Lyricist Johnny Burke's Wife Kept Torch Burning
Wearing her grandmother's pearl ring into Broadway battle-the barroom brawls of "Donnybrook!"-was not a smart move for Marissa Mason, a high-kicking tavern maid in that 1961 musicalization of "The Quiet Man. "The pearl soon disappeared, but the empty prongs of the setting remained to scratch co-stars who came in contact with her. The show's songwriter, Johnny Burke, volunteered to replace the pearl; when he returned the ring-presto!-the pearl had turned into a diamond. A marriage proposal followed.
The marriage lasted only two-and-a half years-till Burke's death of a stroke at 56-but the lyrics linger on, lighting up the Music Box nightly in a snazzy songbook revue that bounces around the best of Burke's work like a fine-tuned, finely tuned pinball machine. The show is called "Swinging on a Star" (after the "Going My Way" ditty that, 50 years ago, got him the Oscar), and swing it does!
"Broadway was Johnny's great love," says the widow Burke (real name: Mary Mason Burke March Kramer), now an attractive blonde of 54 and mother of five, and it completes a cycle of sorts to have his songs pass in review in the Broadway house owned by Irving Berlin, who started Burke off on his career.
The irony is that only posthumously is Burke a Broadway success. "Swinging on a Star," the sleeper hit of the season, has already rung up almost as many performances as all three of his previous Main Stem forays combined. Two were done in tuneful tandem with composer Jimmy Van Heusen: "Nellie Bly" wobbled through 16 performances in 1946, but "Carnival in Flanders" in 1953 got through only 6 (still enough for Dolores Gray to get the Tony-for introducing the team's tallest evergreen, "Here's That Rainy Day"). "Donnybrook!," with Burke doing words and music, went down for the count after 68 performances. "Johnny put such heart and love into Donnybrook! that when it failed, it just crushed him, and he died not long after that," remembered Kramer. "I said to myself, 'Some day, somehow, some way, I've got to do something for this man.' "
Not till she saw the Kander and Ebb songfest, "And the World Goes 'Round," did a light bulb go off above her head, and she said to herself, "Here's that sunny day." Gathering up some 550 Burke lyrics, she gave them to producer Richard Seader, a "Donnybrook!" survivor who, in turn, entrusted them to writer-director Michael Leeds. Leeds then fashioned them into a fast, fun Top 40-plus theatrical reprise ("Imagination," "Personality," "Misty," "Moonlight Becomes You," "Pennies from Heaven," "It Could Happen to You," et. al).
You get the idea. So, apparently, do audiences. Three workshop productions of "Swinging on a Star" plus a fully staged production at Goodspeed Opera House preceded the Broadway edition, and all of them sold out.
"Word of mouth," explains Kramer in three little words. The other three little words never came together in a Johnny Burke lyric. "That was his trademark. Johnny never wrote 'I love you,' but he did write love stories-as songs."
As for her love, that's playing on Broadway-and it fills the Music Box.
-- By Harry Haun