by Peter Filichia
“Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.”
That’s always been the ultimate cliché that vacationers write on their postcards to the folks back home. In 1937, Arthur Kober (once Lillian Hellman’s husband) wrote a comedy about young men and woman seeking love at Camp Karefree, a Catskills resort. He called it “Having Wonderful Time” – down to the quotation marks that let everybody know he was citing that famous postcard message.
Nearly fifteen years later, when Kober decided to write a musical version of “Having Wonderful Time,” he used the next line of the cliché as his title. This time, too, he retained the quotation marks for “Wish You Were Here.”
It opened on June 25, 1952 to not-so-hot reviews. Many Broadway observers weren’t surprised, because the show didn’t go on a two- or three-city out-of-town tryout; instead, the producers opted for three weeks of previews. Little did anyone know at the time that in 20 years or so, it sure would change, you know; this would be the way that musicals routinely would debut.
Why no tryout? Because “Wish You Were Here’s” first act showed all Camp Karefree’s customers and staff around a swimming pool. Try lugging that to Philly, Boston, and Baltimo’.
Long before the musical met the chandelier, helicopter and floating mansion, all of Broadway was agog at that swimming pool. But isn’t it funny how innovations often aren’t noticed until the second time around? Eleven years before “Wish You Were Here” a musical called Viva O’Brien had a pool. Perhaps Broadway didn’t have a chance to notice because the show only lasted 20 performances.
At first, “Wish You Were Here” threatened to stay around just as long. But Joshua Logan was not going to let the show die. As its director, co-librettist, co-producer and (whew!) choreographer, he had a lot to lose if “Wish You Were Here” failed. Although he had directed and co-written a big 1949 hit, it was known as “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific,” not “Joshua Logan’s South Pacific.” He next wrote, directed and co-produced an Americanized update of The Cherry Orchard called The Wisteria Trees. That failed. And now “Wish You Were Here” was on the verge of extinction.
So Logan did what precious few directors do after a show has opened: He went back to work and made changes, and even hired Jerome Robbins to come in and rework the choreography. Fifty-eight years ago this week, those changes went in – and they made enough difference to make audiences respond to “Wish You Were Here.” It stayed at the Imperial for 17 months; when it closed, only 18 book musicals had ever run longer.
Those who attended the show and then bought the original Broadway cast album to again savor Harold Rome’s score might have said, “I don’t remember that song” when they came to the third band. Originally, Patricia Marand, playing Teddy (nee Tessie) Stern, declared “Goodbye, Love” – saying that she was going to camp, but she wasn’t interested in finding romance there. Wasn’t the lady protesting too much? Yes, the audience knew better – and knew musicals, so they weren’t surprised when Teddy hooked up with someone – camp employee Chick Miller, in fact, played by rising star Jack Cassidy.
After the opening and wan reviews, Logan suspected that audiences found Teddy and her opening song unsympathetic, so he asked Rome to come up with a new song. Teddy was suddenly proclaiming “(There’s Nothing) Nicer Than People,” all the while displaying a sunnier disposition.
Actually, “Goodbye, Love” was mild compared to the way that Kober characterized Teddy in his original script and subsequent screenplay. Watch the 1938 film of “Having Wonderful Time” and you’ll see that Ginger Rogers is quite the witch, taking out her disappointments in love on the Karefree staff – especially Chick Miller.
On disc “Goodbye, Love” (on the available original Broadway cast album) is much better than “Nicer Than People” (on the not-readily-available London cast album). Along with the rest of the score, it has a charming pre-rock 1950’s feeling. We often hear that people were innocent in the Eisenhower years; well, “Wish You Were Here” opened four months before Ike was elected, so we’re still in the Truman years.
Thus, at the first night’s dance when the young women meet the young men, they sing “How do you do, my partner?” set to music that sounds very Sigmund Romberg. Ah, but once the verse and the introductions are out of the way, we see that the “new” generation can swing – pretty free ‘n’ easy for those days, but very naïve compared to now.
Even when the insouciant Fay Fromkin (Sheila Bond) sings that she’s “Shoppin’ Around” for a man and that “Ladies always get a brief trial demonstration,” she’s not necessarily talking about pre-marital intercourse. Her later song “Everybody Loves Everybody” is more representative of who she is; this isn’t the era of “sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll,” but “friendship ‘n’ Coca-Cola ‘n’ beautiful music.” Hence we have the swirling waltz “Summer Afternoon,” and the calming “Where Did the Night Go?”
And let’s not forget the title song. “Wish You Were Here” became a major out-of-the-show hit. There are those who say that Rome’s penchant for repeating words and phrases in songs — he was often called Harold Harold Rome Rome – helped. For after people heard then-hot Eddie Fisher sing “Wish You Were Here” no fewer than twenty times in one song, they sure recognized the title when they came to New York to see a Broadway show.
All innocence aside, one has to wonder if Rome had a little mischief in mind when he wrote “A Social Director.” Here the camp’s “tummler” sings that he must be a combination of many people, and starts a list that includes Ezio Pinza and Cary Grant. But in the middle of his litany, he mentions, in this order, “Moss Hart, Danny Kaye, Sir Laurence Olivier.” Many believe that Hart and Kaye once had a brief affair, and that Kaye and Olivier had a longer one. Did Rome know this, and was he subtly outing them?
The cast included four future Tony-winners: Sheila Bond was soon rewarded for her Fay Fromkin. One of the show’s Bathing Beauties was Phyllis Newman, who in 1962 beat Barbra Streisand’s Miss Marmelstein with her portrayal of Martha Vail in Subways Are for Sleeping. Jack Cassidy would win for playing the smarmy Kodaly in She Loves Me. Larry Blyden, here playing the unfortunately-named Schmutz, won in 1971 for portraying Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Some future Tony nominees were here, too. Patricia Marand would get her nomination via “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman” (another quotation-marked title) in which she played Lois Lane (another woman with love problems). And Reid Shelton, one of the waiters, would play a much more successful man, Daddy Warbucks, in Annie.
“Wish You Were Here” also snagged a Tony for Abe Kurnit. Even the most knowledgeable musical theater enthusiast can be pardoned for not knowing his name; he was the show’s stage technician. (Yes, there was a Tony for that category back then.) Needless to say, you won’t hear him on the original cast album, but there are many other pleasures to be had here.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia