By Peter Filichia
It was the first musical to be denied a Best Musical Tony nomination and yet win the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
Until Aida in 2000, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was the only show to hold that distinction. Bookwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane had to be assuaged by that honor.
Actually, this dichotomy was in keeping with The New York Times’ review. Howard Taubman declared that “the book loses itself in a fog” but that “bright, charming lyrics by Lerner and a sheaf of new tunes by Lane have more melodic grace and inventive distinctiveness that has been heard in years.”
Now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Clear Day, that opinion of the score still holds true.
Clear Day was the most anticipated musical of the 1965-1966 season – after it had been the most anticipated musical of the 1962-1963 season. Lerner, who’d written the book and lyrics for the longest-running musical in Broadway history – My Fair Lady – would team with Richard Rodgers, the composer of the second-longest running musical in Broadway history – Oklahoma!
I Picked a Daisy would be their original musical about extrasensory perception, more chummily known as ESP. Robert Horton, recently a TV star in the top-rated Wagon Train, would play Mark Bruckner, a hypnotherapist. One of his subjects would be Daisy Gamble, who’d hoped that the good doctor could help her to stop smoking five packs a day. (Audiences in 1965 gave out with laughs of recognition; today they’d gasp in horror.)
Daisy’s fiancé Warren demands that she stop; hence, the hypnosis. But once Mark puts her under, Daisy reveals that in a former life she was Melinda Welles, a late 18th century aristocratic Englishwoman.
While Mark has no affection for Daisy, he becomes enamored of Melinda. Trouble is, Daisy assumes he’s falling in love with her and loses interest in Warren.
Nifty idea and complications, no? What’s more, the plot would give an actress two distinctly different roles to create a forceful tour de force. Landing the part(s) was Barbara Harris, who had been so impressive in From the Second City that she got a 1961-62 Tony nod as Best Featured Actress in a Musical – despite the fact that the show only had a few songs and wasn’t really a musical.
One of the hottest director-choreographers around signed on, too: Gower Champion, who’d had two hits in less than a year: Bye Bye Birdie (April 14, 1960) and Carnival (April 13, 1961). I Picked a Daisy was expected to be the third jewel of the triple crown. Never mind that it would open on The Ides of March, 1963; seven years earlier, My Fair Lady had opened on that date and didn’t suffer for it.
But Daisy was uprooted long before that ominous date. The official explanation was that Lerner wasn’t working fast enough for Rodgers — but was the press agent pulling a fast one on us? As events unfolded, Lerner couldn’t have been all that slow, for the next show Rodgers did — Do I Hear a Waltz? — opened in March, 1965, and Lerner, who had to have spent some time looking for a new collaborator, saw his musical – now renamed On a Clear Day You Can See Forever — open a mere seven months later. How sluggish could Lerner have been?
Burton Lane of Finian’s Rainbow fame was the new composer. He’d worked with Lerner on the 1951 hit film Royal Wedding. Creatives like to collaborate with those they’ve previously worked with, and Lerner had two others here, too: director Robert Lewis, who’d staged his first hit Brigadoon, and star Louis Jourdan, who’d charmingly played the lead in his Oscar-winning film Gigi.
Jourdan was needed because once Daisy had wilted, Horton had moved over to 110 in the Shade. A blessing in disguise! Jourdan was a bigger name, and wouldn’t he sound great in the show’s title song, which everyone was relishing during the Boston tryout, thanks to a wonderful recording by Robert Goulet?
So even without Rodgers On a Clear Day looked strong. RCA Victor decided that giving the cast album a double-jacket gatefold cover would not be enough for such a Significant Musical; for the first and only time in the company’s august history, it would encase the cover in leatherette.
Meanwhile, the show’s producer was so sure of what he had that he did the unthinkable and raised prices beyond the barrier that no show had ever dared to cross. In an era when every musical charged $9.90 for orchestra seats, Clear Day would demand $11.90 on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s how confident this producer was; his name, not so incidentally, was Alan Jay Lerner.
Well, with such a build-up, is there any wonder that Clear Day was a disappointment? The reviewers all basically said the same thing: great idea for a show, but where’s the satisfying ending?
For that matter, where’s the believable one? Daisy leaves after she’s discovered (all too conveniently, by the way) that Mark really loves Melinda and not her. Mark sings “Come Back to Me” because now he realizes he’s in love with her, not Melinda. Lerner had them fall into each other’s arms at the final curtain.
Oh, yeah? After we’d heard Mark say “Daisy, damn it, I can’t let you free! Not with all that buried treasure inside you. If Melinda’s inside you, God, what a housing shortage!”? If you believe that Mark really loves Daisy, I’ve got two tickets that I’d like to sell you to Her First Roman’s Friday night performance – and for a lot more than $11.90.
But, oh, that score! The gorgeous title song was not the only beautiful ballad. Another occurs after Melinda finds her lover Edward bedding someone else; he insists that the dailliance made him learn that “She Wasn’t You” and the song is so wonderful that Melinda believes him.
In “Melinda,” Mark rebuts the nay-sayers who doubt he’s actually found this woman from the past with a past. Rodgers was famous for his waltzes, but could he have done as well as Lane if he’d had the chance to musicalize Lerner’s lovely lyric? (If he did, we’d all like to hear it.)
John Cullum sang it gloriously, too. It was to be Jourdan’s song, but he left the show during the Boston run. Lerner had seen Cullum go on as Richard Burton’s understudy in his Camelot, remembered him fondly and entrusted the role to this then-newcomer – a decade before Cullum would win his first Tony for Shenandoah.
Take it from one who saw Jourdan in Boston: he was unremittingly dull — except for one brief shining moment in “Come Back to Me.” Having a genuine Frenchman on hand to sing the lyric “Mademoiselle, where in hell can you be?” hit the spot.
The magnificent cast album doesn’t reveal one of the show’s biggest flaws. The Daisy that Lerner created for his book – a flibbertigibbet with low self-esteem – is very different from the intelligent and incisive young woman who sings his lyrics.
“Hurry! It’s Lovely up Here” — arguably the most charming charm song in Broadway history – has Daisy sing to her plants and flowers in order to help them grow. It’s full of delicious wordplay (“Push up, azalea! Don’t be a failure!”) Why doesn’t Mark fall in love with such a witty woman?
Once Daisy learns that Mark loves Melinda, her lyrics in “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” are also too clever for the Daisy in the book scenes. (“What would I give if my old know-how still knew how?”) Mark complains about Daisy’s choice of words — “I think if I hear another ‘You know’ from her, I’ll tighten my tie until I strangle myself.” But, you know, she doesn’t say “You know” that much? In fact, the scene in which she says it the most is one where she’s talking to friends — when Mark isn’t even there.
Whatever Clear Day’s flaws, Barbara Harris wasn’t one of them. She was spectacular as the cast album displays. In a different year, Harris would have won the Tony, but that season nobody was going to beat Angela Lansbury’s Mame — not even Gwen Verdon’s Sweet Charity – because Lansbury’s performance was a surprise, a complete change from the serious (State of the Union) or even ominous characters (The Manchurian Candidate) she’d been playing for twenty-odd years.
When Daisy was inadvertently hypnotized into a five-year-old child, Harris had the right pre-schooler body language, sitting in her chair, putting her left foot atop her right, before putting the right foot atop her left, keeping her legs so wide apart that Laurel and Hardy could have rolled right through them. But moments later, when Harris became Melinda Welles, she readjusted herself not only to become totally comfortable in that chair, but to dominate it.
And Warren? Because he was established as an emotionally constipated type, he’d seem to be the type to have no music in him and therefore wouldn’t have anything to sing. But he does – an unexpected jazz waltz because the subject of the song does have the music that makes Warren dance. He can’t “Wait Till We’re Sixty-Five” because he’ll get a “guaranteed income, house with a view, doctors and nurses (surgery too) — everything paid for.” He wants to be “safe from disasta” at a time when “no one hasta take care of Ma and Pa … down here in Tampa, Fla.”)
We Broadway aficionados who were young in 1965 laughed at stodgy ol’ Warren. Now that many of us have faced sixty-five and beyond, Warren doesn’t look so stupid after all. And while Clear Day’s book does, I’ll say it again: But, oh, that score!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.