The musical Time and Again, which didn't make it to Broadway last season but might turn up sometime in the future, was based on a novel about time travel. I know for a fact that, from time to time, devoted musical theatre fans like myself inevitably think about a time machine that would enable them to return to any period and allow them to see one or several shows of that time.
Indeed, I have often been asked the question, "If you could go back in time and see just one musical production, which would you choose?" This is, of course, an impossible one for me to answer. Would I opt for Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark? I find this a fascinating show which never seems to work these days because no one has been able to approximate the kind of stage alchemy that Lawrence supplied. Would I surrender to my first instincts and choose Ethel Merman in just about anything? True, I saw Merman in Gypsy, Hello, Dolly!, and the Annie Get Your Gun revival, but I was too young to fully appreciate what I was seeing when I saw her Rose, and I would still love to see her first Annie Oakley, not to mention her riotous appearances in Panama Hattie, DuBarry Was A Lady, and, perhaps above all, Call Me Madam.
Would I choose to attend the original production of Show Boat, or the original Carousel or The King and I (Lawrence again)? I can only imagine the sobbing that must have ensued in 1945 when those who had lost family members in the war watched as Billy Bigelow died, then returned to earth to help the daughter he didn't know and to tell his wife that he loved her. I can't imagine anything more exciting than seeing South Pacific with the original combination of leads; no revival will ever be able to provide the chemistry of that Martin-Pinza pairing. And I think I would have been bowled over by the freshness of the original On The Town featuring the Broadway debuts of Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein. (I'll reluctantly skip over Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town and Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison in Kiss Me, Kate, simply because those stars are preserved in TV versions of those shows.)
How would I have reacted to Porgy and Bess when it was brand new in 1935? (I suspect I would have adored it and not listened to anyone who expressed reservations.) I would love to have seen the original production of one of my favorite pieces, Street Scene, and I am strangely drawn to Menotti's The Medium, The Consul, and The Saint of Bleecker Street, all quite definitely operas, but all of which premiered in Broadway houses.
Of course, this is a ridiculous question--there are hundreds of things I would kill to see, and just looking through any Theatre World annual from the '40s or '50s can almost reduce one to tears at the embarrassment of riches available to theatregoers every season. But I particularly enjoy thinking about spending a week in Manhattan--I don't know why, but I like to think of coming to town as a show-loving tourist and staying in a hotel, rather than living in the city--at one particular moment in Broadway history. It's odd that I would pick a time when I was actually alive--indeed, I actually saw a couple of the shows of this period, but I would still like to return as a fully aware adult. So come back with me, if you will, to a week in late 1956 or early 1957. Right up front, I will admit that perhaps the main reason why I am so attracted to this moment in time is the combination of ladies appearing back-to-back on one side of West 44th Street. At the Shubert, you can find Judy Holliday giving in Bells Are Ringing what remains the warmest, most outgoing, endearing, and fabulous star performance I've ever seen. I can't imagine audiences adoring a star more than they did the one in Bells, and barring a vacation or two, Holliday stayed for all of the show's 900+ performances.
Moving west, next door to Holliday at the Broadhurst, you will find Rosalind Russell giving one of the most extravagant and uproarious performances in Broadway history as the non-musical Auntie Mame. True, both Holliday and Russell got to repeat their performances on film, but that's not quite the same thing as seeing these incredible ladies in the flesh. Of course, I'd like to be greedy and return to Auntie Mame when Bea Lillie fills in for Russell prior to taking the show to London, just as I would have been curious to see Russell's replacement, Greer Garson. But no one could ever equal Russell in the play; watching her on film makes one wonder how she was able to play eight performances a week of it without passing out between acts.
And who was at the Majestic, next door to Holliday and Russell, as of December 6, 1956? Yes, Merman, starring in her disappointing comeback vehicle Happy Hunting. Yet perhaps no other show in her career demonstrated Merman's star power as powerfully as did Happy Hunting. For even with a mixed-bag score and a mediocre book, she was able to win ecstatic notices, keep the show going for a year without missing a performance, and entertain audiences royally, all the while beset by a leading man (Fernando Lamas) with whom she did not get along. If you listen to the Happy Hunting CD, you will find that while these are not the best songs Merman ever delivered, she never sounded better. Just imagine seeing her socking those numbers and jokes across in person. My fantasy is a weekend attending Auntie Mame Friday night, Happy Hunting Saturday afternoon (Merman would give the same performance at a matinee as on opening night), and Bells that evening. To see Merman and Holliday in those shows in the same day would, I suppose, be my idea of heaven.
Across the street from these gals at the St. James would be Li'l Abner. While Abner received generally good reviews, was a financial hit, lasted almost 700 performances, and was made into a movie, it's rarely thought of as one of the outstanding pieces of the period. But I find Abner the model of a solid '50s show, not one of the brilliant, innovative, or unusual ones, but the kind of thing that made theatregoing so pleasurable in those days. Abner had a sensational staging by Michael Kidd, a delightful score, a superb physical production, perfect leads, and a funny book. It's that book that, consisting as it does almost entirely of satire of then-current conditions, makes Abner difficult to revive, but a revival appears to be in the works. It will need a stager with Kidd's creativity and wit to work well.
Walk up to 51st Street and you will probably find a long line of eager customers (this was in the days before phone orders and credit-card charging), perhaps even a group lined up since the night before in hopes of getting standing room. My Fair Lady may be almost a year old if we take our trip in early '57, but the excitement has yet to abate, and the original cast is still intact. Sure, Fair Lady will never leave the world's stages, but does anyone seriously believe that any revival will ever come close to matching the sets and costumes of the original, or the pairing of masterful Rex Harrison and thrilling new star Julie Andrews? While Fair Lady will be the only show on our list that one could still have attended in the early '60s, surely the excitement of seeing it in its first year was unequaled.
But just a block away from Holliday, Merman, and Russell at this time was a new musical that I suspect would have thrilled me even more than Fair Lady. I have a propensity for operatic, emotional shows, and The Most Happy Fella is one of my all-time favorites, with Frank Loesser's book, music, and lyrics combining to deeply moving effect. The score, which ranges from tin-pan-alley hits like "Standing on the Corner" and "Big 'D'" to grand opera in "My Heart Is So Full Of You," is as good as anything ever heard on Broadway, and the original leads--Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan, Art Lund, Susan Johnson--were to die for. There's no question that, while Happy Fella was an acclaimed hit, it would have been even better received and considered a landmark had it not opened just seven weeks after Fair Lady. Fair Lady was incomparably intelligent and elegant, but, knowing me, I would have been dissolved in tears throughout the original Happy Fella, and would probably go to see it twice during my time-travel week.
Now comes the one crisis. Now that Gwen Verdon has become one of Broadway's most exciting stars after Damn Yankees, one couldn't wait to see her next vehicle, New Girl in Town, opening at the 46th Street Theatre on May 14, 1957 (it would displace Damn Yankees, which would transfer to the Adelphi, and would still be available for viewing during our '56/'57 trip). Then too, Beatrice Lillie would be coming into the Winter Garden in March in Ziegfeld Follies, and even though it would bomb, the chance to see Lillie headlining a revue woud be irresistible.
But here's the problem: If one waited to make the trip until New Girl and Ziegfeld Follies had arrived, one would miss a musical that was only available from December 1, 1956 to February 2, 1957. And because of it, we would have to make our trip before February 2, for everything else mentioned above would be running, and only then would we get to catch the original Candide. In spite of the wildly mixed reviews (Atkinson in the Times called it "brilliant" and "a triumph," Kerr in the Tribune called it "a really spectacular disaster"), I'm sure I would have been thrilled by the score, the dazzling physical production, the performances of Max Adrian, Barbara Cook, Irra Petina, and Robert Rounseville, and the daring of it all. To this day, I actually prefer the original Lillian Hellman libretto to the Hugh Wheeler version and the later adaptation of Wheeler for the Scottish Opera. And I suspect that seeing the original Candide was one of the headier experiences available to sophisticated audiences of the time. So I'll just have to miss the divine Bea, and come back next fall or winter to catch New Girl.
So that's my week, and once again, let's just imagine seven days in town that took in, back-to-back, Fair Lady with the original cast, The Most Happy Fella, Bells Are Ringing, Li'l Abner, Happy Hunting, Auntie Mame, Candide, and Damn Yankees. And please note that while as a musical theatre devotee I have only included one play, Auntie Mame (a play that always felt like a musical at that), I would, if time permitted in my fantasy week, have chosen any number of items from the dazzling non-musical fare available at the same time. And if that was a particularly wonderful moment to journey back to, it's just as true that one could select almost any week in the '40s and '50s and find an almost equal array of excitement.
THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK:
A few months ago in this space, I pointed out that, with a couple of partial exceptions, Cy Coleman has composed scores for musicals with little strong emotional content. But The Life, with its sometimes melodramatic mixture of murder, betrayal, shifting allegiances, and love in the ruins, is nothing if not an emotional show.
Ranging from the catchy ("Use What You Got," "Easy Money," "Mr. Greed") to the attractive ("A Lovely Day To Be Out of Jail," "We Had A Dream"), the bravura ("The Oldest Profession"), and the powerful ("Don't Take Much," "My Friend"), The Life score combines the sounds of Broadway, jazz, blues, and a Dreamgirls-like heightened recitative to considerable effect.
If there are some weak and/or extraneous numbers, and if Coleman's music is ahead of Ira Gasman's lyrics, this is an unusual, vivid score, and leads Pamela Isaacs, Lillias White, Sam Harris, Chuck Cooper, Kevin Ramsey, and Bellamy Young are ideal. This Sony Classical cast recording makes for good listening; now no more than a footnote, the RCA Victor pre-production concept album can be safely retired.
And while on the subject of CDs, I hear that Andrew Lloyd Webber is supervising a recording of the Whistle Down The Wind score in London.
QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
Who filled in for Judy Holliday when she vacationed from Bells Are Ringing?
Answer to last week's quiz: Lonny Price played Duddy Kravitz in both the Menken-Spencer and Lieber-Stoller musicals.
Lauperfan2 asks: I was reading Not Since 'Carrie' and I couldn't help but wonder when I came upon them, was a recording made of either of the musicals based upon Marilyn Monroe's life?
KM: Neither the West End show Marilyn! nor the Broadway one, Marilyn--An American Fable, (both 1983) was recorded. But Stephanie Lawrence, who gave quite a performance in the London show, recorded a couple of songs from the score on a solo album devoted mostly to songs sung by Monroe in films.
Kevin from NY asks: Some time ago, you mentioned a new show for Chita Rivera. Any news on this?
KM: Turns out I had a scoop on this one back in January. Covering her musical theatre career, the show is now called Chita & All That Jazz, and will play a pre-Broadway engagement at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre in December.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org