There have been many Broadway musicals that had state-of-the-art topicality when they were originally written. Call Me Madam in 1950 offered a thinly veiled Ambassador Perle Mesta. Happy Hunting told of goings-on around Grace Kelly’s 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco. In 1960, Bye Bye Birdie dealt with the military’s drafting of a rock star (read: Elvis Presley) as well as the then-popular and now-extinct Ed Sullivan Show.
Now they’re all period pieces, including a musical that opened fifty years ago this week. These days, The Dow Jones Industrial Average is over 23,000, but in 1967 How Now, Dow Jones wondered if it would ever hit 1,000.
Librettist Max Shulman introduced us to Kate, whose job was to announce on radio the precise number of the Dow Jones average every hour on the hour. She hoped it would reach the golden four-figures as soon as possible, for her beau Herbert, a Wall Street worry-wart, said that he wouldn’t feel the country was in the very best of hands unless the average hit that mark – and he wouldn’t feel secure enough to marry her until it did.
Kate was not a person to develop a cold, but she did feel vulnerable one day in the company’s lunchroom where she met Charley (Anthony Roberts, who’d become better-known as Tony). He confided in her that he was about to commit suicide because he’d failed at everything.
That struck the despondent Kate to do the deed, too. But before they do the deed, they do what’s often been called “the dirty deed.” For in musical comedy (which a show with a fanciful title such as How Now, Dow Jones had to be) people don’t kill themselves – although Kate and Charley wind up in a hotel where they experience le petit mort, what the French use as a euphemism for an orgasm.
How awfully convenient for the plot that Kate becomes pregnant after a one-night stand. By 1967, most women knew their way around diaphragms and pills; given that Kate had a long-term boyfriend, wouldn’t you assume she’d be taking precautions? Where’s Charley? Who knows? With every second getting her closer to motherhood – and the Dow staying at three figures — Kate announces to the world that the Dow did hit 1,000 so that Herbert will marry her.
My, doesn’t that paint the show into a tight corner! Shulman couldn’t find a way out that would make savvy if tired businessmen slap their foreheads and say, “Oh, that’s marvelous! What a clever solution!” No wonder that Clive Barnes, then of The New York Times, called the show How to Try at Business Without Really Succeeding.
How Now, Dow Jones lasted six months, not nearly long enough to see the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 1,000; that didn’t happen until Nov. 14, 1972 – precisely five years and fifty-one weeks to the day of How Now’s first preview.
Nevertheless, the score is terrific. How could it not have been with lyricist Carolyn Leigh? Once again Leigh showed that she had “signature” – the term lyricists reserve for a wordsmith who has a genuine voice.
In the ‘50s, Leigh (1926-1983) wrote the lyrics to “Young at Heart,” “Witchcraft,” and “The Best Is Yet to Come,” three of the most beloved songs of the pre-rock era as well as Peter Pan, which the nation flocked to see with Mary Martin on their new-fangled TV sets in 1955.
Leigh wrote many of its lyrics, but not all. When Peter Pan was found wanting in its West Coast tryout, Betty Comden and Adolph Green came in to help with the lyrics; Jule Styne would spell composer Moose Charlap. Some theatergoers automatically think that the good songs were written by the new pair and the lesser ones by Leigh and Charlap, but that’s not true. The original team gave us “I’m Flyin’,” “I Won’t Grow Up,” and “I Gotta Crow” – excellent songs all.
In 1960, Leigh truly found her unique voice as a lyricist with Wildcat, the Lucille Ball musical for which new collaborator Cy Coleman provided the music. From then on, the best word to describe Leigh’s lyrics was “earthy.”
To wit: Don’t pass the plate folks, don’t pass the cup. I figure whenever you’re down and out, the only way is up. Don’t thumb your nose, bud. I’m a little bit short of the elbow room. You bet your booties. Here’s the way you spell it, chum. It ain’t Little Eva or Mother Machree. I’ll be swacked and pickled in moonshine. I’ll be piked and peddled for coal oil. Cookin’ grub and pinnin’ up didees. Don’t let this unravel your undies. Why would you throw a girl a belt then behave as if she actually smelt? In your hat. Crook your crooked little finger. There’s a stripper in a joint in New Orleans. Hit the spot. What the hey?
Two years later came Little Me. In the opening number, Leigh had the Z-list movie star Belle Poitrine sing, “Stack me up with all three Gabors. I’ll reduce ‘em to cut-rate stores.” Leigh really had Broadway guessing as that second line unfolded. Would she dare say “whores?” Not quite, but Leigh knew what we’d be thinking — and we knew what she’d been thinking, too.
Again, what earthiness! You’re damn well right, the truth. Gonna sit and fan on my fat divan while the butler buttles the tea. The whole caboodle. Clear down in the geezer freezer. Oh, dem doggone dimples. Well, my sweet chickadee. You ain’t no Eagle Scout. We’ll be damn fools a lot. Fogs up my glasses and buckles my knees. Who would not be out of town, or a blabbermouth? When it comes to parlez-vous, who could parlez-vous a few?
In one instance in Little Me Leigh was guilty of showing off and not taking the characters into consideration. But considering how brilliant her lines were, one can understand why she just had to keep them.
Leigh had a group of peasants sing, “No man is a true pariah deep down inside” before adding, “No man is a true Uriah Heep down inside.” Given that her characters were illiterates, they would have neither used the five-dollar word “pariah” nor have read David Copperfield. But it is awfully clever, isn’t it?
How Now, Dow Jones was Leigh’s only other musical to reach Broadway (Her versions of Smile, The Great Gatsby and Juliet of the Spirits didn’t get on). She was just as superb here.
To wit (and what wit): Run and hock the baby. Watch your bloomers, Mabel. I’ve only one word to say: Nuts! Only one little slip – and it’s showing. Like the mustard sells that ham on rye. This was your up-and-at ’em day. Things are thumbs up; he shows the bums up. In the simple opinion of the unwashed dominion.
Truth to tell, Leigh deserves some blame for How Now, Dow Jones, too. As the window card and cast album credits proclaim, the show was “based on an original idea by Carolyn Leigh.” So we have to infer that she came up with the plot.
Let’s credit Elmer Bernstein, too, who wrote some fine show music – and a sound you wouldn’t expect from the composer of the ultra-butch theme to The Magnificent Seven that David Yazbek referenced in “Man” in The Full Monty.
Bernstein provided the pulsating “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore,” the lovely waltz “Walk Away” and the jaunty “Gawk, Tousle, and Shucks,” among many other pleasant tunes. He and Leigh also saw a song step out of the show: “Step to the Rear,” a quintessentially snazzy Broadway show song. You may have known it from its recording by the still-popular Marilyn Maye; she even got a long-running commercial from it: “Lincoln Mercury leads the way!”
Many who worked with Leigh said she could be difficult. Exhibit A is that famous incident during Little Me’s Philly tryout where she brought in a policeman off the street to arrest co-producer/director Cy Feuer for changing her work. But these words from her “What Takes My Fancy” (from Wildcat) may best express who Leigh was: “Them’s what treats me girly has to find out early in my mama’s litter, I’m the independent critter.” You bet – and musical theater was the richer for it.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.