Did you see that there's a production of Flahooley running Off-Off- Broadway -- the first New York has seen since the 1951 Fred Saidy-E.Y. Harburg-Sammy Fain musical closed after five weeks?
Of course, you couldn't keep me away with a stick for, for almost four decades, Flahooley has been to me the most mysterious of Broadway legends.
When I was a kid, Flahooley was the original cast album I most wanted. From 1961 through 1970, I could only wonder if I would agree with Stanley Green, who called it "an unappreciated score of great charm" in his beloved The World of Musical Comedy.
Finally, I met a young stagestruck man in a record store, who, when he saw me with the London cast album of The Four Musketeers in my hands, knew he'd found a kindred spirit. Once I discovered he was a collector, too, I was quick to ask, "Do you have Flahooley?"
"On tape," he proudly announced -- and, God love him, he made me a copy. It was an unappreciated score of great charm. But I had no liner notes to guide me through the show, so I was in a vacuum when listening to lyrics about puppets, genies -- not to mention the weird but mellifluous wailings of that odd '50s sensation, Yma Sumac. Boy, I thought, Sammy Fain (composer of "Secret Love," "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing") really stretched himself when writing for her.
I wouldn't learn for six years that Sumac's songs were composed by Moises Vivanco (whom, years later still, I'd learn was her husband) when I saw his name between parentheses on the record label under each of Sumac's selections. This happened, of course, because on Sept. 20, 1976, I finally found Flahooley in a used record store, and for $20 (which was a lot of money in those days), it was finally mine.
What still wasn't mine were liner notes. The back of the album instead featured a picture of what looked like a finale, and just this much information about the plot:
"E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy have merrily mixed Toys, Dolls, American puppets, and an Arabian genie into a magical musical that has New Yorkers standing in line for tickets." (Didn't they really mean for ticket refunds to a closed show?)
Still, my interest in Flahooley continued. In fact, when I moved to a new home and required a new phone number, I asked to be unlisted. The Bell representative was nice enough to say that I could evade the charge of an unlisted number by entirely choosing another name for the phone book. For a few years, the suburban Boston directory listed "Flahooley, Peter."
It wasn't until Ken Mandelbaum wrote his landmark Not Since Carrie that I really had a handle on Flahooley's plot. Even so, I wasn't prepared for what I saw at St. Clements last week. Not at all.
Long before Big took us to a toy company, Flahooley did -- to B.G. Bigelow, Inc. Though we never know B.G.'s first name, we can assume it's not Billy, for he's a true "toy-coon," thanks to a head start from his $40 million inheritance.
Here, we meet Sylvester, who invented the beanie with the propeller -- but, as one of Bigelow's hired hands, he doesn't share in the real money. He settles for a gold plaque.
Sandy, his fellow employee and would-be girlfriend, won't settle for his settling. She feels Sylvester should stand up for himself, get a royalty, and a piece of the action with his next toy.
That, by the way, is Flahooley -- "the only word that can't be spelled backwards." (This was in an era where a popular laxative was named Serutan -- described as "Natures spelled backwards.") The doll does have one facet that should make it popular with Americans: It can say, "Dirty Red! Dirty Red!" Maybe the Flahooley, Sylvester hopes, will stop Sandy's turning him down because he's not rich. "Money!" he moans. "The root of all refusal!"
Bigelow is optimistic that the Flahooleys will allow him to outgross rival manufacturer A.E.I.O.U. and Sometimes Y. Schwartz -- a name that wouldn't have been so out of place in The Cradle Will Rock. But before we can find out whether the nation will say hello to these dollies, the plot takes a pretty strange twist. A group of Arabs show up, saying they're afraid of what atomic energy will do to the oil industry. They want Bigelow to fix a magic lamp so a Genie will once again come out and solve their woes. Bigelow's surreptitious response: "We don't want them to go elsewhere -- to Russia." So he promises to fix it but turns over the task to Sylvester.
He, however, is not immediately allowed to start work. "The reason you've been singled out for fingerprinting," he's told, "is that you're the company's most valuable man." Sylvester's also informed that he'll be made a vice-president -- if he can pass a security check. Someone turns and asks, "Doesn't anyone know any hearsay about this man?" Sylvester's staunch answer: "If I'm disloyal, I want to be the first to know it.
Sylvester happens to rub a Flahooley, and a Genie suddenly appears from the lamp (though why that happens is not clearly explained). The Genie, incidentally, is named Abou Ben Atom -- a play on "Abou Ben Adam," a once-popular poem. Abou, seeing Sylvester's amazement, tells him anything is possible. "You've read Arabian Nights. You've seen Finian's Rainbow."
Because Abou wants every child to have a doll, he starts mass-producing them. Soon there are so many, kids are getting them free from the overflow. Bigelow predicts "blood, sweat, tears, and salary cuts. Will they make them for Russian kids, and make them say 'Dirty capitalist?'" So Bigelow starts destroying Flahooleys -- an augury of the time when farmers would destroy what they grow.
But here's another augury of future business practices: Bigelow also owns A.E.I.O.U. and Sometimes Y. Schwartz, too, and planned the company to purposely lose money ("It's been worked out by the biggest tax lawyers in the country.")
Well, it was the era of witch-hunts, and Harburg had already been blacklisted. So he and his collaborators were interested in airing their politics, at the risk of flying in the face of musical theatre conventions. (When the opening strains of "He's Only Marvelous" begins, one character complains, "I object to a love song at this point.")
It hurts me to say it, but why not be fair? As I sat there watching this most polemic of musicals, I was constantly saying to myself, "What were they thinking?" Well, what they were thinking was what they wrote. And that's what artists should do. Flahooley's authors must have had great fun and satisfaction while creating the show.
But they couldn't have been surprised by its quick demise. To put it in perspective, Flahooley opened between the debuts of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Courtin' Time. No matter what the era, what other musical offers such sentiments as "Freud poisoned out minds" or "It's wrong to turn the American eagle into a stool pigeon."? Or have a question such as "Are you working for Uncle Sam?" answered with "Sure. He gets 20 of my pay."?
This production did serve to show that the cast album has some mighty strange edits in it. Those really familiar with the disc (re-released in 1977, and put on CD in 1993) will notice that before "The nation's greatest toy-coon," there are a couple of additional "B.G. Bigelow, Incs." There are some interstitial cuts in "You Too Can Be a Puppet." There are some lyrical references to Macy's, Gimbel's, Hammacher-Schlemmer, and other emporia that were cut from "Jump Little Chillun'." The coda on the title song is a bit different, too.
We were also offered two other songs not on the album: "Sing the Merry," dropped from the original production but recorded some years back, and "Happy Hunting," which did make it to New York. Sample lyric: "Happy hunting! What fun it is to drive somebody out of town."
One must remember, however, that this Flahooley was assembled by director Alisa Roost, who said in her program notes that she combined the first and final drafts. Perhaps, just perhaps, it wouldn't have been as didactic had either script been staged.
And how was the cast that Roost assembled? It reminded me that the word "amateur" originally meant someone who does an act for the sheer love of it. And there was a lotta love on the St. Clements' stage. Still, I'm so glad I came.
Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger.