By Peter Filichia
Can fifty-three years have really passed since I saw my first pre-Broadway tryout?
It happened on March 10, 1962 at the Colonial Theatre in Boston where I saw I Can Get It for You Wholesale: Saturday matinee, first balcony (as we called the mezzanine then), Row F, Seat 6, $4.95.
I came out raving about this Barbra Streee-sand. Not until the actress appeared on The Judy Garland Show nineteen months later did I learn how to pronounce her name.
In the interim, I’d heard her many times on the original Broadway cast album, which I bought the day it arrived in Lechmere Sales in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. The recording perfectly captured what I’d heard that afternoon, for the show that opened on Broadway at the Shubert a mere twelve days after I saw it was – to use a term I’d only learn much later – “frozen.”
Meanwhile, between March 10 and 22, Richard Rodgers opened a musical called No Strings, which warranted an appearance by star Diahann Carroll on The Tonight Show. She happened to mention to host Jack Paar that when the show was in Detroit, Rodgers – acting as both composer and lyricist – wrote a new song called “Maine.”
“Hmmm,” I thought, “what will it be like for those people who saw the show in Detroit when they get the album and come to a song they hadn’t heard? Won’t that be jarring and weird!”
Little did I know how often such an experience would happen to me in the years to come. Seeing tryouts – literally “in Philly, Boston and Baltimo’,” as Cole Porter wrote in Kiss Me, Kate – during the last gasp of the tryout system in the ‘60s and ‘70s often meant getting the cast album weeks later and finding new songs on it.
Almost always, the new songs were improvements. As both Sheldon Harnick and Stephen Sondheim have said, writing a new song in a hotel room, while never easy, is made easier now that you know the person for whom you’re writing. Composers and lyricists, after having seen the actors already do a number of performances, now have learned what they can do, where their strengths are as well as what the show needs.
So here are some songs that I did not see or hear performed during their tryouts – but ones that came to be delights when I played the original cast album:
Bajour, Shubert Theatre, Boston, Oct. 17, 1964 – without “Honest Man.” Sure, this pissing match between Cockeye Johnny Dembo and The King of Newark is a tad tawdry, but it’s in the right tradition of the eleven o’clock number. It has “answer-echos” that are just as sharp as (and similar to) the ones in “Little Tin Box.”
Flora, the Red Menace, Colonial Theatre, Boston, April 17, 1965 – without “Sing Happy,” Flora’s insistence that she not get discouraged. Brand-new team of John Kander and Fred Ebb had given Flora some pretty strange ideas for songs. Case in point: the hero (Bob Dishy) sings with pebbles in his mouth ostensibly to cure his speech problems as Demosthenes did. But when an eleven o’clock solo was needed for Liza Minnelli, these guys wrote a dynamic one. Minnelli might not have won the Best Musical Actress Tony if Kander and Ebb hadn’t risen to the occasion.
Mame, Shubert, Boston, April 30, 1966 – without “That’s How Young I Feel,” Mame’s response to the twentysomethings whom she was trying to impress. Those of you who saw the first leg of the tryout in Philadelphia – Boston was the second stop – will say I erred and that “That’s How Young I Feel” was already in place. Yes – but between Philly and Boston, Jerry Herman decided to replace it with a song called “Do You Call That Living?” After Boston, he decided to go back to the original song. (Wise choice.)
I Do! I Do! Colonial, Boston, Sept. 27, 1966 – without “Roll up the Ribbons.” Michael and Agnes are leaving their home after fifty years. A lesser lyricist than Tom Jones would have written a song called “Close up the House,” but Jones knew that the more specific you get, the more power the lyrics have.
Cabaret, Shubert, Boston, Oct. 11, 1966 – without “Perfectly Marvelous.” When Cliff doesn’t understand how he can tell people he’s living in sin with a girl, Sally has the answer. “Roommates,” the song it replaced, said the same thing, but had a little less zip.
Hallelujah, Baby! Colonial, Boston, March 30, 1967 – without “Now’s the Time.” Georgina Franklin has worked hard to rise to the top of the entertainment world, only to realize that she’s given the world at large very short shrift. Was Frank Rich listening to this one night in 1993? Is this what moved him to ditch theater and take on politics?
How Now, Dow Jones, Colonial, Boston, Nov. 4, 1967 – without “Gawk, Tousle and Shucks.” Charley hasn’t had any success in any career, but now he’s told his boyish charm wlll make him score at selling stocks. Yes, this is a mere throwaway, but its jaunty Elmer Bernstein melody and clever Carolyn Leigh lyrics (“Something ‘bout a lad who’s ill-at-ease / sells those railroads and utilities / like the mustard sells that ham on rye”) make it more than the sum of its parts.
Married Alive, Shubert, Boston, Dec. 21, 1967 – without the titleDarling of the Day, let alone without “He’s a Genius.” Lehman Engel always said you don’t know what you need for an opening number until you’re far along in the game. That even ol’ pros Jule Styne and E.Y. Harburg didn’t come up with this opening until they left Boston certainly proves his point.
Promises, Promises, Colonial, Boston, Oct. 12, 1968 – without “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” When I played the original cast album for the first time in early 1969, only a few seconds of the song had to pass before I said to myself, “This sounds like a good one!” Little did I know that I was one of the first to hear a standard.
Company, Shubert, Boston, March 24, 1970 – without “Being Alive,” but with “Happily Ever After,” in which Dean Jones looked very uncomfortable stating that marriage was tantamount to living “Happily ever after in hell.” Oh, how the audience recoiled! Years later, he told me this song was one of the first things to sour him on the show.
Two by Two, Shubert Theatre, New Haven, Sept. 26, 1970 – without “Why Me?” Noah doesn’t understand God’s choice of ark-builder. You might not expect such a song to be a waltz, but don’t forget that Richard Rodgers was doing the composing.
Follies, Colonial, Boston, March 2, 1971 – without “I’m Still Here.” When I heard that Sondheim was replacing “Can That Boy Fox-Trot,” I couldn’t understand why he’d drop something that was working so splendidly. (Catch it on either Side by Side by Sondheim or Marry Me a Little.) But thank the Lord he replaced it, for we otherwise wouldn’t have this ultimate survival anthem that I feel is the best song ever written out-of-town.
No, No, Nanette, Mechanic Theatre, Baltimore, Dec. 28, 1970 – without “Only a Moment Ago.” Sue and Jimmy wonder where the years went. Now this wasn’t one I discovered when the cast album was released in 1971, because it didn’t make the LP. I didn’t know what I was missing until this song, which had been sitting in the vaults for almost three decades, made the compact disc in 1999.
Irene, National Theatre, Washington, Feb. 20, 1973 – without “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue.” Irene O’Dare dares to look beyond the purview expected of her. With Debbie Reynolds adding the requisite snazziness that Wally Harper’s song required, you’re in love with Irene before the number’s half-finished.
A Little Night Music, Colonial, Boston, Jan, 20, 1973 – without “In Praise of Women” and “It Would Have Been Wonderful.” I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: as a veteran of the four Sondheim/Prince tryouts, I can say that these two men made fewer changes than most others who were massaging their tryouts. But the Sondheim/Prince changes always amounted to more.
Goodtime Charley, Colonial, Boston, Jan. 27, 1975 – without “Born Lover.” You have to give a showman like Joel Grey a snazzy showstopper, and composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Hal Hackady did just that. It’s a cock-o’-the-walk strut in which the Dauphin really feels his oats.
Pacific Overtures, Shubert, Boston, Nov. 12, 1975 – without the entire “Chrysanthemum Tea.” Sondheim had written about half of it, and while I loved what he gave us, when I next caught the show (Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington, DC, Dec. 26, 1975), Sondheim had finally finished it with dazzling finishing touches that made the Shogun’s Mother finish off her son.
Grand Hotel, Colonial, Boston, Sept. 16, 1989 – without eight songs including “Grand Hotel.” Songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest weren’t rewriting fast enough for director-choreographer Tommy Tune, so he called Maury Yeston to write some new pieces in a hurry. To be frank, I found Grand Hotel in Boston remarkable as it was (“DID you?” cast member Tim Jerome shrieked in surprise when I told him that months later), but Yeston’s work enhanced an already impressive show. Once again, Harnick and Sondheim were proved right in saying that after you see a performer perform, you really discover what you need.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday atwww.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming bookThe Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order atwww.amazon.com.