The Cole Porter classic at the Minskoff has a revised book, new scenery, costumes, orchestrations and choreography.
“Can-Can should not be called a revival,” says Arthur Rubin, one of the producers of the new production of Cole Porter’s 1953 musical that recently opened at the Minskoff Theatre. “This is a brand new production with a new concept, new scenery and costumes, new orchestrations, entirely new choreography by Roland Petit and a new book that’s been edited by Abe Burrows, who wrote the original.”
Mr. Rubin, who is General Manager of all Nederlander Theatres, should know what he’s talking about. He is not only co-producer of the musical with James M. Nederlander, Jerome Minskoff and others, but he appeared in the original 1953 Can-Can, which ran for 892 performances.
In his office atop the Palace Theatre, Mr. Rubin recently reminisced about the old and new productions of Can-Can. “I played about five different parts in the original show. I’ll never forget what happened when we went to Philadelphia in 1953 for the out-of-town tryouts. We got off the bus and there was a line of ticket-buyers for Can-Can that went all around the Academy of Music and up another block. We had no big stars in the show – Lilo, who had the lead, was a singer from France who was not known in this country. It had to be two things, we figured: the name of Cole Porter coupled with the name Can-Can. There was a magic about that combination.”
Mr. Rubin recalled that one of the most memorable moments occurred at the New York opening night of Can-Can at the Shubert Theatre on May 7, 1953.
“Gwen Verdon, who was not a ‘name’ when the curtain went up, was so spectacular in a first act ballet called ‘The Garden of Eden’ that she stopped the show. But I mean – she really stopped it. The audience wouldn’t let the next scene start, even though the set had changed. Gwen was already out of her costume backstage and the applause wouldn’t stop. So, she grabbed a towel, wrapped it around herself and came out practically nude to take a bow. The audience went wild!”
Can-Can ran longer than any other Cole Porter show except Kiss Me, Kate. Why make changes in a hit show?
“For a number of good reasons,” explained Mr. Rubin. “We’ve done Can-Can the way it should be done today and not the way it was done in 1953. In those days, all musicals had to have ‘in-one’ numbers (numbers performed before a front curtain while the stagehands set up the next scene behind it). There are no ‘in-one’ numbers in our show. The curtains never close between scenes.”
According to Mr. Rubin, the book has been considerably tightened by Abe Burrows, who is once again the show’s director. There is much more dancing in this Can-Can and for a very obvious reason. Lilo, star of the original production was a singer but not a dancer. Therefore, Gwen Verdon as Claudine did most of the dancing. Zizi Jeanmaire, star of the new version, is the acclaimed star dancer of Roland Petit’s Ballet National de Marseille. She is married to Mr. Petit, who has staged Can-Can and created all new choreography for the production.
In the current version Zizi, as La Mome Pistache, not only owns the café where the naughty Can-Can is danced, but is also the dancing star of her own establishment. In the “Garden of Eden” ballet, she dances the part of the Snake (originally done by a male) and Pamela Sousa dances Eve, the part that brought fame to Gwen Verdon.
The role of the critic, Hilaire Jussac, played by Erik Rhodes in 1953, was not a dancing part. In this version, dancer Swen Swenson plays the role and turns the delightful “Come Along With Me” into a striking dance duet with Pamela Sousa.
One of the ironies of the 1953 Can-Can was the “throw-away” spot given to one of Cole Porter’s best songs: “It’s All Right With Me.” Recalled Mr. Rubin: “I guess Cole didn’t realize what a great number it was. It wasn’t played in the overture or in the entr’acte music. Peter Cookson sang it once to a hooker at a table and that was it. But after the show was running for a while, the song began to catch on and it’s now a Porter standard. In our new production, we’ve given the number the full musical staging it deserves. Ron Husmann, who sings it, has a great voice and he does a marvelous job on this beautiful song.”
Mr. Rubin does not subscribe to that cliché that Cole Porter never wrote a bad song. “He wrote two terrible songs for the 1953 Can-Can,” he said, “and I only agreed to get involved with this production if they were dropped.” The songs are “Every Man Is A Stupid Man” and “If You Loved Me Truly” – and they have been dropped. The famous hits – “I Love Paris”, “C’est Magnifique”, “Allez-Vous en”, “Montmart” and the title song – remain. As for the Can-Can dance that shocked Mr. and Mrs. Khrushchev when they watched the filming of it for the movie Can-Can, it is even more elaborate than Michael Kidd’s version in 1953. Roland Petit has the entire company doing the high-kicking dazzler and the effect is super-spectacular.
Mr. Rudin appeared in Can-Can for several years, until Cole Porter’s next – and last Broadway show – Silk Stockings in 1955. “I was in his last show and he had a terrible song in that one, too. It was called ‘The Red Blues’ and I had a solo part to do in it. I had to sing very high obbligato – I think it was a high C. Well, every time Porter came to rehearsals, all he wanted to hear was ‘The Red Blues’ – which we all hated. He would stand there beaming and shaking his cane as I sang it. Finally, in desperation, I asked Herbie Greene our musical director, why Porter wanted to hear this terrible song. ‘Because he likes the way you sing the obbligato,’ he said. ‘That’s all he wants to hear.’”
Now, after a number of postponements (both Mr. Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire were felled by hepatitis, George Irving left the show for Copperfield and has been replaced by the talented Avery Schreiber) the brand new Can-Can has finally opened at the Minskoff Theatre. And if Mr. Rubin’s auguries are correct, Mr. Porter is looking down from heaven above and singing, “It’s All Right With Me.”