DOUGLAS WATT SAVED HIS RAVES — AND PANS By Peter Filichia
They’re scrapbooks, but they’re not full of scraps.
On the contrary, the many volumes that Patricia Watt shared with me are full of letters that her father treasured and kept.
He was Douglas Watt, the first-string theater critic for New York Daily News from 1971 through 1986 (although he did occasional pieces there through 1992). But before that, Watt wrote for The New Yorker. One of his reviews in that August magazine inspired quite a letter:
“It is almost three years since I read in The New Yorker the excellent review of the STREET SCENE album signed ‘D.W.’ I thought at the time that ‘D.W.’ knows a lot about music and seems to understand what I do. I have been reading ‘D.W.’ ever since with great interest because he’s had something very keen and unorthodox to say about popular music than anyone who is writing about it today.”
Yes – it was from no less than Kurt Weill, the composer of the magnificent opera STREET SCENE. He wanted to let Watt know how pleased he was to learn his identity. After Watt answered, Weill wrote a let’s-have-lunch letter on Feb. 4, 1950 – three months before he died. This may well have been one of the last letters that he ever wrote.
“Nobody knows quite so well as I do that I need more experience,” was one of the first sentences of a May 2, 1962 letter that Watt received. You’ll be astonished that that experience-seeker was Richard Rodgers, who three days earlier had won the Tony for Best Score (even over Frank Loesser’s HOW TO SUCCEED and Jerry Herman’s MILK AND HONEY) for his NO STRINGS.
Experience? By then, Rodgers had had nearly three dozen of his scores heard on Broadway.
“It is my intention to acquire this experience,” Rodgers wrote, “even though my next show will be with Alan.”
Actually, it wasn’t.
Alan Jay Lerner had come to Rodgers with an idea for an original musical about ESP called I PICKED A DAISY, but they never finished it. The story got around that Lerner wasn’t working speedily enough for Rodgers, so the composer turned to Stephen Sondheim and did DO I HEAR A WALTZ?
But how slow could Lerner have been? DO I HEAR waltzed onto Broadway in March, 1965, and Lerner, who had to find a new composer (Burton Lane of FINIAN’S RAINBOW fame) and then write what would be renamed ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, saw it open only seven months later.
In the spirit of that expression “Girls! You’re both pretty!” both scores turned out to be exceptionally memorable ones.
Rodgers, though, was really writing to semi-apologize to Watt for the soundtrack of the then-just-released STATE FAIR remake. “These renditions do somewhat less justice to the songs that might have been done by a child,” Rodgers wrote, “with a comb and a piece of toilet paper.”
Here’s betting that the composer would have been much more pleased had he lived to 1996 and trotted over to the Music Box and witnessed the revisal of STATE FAIR; its cast album has a real Broadway sound. Rodgers, a waste-not-want-not person, probably would have been pleased that the score now included “You Never Had It So Good” (which had been cut from ME AND JULIET) and “When I Go out Walking with My Baby” (which had been excised from OKLAHOMA!). Three PIPE DREAM songs also made their presence known.
Rodgers wrote one of the many letters that tease us by giving N.T.M.I – my own acronym for Not Too Much Information. His letter of Jan. 29, 1952 states: “I am sending this to you not to prove how good the song is but to demonstrate this sort of incredible efficiency.”
But WHAT song? Considering that the remounting of PAL JOEY (spurred by the marvelous and still-available Columbia studio cast album) had opened earlier that month, perhaps it was a selection from that hit. But we’ll never really know.
Watt kept even the smallest notes. One from Arthur Schwartz simply says “Thanks tremendously for helping me.” The card is undated, but if Watt gave him some sage advice on A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Schwartz SHOULD have given his thanks; it’s easily his best score (and includes some of Dorothy Fields’ best lyrics, too).
Phil Silvers feared that “it is a breach of theatrical behavior to contact a critic on a personal level” but because he judged himself to be “an abnormally sensitive human being,” he related to Watt that he was “deeply proud and grateful of your evaluation of me and our company.”
The show in question was DO RE MI, one of the precious few musicals that got unanimous raves from the critics. Silvers may well have had a busy week if he wrote similar notes to all those who loved the show.
Watt obviously was somehow involved with a KISS ME, KATE reunion, for Lisa Kirk, the original Bianca, sent him the telegram tendering her regrets at not being able to attend. Her explanation? “A custom-tailored vet asked me out for something wet.”
She then came clean: “I am in Malibu, but I’ll always be true to you in my fashion.” Okay, they weren’t her words, but they’re so deft that who can blame her for borrowing from Cole Porter?
We see actors’ modesty in some letters. Alfred Drake wrote to thank Watt for what he said about him in GIGI. (How could he not? If only for the new ribald encore of “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” you’d have to love both Lerner and Drake.) “I know you will not give me a good review unless you feel I deserve it,” wrote the actor.
“How wonderful of you to write those very flattering remarks about me in your Jan. 15 article. I hope I’ll always be able to justify them,” wrote Ethel Merman. Wonder if she considered it a gift, for she’d mark her birthday the very next day. Her signature is in red ink (which was probably left over after the financial statements of HAPPY HUNTING were completed).
Watt was one of the comparatively few critics who greeted the 1971 stage version of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with enthusiasm. His review included such bouquets as “So stunningly effective a theatrical experience … a triumph … probably the most energetic show I’ve ever seen … The songs are indeed marvelous … Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is vibrant, richly varied, and always dramatically right … great accomplishment.”
Well, with a rave like that, is there any wonder that the future Lord who’d written about the Lord thought that Watt was very bright? Lloyd Webber and Watt started a correspondence, and a letter reveals that Watt had heard that a rumor about the composer’s next project and asked him about it.
“My next project isn’t about wrestling,” wrote Lloyd Webber. “It is a requiem mass” (which is about as far away from wrestling as a show can get).
That last parenthetical expression, in case you didn’t catch it, was a slight paraphrase from Mrs. Levi’s eleven o’clock number in HELLO, DOLLY! In “So Long, Dearie,” our heroine sings that she’s going “as far away from Yonkers as a girl can get.” That brings us to the letter that DOLLY’s director-choreographer wrote to relate what a friend had said to him after he read Watt’s April 5, 1964 article that had championed Champion.
“My God!” said the pal. “You must have written it yourself!”
Champion’s response: “I wouldn’t have had the nerve. My mother wrote it.”
Give Watt credit for not just keeping the letters that lauded him. James Kirkwood, who co-penned the book to A CHORUS LINE, wrote Watt soon after the official Broadway opening. “This is not a crank letter, merely a query,” he wrote. And indeed, the tone of the letter isn’t cranky.
“You mention everything in it from the set designer, lighting designer, and even the three orchestrators,” wrote Kirkwood before noting that there was “no mention of the writers who wrote the story line and the dialogue.”
Yeah, where musicals are concerned, that’s Broadway for you. Watch the musical film version of NINOTCHKA, and you’ll see the credits bill it as “Cole Porter’s SILK STOCKINGS.” The two librettists and one screenwriter get no above-the-title credit.
“Was there some special reason or was this an oversight?” Kirkwood asked before noting “I realize I had a play open before A CHORUS LINE that you found less than satisfactory, but I hope this hasn’t carried over to other work.”
(The play, incidentally, was P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD, which ran sixteen performances.)
Many letter writers use “All the best” as their complimentary close, but here Kirkwood wrote “Sometimes, all the best.”
And these are among the best letters, but hardly all of them. Here’s hoping that some enterprising publisher will borrow the lot from Patricia and make a handsome tome from them. The title? WATT HAPPENED ON BROADWAY, of course.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.