By Peter Filichia
“As a very young man,” says John Bolton, “I’d already decided that I just had to have every original cast album that had ever been made.”
Well, which of us can’t relate to that?
So at one point in the ‘70s, the Rochester, New York native went into his local record store (“The Music Lovers Shoppe,” he says, “and yes, that was spelled with a ‘p-p-e’”) and saw what was then called a “long-playing” original cast album of Dames at Sea. He chose it among all others in the bin – “partly because of the cover art,” Bolton admits, “partly because I’d heard of someone who’d been in it.”
Yes, he had: Bernadette Peters, who in late 1968 left the original Broadway production of George M! to do this little off-Broadway musical by nobodies that nobody had ever heard of. It was a big gamble, for Peters was living many a performer’s dream – Playing the Palace – and, more to the point, was making a Broadway salary which she’d now be trading in for less than $100 a week.
But George M! had her in the small role of Cohan’s sister Josie and Dames at Sea would give her the lead: Ruby, the little would-be actress from Centerville, Utah, who becomes a Broadway star by the end of the day.
That’s right: by the end of the day. But doesn’t such a fate only happen in musical movies from the ‘30s?
“And that’s what Dames at Sea glorifies,” says Randy Skinner, the director-choreographer of the new production – a first for Broadway – which is now in previews prior to an Oct. 22 opening at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
Now Skinner has allowed John Bolton to achieve one of his Ruby-like dreams: he’s cast the acclaimed actor (A Christmas Story) in his new Dames at Sea. Bolton will be playing both “Hard Luck” Hennessey, a Broadway producer who’s had more flops than Anthony Brady Farrell, as well as the captain of a ship that’s about to be used in a most atypical way.
When Skinner was a student at Ohio State University in 1973, he did two jobs in Dames at Sea too. He not only played Dick – another Centerville, Utah resident who writes the musical that makes Ruby a star — but also choreographed.
“At Ohio State, I noticed that the dance breaks were very small,” Skinner says. “We’ve really opened them up now.”
Proof positive is watching Eloise Kropp, the new Ruby, in the corner tapping away. She’s so fast that she makes Ann Miller look like Sheridan Whiteside after he falls down the Stanleys’ front stoop.
Skinner has also cast two actresses who have aDames at Sea history: Lesli Margherita, who left Matilda to do this new production, and Mara Davi, who can be heard as Maggie on the revival cast album of A Chorus Line. Both played Ruby during their college days, Margherita at UCLA and Davi at California State-Fullerton.
Now Margherita is Mona Kent, the star of Hennessey’s new production – until Ruby gets to take over for her.
“My favorite song is ‘That Mister Man of Mine,’” says Margherita, a brunette beauty with eyes that flash like warning flares. “Well, of course I’m going to love any song that lets me jump on a piano before the big finish.”
Margherita is referring to the wry ditty about the lover she lost — but in this case, “lost” means discarded, for Mona lost interest in him after he went broke in the stock market crash of ‘29.
“Mona’s a difficult woman, but I’d like to think she’s misunderstood,” says Margherita, who’s well-aware that anyone playing a villainess can’t perceive her character as evil. However, Margherita does wonder what her UCLA professor meant after she called him to say she had this role and he responded with “I always knew you were a Mona.”
She certainly has become one here. On opening night, when she does her opening number “Wall Street,” there’s little chance that any critic will say “‘Wall Street’ lays an egg.”
Davi’s favorite song is “Good Times Are Here to Stay,” in which she holds a note for so long than Ethel Merman’s famous sixteen bars in “I Got Rhythm” seem to be a comparative burp.
“Ever since I was a twelve-year-old seeing this show in Denver, this is the song that’s been speaking to me,” Davi says. “It’s always been able to change my mood when I’ve needed it to.”
A lesson for us all: “Good Times Are Here to Stay” is in the grand tradition of optimistic show tunes as “Put on a Happy Face,” “Tomorrow,” “Happy Talk” and “(You’ve Gotta Have) Heart.” Both those who are having a bad day and those who are enjoying a wonderful one are instructed to play it at once.
“And since I got the part,” says Davi, “‘Good Times Are Here to Stay’ has become my hashtag.”
Those who have a knowledge of classic movie musicals from the black-and-white era may have already caught on that Ruby is patterned after Ruby Keeler and Joan’s antecedent is Joan Blondell, both of whom starred in the 1934 film Dames with Dick Powell.
That brings us to Skinner’s choice for Dick: Cary Tedder. “I’m surprised I got the part,” he asserts before giving a look that says a joke is coming: “Randy went to Ohio State and I went to Michigan, and we’re big football rivals from way back.”
When I point out that Ohio State has done substantially better in football these last few years, Tedder is ready with an answer he seems to have already given many times: “Well, when you think of all the Broadway actors, doctors, lawyers, inventors and astronauts that Michigan has given the world, it’s hard for us to have a great football team, too.”
Tedder hails from Marietta, Georgia (pop. 59,089), but has an aw-shucks demeanor that suggests a town even smaller – say Centerville, Utah (pop. 16,624). “Michigan helped me get rid of my Southern accent. I used to say ‘six, seven, eight, nine, TIN.’” Skinner probably wouldn’t have minded, because what Tedder can do is spring into action after hearing “Five, six, seven, eight!”
“My favorite line in the show is ‘Broadway, I’ll lick you yet!’” says Tedder, who actually has; this is his sixth Broadway show. “But,” he adds, “my favorite song is ‘It’s You.’”
That’s Ruby and Dick’s first song. Although they’ve just met, Ruby is already stating that Dick is superior to such luminaries as Leslie Howard and Jack Benny while Dick feels that Dolores Del Rio and Nancy Carroll can’t hold a matchstick, let alone a candle, to Ruby.
It’s a song that lists no fewer than twenty-six celebrities of yore, and given that Tedder was graduated from Michigan a mere six years ago, did he recognize the names of any of the once-famous people?
“Little Orphan Annie and Sandy,” he immediately says. “Aimee Semple McPherson.”
“Because there have been musicals about them?” I ask.
There’s that smile again. “Pretty much. But,” he rallies, “what I love about ‘It’s You’ is that I get to fall in love to a melody that has smoothness and ease.”
Margherita also mentions “It’s You” as a favorite. But here’s the thing: talking to the four performers reveals that each has a favorite Dames at Sea song in which he or she has no part. That’s a good indication of what a fine score composer Jim Wise and bookwriter-lyricists George Haimsohn and Robin Miller gave us.
“Choo-Choo Honeymoon,” in which Joan and her old boyfriend Lucky (now the winning Danny Gardner) reconnect, is Tedder’s choice. “The Beguine,” which has Mona and The Captain falling in love once more, is the one that intoxicates Davi. Meanwhile, Bolton opts for “Star Tar.”
“When I took the LP out of the jacket and saw that it was the fattest cut on the record, that’s the one I wanted to hear most,” he says. “It didn’t let me down.”
“It is a great score, isn’t it?” Skinner asks rhetorically. And while we’ll all want to get to Broadway to see this new Dames at Sea, those who can’t can be assuaged by having not one but two recordings to tide them over.
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.