When Encores! executives began producing underappreciated musicals in 1994, Broadway aficionados started wondering “When are they going to do The Golden Apple?”
For more than two decades, the announcement of every three-show season brought disappointment to many. “Why,” they asked “wasn’t the Jerome Moross–John Latouche masterpiece ever chosen?”
Then last year, when artistic director Jack Viertel announced that indeed, come May 10-14, 2017, Encores! would mount a revival of this oh-so-strange-but-lovely musical, smiles of the “At last!” variety were seen all around town.
How strange is The Golden Apple? A musical of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey was considered very unlikely source material back in the ’50s. That didn’t deter bookwriter-lyricist Latouche – or should we just say lyricist Latouche, given that the entire show was sung? He saw the musical “as a series of interlocking production numbers.”
Costume designer Alvin Colt didn’t merely put twenty-six characters in the cloaks that ancient Greeks wore, for as Latouche said, “I set out to tell the stories of Ulysses and Penelope, Paris and Helen as they would have happened in America. It was to be no adaptation of Homeric grandeurs.”
So Ulysses became a Spanish-American war hero who’s established as “smarter than Nick Carter.” No, Latouche wasn’t anticipating that member of the Backstreet Boys; this Nick Carter was a detective who’d been featured in dime-store novels that kids didn’t have to hide in the corn crib.
Helen became a farmer’s daughter; Paris a traveling salesman; Minerva, a school teacher, and Mrs. Juniper – a nice amalgam of Juno and Jupiter – the mayor’s wife. As for Aphrodite, she morphed into a matchmaker who puts her hand in here and there.
The tail would seem to have wagged the dog when Latouche set his show in the Pacific Northwest, for he made that decision only after he’d discovered that the state of Washington sported a Mount Olympus. (It was, of course, named for the original one in Greece.)
Actually, Apple could have taken place anywhere in the United States, for what Latouche really wanted to stress was the optimism that the entire country was experiencing in the early twentieth century. Once the U. S. of A. had emerged victorious in the Spanish-American War, it became a player on the world stage – which is the era Latouche put on stage.
That time frame also allowed for a score of waltzes, blues, vaudeville and ragtime. Which came first, the music or the lyrics? The latter. “The melodies I invented,” Latouche liked to say when recalling the tunes he’d had in his head when he wrote the show, “have been heard only by the unhappy few nearest and dearest to me who assured me that they are among the worst they have ever heard.”
Once you hear the phenomenal music that Jerome Moross composed on the Masterworks Broadway original cast album, think of what Latouche must have felt when encountering it for the first time – and every time afterward.
Just from the overture, you can hear the joy, confidence and full-bodied expression of an important musical with a clean Aaron Copland-ish sound. Lovers of sopranos will have a feast here, mostly thanks to Priscilla Gillette, who did the show four years after she’d scored in Cole Porter’s Out of This World.
“My Love Is on the Way” and “It’s the Going Home Together” must rank as two of musical theater’s most beautiful songs. But the score’s famous take-home tune is “Lazy Afternoon.” Such disparate singers as Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Marlene Dietrich, Barbra Streisand, Pat Suzuki and Sarah Vaughan wound up covering it. In the show, it’s the song of seduction that Helen sings to Paris.
That Helen was played by Kaye Ballard may seem a tad odd, for, beloved and accomplished comedian that she’s always been, she doesn’t come immediately to mind as a woman whose beauty would launch a thousand ships.
“Helen ain’t smart and she’s always plain,” the Spanish-American war veterans concede before telling what most appeals to them: “Helen is always willin’.”
(Maybe those men got on those thousand ships to avoid paternity suits.)
When I recently learned that Mike Todd was the first to take an option on Apple, I was shocked. I thought back to the 1993 bio-musical Ain’t Broadway Grand, where Todd was shown producing an artsy, unconventional and uncommercial musical. No, I thought then, the producer of Star and Garter, Call Me Ziggy, Michael Todd’s Peep Show and Gypsy Rose Lee’s The Naked Genius would have never tackled anything remotely artful. Although Todd didn’t wind up producing Apple, my discovering that he even seriously considered it made me walk back my Ain’t Broadway Grand assumption.
The Golden Apple was judged “the only literate new musical of the season” (Atkinson, Times). “The best thing that has happened in and to the theater in a very long time.” (Chapman, News). A milestone” (McClain, Journal American). Although Coleman in the Mirror called it “a sheer delight,” Watts in the Post was even stronger: “A thorough delight.”
Throughout the off-Broadway run, Moross and Latouche were often asked the question that Frank Loesser would hear in 1956 when his The Most Happy Fella debuted: “Is it a musical or an opera?” Loesser said his show was “a musical with a lotta music;” by then, Moross had been saying much the same by stating, “Our starting point had always been from the ‘musical comedy’ rather than the ‘operatic’ theatre.”
In the New York Critics Circle voting for the 1953–54 season, The Golden Apple won the prize as Best Musical – the first off-Broadway show to win. (Fans of The Pajama Game, don’t be offended; yes, it technically belonged to that season, but the critics voted a month before it would open.)
Apple got thirteen votes, far outpacing By the Beautiful Sea with three. Snagging a single one each were John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and even The Threepenny Opera in its famous off-Broadway revival.
The real surprise was that Kismet, which would win that season’s Tony as Best Musical, got no votes at all. But remember, its reviews weren’t so hot. A newspaper strike stopped readers of dailies from learning that their appraisers thought badly of the Baghdad-centric musical. So Kismet wound up running 583 performances – more than four times as Apple’s 125 once it had moved to Broadway.
On May 24, 1954, Life magazine did a cover story on “Broadway’s Most Imaginative Season.” It could have put Harry Belafonte, Shirley Booth, Victor Borge, Joseph Cotten, Alfred Drake, Henry Fonda, John Forsythe, Audrey Hepburn, Zizi Jeanmaire, Deborah Kerr, Cloris Leachman, Tina Louise, John Raitt, Margaret Sullavan or Gig Young on the cover to make its point, for all were performing on Broadway that week. But the editors chose Ballard and The Golden Apple.
The title is meant literally. The golden apple is the prize for a baking contest whose winner will be decided by the judgment of Paris. “If you own this lucky pippin, you’ll be certain of success,” sings Mother Hare, an updated Circe. “Twill be sure to bring your ship in through storm and stress.” (Catch that nifty internal rhyme?)
Getting an original cast album was another first for an off-Broadway musical. What RCA Victor recorded was essentially The Golden Apple’s Greatest Hits because the disc contains a little less than half the show. Latouche penned some rhymed couplets to bridge the missing songs and those appear on the album.
One must wonder what would have happened if Columbia original cast album guru Goddard Lieberson had signed it for his label. Would he have recorded it on three records as he would do for The Most Happy Fella? At least what RCA did record is choice.
(Actually, a full Golden Apple recording was made in 2014 of a live performance in Irving, Texas that featured local talent.)
More interesting is that after RCA Victor took the album out of print, Elektra re-released it. This company was known for purveying folk albums by the likes of Theodore Bikel, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, so its adopting The Golden Apple is just another indication of what an atypical property the Moross-Latouche musical is.
Next week is the time to get to New York’s City Center to see this oh-so-rare revival. If you can’t, the original cast album is ready to show you The Golden Apple’s glorious music and smart lyrics.
Moving right along …
As for last week’s quiz – which asked you to recognize stars mentioned in lines and lyrics – it got many an answer from
Steve Bell, Jason Flum, Marc Miller, Ira Rappaport, Ken Raskoff, Arthur Robinson and Rick Thompson. Here’s what they knew – and didn’t know:
- “You’re Garbo’s salary.” (“Anything Goes” – Anything Goes)
- “Exactly the kind that’s worn by Mae West.” (“Chain Store Daisy” – Pins and Needles)
3. “Who the hell is Margie Hart?” (“Zip!” – Pal Joey)
4. “Mister Gable – I mean Clark.” (“Always True to You in My Fashion” – Kiss Me, Kate)
5. “I miss Marilyn Miller in Sunny.” (“Homesick” – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)
6. “I attended Call Me Madam and shortly began to nestle Essel (sic) Merman.” (“They Couldn’t Compare to You” – Out of This World)
7. “Moss Hart and Danny Kaye! Sir Laurence Olivier!” (“Ballad of a Social Director” – Wish You Were Here)
8. “What’s your opinion of women’s clothes? Major Bowes?” (“Conga!” – Wonderful Town)
9. “I sure had to hassle and hustle buying tickets for Rosalind Russell.” (“Intermission Talk” – Me and Juliet)
10. “If Ava Gardner played Godiva riding on a mare.” (“Stereophonic Sound” – Silk Stockings)
11. CHORUS: “Raymond Massey!” SHE: “Lassie!” (“Drop That Name” – Bells Are Ringing)
12. “Just suppose I invited Sammy Davisup to dine.” (“The Men in My Life” – Simply Heavenly)
13. “Hula-hoops and nuclear war; Dr. Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor.” (“Chop Suey” – Flower Drum Song)
14. “I’m not Fanny Brice.” (“If Momma Were Married” – Gypsy)
15. “I’ll be more Español than Abbe Lane.” (“Spanish Rose” – Bye Bye Birdie)
16. “Charles Boyer kissing Hedy.” (“The Late Late Show” – Do Re Mi)
17. “Joe DiMaggio! Sal Mineo!” (“Melt Us” – All American)
18. “When I’m necking – simply pecking – with a Cary Grant.” (“The Secret Service” – Mr. President)
19. “Mary Astor, meet your master.” (“The Truth” – Little Me)
20. “Elizabeth Taylor to husbands in review.” (“Here’s Love” – Here’s Love)
21. “Hustle and bustle and Lillian Russell.” (“Over Here” – Jennie)
22. “Shirley Temple stole it as the flower girl.” (“The Wedding of the Year” – What Makes Sammy Run?)
23. “Ninety minutes of Doris Day.” (“What Do We Do? We Fly!” – Do I Hear a Waltz?)
24. “To start each morning by giving out with a Rudy Vallee squeal.” (“That’s How Young I Feel” – Mame)
25. “I don’t love Bardot.” (“I Know” – The Apple Tree)
26. “Sophia Loren and Lollabrigida could walk through the door and they’d only get frigida.” (“They Don’t Make ’Em Like That Anymore” – How Now, Dow Jones)
27. “Not the Barrymore trio or Dolores Del Rio.” (“It’s You” – Dames at Sea)
28. “I got through Abie’s Irish Rose; Five Dionne Babies.” (“I’m Still Here” – Follies)
29. “Lucille Ball is very tall.” (“You and I, Love” – 70, Girls, 70)
30. “Would you try that crap with Annette?” (“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” – Grease)
31. “But nothing beats the music of the great Glenn Miller.” (“Charlie’s Place” – Over Here)
32. “Lena Horne’s a joy, and that Belafonte boy.” (“Not Anymore” – Raisin)
33. “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes.” (“Science Fiction Double Feature” – The Rocky Horror Show)
34. “And Sophie Tucker’ll shit, I know, to see her name get billed below.” (“Roxie” – Chicago)
35. “Robert Goulet, out! Steve McQueen, in!” (“Hello, Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello, Love” – A Chorus Line)
36. “My bowl of red wax cherries; a wig of Ellen Terry’s.” (“The Legacy” – On the Twentieth Century)
37. “So Lauren Bacall me.” (“Rainbow High” – Evita)
38. “Do you know Rona Barrett?” (“The Grass Is Always Greener” – Woman of the Year)
39. “I’ll get Leontyne Price to sing her medley from Meistersinger.” (“Bobby and Jackie and Jack” – Merrily We Roll Along)
40. “Think of John Wayne and Jean-Paul Belmondo.” (“Masculinity” – La Cage aux Folles)
41. “And even Clara Bow will admit I got ‘It.’” (“When I Get My Name in Lights” – Legs Diamond)
42. “Jolson’s coming, too?” (“Welcome to Brooklyn” – My Favorite Year)
43. “Some season soon Tommy Tune may rehearse ya.” (“A Beat Behind” – The Goodbye Girl)
44. “I think it’s Maury Povich – and Connie, too!” (“Just One Step” – Songs for a New World)
45. “Fred and Adele never glided so well.” (“Dance with Me” – Steel Pier)
46. “And Evelyn gets publicity.” (“Crime of the Century” – Ragtime)
47. “You can start with a bagel and end up with Conrad Nagel.” (“In the Movies” – Saturday Night)
48. “You hate Tom Cruise, but you love Lee Marvin.” (“Man” – The Full Monty)
49. “I’m the German Ethel Merman, don’t you know?” (“Springtime for Hitler” – The Producers)
50. “Helen Hayes and Bernhardt all in one.” (“They Don’t Know” – Thoroughly Modern Millie)
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.