STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: On On the Twentieth Century

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: On On the Twentieth Century I'm so glad that before the twentieth century came to a close, we got a chance to see On the Twentieth Century, in a splendid revival by the Goodspeed Opera House.

I'm so glad that before the twentieth century came to a close, we got a chance to see On the Twentieth Century, in a splendid revival by the Goodspeed Opera House.

I've been a fan of the show ever since that October, 1977 night when I went to Mary Lea Johnson's posh East Side apartment to attend a backers' audition of The Twentieth Century, Ltd. The show would change its title, it's been long rumored, because Johnson (an heir to the vast Johnson & Johnson fortune) went to a fortune-teller who told her that the musical would be a hit if it had 21 letters in its title. So Johnson asked Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to change the name, and On the Twentieth Century was the result.

That night, we were ready to give the show a 21-gun salute, for we'd have the honor to see it performed by the authors. Having caught Comden and Green do their Party at Harvard University a year before -- a one-nighter that was so beloved a return engagement was soon booked, which then spurred a Broadway run -- I couldn't wait to see Adolph as down-and-out impresario Oscar Jaffee, and Betty as Lily Garland, the aspiring actress he made into a star, as they ride on the Twentieth Century, Ltd., a luxury liner between N.Y. and Chi -- as he tries to convince her to come back and do another show with him.

No such luck. Ms. Comden was sick that night, and Willi Burke, an actress who'd eventually be cast in a small role, subbed. And yet, while we didn't have the interplay that the authors had honed to perfection in nearly four decades of working together, we still had enough to know that The Twentieth Century, Ltd. had the potential to be another glorious musical comedy from the pair.

The memory of Green performing his big opening number "I Rise Again" and his 11 o'clocker, "The Legacy," remains with me to this day. Equally vivid, though, were Coleman's renditions of the three "I Have Written a Play" songlets -- in which a train conductor, senator, and doctor each believe he's giving Oscar Jaffee his big break. Coleman performed each splendidly, probably because he's had many similar experiences over the years with eager amateurs. (Sometimes he even wound up working with them.) When I heard both "Our Private World" and "This Is the Day," I knew one would have to go. Each was based on the most earnest of Nelson 'n' Jeanette love duets, though each was an homage, not a spoof. Alas, each did the same thing, too, and one, I felt, would be enough. Early reports from the Boston tryout soon let me know that "This Is the Day" wasn't coming to the St. James.

But it could be heard at each of the 460 Broadway performances in the out-music. I know, because On the Twentieth Century is a show I visited countless times (okay, 14) during its 13-month run. I wasn't dissuaded by its opening on Feb. 18, 1978 to only two raves, one favorable, one mixed, and two pans (as our friend Steven Suskin notes in his "More Opening Nights on Broadway"). I wasn't turned off that some of the book scenes, especially the one in which Oscar tries to convince Lily to play Mary Magdalene under his direction, are too long. It was a real Broadway musical comedy, and that was more than good enough for me.

And so, I was there for Madeline Kahn's Lily, which was good, if you could convince yourself that she was underplaying, and not showing a lack of interest. I was there when Judy Kaye went on for her before Kahn bolted, and there the night she got it for keeps. How skeptical so many were then. How they changed their minds by the end of "Babette," when she hit notes that Kahn never thought of trying to reach.

I was even there a night when Kaye's understudy went on -- and found her to be the best of the three Lily Garlands. Nobody knew her then, but some do now: Christine Ebersole, who a season later would be Ado Annie in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma. (She's also set to play Mame at the Paper Mill Playhouse come September.)

And I was there when Imogene Coca was out, and Betty Comden went on as Mrs. Letitia Peabody Primrose, the nutty heir to the Restoria Pills fortune. So, in essence I did see Comden and Green do the show. Just not simultaneously, that's all.

I was also in the audience of the Shubert when the 1978 Tonys were dispensed, when John Cullum was named Best Musical Actor and a not-yet famous Kevin Kline was Best Featured Actor for playing Lily's vainglorious heartthrob, Bruce Granit. Comden and Green got Best Book, and a share of the Best Score prize with Coleman.

Best Book and Best Score equals Best Musical, right? Not in the year of Ain't Misbehavin', which came in with no fanfare, allowing the audiences to provide it for them. On the other hand, On the Twentieth Century was the victim of our expectations. We naturally assumed it'd be spectacular, and when it wasn't quite, we took what it accomplished for granted.

But Comden and Green did fine work, especially in the significant change they made with Lily. Though they retained the play and movie's conceit that she was originally Mildred Plotka, they dropped the idea that Oscar found her when she auditioned. Instead, they made her a pianist, merely hired by the self-important Imelda Thornton (Burke's role) to accompany her audition for Oscar Jaffee. Imelda, though, isn't up to the rigorous "The Indian Maiden's Lament," as Mildred is the first tell her. Imelda is livid that a mere accompanist should turn critic, but hell hath no fury like a pianist who is in danger of not being paid. The fire Mildred shows Imelda convinces Oscar that the lass has the passion within her to become a great actress.

Wise move, for it increased Lily's indebtedness to Oscar. After all, giving an actress a chance is one thing, but Lily could rationalize that she had such great talent that she would have eventually made it without his help. But if Mildred never thought about performing until Oscar discovered what was buried within her, she can't deny and must credit Oscar's immense role in her success.

We also must thank the authors for performing a sex-change operation on one character. Letitia Peabody Primrose was a man in the original property, but the switch allowed us to get one last blast of glory from Imogene Coca, a '50s television icon to many of us.

After it closed in March, 1979, On the Twentieth Century had a modest tour and London production. A few years later, the York Theatre Company did a fine mounting. Since then, it pretty much disappeared, until Goodspeed gave "the train musical" the green light. Some theatergoers wondered if the theater could pull it off, because this is a great big Broadway show. But it's also one of the rare mammoth musicals -- Grand Hotel is another -- that reduces well, because so much of its action takes place in a room or two.

I've always enjoyed previous Ted Pappas productions, but this one was so good I started wondering if Pappas is his real name, or if it's an acronym for Provides a Perfection Production As Scheduled. One nifty touch out of dozens: While Oscar and Lily are singing about "Our Private World," Bruce was in his -- staring intently and lovingly at his own 8-by-10 glossy.

And while Pappas didn't have the resources to replicate all the chaos that occurs during "She's a Nut" (Take a look at page 31 of the CD booklet, or the back of the LP, and you'll get a hint of it), he and choreographer Peggy Hickey came up with a smart and apt substitute by coordinating all the slamming doors that their train compartments could handle. Kudos to musical director Michael O'Flaherty for providing a more spirited tempo on "The Legacy" that made it a substantially stronger 11 o'clock number.

Donna English knows how to build Mildred Plotka into Lily Garland, and obliges with a number of stunning obbligatos. Mark Jacoby, who greatly resembles John Barrymore of the movie, is able to express Oscar's continuous contempt by turning his mouth into a castor-oil experience. As his two stooges, we have Peter Van Wagner with a distinctively Adolph Green quality, and the always excellent, rubber-legged Michael McCormick. When he ruminates on those five "O's" on Mrs. Primrose's check, he looks as if he's having an "O" himself.

As Mrs. Primrose, Jan Neuberger can hilariously make her eyes look divinely wild, thus creating the image of a cherubic cretin. Tony Lawson brings a cro-Magnon profile and the right brio to Bruce. The poor soul must endure a particular hardship, for, at the end of "Sextette," Oscar's flunkies are holding him upside down. Problem is, because people were applauding for so, so long, much too much blood must have rushed into his head.

Yes, the Goodspeed audience embraced it. What was so nice, of course, was hearing all the belly laughs. They roared when Bruce threw himself on the floor in lust when Lily entered in her slinky gown. When Oscar, reading the Bible, sincerely said, "They don't write dialogue like this anymore." There was a nice delayed laugh too, when the crowd realized exactly what Oscar meant when he told the senator who'd written the play, "I won't sleep until I've read it." Yeah, that's the way it used to be at musicals. As Oscar and his boys might have said, "Hello, old friends -- hello, Mister Big Laughs."

May this production spur On the Twentieth Century into becoming a staple of musical theater well into the 21st Century.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com