Quick! Which Rodgers and Hart show enjoyed the longest run in its original production?
PAL JOEY? No, that ran 374 performances, and the show we’re looking for clocked in at 427.
A CONNECTICUT YANKEE? Close at 418.
THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE? Only 235. We’re going backwards.
No, R&H — the first R&H, that is — enjoyed their longest run with BY JUPITER, which opened on June 2, 1942 and stayed around for the next fifty-four weeks.
That may be paltry by today’s standards, but at the time, 427 was enough to make BY JUPITER Broadway’s sixteenth longest-running musical. And it would have run longer had star Ray Bolger not decided to go off and entertain our boys overseas.
This weekend, The Village Light Opera Group Ltd. will give four performances of the hit, under the direction of the estimable Michael Blatt and the baton of the formidable James Higgins. In case you want to preview what you’ll hear – or can’t make it to the Dimson Theatre at 108 East 15th Street – there’s the original off-Broadway cast album.
It’s not, you’ll note, the original Broadway cast album, for such animals weren’t yet in the mainstream in 1942. Too bad, for Ray Bolger’s performance was apparently well worth preserving.
Bolger, now best known as the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ, for BY JUPITER could have borrowed a line from his co-star Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion: “It’s sad, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a sissy.” For here he played house-husband Sapiens in ancient Greece, in a society where the guys stay home, sew the buttons on and bake the cherry pies. Sapiens’ Amazonian wife Hippolyta goes out and fights the wars. “I’m just a war groom,” he moaned, in what was a very good joke in 1942.
In the 1967 revival, Bob Dishy, who fewer than two years earlier had made his mark in Kander and Ebb’s first musical FLORA, THE RED MENACE, played Sapiens. He’s great fun in “Life with Father,” where he provides his backstory. One must wonder if Hart chose that title in honor of what was then a smash-hit comedy that would become the longest-running Broadway play of all time.
The show’s gender reversal occurred because Hippolyta has a magic girdle which ensures her superiority. Needless to say, the Greeks want to wrest it from her, and Theseus is set on doing just that. However, he falls in love with Hippolyta’s sister Antiope to complicate matters – and gets in a few good love songs.
Good ones they are. The irony is that the best-known one, “Wait till You See Her,” was dropped – not during the tryout, as is usually the case, but after the show had actually opened. No one on the staff could get the song to work in any scene to anyone’s satisfaction.
Luckily, “Wait till You See Her” made the cut in the 1967 revival and got a cut on the recording; Theseus (Robert R. Kaye) sings it about Antiope. She was played by Sheila Sullivan, who earlier in the show had sung “Nobody’s Heart (Belongs to Me),” the show’s second-best-known hit. It’s one of those many songs where Hart wrote from the heart, as he told of his real-life loneliness.
He and Rodgers didn’t neglect toe-tappers. “Jupiter Forbid” has the Amazonian women and men jauntily celebrate their hometown. “Ev’rything I Got (Belongs to You)” has both Sapiens and Hippolyta (Jackie Alloway) come to terms with each other in joyous fashion.
Musical theater historians make much of the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein chose a flop – GREEN GROW THE LILACS – to rework as their first musical; Rodgers and Hart selected a failure, too, as the basis of what would be their last musical. Julian F. Thompson’s THE WARRIOR’S HUSBAND started out as a one-act that reached Broadway in 1921 as part of a regional play tournament. It did so well that Thompson was encouraged to expand it. After he did, he had to second-guess himself and all the others, for the three-act play only ran eighty-three Broadway performances. That’s even more discouraging when one considers that Katharine Hepburn played Hippolyta.
That BY JUPITER was R&H’s final collaboration might have been predicted considering that much of it was written in a hospital – Doctors Hospital, in fact, at 170 East End Avenue between 87th and 88th Streets opposite Gracie Mansion. Hart had been admitted there to dry out from his most recent alcoholic bout. Rodgers rented a guest room there and used the same piano that Cole Porter had employed to write YOU NEVER KNOW in that same hospital where he was confined after a horse fell on him and forever changed his life. R&H had more work to do than usual, for they also had decided to write the book as well.
“BY JUPITER,” says Ted Sod, who once staged it for Musicals in Mufti at the York Theatre Company, “is the quintessential pre-OKLAHOMA! musical, with its roots in vaudeville and burlesque. There’s every joke on gender reversal you can think of, many involving the feminized man still with the libido of a straight man. But,” he continues, “this one has more of a book than most, and has the structure of two comic leads/two romantic leads that would be in place for decades to come. What I find interesting is that the original script seems to say that every scene ended with a dance for Bolger – often saying, ‘And then he improvises.’”
Rodgers would take his first official co-producing credit on BY JUPITER, helping famed impresario Dwight Deere Wiman accumulate the funds. Early in the money-raising process, a young actor named Richard Kollmar said he’d like to be an associate producer and contributed $35,000. As Rodgers ominously said in his autobiography, MUSICAL STAGES “I never did find out where he got that $35,000.”
(An aside: Kollmar would eventually become the husband of gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and not a good one, if Lee Israel’s biography, KILGALLEN, is to be believed. But of course she’s the forger who wrote the book CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? which became a popular film last year – so maybe she’d exaggerated.)
BY JUPITER was one of those comparatively rare shows that go out of town with one title (ALL’S FAIR) and come back with another – though that would happen to Rodgers’ next show, AWAY WE GO!, rechristened, of course, OKLAHOMA!
Co-starring with Bolger as Hippolyta was Benay Venuta (never to be confused with B’nai B’rith), who had understudied Ethel Merman as Reno Sweeney in the 1934 ANYTHING GOES and assumed the role after Merman left.
What’s really intriguing about the 1967 revival is that it sports the credit “Additional material by Fred Ebb.” Although Ebb had already had two shows on Broadway – the aforementioned FLORA, THE RED MENACE and the smash hit CABARET – he wasn’t yet the legend that he’d become. Did he play with the book, the lyrics or both?
Give a listen and see if you can hear his signature style sitting comfy-cozy with the equally distinctive words of Lorenz Hart’s. Both their hearts and Rodgers’, too, can belong to you this weekend at The Village Light Opera Group Ltd. or through the 1967 cast album.