By Peter Filichia
We’ve missed the fiftieth anniversary of Half a Sixpence, but let’s not allow it to go by without mentioning this “big, blooming hit” (John McClain, Journal American).
The happy-go-lucky musical, which celebrated its semicentennial on April 25, wound up as Broadway’s fourth-longest-running British musical import – or maybe even third-longest, depending on your outlook. Oliver! at 774 performances was then in first place; Stop the World – I Want to Get Off was second at 555. Now — should we put Irma La Douce third at 524, given that it was originally a French musical before some Brits adapted it? Your choice.
Then came Half a Sixpence at 511. Interestingly enough, one of the people who adapted Irma from the French was David Heneker (1906-2001), who would later write both music and lyrics to Half a Sixpence. Although the Broadway edition didn’t quite match its 679 London performances, Heneker was the only person who could then boast that he’d had a hand in two of the four longest-running British musicals on Broadway.
Few would have predicted a fifteen-month run in New York when Sixpence was getting off to its shaky start. During rehearsals, director Word Baker of The Fantasticks fame was replaced by Gene Saks (who, alas, just died on March 28, twenty-eight days too soon to observe this fiftieth anniversary). Charlotte Rae, that irrepressible comedienne best known as Sylvia Schnauzer on Car 54, Where Are You? left the cast. (Staying in, however, was a named we’d come to know only much later: John Cleese.)
One producer, Harry Rigby, was kicked off the team — and not for the last time in his career, as any No, No, Nanette fan can tell you. He had interested some investors, but when they heard the budget included an overcall (meaning they’d have to kick in more money if the show needed it), they decided not to invest. The covers of the original cast album had already been printed with Rigby’s name on it, but the back covers, which always lag behind because songs may be added or dropped right up till show time, were printed later without Rigby’s name.
And the score did go through a great deal of chaos. Sixpence between the Boston and Toronto tryouts dropped six songs, and replaced one with another. This scenario is quite different from the one that the other three aforementioned London hits, which came to America with few or no changes in its songstack. When a show has this much trouble, it’s usually doomed. Half a Sixpence looked as if it would be lucky to take in half a dollar at the Broadhurst.
The show’s pedigree of a twenty-month West End run didn’t mean very much, not then. British musicals were usually seen as too twee for American tastes. Yes, The Boy Friend had stayed around for 490 showings, but it was a spoof. Oliver! had been heavily influenced by the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein template and could count on that for some of its success. Irma was about a heart-of-gold prostitute, and was just naughty and innocent enough to succeed. Stop the World had three hit songs and an emerging star in Anthony Newley. In contrast, who did Half a Sixpence have?
In fact, someone magnificent: Tommy Steele. Although he’d already become a British household name in the late ‘50s by singing pop songs (many by future Oliver! auteur Lionel Bart), he was interested in doing musicals. So he accepted an invitation to appear in the 1958 British pantomime version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Playing the Prince? No — Buttons, the servant to our heroine’s father – a narrator who’d always been included in any Cinderella pantomime. But because Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t written Buttons into their show, Steele didn’t have much to sing. So the team gave him “Marriage Type Love” and “A Very Special Day” from their 1953 just-squeaked-by hit Me and Juliet.
Once Cinderella closed, Steele’s manager went looking for another property. One evening at a night club, he spotted Heneker, who was there to see his current Irma perform a post-show cabaret. The manager encouraged the composer-lyricist to write a show for his client, and Heneker said he’d think about it.
The Irma that Heneker had come to see, not so incidentally, was Shani Wallis, who would become Nancy in the Oscar-winning film of Oliver! No matter which way you look, Lionel Bart figures into the Half a Sixpence equation.
So does Heneker’s wife, who suggested the source material: H.G. Wells’ Kipps. We think of Wells from his far more famous and eerie late 19th century novels The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. But in 1905, he wrote Kipps, his “social problem novel” which wasn’t just a rags-to-riches tale, but a rags-to-riches-to-rags-again-to-riches-again tale.
And it was. Arthur Kipps, a draper’s apprentice, is ostensibly in love with Ann Pornick, a maid. He proposes in Scene One and then audiences don’t see her again until Scene Ten. In between, Kipps learns that he’s come into a fortune. He’s got so much, in fact, that he’s willing to squander some in the most certain way to lose a fortune: he invests in an upcoming play. But why doesn’t he tell his fiancée that he’s suddenly rich?
Because he’s become smitten with Helen Walsingham, a debutante whom he realizes is “too far above me” but whom he nevertheless wants.
Truth to tell, Helen’s family needs Kipps’ money more than he requires their upper-crust class. Nevertheless, they believe they have the right to change his manners and his speech, which has him dropping “h’s” everywhere. Kipps eventually rebels and returns to Ann even before he learns that Helen’s brother has stolen his fortune. Luckily, that play in which he’d invested received reviews akin to “Don’t bother holding onto your deerstalkers! You’ll only be throwing them into the air, anyway!” so he and Ann can live happily ever after.
It wouldn’t seem to be the type of show to which screenwriter Beverley Cross (1931-1998) would agree to provide a libretto. Would you hire the writer of Jason and the Argonauts to furnish the book for a sunny show?
Well, the score scored. Heneker could be described as a second cousin to Jerry Herman, in that he too was capable of writing melody-rich, toe-tappingly delightful and utterly hummable songs. True, Herman’s title tunes tended to be razz-ma-tazz affairs (“Mame,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Dear World” and of course “Hello, Dolly!”), while Heneker’s “Half a Sixpence” was conceived to be more genial, as Kipps pledged his “eternal love” to Ann.
And yet, once Helen says she’ll see him on Sunday if the weather holds up, Steele got to do a delicious soft-shoe “If the Rain’s Got to Fall.” It encountered one interesting lyric switch between London and here. Broadway audiences heard Kipps imagining that he and Helen would be “sipping a sarsaparilla” while Londoners had been told that the two would be “sucking a sarsaparilla.” The Broadway choice is a bit more elegant, isn’t it?
Heneker had some up-tempo wonders in him worthy of Jerry Herman. “Money to Burn” was Kipps’ joyous dream of what he’d do if he did somehow become rich. Once he actually did, he sang the raucous ‘The Party’s on the House” about the palace he planned to build. Getting a bit of popularity outside the show was “Flash, Bang, Wallop!” It gave the inner thoughts of the Kipps’ bridal party while they were being photographed. The song was a last-minute addition to the London production, and would later become a moderate hit for Sammy Davis, Jr. – who that same Broadway season, thanks to Golden Boy, would be one of Steele’s competitors for the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical.
Both lost the Tony to Zero Mostel; it was Fiddler on the Roof’s year, to be sure. And while the Tonys never tell us who came in second, I’ll bet Steele did, over Davis and Cyril Ritchard (in The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, which I’ll be discussing in a few weeks). They were both wonderful, but, oh, that Tommy Steele!
Broadway audiences came out wide-eyed and remarking “Is there anything Tommy Steele can’t do?” It seemed not. He sang melodiously and enthusiastically; he danced with hurricane force. He made us care about the fate of the character no matter what mistakes he made — and he played a banjo (the object he said he’d buy if he had money to burn). There was even a performance where a chorus boy lost his boater hat during a production number, and Steele in mid-dance was able to pick it up and Frisbee it over to him.
(Actually, there were 511 performances in which that carefully planned “accident” happened. But the none-the-wiser audiences loved it.)
Is there anything Tommy Steele can’t do? Yes – return to Broadway. He never has, and now that he’s seventy-eight, he probably never will. At least we have recordings and even a faithful (if overlong) film of Half a Sixpence to remind us of his greatest triumph.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.