Encores! Little Me Revisits a Time When Comedy Was King

By Jack Viertel
04 Feb 2014

Rachel York and Christian Borle
Rachel York and Christian Borle
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playbill.com offers a look at the history of the musical Little Me, which will begin performances at City Center Feb. 5.

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For three decades, in the '20s, '30s and '40s, Broadway book musicals stood side by side with plotless musical revues — shows both big and small, featuring show girls, show tunes, sketches and stars, among whom the comedians were top dogs. Then, in the 50s, the form faded from view on Broadway, as the best revue producers, directors and stars moved to that new form of entertainment that unfolded right in your living room for free: television.

Among the last of the revue comedians was Sid Caesar, who became one of the greatest of the early TV stars. And among his writers was a young Neil Simon, who, along with Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and others, were the sketch-creators-in-chief for "Your Show of Shows." They worked in an obscure corner, known as the writers room, right here, on the 6th floor of City Center.



When the Broadway producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin optioned Patrick Dennis's novel "Little Me" — a fake autobiography of the fake "star of stage, screen and tele- vision" Belle Poitrine, they turned to Neil Simon to adapt it for the stage. Simon had just written his first hit play, a sleeper hit of the 1960–61 season called Come Blow Your Horn, and Feuer and Martin reasoned that he might be the man to create a star vehicle around Belle, whose unwitting "memoir" reveals her to be a grasping, amoral and not very bright celebrity, who achieves wealth, fame and social position on the backs of the many men she counts as lovers and husbands. Simon, however, had a different idea. Instead of building the show around a female star who would play Belle, why not build it around Caesar, who could play all of the husbands and lovers?

And so, in November of 1962, Caesar returned to Broadway in Little Me, which bore a striking resemblance to that lost form of entertainment, the musical revue. It had now come full circle, from Broadway to TV and back to the Main Stem. To be sure, Little Me had a plot — of sorts. But it existed mainly to allow the star comedian a wide berth to create multiple characters in scenes that resembled both the classic sketches of earlier days, and the kinds of skits that were familiar to fans of TV shows like "Your Show of Shows" and that would live on in "The Carol Burnett Show." In the process, Patrick Dennis's novel, which is a classic example of low camp, was transformed into a mainstream Broadway burlesque.

Little Me should have been right at home on Broadway; Feuer and Martin's other hit musical comedy, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was playing across 46th Street, and Zero Mostel was tearing down the house in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum a few blocks north. Broadway was awash in musical comedy — bawdy, satiric, classical and contemporary. But somehow, Little Me, which opened to mostly rave reviews (the Times was an exception) never quite caught on in the same way. It eked out a season, had a slightly better run in London, and faded from view. One can only speculate on the reasons for this, although a certain wisecracking lack of warmth may be the most likely one. Audiences were beginning to express a preference for sentiment over pure comedy, a tendency that would grow stronger in succeeding seasons. Little Me, meanwhile, would do anything for a laugh.

In addition to being Simon's first musical, it was the second for the composer/lyricist team of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, whose work we are doing for the first time at Encores! this season. They had made their Broadway debut with Wildcat, which featured Lucille Ball and "Hey, Look Me Over!", but which faded quickly. With Little Me the team really arrived. The score is fast and furious, light and tuneful, and features clever, sometimes inspired lyrics. Dreaming of a better future, the acquisitive young Belle imagines of a world where

The life is fancy and free.
I'm gonna sit and fan
On my fat divan,
While the butler buttles the tea.

 Continued...