When it comes to musical theatre, there are names you need to know. Jule Styne is one of those names. The composer behind such scores as High Button Shoes, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan, Gypsy, Funny Girl, Bells Are Ringing, and more, was one of the most prolific artists of the Golden Age. (The man had nearly a show on Broadway every year from 1947–1980.)
The York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti series, which stages concert readings of underappreciated shows, is in the midst of their tribute to the master. Having presented his Hallelujah, Baby! last month, the next musical in the series, Bar Mitzvah Boy, bows February 10–18, and the celebration concludes with a run of Subways Are For Sleeping February 24–March 4 with a special concert from all of his great works (not just these lesser known showcased pieces) February 13.
As the York reflects on Styne’s work, they called in an expert: theatre historian Charles Troy. At age 72, Troy is experiencing a career resurgence. He’s traveled the country for years giving talks on the creation of Broadway’s favorite musicals and includes Gypsy and Funny Girl in his repertoire. He is a veritable pool of knowledge.
As Musicals in Mufti continues its celebration of Styne, Troy shares little-known facts about the musical genius and compares the lesser known works to the maestro’s canon-defining scores:
1. Styne started out as a very young musician: “At the age of five, he leaped onto the stage at the Hippodrome and sang along with Harry Lauder, a famous entertainer of that day, who then immediately suggested to his father he be given piano lessons.”
2. A Londoner, Styne’s family emigrated to the United States when he was seven: “They're in third class. So Jule Styne starts singing songs for the other passengers, and he's such a hit that they are given first class.”
3. The musician grew up in Chicago: “He becomes so successful that he plays with the Chicago Symphony at the age of nine.”
4. Gypsy was not Styne’s first exposure to the world of burlesque: “At the age of 16, he gets his musician's card and starts playing at the Haymarket Burlesque Theater in Chicago.”
5. According to the history, Styne was employed by mobsters: “He goes to New York to try to make a living in music, where he starts coaching gangsters' molls in singing. So he does that, then he goes to Hollywood and starts doing that, and one of his pupils is Shirley Temple.”
6. He was one heck of a collaborator: “One thing that I find intriguing is that Sondheim, after collaborating with him on Gypsy, and being very worried and cognizant about being pegged as a lyricist only because of West Side Story and Gypsy, still was willing to work with him on what eventually became Funny Girl. He dropped out, not because of not wanting to work with Jule Styne, but because of the way he saw the project as going. So Jule Styne was somebody who I think people were just delighted to collaborate with. He was so responsive musically to their lyric ideas. It must have been a thrill.”
7. Despite his clear mark on musical theatre history and composition, Hallelujah, Baby!—which ran for less than a year on Broadway—was the only one of his scores to win a Tony.
Hallelujah, Baby! and Gypsy
The 1967 musical followed a young woman on her quest to become a singer, chronicling her frustrations as a black woman in show business in the 20th century. The show actually marked Styne’s first foray into the concept musical, according to Troy. With Hallelujah, Baby! the theatre historian sees traces of Gypsy. Fun fact: Styne wasn’t originally supposed to write the music for Gypsy; Stephen Sondheim had first been hired to write both music and lyrics. “Ethel Merman specifically requested Jule Styne for Gypsy,” says Troy. “[She] put her foot down and insisted on Styne. He had not written for her before, but she must have thought, ‘Look what he did for Carol Channing with ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.’ And look was he did for Judy Holliday. ‘I’m Going Back (to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company).’ He would be perfect for this show.’” Styne channeled that same ability to write for strong female characters that he perfected with Gypsy and Funny Girl for Leslie Uggams in Hallelujah, Baby! Uggams went on to win the Tony Award for her Broadway debut in the show.
Bar Mitzvah Boy and Peter Pan
Written expressly for London, Bar Mitzvah Boy tells the story of a 13-year-old who runs away just days before he is set to become a man. It’s one of Styne’s few pieces that never made it to New York. The work was originally a London TV play and Styne was asked to write it. Still, based on his success writing about another young boy who refused to grow up in Peter Pan, the show seemed to speak to Styne’s inner child. “From my research,” says Troy, “it’s quite clear that he was a guy who was enthusiastic and impulsive. He was a compulsive gambler, he was an incessant talker. He was somebody who didn’t monitor himself, in other words, and that’s certainly a childlike attribute.”
Subways Are For Sleeping and Funny Girl
The show about a reporter who goes undercover to investigate a group of well-dressed homeless folk who sleep in the subways debuted on Broadway in 1961. Another collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Troy counts this as Styne’s just-for-fun show. “He had written this very serious show, Gypsy, and then followed it with Do Re Mi, which—while it had some funny songs and that was also Comden and Green—had a very serious ending, and a very serious point to it. So he’d written these very profound shows, and then here was this kind of silly show with these goofy characters.” Troy also notes that a show about quirky characters was very much of the time, with productions like Harvey, The Curious Savage, and King of Hearts. Subways Are For Sleeping starred Phyllis Newman (Green’s wife) and he wrote a powerhouse song for her (a lá Channing, Holliday, and Merman), which prepared him to write for yet another strong female heroine—the role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
A piece of theatre lore:
“[Producer] David Merrick had had this idea, for years, apparently, that if a show flopped with the critics, he had a trick that he was going to pull, and he used it on Subways Are for Sleeping.
“After it got mixed reviews at best, he rounded up seven New Yorkers with the exact same names as the seven male critics on the seven daily newspapers, got them to see the show, and of course, since they were given free tickets by David Merrick, they said very complimentary things.
“He then ran a big ad, a full-page ad, I think, in the New York Times, in which he quoted all these people by name. Howard Taubman ... whatever the names were. Norman Nadel might have been one. And of course, Walter Kerr, and they all said great things about the show.
“And of course, the newspapers were furious, but David Merrick got great publicity for this, and it made the show into a kind of a cause célèbre for a little while, and probably lengthened the run a bit.”
Watch Lillias White interpret Jule Styne’s Funny Girl: