Producer Cy Feuer Is Recalled at Broadway Memorial

News   Producer Cy Feuer Is Recalled at Broadway Memorial
 
Let the record show that Cy Feuer left ‘em smiling. When the doors of the Lunt-Fontanne opened after his two-hour memorial Sept. 21 and the congregation hit the bricks of West 46th, a tiny uniformed band ambushed them with mournful strains of “Follow the Fold.”

It was impossible not to feel a certain joyful surge at this funny little funereal flourish. Like a well-conditioned reflex, the mind raced back in time and remembered this as the entrance music that brought on the rag-tag Save-a-Soul Mission Band in Guys and Dolls.

Guys and Dolls was, arguably, the crowning Feuer & Martin achievement, one of 16 shows Mr. Feuer and his partner Ernest H. Martin brought to Broadway and changed forever the theatrical landscape.

“Cy was really a .400 hitter,” eulogized his friend of 50 years, Gerald Schoenfeld, president of the Shubert Organization, who succeeded him as chairman of The League of American Theatres and Producers. “He was The Sultan of Swat. He did everything.”

Mr. Feuer, who died May 17 at age 95 at his home in Manhattan, came to Broadway from the motion picture industry. He had been musical director at Republic Pictures, so nobody really noticed he had done more than 100 movies. On Broadway he turned producer with Martin, and the world noticed all 16 of their efforts. Half, Schoenfeld underlined, were hits: Little Me, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Sound of Music, Silk Stockings, The Boy Friend, Can-Can, Guys and Dolls and Where’s Charley? Feuer also directed on occasion (I Remember Mama, Walking Happy, Skyscraper, Little Me and, quite lastly, Whoop-Up).

“And,” Schoenfeld said, completing his Renaissance man portrait, “Cy was also a theatre-owner—of this very theatre, which used to be The Globe Theatre, a movie house.” He recruited Mr. Feuer because his musical background came in handy in dealing with the American Federation of Musicians. Diplomacy was a Lucky Strike extra. During the big strike of ‘75, Schoenfeld recalled, Mr. Feuer showed up for a meeting at City Hall out of breath and panting. (It had suddenly dawned on Mr. Feuer it would be bad form to arrive at the negotiation site driving his Rolls so he parked the car and ran the rest of the way.)

“Cy never really retired from the theatre. When we needed a chairman of the League, Cy came forth and served for 15 years. Serving as League chairman for 15 years, as [David] Merrick once said, was like opening a musical in Boston, but Cy was loved by everyone.”

Merle Debuskey, who was Feuer & Martin’s in-house publicist from the fall of 1961 to the finish of their producing careers, found his two bosses to be quite a study in contrasts: “Ernie was tall. Cy was short. Ernie was always preceded by a long cigar. Cy had an occasional cigarette. One was the good cop, the other the bad cop—roles they would switch when the occasion warranted. They were different in every way but one, and what a one it was: their devotion, their total focus, on making each show the best it could be.”

Officially calling the service to order, Joel Grey stepped forth and bid the audience “Wilkommen,” accompanied on the piano by Michael Dansicker. Grey said that he left Cleveland and came to Broadway when Feuer & Martin were then the gold standard. He “auditioned and auditioned and auditioned—but they made it up to me” (i.e., by giving him the movie version of Cabaret—and, with it came an Oscar to go with his Tony).

The only other flick that Feuer & Martin produced was A Chorus Line, as directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, and it landed as a foul ball very far from its stage success. Debuskey relayed how he once asked Mr. Feuer if he knew what went wrong with the movie, and the producer didn’t hesitate a beat: “Yeah. We f***ed up.” No buck-passer, he.

Surprising no one, Neil Simon set the yardstick for yucks at the service. He entered the Feuer & Martin firmament when he was only one hit old and still pondering what he’d do after Come Blow Your Horn. Feuer swooped in and asked if Simon would be interested in a new musical he and Martin were planning called Little Me. “I said, ‘Interested in what?’ I’d never written a musical. I’d never seen a musical. I didn’t know what to do with a musical,” Simon recalled. “He said, ‘Well, you just have to write the book.’ And I said, ‘What’s the book?’ I thought the book was something you read while you were putting on a show. Cy Feuer, then, taught me how to write the book for a Broadway musical. I didn’t picture Cy Feuer as a Broadway director. To me, he seemed like an Irish boxer with Jewish friends. When he laughed at something I wrote, he laughed so hard I thought that I had won the Pulitzer Prize. He was feisty and smart, and he knew what he was doing on stage, off stage and behind stage. He became my mentor, my father and my friend.

“When we finally got Little Me up on its feet, we did a run-through. I thought a run-through was an opening night. I even wore a tuxedo. I watched the show, and Cy’s laugh could be heard in Samoa. He took me aside, and he said with a smile, ‘It’s funny—isn’t it—the show?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s funny.’ Cy said, ‘It’s a pity. I’m thinking of closing it.’ I said, ‘Why?’ Cy said, ‘It’s not good enough.’ He was right. Then he said, ‘Listen, let’s work on it. We’ll have some fun with it. And then we’ll close it.’ We were in Philadelphia. The show got better. Bob Fosse came up with some great numbers. Cy Coleman came up with some great songs. On opening night, a man sat in the third row in a tuxedo, dead drunk. He got up from his seat, reeled up the aisle from side to side on his way to the men’s room. As he bounced past us, he said to the whole group, ‘This is the worst goddam show I’ve seen since My Fair Lady.’”

Threaded throughout the memorial were Mr. Feuer’s own words, from a TV interview he did with Pia Lindstrom. Like these on the genesis of Guys and Dolls: “One day Ernie Martin called me from California and said, ‘I am holding in my hand one of the greatest titles for a musical you’ve ever heard called Guys and Dolls.’ It was an anthology of Damon Runyon stories, but there was no story called Guys and Dolls, but the anthologist decided because of Runyon’s use of referring to men as guys and women as dolls that this would be the title. And we said, ‘Gee, what an idea of basing something on Runyon!’ Well, we went to the Runyon estate and said, ‘We would like to make a deal on Guys and Dolls.’ And they said, ‘What about the story?’ We said, ‘We’ll fill in the story later.’ They said, ‘Well, why don’t you look over the available stories and pick a story you want to do?’ I said, ‘No. That’s going to take some time, and we want to sign the contract now while our juices are flowing.’ And we signed the contract. We had ‘Guys and Dolls, based on X.’”

The original costume designer of Guys and Dolls, 91-year-old Alvin Colt, took to the podium, cane in hand and light in spirit, and noted that he and choreographer Michael Kidd, 87 and residing in California, are all that remains of the 1950 show’s creative team.

Colt shared some frisky memories about outfitting the title genders. The chorines who worked in The Hot Box Club with the ever-lovin’ Miss Adelaide had a barnyard ditty to execute called “A Bushel and a Peck,” so Colt turned them to “farmerettes” and planted a big daisy on every breast. “The daisies did their own choreography,” he remarked wryly. After the run-through, Colt noticed Mr. Feuer going into a huddle with the other creatives. He feared the worst, but, when he came out of it, Mr. Feuer wanted to know if the daisies could have pedals that the dolls could distribute in a she-loves-me—she-loves-me-not fashion, establishing a little “audience contact.” The male characters were all easy to design for, save one. Colt couldn’t get a handle on Benny Southstreet, one of the lesser flunkies. It was Mr. Feuer who finally defined him: “Benny Southstreet is the guy who never gets laid.”

The Dodgers’ Michael David confessed that he was a relatively new member of The Cy Feuer Fan Club. “Frankly I knew him not very well,” he admitted at the outset. “That said, Cy and I had two specific things in common”—namely, two Frank Loesser musicals. “They did all the heavy lifting 50 years ago. In 1992 we produced a new production of Guys and Dolls at the Martin Beck, and in 1995 we did How To Succeed at the Rodgers. “Cy saw them both early in previews and again after they opened. Quite honestly, I don’t think he liked either very much, but I do think he was pleased that we treated them like new shows, that they weren’t simply resurrections of his own. What I remember most was how this larger-than-life character—this preeminent practitioner of making musicals—was so supportive, so indulgent to someone who knew so little. I felt closest to Cy ever since. His wisdom, wit, imagination, talent, colorful temperament—all was self-evident. What I remember particularly was his generosity, his understanding and his grace that he sent to us as we stood naked in the theatrical trenches trying to make a musical on Broadway.”

Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, was another producer heard from, recalling how he would teasingly greet the man as The Fuhrer and then discovered in reading his obituaries he was a much darker, more demanding person than he had known.

Indeed, Debuskey told the story of how Mr. Feuer fired Sandy Wilson, the creator of The Boy Friend, and had him barred from rehearsals when Wilson tried to put a number into the show that he couldn’t get into the London version. Rudy Vallee almost got his, too, campaigning to get his golden oldies slipped into How to Succeed, driving Loesser and Mr. Feuer to distraction. Mr. Feuer promised Loesser he’d deck Vallee—but only after Vallee’s contract expired.

Donna McKechnie—on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne for the first time since Mr. Feuer chose her for the chorus for her first Broadway show (How to Succeed) and told her sing every day—honored that advice with a couple of Can-Can songs; two more followed from Steve Ross (the title song and the cut “Who Said Gay Paree”). Ellen Foley did “On the Other Side of the Tracks” from Little Me; Eden Espinosa did “I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls.

Jimmy Breslin, whose brass knuckles as a columnist matched Mr. Feuer’s as a producer, saluted his friend for standing out in an era of “national Alzeheimer’s” and hoped we could all catch “that enthusiasm and that energy which he always had. That’s what I remember about Cy Feuer most. It was a marvelous energy to have, and so few have it.”

Warm remembrances from Julie Andrews were read by Marian Seldes, about her initial meeting with the man who would bring her to this country and start her star ascending in The Boy Friend. She was appearing in the provinces outside London in a terrible play which, she insisted, would have stopped her career cold had it come in. Mr. Feuer was so flabbergasted all he could manage to say to her was “My God! You have perfect pitch!”

Letters from Hal Prince and John Kander were read by Jed Bernstein, president of Above the Title Entertainment and past president of The League of American Theatres and Producers Inc. Mr. Feuer’s role at the League, in Bernstein’s view, was that of teacher. “We learned from him every day, most especially myself. He taught us about taste. He taught us about compassion and love of talent and love for the work itself. He taught us about how noble it is to be a producer. He was truly a quintessential man of the theatre, a man of uncommon achievement. Every day that Cy came into the office—which was about four times a week until the age of 92—Cy would come up to me and put his arm around me and say, ‘Hi ya, kid. How ya doin’?’ Well, don’t tell people who paid me, but it was worth doing the job just for that.”

Another Jed—one of Mr. Feuer’s two sons—spoke last, mostly about things you might not know about his father—“aside from using Jesus in almost every sentence”—things that didn’t even make the autobiography he wrote in 1992, "I Got the Show Right Here."

“One: between 1935 and 1941, he was nominated five times for an Oscar for Best Original Score. Two—and this was really important—in Guys and Dolls, he placed ‘Fugue for Tinhorn’ at the top of the show. Why? Because he figured, that way, the audience wouldn’t notice that it had absolutely nothing to do with the show at all. Guys and Dolls was about crapshooters, not horseracers. He loved the piece of material so much that he couldn’t throw it out so he made it kind of the end of the overture and nobody ever really noticed that it was completely irrelevant. And three—and this is a mite more serious than the other two: he racially integrated the orchestras of Broadway for the first time. It was 1950, and he had heard a sensational trumpet player with whom he was very impressed. The trumpet player happened to be African-American, and Cy hired him to be one of the four trumpets in Guys and Dolls. This was not easy, and it did not go over well at all, but that was the way it was going to be because Cy saw it that way. So I said to him one day, ‘Dad, you’re writing an autobiography. Why don’t you mention this?’ He said, ‘Well, Jesus, I don’t know, it sounds like bragging.’ I said, ‘Writing an autobiography is bragging by its very nature. Why write the whole thing?’ He responded with something like, ‘Well, Jesus, what can I tell ya?’ That was the way he ended many conversations.”

Jed Feuer then produced this African-American trumpet player, Joe Wilder, who relayed a story of touring in the ‘50s with Silk Stockings when at one stop people of color were specifically uninvited to the opening-night party. Feuer reacted with fury: promising to fire anyone attending the party—an unneeded edict since the company, as one, declined.

Young Feuer’s seven-member jazz group, Bipolar, concluded the service with “Cy’s Suite,” a medley of 18 songs from his father’s shows. You can’t say he never sang for his father.

And, outside on the street, waiting with instruments poised, was that mini-mission band.

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