Encores! Little Me Revisits a Time When Comedy Was King

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

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

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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.

Coleman's music ranges from pastiche parodies of Maurice Chevalier and mid-'20s American vaudeville to among the loveliest of Broadway waltzes of the '60s, "Real Live Girl." He had been a jazz pianist, and his experience in that realm comes out in the sophisticated melody and harmonies of a song like "Poor Little Hollywood Star."

In addition to his experience in jazz, Coleman proved in Little Me to be a natural musical dramatist. Each song he wrote answers the question "What would a song sung by this character sound like?". So "On the Other Side of the Tracks" is a driving and ambitious road map for Belle's future, "I Love You" is a pompous and arrogant declaration of passion from a naïve rich boy, "I've Got Your Number" is smooth and ultra-cool Coleman specialty for the seedy gambler George Musgrove, and "Goodbye" is an appropriately European- sounding comic dirge for the dying Prince of Rosenzweig, a country so small that it was once defeated in war by Luxembourg. The composer's sense of inventiveness and fun never flags, and the tunes are apt and original.

The score was orchestrated by Ralph Burns, a sometime jazz arranger and compulsive entertainer, who used the full range of his expertise to create a musical landscape that is often brash and funny, full of flash and brass, but not afraid to be tender when the moment calls for it. From the downbeat of the overture, audiences knew that this was going to be a fast and confident ride that would seldom relax or take a breath. As is often the case at Encores!, audiences have the rare opportunity to hear the show's original orchestration for the first time since the first Broadway production.

Bob Fosse, fresh off a series of choreographic triumphs, including How to Succeed, choreographed and co-directed with producer Cy Feuer, one of whose duties was to handle the delicately balanced star. As Neil Simon recalled in a piece in The New York Times years later, "Cy said to him one night when we were trying out in Philly, 'It was a very good show tonight, Sid, but I thought it was a little slow.' And Sid said, 'Slow?' I could see from the look on his face that he didn't take kindly to it. 'Well,' he said, 'I can make it faster. You want to do the 12-minute version tomorrow night? Or you could do a faster version where the audience just buys the tickets and goes right home. Would that be faster?' Cy knew he had stumbled into something and left. But Sid went back to his hotel room with his manager, and he was still mumbling about it. He was very angry. He went to the bathroom, put his hands on the sink and pulled it out of the wall. And he said to his manager, 'Now is it fast enough?'"

Part of the challenge of Little Me, or any comedy like it, is making it fast enough. That rip-roaring spirit is largely absent from our theatre today, but Little Me takes us back to a time when comedy was king, and Broadway musicals, even those created for the tired businessman, perhaps especially those created for the tired businessman, prided themselves on wit, speed, great tunes and the kind of expert execution that lifted audiences out of the daily doldrums and provided a giddy riot, at least for a couple of hours.

Standing: Lee Wilkof , Tony Yazbeck, Christian Borle, Harriet Harris, Lewis J. Stadlen<br> Seated: Robert Creighton, Judy Kaye, Rachel York, David Garrison
Standing: Lee Wilkof , Tony Yazbeck, Christian Borle, Harriet Harris, Lewis J. Stadlen
Seated: Robert Creighton, Judy Kaye, Rachel York, David Garrison (Photo by Joan Marcus)