her deliberate makeup. A similar quality comes thru on clips from her guest spots on 'various 60s TV Variety shows (available all over YouTube). Simply put, Chita Rivera, like many Bway legends, is too big on the screen. I'm afraid I've nothing to say about Paula Kelly because with Rivera & MacLaine in action who has time to watch her?.
Neil Simon was too busy with other plays, and adapting The Apartment into a musical to get involved with Charity's screenplay. Universal hired Peter Stone, who had written several lucrative pics for the studio: Charade, Father Goose (for which he won an Oscar) Arabesque and Mirage. Tho he grew up in the film industry, Stone was then gravitating toward Bway, having already written books for two flops, Kean and Skyscraper--both too complicated with cleverness. Following this film assignment he would pen his brilliant libretto for 1776, and thereafter remain in greater demand on Bway. As he so well wed words to Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, Stone knew to write for MacLaine's strenghts, adding new scenes, including a heartrending awakening for Charity in an employment agency. Stone has Oscar flee at City Hall instead of shoving her in the Central Park lake (as on stage). "Where Am I Going" is relocated here, which is equally fitting, tho MacLaine's vocal is heard only as her inner voice as she wanders aimlessly thru NY. I assume Cy Coleman wrote the underscoring for the final scene; the resurrection of Charity's hope, by an early morning hippie visitation (featuring a very young Bud Cort--before Harold & Maude, and the tousle-haired, Kristoffer Tabori (you either know him or you don't--I thought of him as my doppelganger at the time). Fosse filmed an alternate ending--most likely under studio pressure--in which Oscar realizes he's made a mistake and in saving Charity from jumping, falls into the lake himself. (It's a bonus track) You can hear Peter Stone gnawing his teeth writing the scene; but it's not as terrible as it first seems--just not true to the musical, or Fellini's original.
Sweet Charity was one of six New York-set musicals of its Bway season--continuing the town's romance with itself. But this was a cruder slice than usual, a snapshot of the city's mid-'60s decline. (Coleman would go further down this rabbit hole in the '70s with Seesaw, and two decades later in the '80s-set nadir of slime, The Life.) But mostly it was a cartoon--at least on stage. For the screen, Fosse took the postcard love-letter route. Most exteriors were filmed in Manhattan, tho the lake Charity gets pushed in was built at Universal, with a replica of the Central Park bridge. Fosse rented Wall Street one Sunday, and Lincoln Center and Yankee Stadium on another, with a few other pointed locations--then mixed them up in bits thru-out several numbers. "My Personal Property," "Where Am I Going?" and "Sweet Charity" served more as accompaniment to montage--the latter two are heard in voice-over only. But most of the pic was shot on soundstages in Hlwd--like West Side Story, which Fosse deliberately references in two showcase numbers. Is it even possible to watch "There's Gotta Be Something Better  Than  This,"  without  linking  it  to  "America"?--
especially with Chita Rivera giving us hints of the Anita we didn't see on screen. Dancing on New York rooftops (perhaps any rooftops) is an old trope, but one that always seems to work. "The Rhythm of Life," (like "Cool") heads for the opposite direction: an underground garage; both steeped in hipster vernacular.  At the time it seemed a desperate attempt to reclaim Sammy Davis for the psychedelic generation. But from this distant perspective it seems almost cute. He doesn't look out of place in leather pants and Haight-Ashbury-by-Pucci print tunic, and he's quite the right voice for the song, which has such promising moments. Again, I so want to be transported by it, but there's something in the way, and I'll be damned if I can put my finger on it. It does get lost in the weeds a bit when halfway thru the song Oscar & Charity are drawn into the number; or when it concludes, jarringly, in dead silence. Fosse was learning a new language here--one he would acquire as soon as his next film. But whatever his faults in editing, there's no dispute that his dances were justification enuf for the movie. Tho ostensibly set in a posh nightclub, "Rich Man's Frug" steps outside the story entirely to feature a dance program with signature Fosse ensemble work. But is this supposed to be the floor show, or the stylized actions of the patrons? It enfolds in sort of a vacuum. And was it really necessary to give screen titles for the three movements? ("The Aloof," "The Heavyweight," and stupidly, "The Big Finish"). The dance ends with a another artificial freeze and thud of silence. Creative as Fosse was he had little clue about ending numbers smoothly on the screen. (He was well shown up by Oliver! which had done a remarkable job in making song-to-scene flow effectively.) 

But never mind, the dance itself is sui generis--led by a very mod Suzanne Charney (a younger Barrie Chase) in sequined mini-skrit and horse's length pony tail, which she whips about with Ann-Margret-like abandon. Keener viewers will detect Ben Vereen and Lee Roy Reams among the boys. "I'm a Brass Band," has MacLaine and male corps in band uniforms, parading thru sites around Manhattan. Only thing is: the town is entirely deserted--which makes it feel weird--you'd think she'd be fantasizing more of a ticker-tape crowd--for being a Brass Band, she's an awfully private one. And the constant jumping of locations, meant to enhance the number instead proves more of a distraction from the dance itself. Unique among the movie's songs its best moment is in the ending: a slow drumbeat coda with MacLaine tripping the light fantastic past the Stock Exchange, marching off into the distant grey canyons, like they were stage wings.
On Bway, "Big Spender" wowed the audience with its proscenium-length dance barre at the footlights, and its cadre of broads bent askew. This is a dance with a miminum of movement--and an electrifying one all the same. Fosse knew he had to redesign it for the camera, and the fact that he succeeds in some brilliant strokes makes it all the more frustrating to see it ruined by scattershot editing and gloopy dissolves. You don't use dissolves for something this crisp, this punctuated. Another potential classic number misses the mark. 
MacLaine's main solo, "If My Friends Could See Me Now" is a near miss as well. It starts out just fine, and MacLaine is about as good a dancer here as she gets--coached not just by Fosse, but Verdon as well. But why does Fosse have to take it to an abstraction: a black box with a spotlight? (Truth be told, Vitale's apartment isn't quite the breathtaking pad its supposed to be, but then why isn't it?) Fosse brings in moments of stylized behavior: tableux vivants, scenes with Charity moving thru frozen ensembles. Every song seems to get a visual gimmick: pans and dissolves in "Big Spender," in & out of focus on "My Personal Property," slo-mo for "Sweet Charity," etc. Fosse thought he had to invent not simply a dance, but a cinematic style for every number. He either went too far, or not far enuf. He does all right with the book scenes, however; the less stylized, more naturalistic moments of the film--tho we could well do without the still-photo montages that serve as transitions.
Before the film opened on April Fool's Day at the Rivoli in New York,Variety made a stunning appraisal: declaring it as inventive and game-changing as West Side Story had been 8 years earlier; Shirley MacLaine was giving the performance of her career and Bob Fosse was the next Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, or both. They not only predicated a blockbuster, but future landmark status as well. The fact they were so wrong points up the increasing chasm between Hlwd and the film audience for musicals. By 1969, star-driven, mega-budget, intermission-happy, Roadshow musicals were coming with such regularity--but inconsistent quality--that it's possible to blame Charity's lackluster box office on audience fatigue. (Universal didn't tinker with a recut of the pic like Fox did with Robert Wise's Star!--which didn't help.) Half the country still hadn't digested Funny Girl or Oliver! and here we were again with another hardticket--the enemy of the impulse trip to the movies. The pic opened strong in 13 cities, but ran out of steam much sooner than expected. Funny Girl ran 72 weeks on Bway at reserved seats. Charity only lasted 18. By year's end the film's rentals totaled barely a million, but eventually reached $4,025,000--not the worst, but still a loss.

I didn't see the movie until August of '69, mere days after my first viewing Oliver!, both reserved-seat Roadshows at San Jose's Century theaters. Tho my 16 year old enthusiasm was raging stronger than my hormones, I felt a slight, if gnawing, sense of disappointment, which was never quite abated thru another half-dozen viewings over the years. Add three more showings now and I feel it stronger still. We know what a master Fosse became with a camera, and we can only wish his more mature techniques could have elevataed Charity to its full potential. But whatever its flaws, thanks to MacLaine, Fosse's dances and Coleman & Fields' score, it contains many moments of delight.

In the end, the best, most consistent work in the pic comes from MacLaine; who manages to keep a real grip on her character, and gets to use her early dance training to its most effective presentation on film. My love for her isn't so blind that I can't recognize she isn't the greatest of singers or dancers; but she has an undeniable joie de vivre that illuminates the character of Cabiria/Charity. She'd been down this road before playing dormat ladies, earning Oscar noms for Some Came Running, and The Apartment, and another for an outright hooker--a happy one: Irma La Douce. Charity Hope Valentine was the culmination of all these women, and seemed a sure ticket to another nomination, and maybe finally, a win. But by awards season, with the film running out of the steam, Universal suddenly had another, newer, contender: Anne of the Thousand Days, and put their muscle behind it to score a Best Pic nom, and nods for Richard Burton and Genevive Bujold--who stole MacLaine's nomination, unless it was Jean Simmons in a rather obscure Richard Brooks film, The Happy Ending. The Other nominees were Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli (the first for both), and Maggie Smith, who won for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Like Preston in Music Man, MacLaine must've come in sixth. There's no glory in "almost," but for nerds such as us who might waste the energy to mull or care about such things. Baby, dream your dream. 

The advent of the '70, and the end of Old Hlwd, put Shirley's film career in remission. Along with adventures in travel, politics, television and autobiography, she hunted new musicals for her Bway return, (Saint Subber was developing one from a creaky '20s play and Norma Shearer's final movie, Her Carboard Lover, with a score by Charles Strouse & Lee Adams--I know this because it was during my tenure in Saint's service. MacLaine was considering it, and considered it--quite rightly--unsuitable.) Instead, she put together her own song-and-dance show; arranged by Cy Coleman, with a good portion of songs from Sweet Charity; and brought it to Bway in April of '76, on the same Palace stage Verdon had ruled a decade before. I was living in NY then, and unemployed, but that didn't deter me from securing an orchestra seat for Opening Night. She performed her act until age 50, then resumed her film work with vengeance--finally winning that elusive Oscar. But after Charity she never made another movie musical. (tho she did attack "I'm Still Here" memorably in Postcards from the Edge.Appealing as she might be in the musical segments, MacLaine shines more in her comic or dramatic scenes; facing a mob of onlookers after falling in a lake; bantering with a movie star; putting a good face on a humiliating job interview; begging Oscar to stay; even the ending as she silently revives to hope anew thru the energy of the youth around her. (This comes almost directly from Fellini, whose Cabiria finds herself walking with a band of picnickers, playing instruments and spreading joy thru their random frivolity.) But Charity is a daring musical in that it gives us a gal who can't get a break--we leave her worse off than we met her, sadder, older, unemployed and more emotionally beat-up than ever before. Wrapped in a shiny box of musical comedy tinsel, who says Bway wasn't evolving? Fellini & Masina were in attendance for Fosse & Verdon's Bway opening in January of '66, at the Palace. By sheer coincidence their latest film together, Juliet of the Spirits was playing directly next door.
Unlike Redhead, Sweet Charity was never destined to be the sole-province of Verdon, the bigger Star being Fosse--proving once & for all his uncontested muscle. He would never do another film or show without total control. Which is not to say there was ever a Charity who came close to Verdon's. Aside from her unique Chaplinesque qualities, she was a breathtaking dancer, one whose body moved to Fosse's rhythm (or Cole's or Kidd's) with an effortlessness, a humor and grace that is utterly hypnotic. Bway has since seen its share of Star Dancers: Donna McKechine, Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Sutton Foster. Great as they all are, none of them had the stage magic of Verdon. But the musical seems to come back every 20 years. Fosse staged the first Bway revival in '86, with a lackluster Debbie Allen., but a much-upgraded Oscar in Michael Rupert, and a heavily accented Bebe Neuwirth as Helene. 2005 brought a new edition with Christina Applegate--which seemed a dubious prospect (and beset by injury; leaving speculation and possibility the show would come into NY with forever-bridesmaid, Charlotte d'Amboise instead). Whatever her terpsichorian limitations, Applegate surprisingly comes across quite effectively (on disc), entirely her own character; an appealing and creditable Charity. But Denis O'Hare pushes the Nerd button far too forcefully. Surpising, too, is how much this version adheres to the original score and tempos, tho with all new orchestrations that don't begin to challenge the originals. Few, if any realized it at the time, but Charity would become one of the most iconic and revived Bway musicals of the '60s--more so, I'd say than shows like Funny Girl or Mame.

While my teenage peers were listening to The Beatles, The Monkees, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas & The Papas, etc.--where was I that fabled Summer of Love? Listening to Cy Coleman, Jule Styne, Kander & Ebb and Bock & Harnick. I had grown so enamored of Sweet Charity on disc that I demanded my parents take me to the show when it was announced for one week in July '67 at the open-air Greek Theatre in Griffith Park; where four years earlier I had discovered my religion at My Fair Lady. Oddly Charity didn't arrive in the usual West Coast Civic Light Opera engagement, or tour the Mid-Atlantic capitals, but went straight to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, trimmed down to a tab-version, starring Juliet Prowse (who had danced Verdon's role in the Can Can movie--which, again, also starred Shirley MacLaine.). It must've done well as it lasted half a year before coming to LA for a single (sold-out) week that summer--then heading off to London for a year's run. We sat much further back this time than at My Fair Lady, but a bigger disappointment was the abridged production--just four numbers in the second act! Like Verdon's disgruntled patron, I felt somewhat cheated, not of one song but of several. Still, the thrill of seeing Fosse's master set pieces was not to be discounted. And supple and appealing as Prowse was, she wasn't Verdon. A second road company opened two months later in Boston, starring Chita Rivera (who better?) But sadly she proved no better a draw than Gallagher, and struggled thru 18 weeks of half-houses in Chicago and Toronto. Perhaps Fosse cast her in the movie as a consolation prize. Filming was over by the fall of '68 when my mother took me on the Universal Studios Tour--which was then in its infancy, ahead of multi-million dollar rides and attractions. The big thrill for me that October afternoon was touring the soundstage sets for Sweet Charity; Vittorio's apartment, The Pompeii Club, the Fandango ballroom; which was the work of Alexander Golitzen (who along with Cy Coleman and costumer Edith Head got the film's only Oscar nominations); and a member of our old Russian Orthodox parish in Encino. We had stopped going to church by then, my parents either bored or too consumed by their budding financial insecurities. And I'd already converted to another faith: one whose Vatican is in Times Square. Seeing Golitzen's work up close on the Universal tour was my closest encounter with Hlwd yet--all the more bittersweet being on the verge of our move to Cupertino-a journey that would separate us for another twenty years. First I had to be that Bway Baby. Because of shows like Sweet Charity.

Next Up: Paint Your Wagon

Report Card:   Sweet Charity
Overall Film:  B+
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  9
Songs Cut from Bway:  5
Worst Omission: "Baby Dream Your Dream"
New Songs:  "My Personal Property"
               "It's a Nice Face"
Standout Numbers: "Rich Man's Frug"
     "There's Gotta Be Something Better..."
      "I Love to Cry at Weddings"
Casting:   Starry, down to the cameos
Standout Cast: Shirley MacLaine
Cast from Bway:  John McMartin,
     Suzanne Charney, Lee Roy Reams
Sorethumb Cast:  John McMartin
Direction: Expensive learning curve
Choreography: Primo Fosse, if camera impaired
Ballet: A -- The Rich Man's Frug
Scenic Design: Overblown sets, NY locations  
Costumes:  Gaudy and not a little garish
Standout Set: Midtown rooftop
Titles: Color negatives/Shirl walking New York
Oscar Noms: 3: Art Direction, Costumes Scoring

1 comment:

readycarlos said...

Fantastic article! Charity is by far my favorite musical. Next you watch it, keep your eyes on Paula Kelly. She really is amazing in Spender and There's Gotta Be Something Better. She does an amazing backbend in Spender that still leaves me speechless.