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

Monday, December 2, 2013

'60s Also Rans

It was a two-year Bway hit, winner of the top Tony Award, and only the third musical (after Of Thee I Sing and South Pacific) to get a Pulitzer Prize, but Fiorello! never made it to the screen; even arriving at the very peak of Bway's Golden Age, and Hlwd's appetite for stage hits. The most facile explanation is its parochial subject: a New York City mayor, even one as colorful and beloved as LaGuardia, was considered primarily of local interest. Of course it shouldn't matter how familiar a subject is to audiences but whether the story engages them on its own merits. On this front, Jerome Weidman & George Abbott's libretto has a number of failings. Aside from the usual fast-and-loose musical comedy relationship to dates and facts, its ending--on the heels of a failed mayoral campaign, and a rebound marriage proposal--seems defeatist unless the audience carries with them the knowledge of what lies ahead; the musical ends before LaGuardia's real fame or achievements. The '62 London production added an onstage narrator to explain who the characters were and their historical context. It closed in seven weeks. The show used a film montage to move the story forward thru WWI, which would suggest that a movie could easily remedy any narrative lapses in just a few extra moments of screen time. Too bad Jack Warner didn't add this to his great Bway buying spree. Given the success and polish of The Music Man, writer Marion Hargrove and director Morton DaCosta might have been well suited for the occasion. Tho acclaimed and with a well-noted resemblance to the real LaGuardia, Tom Bosley might've been a hard sell for carrying a whole movie. But this could've filled the bill for Bobby Darin, who was moving into dramatic parts and had a similar Italian/Jewish look and underdog personality. Shirley Jones was tailor-made for Thea, and another Jones, Carolyn, would do well for the long-suffering Marie. And who couldn't see Jackie Gleason putting his spin on "Little Tin Box," or "The Bum Won," as Ben Marino? Newcomer Michele Lee would've had a field day with ("I Love a Cop") Dora; Jack Klugman a solid Morris (the office slave) and bring on that Mitzi Gaynor for her cameo on "Gentleman Jim," to Onna White's choreography. It would've fit perfectly in Warner's schedule, released in late '63, the year between Gypsy and My Fair Lady--possibly nabbing a third Best Picture nom for a Bway musical following West Side Story and The Music Man. If only. . .

For what the show has, aside from a colorful political and romantic story, is a truly special score. Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick proved in their sophmore effort they were deserving heirs to the R&H mantle. One thing Rodgers never did, however, was mine his Jewish heritage--there's no hora, no klezmer in his canon. Bock & Harnick would draw from this rich well a good deal further in their career, but there's a real precursor here to Fiddler in the hora portion of "The Name's LaGuardia." Elsewhere, in the character-imbued score the nostalgic waltz, "Till Tomorrow" recalls the best of Irving Berlin, yet transcends pastiche to stand on its own as a really great song. "Politics and Poker," is a thumping hesitation waltz with a timeless cynicism; "When Did I Fall in Love," an all too neglected ballad. Once regarded among the best Bway musicals of the Golden Age, Fiorello!  demonstrates the necessity and importance of a film version to perpetuate a musical's reputation. Is there any question Fiorello! would be better known and more often revived today if there had been a movie?

Do Re Mi got better reviews than all the fall musicals of 1960: Irma La Douce, Tenderloin, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Wildcat and Camelot. It was a fast, loud, splashy show with a grand Styne, Comden & Green score, and one bonafide hit tune, "Make Someone Happy." It concerned the jukebox trade, and had in Phil Silvers & Nancy Walker a comic lead couple, with a secondary, younger duo for romantic interest and vocal prowess (John Reardon and Nancy Dussault). It was Styne's first show after Gypsy, and its influence is surely felt; pure musical comedy doesn't get anymore evolved than this; the show opens on an extended drumbeat while Walker laments her husband's chronic alibis as a nightclub show blares in the background.  And ends in a naked moment of lost hope: an extended confessional for Silvers' loser--so astounding for a musical comedy; and under the clear influence of "Rose's Turn." The show was funny and tuneful, and would have made an easy film transfer for someone like George Sidney or George Roy Hill. Paramount could've picked it up for Jackie Gleason, who was then riding a brief, leading-man screen career following his Oscar-nominated performance in The Hustler. The part is half Ralph Kramden already. And how about a curveball for his wife, someone like Gloria Grahame? Can't you hear that distinctive voice on "Take a Job," or "Adventure"? (which are, incidentally, sung conversations that flow like songs--not the bad recitative that would overtake musicals in the decades to come) For the backwoods-waitress-turned-jukebox-singer, why not Ann-Margret for one last musical before she devolved into endless sex-kitten roles. She was the '60s update of Debbie Reynolds; arriving on the scene as the movie musical--and especially lightweight programmers like ones that Reynolds cut her teeth on--were growing scarcer each year. George Sidney made two with A-M, and adored her. Too bad they didn't go for a third. She'd have been delightful crooning, "Cry Like the Wind," belting "Fireworks" opposite Pat Boone again, or George Hamilton (someone slick & handsome) and camping it up in "What's New at the Zoo." It should've been fast, snappy and proleterian. The more I imagine it, the more I lament the lack of its existence. We've already seen those ads with Bogart, Monroe and other long dead figures re-animated, mingling with today's crowd. You know the day is coming we can all make our own films, stealing whatever images from the collective universe, putting words and music into familiar old voices--like so many CGI pixels. Perhaps someone, somewhere will one day make a Do Re Mi "movie" with that long-gone cast.

On the strength of Jule Styne's score, Frank Sinatra made a bid on Subways are for Sleeping before the show even got to Bway. Nevermind that Comden & Green's story concerned the willfully homeless--a class of drifters that quickly lost charm with the surge of those for whom this "lifestyle" was no choice--and the public who had to notice them. At any rate, the musical, which now is remembered only for the peerless publicity stunt pulled by David Merrick (running a quote ad of raves from men with the same names as the major paper critics.) had, in fact, much to recommend it, especially in Styne's melodic felicity. The OCR defines the Bway sound of 1962, in Philip J. Lang's lush and brassy orchestrations, making the overture one of Bway's greatest, if least known. It wasn't that bad a show, really. It had laughs, great ballads, and swing numbers, and a Michael Kidd ballet of sidewalk Santas. But most of all it was another real New York musical--the kind Styne, Comden & Green were justly famous for. No question Sinatra would've been an improvement over Bway's Sydney Chaplin--especially on his ballads. And Dean Martin would've been perfect for Orson Bean's comic role. wooing the towel-clad, former pagaent queen, hotel-evictee, Martha Vale (Phyllis Newman on Bway, Angie Dickinson in Hlwd?) And in Carol Lawrence's reporter role: Janet Leigh. A bit of trim in script and score, as one song goes: Who Knows What Might Have Been?

MGM owned Carnival!--based on their own '53 film, Lili, starring Leslie Caron. This was the first movie musical ever adapted into a Bway original. And it was original, taking only the story and not even daring to bring along it's well-known song, "Hi-Lili-Hi-Lo." Michael Stewart fleshed out the book--based on a Paul Gallico story--and Bob Merrill provided a wholly new, and untypically large score. Stewart and director Gower Champion were fresh off Birdie, full of creative piss & vinegar, and the production wowed the cognoscenti. The young, opera-trained soprano, Anna Maria Alberghetti had the role of her lifetime, and Jerry Orbach, as a bitter, crippled, puppet-master had the first of his long line of musical comedy leads, post-The Fantasticks. Longtime de Mille dancer, James Mitchell in the most prominent supporting role he would ever have, was magician Marco the Magnificent. And in a considerable shift in tone, his assistant, played by Zsa Zsa Gabor in Lili, turned into comic belter, Kaye Ballard, on Bway--sadly, her only hit show. By the mid-'60s, with Louis B. long gone, MGM management was far less inclined toward musicals; still investment was made in developing Carnival for the screen, with Gower Champion to direct. Julius J. Epstein turned in a final script in February '63; and sometime around then, before Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady reawakened the box office for musicals, the studio shelved the movie. The show is a curious paradox; ostensibly a "family" show about a threadbare circus, in actuality it deals with darker adult themes, which is why I was less enchanted with it as a child, seeing  it at  our local  theater-in-the-round with Anna Maria, no less. Those who love the musical--and there are many reasons to love it--must dismiss Lili's near-psychotic disassociation between puppets & puppeteer. Taking that into account, rumors of casting Yvette Mimieux makes some sense. Does anyone remember her now? She had recently played another simpleton in MGM's Light in the Piazza, giving retardation a beautiful face. Nor did she exhibit particular intelligence in The Time Machine. And given the strenuous soprano requirements of the role, most likely she would've been dubbed. But I don't know who would've been right for Lili, or any of the other roles for that matter. It doesn't bother me no film version of Carnival was made. Champion's theatrical staging would've been lost in translation, and the result would look like just another circus musical.

Certainly Milk & Honey had more cinematic potential, but an Israeli travelogue was still deemed too niche by Hlwd bean-counters. It didn't help that its protagonists, including the main lovers are well beyond youth. But there was an amusing premise in Jewish-American widows touring the Holy Land trolling for Israeli husbands. Yiddish theater icon, Molly Picon was in charge of corralling this brood, succeeded, intriguingly by Hermione Gingold. But Hlwd would likely opt for someone like Rosalind Russell, tho here again I could see Judy Holliday. The show's mature lovers (Met Opera stars Robert Weede & Mimi Benzell on stage) might've worked with Rossano Brazzi & Anne Bancroft (vocals dubbed, of course), on film, or, wacky as it first sounds, perhaps Elizabeth Taylor--she and Brazzi would be smouldering together. Tommy Rall, who had a promising screen career back in the early '50s--when musicals were still aplenty--had given up Hlwd for Bway, and this was his highest profile stage role. As Weede's son-in-law, a patriotic farmer, Rall would've been a welcome face back on screen. Jerry Herman's first Bway score has some plesant tunes, including a lovely waltz, "Shalom," that serves various functions and has a thematic continuity. But it's not a major work, nor a movie that begs for Roadshow proportions, tho a few Holy Land helicopter shots would be expected. Bway audiences, and especially the core female patrons for this Yiddishe romance, were disappointed by an ending that dashed the lovers' hopes of any future together--a choice playwright Don Appell made in the guise of realism and drama. And this is a musical comedy--which shows how far the R&H revolution brought seriousness to what was once a frivolous form. But I've no doubt Hlwd would've remedied this, leaving the stars in a clinch. Or a Jewish wedding.

Speaking of which, it doesn't get any more Jewish than I Can Get It For You Wholesale; which may be partly why it didn't get much interest from Hlwd. It's remembered now, if at all, as the show that brought Barbra to Bway--albeit in a subordinate role; yet winning the show's only Tony nomination--an egregious oversight. Jerome Weidman's 1937 novel had already been adapted (very loosely) into a 1951 Susan Hayward film--as a would-be Dressmaker's All About Eve; a film virtually forgetten today. For his 1962 musical, David Merrick hired Weidman to adapt his own book, and Arthur Laurents (whose stock was sky high thanks to his librettos for West Side Story and Gypsy) to. . . direct. Merrick had a sick sense of humor. To no surprise, the two writers clashed, and Laurents, who in this case had the better perspective, was bound by the Dramatists Guild to keep Weidman's unfocussed vision. (Laurents' ego would grow to his own detriment with his subsequent books for Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Hallelujah, Baby?--all of which owed their failures primarily to him.) The score was by Merrick's first hit-maker, Harold Rome, a loyalty earned since Fanny. Tho not to my knowledge recognized as such, I find Wholesale the best score Rome ever wrote. A low bar of measure, perhaps--but a high achievment for this usually bland tunesmith (to wit: Destry Rides Again, Wish You Were Here; even Fanny leaves me cold.) But Rome is inspired here, capturing the feel of this world, brilliantly. But least we forget, Rome began his career supplying songs to an amateur revue for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union: Pins & Needles--that ran for an unheard-of three years during the Depression. Wholesale ran nine months. It wasn't a hit, but not quite a flop either. What it was, and what no one recognized at the time, was a musical noir. It starts with "He's Not a Well Man," and ends with everyone cowering from above, wailing "What Are They Doing to Us  Now?" In between we chart the rise and fall of a ruthless, unlovable hero in the cutthroat world of the garment trade. This was one dark show. But no one had really taken the musical for a spin in this model before, and most weren't ready for a song & dance noir. (Nor were they 40 years later with Sweet Smell of Success--an equally uncompromising noir; based on the highly lauded, if narrowly seen  movie. Isn't noir by its nature a niche taste?) Wholesale is an ensemble piece with nine principal characters tangled in a web of greed, desperation and betrayal on Eighth Avenue. Set in the '30s, it felt and sounded like Bway's '60s; brassy, sharp and modern, with absolutely chilling Sid Ramin (Gypsy) orchestrations. Yes, it's not a perfect score; songs for Marilyn Cooper's Ruthie (the good-girl fiancee) are beyond weak--you can hear why Eydie Gorme turned the part down. But most of the ensemble numbers are terrific. "Ballad of the Garment Trade," is a rare sunny moment, and a march at that; "The Sound of Money," a jazzy bolero; "A Gift Today," a celebration waltz; and most rousing of all: the meet & greet hora, "The Family Way," a song that builds into a frenzy which never fails to thrill. All of which pre-date similar Yiddish beats in Fiddler. Barbra's celebrated solo spot, "Miss Marmelstein," earns marks for material as much as performance--it's a genuinely funny lyric, and not a bad melody either.  But the score is so character or plot specific, not a single song had much chance for crossover pop appeal. Of course no studio would look at this show with an eye toward blockbuster returns. But as an artistic experiment, more a labor of love under a limited budget, perhaps with someone creative like Sidney Lumet, filming on location, in widescreen B&W. It could've been quite interesting. Listen to the "overture" on the OCR and tell me you don't see the opening of a movie.

How Ray Stark nabbed the film rights to No Strings is unclear; but it wasn't in the interest of extending African-American goodwill. Not by taking its message of color-blind romance literally, as license to change races entirely. Of all things, Stark intended the movie as a vehicle for Nancy Kwan. OK, it's not hard to imagine. She was a looker, tall and leggy--a most convincing model, and as much of an exotic swan in Paris as was an American Negress. But Kwan doesn't sing (she would be dubbed), and why not Diahann Carroll?--who sang beautifully and made a triumph for herself on Bway. She'd already been in films (having featured moments in both Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess) and looked even better now that she was older and settled into her natural beauty. It was an easily cinematic story, part Funny Face, part Bonjour Tristesse--flirting with the rich on the Riviera, shooting fashion in Paris. The guy, of course, had Sinatra written all over him. The score was by Richard Rodgers--words and music--and even had a hit tune, "The Sweetest Sounds," so there was plenty to wrap Frank's voice around; and the role of a blocked writer bumming around Europe on other people's money was hardly a stretch. Maybe they'd be wise enuf to cast Mitzi Gaynor as the brassy American heiress, Comfort O'Connell, and Yves Montand for Diahann's French suitor. Stanley Donen could've made an intimate adult film musical, closer to Umbrellas of Cherbourg than Unsinkable Molly Brown. It's surprising that Rodgers would let this one get away. His works couldn't have been more in demand with the success of The Sound of Music, so how did No Strings become a no go?

Rodgers' only other new musical of the '60s, the Sondheim/Laurents collaboration, Do I Hear a Waltz? had real cinematic possibilities as well, but only with major revisions and proper casting. Rodgers came to the project thru the lens of David Lean's romantic film Summertime, which was a softened version of Arthur Laurents' play, Time of the Cuckoo. But Laurents wasn't a fan of Lean's version, and took the proprietary stance of insisting on his own sour vision. Unfortunately his spinster heroine, Leona, has an unnecessary, self-induced emotional breakdown, then egregiously blames everyone but herself. Walter Kerr called the show "an entirely serious and very dry musical about an American tourist who goes to Venice and doesn't have any fun." The same went for the audience, who naturally wanted a Venetian holiday with a Rodgers score; not a playwright's psychodrama for a character Sondheim famously said couldn't sing. (An early concept that went by the wayside was to have her not sing a single song until the very end.) Played first on stage by Shirley Booth, then Katharine Hepburn in Lean's film--for which both earned honors--the musical was so perfectly suited, if not tailored for Mary Martin (to make a triptych of Rodgers' musicals) but instead went, inexplicably to a young-ish not-quite-Star-ish, Elizabeth Allen. Nonetheless, Rodgers' melodic genius is as glorious as ever (the title song ranks with the best of Rodgers' famous waltzes); and Sondheim's lyrics, when they aren't trying too hard to be dyspeptic, aren't bad either. It's a lovely score, romantic and varied, and more interesting than No Strings. If properly cast, modestly scaled, and shot on location (as was Lean's film) this might've made a persuasive film musical.

It's hard to figure why She Loves Me never quite gets its due. A critic's favorite, it was adored as well by the Bway cognoscenti, but couldn't draw the public at large, struggling to eke out 300 performances, sputtering to a close just days before Hello, Dolly! became a sensation. Much like Follies, there's never been a production that's made money. Based on a play by Miklos Laszlo, but better known as a classic MGM romance, The Shop Around the Corner, with Jimmy Stewart & Margaret Sullavan. It was remade barely 8 years later as a movie musical, with Judy Garland & Van Johnson. Dropping the Mittleuropa milieu, In the Good Old Summertime aimed for a turn-of-the-century slice of Americana. She Loves Me returned the well-tread story to its Hungarian roots, which may have scared some off, mistaking it for operetta. It was in any case "special" material, precious and arty with an unusually full and complex score by Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick, the most fully realized team in the wake of the R&H school of musical theater. Harold Prince, who produced & directed the show thought it would have run for years had Julie Andrews starred in it instead of Barbara Cook (& Daniel Massey). Which was not to blame Cook, who was highly praised. But despite being Bway royalty, Cook, (like Chita Rivera) wasn't really a box office draw. Andrews was a gold rush at the wickets. So how did MGM miss the opportunity to follow up The Sound of Music, with She Loves Me?--the pic Julie should've done instead of Torn Curtain. And why not Dick Van Dyke as her vis-a-vis; a team the public seemed to hunger for; and a singing role not beyond his style or ken. MGM planned such a project at one point with Gower Champion to direct. But, as we know, it never happened. The story gimmick (boy & girl hate each other, unaware they are lovers thru private correspondance) is periodically revived. In the '90s Nora Ephron updated it for the computer generation: You've Got Mail. And I've no doubt there'll be a future remake playing on newer technology. Tho set in the past, She Loves Me in 1963 was in construction and form a very modern musical. Now it seems an antique jewel box of a show. Precious and lovely. But with no movie to jog memories, the show doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

I never realized it before, but 110 in the Shade is virtually a hybrid of Oklahoma! and The Music Man--you can see why David Merrick saw hit potential. A heroine torn between men, and verging on spinsterhood; a stranger selling salvation for profit, only to profit from love; the shaking up of a sleepy Midwestern hamlet. The elements were all there, and song-writers Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt (making their Bway debut) wrote countless numbers to find the precise one for each moment of the show. But N. Richard Nash's libretto (from his play The Rainmaker) was more William Inge than Meredith Willson, and valid as the show is on its own merits, it has a hardscrabble regional quality that'll never have mass appeal. My beloved childhood next-door neighbor, Gloria Milano came to SoCal from Brooklyn, which meant a few tales of Bway nights to my eager ears; the magic moment that was South Pacific; the event that was My Fair Lady. But she simply hated 110 in the Shade, to the point of leaving at intermission. I can't say I'd mustered much affection for the album myself in my youth. But then one day, deep into maturity, I heard the score as if for the first time and found it breathtaking. Truth to tell, this was not the OCR, but a new recording of the NYC Opera with Ron Raines & Karen Ziemba; the complete score, with all the underscoring, lusciously played by a symphony orchestra, and beautifully sung. It was a revelation. Tho she won raves from NY critics, I'd never warmed to Inga Swenson on the OCR, and always wondered why Merrick cast TV Western star, Robert Horton (after firing Hal Holbrook) instead of a real singing confidence man, a John Raitt or a Richard Kiley. Inga Swenson was one of the forgotten New Faces of '56, who parlayed this career high into only one other musical (coming up) and not a memorable one at that. But I've always found her cold. Had Hlwd been interested in a screen version, the role would've been catnip to many. Shirley Jones for one, who was moving past ingenue roles and just the right age for Lizzie. No less a coveted part is Starbuck, the self-professed- Rainmaker--a sort of cowboy Harold Hill. But the story's drought is metaphorical as well as meteorological, which makes for a cinematic challenge. Joseph Anthony directed the original play, the Hepburn-Lancaster movie, and the musical. It would've been interesting to see another view of the material from someone else.

Golden Boy ran 568 performances on Bway but came short of paying off. Still it's hard to castigate the show a failure. It took a dated Cliff Odets play and gave it new life as a reflection of the contemporary (mid-'60s) racial discussion. Odets himself began the adaptation but died soon after. After much scrambling, Odets' colleague, William Gibson (author of Two for the Seesaw & The Miracle Worker) finished the libretto. That the score was tailored entirely to showcase the vocal prowess of Sammy Davis Jr., while staying firmly within the character of reluctant boxer, Joe Wellington (amusingly renamed from the original Joe Napolean) is testament to the talent of Charles Strouse & Lee Adams. Here's another score I came to appreciate much later, even tho Strouse & Adams were early favorites of mine. Boxing, however, has never had much appeal to me and therein likely the source of my antipathy. But the fights in this musical are beyond the ring. Joe fights for everything: for manhood, success, social position, money, love. Giving Sammy a love interest as close as possible to albino (Paula Wayne) may have seemed a bit too blatant, but wasn't Davis at that time married to the similarly blinding-white May Britt? 
Of greater question is how the jockey-sized star conveyed a believable pugilist. In the featherweight division? This may be in part why a film version never materialized. Of course another actor could be cast, but the show is so stitched in Sammy's skin, it's hard to imagine. Not that someone else couldn't play the role, it just beggars the question: what would be the point? But if nothing else it's not hard to visualize what a great number "Don't Forget 127th St.," could be on screen.

Producer Alexander H. Cohen had serious David Merrick envy. Primarily a trafficker in specialty shows (Nichols & May, Beyond the Fringe, Marlene Dietrich) Cohen had some modest success with a few British imports, but no luck with musicals. Tho much promoted, his PT Barnum musical never materialized to complement the '64 World's Fair. His equally touted Sherlock Holmes tuner, shamelessly and excessively promoted, made it to Bway in Feb '65, but attracted middling interest. It didn't help that it starred an unexciting and unknown (if appropriate) Fritz Weaver, with Inga Swenson for some forced romantic interest. Directed by Harold Prince, after Joshua Logan ankled, Baker Street, as with most Cohen musicals, was over-produced, on top of weak material. It needed a score by Lerner & Loewe. What it got was an unknown Canadian team, one step above amateurs. Even with four songs written by Bock & Harnick (brought in by a desperate Prince), this was one of the dullest of all '60s scores; which pretty much killed any future for the show. Cohen had been waving the rights to MGM before the Bway opening, but interest quickly lagged when the show didn't catch on.

Bway suffered such a crisis of confidence in the final third of the decade, that hits were few and film deals fewer. True, the culture was changing so quickly, the flood of youth radicalizing all the Arts so dizzying, but shoving aside, or disdaining all the hard-won evolutionary battles the Bway musical had achieved, as Clive Barnes (and others, too, but his heavy hand hurt the most) took measure by a false standard, unfairly sending the musical packing down the road to irrelevance, or more precisely to its shrinking niche in American cultural life. What once was broadly encompassing, was now the domain of your parents, Morman families and old queens. The Big Street was spooked. Professionals were second-guessing themselves, babies were thrown out with the bathwater. There's no good reason why Darling of the Day couldn't be slapped into a gem as lightfooted as Hello Dolly!--only it wasn't. The Happy Time had all it needed to be a hit--if Gower Champion hadn't smothered it with his staging. (He still won 2 Tony Awards for it!); Sherry!, Henry Sweet Henry, Golden Rainbow, Zorba, Dear World; Coco--great potential every one; sunk thru uncertain direction, whether consciously or not, victims of the zeitgeist. Which as far as Bway was concerned could be wrapped up in one word: Hair.

If I had any doubts that Promises, Promises could ever live up to what was my favorite non-musical film, The Apartment, they were forever washed away when I saw the show on  Bway in July  1970.  I had enjoyed,  if not thoroughly relished, the OCR since its release. But I hadn't heard Neil Simon's clever re-working of Billy Wilder's film, seen Jerry Orbach in action, nor been privvy to Michael Bennett's musical staging or the emotional heft of the collective enterprise. It just might have been the most heartening show of all in that first jam-packed visit to Bway. No less surprising, many years later, was the initial offering from LA's Reprise company (a wannabe Encores! with Hlwd-adjacent talent) in 1997. Jason Alexander was a different, if equally valid, leading man--and sang especially well. It was a nicely calibrated production that captured the '60s far better than the busy handiwork of Rob Ashford's 2010 Bway revival, horribly miscast with Sean Hayes, and even more so, Kristin Chenoweth. Film musicals were curdling at the studios during the '70s, which is the only explanation why Promises never made it to the screen. Otherwise it would've been made around 1973, proabably directed by one of the newer turks, (Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Richard Lester) and starred either some fresh rising stars (Raul Julia, Blythe Danner) or cresting talent: Alan Alda, Barbara Harris. Given the stength of the story, and the just hip-enuf Burt Bacharach/ Hal David score, I think chances were good it would've been a hit.

Some musicals were actually better suited for television. Even in the ancient B&W TV days, such shows as Peter Pan, Wonderful Town and Once Upon a Mattress were given lively, defining broadcast productions, that reached far larger audiences than even the biggest hit films. Peter Pan is legend for capturing the theatrical charms of what was in reality a poorly attended five-month Bway run. Adults didn’t take children to musicals then the way they do now on the Disneyfied Bway. Peter Pan took hold of us children in a way few things on TV did in those days.  It was first telecast live on March 7, 1955 a week after closing on Bway.  The reception was so great it was re-mounted live again, on January 6, 1956, but then disputably lost on some kinescope. Finally, for posterity it was re-done again, tho not live, and broadcast in color (but who had color then?) on December 8, 1960, two days before my eighth birthday. I mention this because I’m certain that was my first encounter with the show, with Mary Martin and with the flamboyantly fey Cyril Ritchard.  It wasn’t quite the annual staple that Wizard of Oz was becoming—we had to wait a few years to see it again (in 1963). I remember my excitement as the re-broadcast neared for I was older now, wiser in my knowledge of musicals and thrilled to see all the mechanics up close. But Peter Pan, like Alice in Wonderland, and Oz, is forever re-invented, and Jerome Robbins' production shall remain in the Pan museum; happily accessible to all who'd like to view it today.

Given that she was Queen at CBS, why didn't Lucille Ball just wrap up her aborted Bway run in Wildcat (which despite poor reviews was doing quite well when she was in it) and sell it to CBS for a surefire ratings success. It wasn't much of a story, but its Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh score had some dynamic tunes, including a popular hit, "Hey, Look Me Over." And Michael Kidd staged some nifty dances. Lucy was used to working new material on a weekly basis. Eight shows a week for months on end was a trial. Still, as a businesswoman, Ball failed to bail Desilu out of its Bway investment. Was she that sick of the role? Similarly, I'm surprised Irving Berlin didn't sell NBC on broadcasting Mr. President live upon closing on Bway in June '63. Doesn't it seem like something you'd see pop up on a Saturday night on NBC in early summer? Neither of those are great losses but, alas, an enormous opportunity was lost in not giving Little Me the TV spectacular treatment. It was, after all, Neil Simon’s first musical script, done in the style of the classic '50s live-TV sketches, starring his former employer, Sid Caesar. And the Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh score was easily digestible. The tale of the brainless but buxom Belle Poitrine was just a series of skits to begin with, and a TV production (circa 1964), with Edie Adams co-starring with Caesar, could have been stellar. 

In a similar vein, had Carol Burnett not had her falling out with Comden & Green, Fade Out Fade In could have made a nice triptych with her Mattress and Calamity Jane specials and a virtual pilot for her future CBS series. Comden & Green were no strangers to Hlwd spoofs, and Fade Out wasn’t vintage material, but funny nonetheless and suited perfectly to the talents of Burnett--and a sellout hit even during that summer of the World's Fair. Her later Hlwd spoof sketches, many with original songs, on her weekly variety series could be traced directly to this show which (for messy contractual issues) she later wished to forget. One argument against Burnett in Comden & Green's favor, is the astonishing fact that a mere 8 nights after the Bway opening, Carol appeared on CBS in a 90-minute broadcast of Once Upon a Mattress. The show was taped in b&w before an audience, and broadcast, if not necessarily recorded on, June 3, 1964--but surely made sometime around then. One could argue that Burnett's TV appearance would boost box office for the new show, but when did she have time to rehearse for TV, while fine-tuning an enormous production for Bway? Even more absurdly, Burnett, (who was mother to a newborn as well) maintained her televisual presence come September, co-starring in a weekly CBS Variety show, called The Entertainers with Caterina Valente and Bob Newhart--an assignment she continued to do even as a taxi accident felled her from the stage show, and led to an abrupt closing of Fade Out for several months while she healed and the show could Fade In, again--only to have lost all momentum and quickly fold. By contrast, Mattress was a happy occasion, slimmed down for broadcast and giving the nation another taste of Burnett, who was well on the rise to the Pantheon of TV stars, a choice over Bway she was happy to make. But if Fade Out Fade In was to be erased, Once Upon a Mattress would forever be acknowledged. The score, by Richard's daughter, Mary Rodgers (who apparently learned her lessons well) gave Carol comic numbers and some real belt in "Happily Ever After," and especially the anything-but, "Shy." For expedience sake, (and why not?) Jack Gilford, Jane White and Joseph Bova repeated their roles from Bway, with Shani Wallis & Elliot Gould joining in other roles. Burnett was so in love with the show, she filmed it again for TV in 1972, this time in color, with Gilford & White again in tow; this time with Ken Berry and Bernadette Peters in addition. By the time of the third TV remake in 2005, Burnett had graduated to playing evil Queen Agravain, leaving the Princess Winifred to Tracey Ullman. The show, whose origins come from a summer camp spoof in the Poconos, requires no elaborate scenery nor production, which suited the TV medium better than most. 

A few other '60s musicals were adapted for TV:  It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, I Do! I Do!, George M!, Dames at Sea--each of them certainly suited for television; but each of them unsatisfying in their own way.

Another well suited for the tube was The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd around about 1966.  Inconceivable as a film property the show was a staggering list of hit and hit-sounding songs by Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse (One of the very best scores of the 1960s, in my estimation), built on the age-old struggle--or Samuel Beckett parody, you decide--between haves and have-nots. The show was a sequence of fabulous songs ("A Wonderful Day Like Today,"  "Feeling Good,"  "The Joker,"  "Look at That Face," "Nothing Can Stop Me Now," and among the best ballads of the decade: "Who Can I Turn To?") but little more--except a chorus of female urchins. Whether Newley & Ritchard were recruited or another TVQ duo, say Sinatra & Gleason (the mind reels!) it would have made a memorable songfest. And a great album. The OCR is among the most listenable discs Bway produced in the era of psychadelic rock. Even my hippie Japanese/French high school bud, Jessica, loved it. Newley's performance of "Who Can I Turn To," easily found online, is truly riveting, and incredibly sexy.

By nature of its vignette structure, The Apple Tree was an unlikely screen candidate that would've made sense on TV as well. It was only the second and final Barbara Harris musical on Bway, but between two shows she played 6 different characters, which makes her legacy seem fuller. As she has possibly my favorite Bway voice of all, and I am riveted each and every time I see her on screen or hear her on record, I should think it would be criminal to replace her with anyone else. But then given that I'd have no say in the matter, I could see where CBS might produce the show as another vehicle for Carol Burnett (whom I also adore) and could pull it off. Or they might make it a real All-Star Special; a different cast for each act. Burnett would excel best in The Lady & the Tiger, maybe opposite Steve Lawrence; and how about Lee Remick & Anthony Perkins for The Diary of Adam & Eve? And who better than Barbara Harris for her priceless chimney sweep, Ella and her alter-ego, Passionella? With original Flip, Alan Alda. Which now that I've cast it, annoys the hell out of me for not actually existing. The Bock & Harnick score has always been a favorite of mine; the OCR impeccably sung, pristinely recorded and exceptionally orchestrated. And oh, that Harris girl! Her shadow looms up ahead...

Next Up: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

No comments: