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This Is the Man of Milk and Honey

This is the Show of Milk and Honey By Peter Filichia

I take issue with something Jerry Herman once told me.

“Until I wrote ‘If He Walked into My Life’ for Mame,” he said, “I had never written a ballad that I would call ‘classy.’”

But what about “Let’s Not Waste a Moment” from Milk and Honey? I’d say that one’s pretty classy.

The Tony committee obviously saw something in Herman, for they gave him one of their four 1961-62 Best Original Score nominations – the slot that could have gone to the equally excellent I Can Get It for You Wholesale, Kean, Sail Away, The Gay Life or Donnybrook! And before you can say, “Yeah, but all those were flops,” let me remind you that Richard Adler was also nominated that season for Kwamina, which ran fewer performances than any of the above-snubbed scores.

You have two different opportunities to discover whether or not you agree with me on the worth of Milk and Honey. The show will be given a staged reading this weekend at the York Theatre Company as part of its Musicals in Mufti series. If you’re not in town, there’s always the original cast album from the 1961 Broadway production that ran a solid 543 performances.

Herman provided his first-ever Broadway score for the first-ever musical set in Israel, which was then only thirteen years old. Don Appell wrote an original libretto that sported a bevy of worthy characters.

First and foremost were Ruth, a 42-year-old widow from Cleveland, and Phil, a fiftyish electrical contractor from Baltimore. He’s father to a woman who’s married an Israeli and now lives in a remote area. Phil and Ruth are attracted to each other, but he doesn’t tell her that he’s married.

(Perhaps Appell was emboldened by South Pacific — where Emile asks Nellie to marry him without mentioning she’d not only be his wife but also the stepmother of two children. The R&H classic obviously got away with this significant non-disclosure, what with its eventually becoming the second longest-running musical in Broadway history.)

True, Phil’s long been separated from that wife, but she won’t give him a divorce, lest he remarry and be happy. That’s the type of information that comes out at the end of a musical’s first act and gives Ruth all of Act Two to wonder if she should move in with Phil, anyway. In 1961, this was a pretty intense question for a nice Jewish woman.

Herman had to have written classy songs, for he wouldn’t otherwise have landed two classy stars from the Metropolitan Opera: Mimi Benzell and Robert Weede. This would be Benzell’s debut on Broadway and, unfortunately, her only appearance there; she soon contracted cancer and died in 1970 at a mere forty-six.

Weede, of course, had already done one Broadway musical, playing to great acclaim the title role in Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. He’d do only one more: Cry for Us All, which lasted a week in 1970. But Weede would impact Milk and Honey in another way: Appell made Phil hail from Baltimore because Weede actually did, too.

Next in line are Phil’s daughter Barbara and her husband David, who’s very happy living and farming in Israel. “This is the land of milk and honey,” he proclaims in the stirring title song, which became much heard at the time. (And you didn’t have to be Jewish to sing it; it was in our repertoire at Arlington Catholic High School in Massachusetts.)

Barbara tries hard but comes to see life on an Israeli farm as much too difficult. Phil wants his daughter home, too. “In what other country can you find a Jewish farmer?” he asks. All this provides the couple with a show-long conflict.

Perhaps Barbara’s discontentment is responsible for Herman’s not giving her a song. David has one, though, and if Herman made a mistake, it was not obfuscating its title. When the program and cast album list that David sings “I Will Follow You,” you know how their dilemma will turn out.

Every musical that deals with True Love or the Lack of It looks to find some comedy, and for a while, it appeared that Adi and Zipporah would provide it. She wants to get married immediately while he’s content to wait. Sound familiar? Yes, but here the difference is that she’s as pregnant as Fanny Brice in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” That was hot stuff for a 1961 musical, which should be pointed out to those who assume that Milk and Honey was an innocently romantic show because ten of its twelve songs deal in one way or another with love and marriage.

Back then, Broadway spawned a lot hit love songs, but the irony here is that one of Milk and Honey’s two non-love songs became its most recorded one: “Shalom” – “the nicest greeting you know,” Phil says in welcoming Ruth to Israel. Herman told me that Ruth originally sang it to Phil. “Then I felt because Phil was the emotionally freer of the two,” he said, “he should take the lead.”

Phil eventually does loosen up the uptight Ruth, leading her to sing the zesty “That Was Yesterday,” where Herman gets in one of his best lyrics: “When my hair was up, my morale was down.”

As for Adi and Zipporah, they were unlike most second banana couples in musicals, for they got not a single comedy song, which almost always happened in hits (Ado Annie and Will Parker in Oklahoma!) and misses (Cissy and Swanswine in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). The original plan was to give them a or ditty or two, but that changed after producer Gerard Oestreicher sent Herman and Appell to Israel to do some research.

“One day,” said Herman, “we saw an adorable bunch of little old American-Jewish widows who were husband-hunting. We just had to put them in the show.”

(One of them, Mrs. Pearlman, is a Jersey City native, which is a bit of an in-joke: Jerry Herman lived there for some time, too.)

And who better to lead a Jewish-American widows’ brigade than Molly Picon, whose career started five decades earlier in Yiddish-language productions on Second Avenue? When Helen Hayes came backstage after a Milk and Honey performance, Picon said to her “I’m often called di yidishe Helen Hayes” – to which Hayes graciously responded “And I’ve been called the shiksa Molly Picon.”

Picon played Clara Weiss, who was much like Mrs. Levi in Herman’s next musical — Hello, Dolly! – in that she enjoys matchmaking while also keeping an eye out for her own perfect match. When no candidates seem forthcoming, Clara sings the jaunty march “Chin up, Ladies!”

But Herman told me that this was first known as “The Widow’s Song,” for the section that details every widow and her goal — “Mrs. Siegel, Cincinnati … may come home Mrs. Levi” — was originally the entire song. Not until the Boston tryout did he add a new section that not only began “Chin Up, Ladies” but also became the title of the enhanced song.

Now usually during a show’s break-in, a song is replaced, not augmented. You’ll be glad to have both amusing sections. One lyric pays tribute to two songs that had melodies by the man who beat out Herman for that Tony — Richard Rodgers – via “Climb ev’ry mountain to find your Mr. Snow.”

Did you catch that Herman wrote “Mrs. Levi” at a time when he had no idea that his next show would center on another woman by this name? All right, it’s pronounced “Lee-VEE” in Milk and Honey and “Lee-VYE” in Dolly, but if that doesn’t satisfy, how about this? When Clara finds Sol Horowitz, she sings “Hymn to Hymie,” in which she looks to heaven and asks her first love for permission to marry her second. Doesn’t that anticipate Dolly’s plea to her deceased husband Ephraim for a sign that will okay her marrying Horace Vandergelder?

Herman told me that the song was originally called “Hymn to Albert” and that it started with “Albert” sung as a melisma: “A-ah-ah-albert.” But for a year-and-a half before Milk and Honey opened on Oct, 10, 1961, Rose Alvarez in Bye Bye Birdie had been singing the same “A-ah-ah-albert” in “An English Teacher.” Herman didn’t want to bring that show to mind and seem derivative, so he changed the name of Clara’s beau.

Another Dolly parallel: the word “moment” turns up as a lyric in both shows. For after Milk and Honey’s “Let’s Not Waste a Moment” came Dolly’s “It Only Takes a Moment” – which, when you think of it, was another classy pre-“If He Walked into My Life” ballad, wasn’t it?

Jerry — don’t be so hard on yourself!

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.