Here Lies Leonard Sillman’s NEW FACES OF 1952 By Peter Filichia
Did you celebrate the sixty-seventh anniversary of the opening of NEW FACES OF 1952 last week?
Yes, on May 16, 1952, Leonard Sillman opened the fourth of his eventual seven revues that featured then-unknown performers. Some became stars (Henry Fonda, 1934; Van Johnson, 1936) while others simply were relegated to a single listing on ibdb.com (Blanche Fellows, 1943).
To mark the anniversary, I took out my copy of HERE LIES LEONARD SILLMAN, the producer’s 1959 memoir. I have one of the rare copies.
It’s NOT autographed.
Broadway legend has it that Sillman went around town feverishly signing so many copies of the book that the ones WITHOUT his signature are hard to find.
In his tome, Sillman details the backstory of NEW FACES OF 1952 in a chapter he calls “The Big One.” And while a run of 365 performances may strike you as not that big, it was then long enough to allow the show to reach twenty-seventh place on the list of Broadway’s longest-running revues.
After NEW FACES OF 1943 had failed, Sillman had decided to abandon the franchise. Then in 1951, he received a call from Imogene Coca, who’d been in NEW FACES OF 1934 as well as NEW FACES OF 1936.
(So much for a new face being new.)
(Many who weren’t around in those days came to know Coca more than a quarter century later when she originated the role of Mrs. Letitia Primrose in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.)
Coca convinced Sillman to catch a nightclub comic named Ronny Graham. Once Sillman saw him perform, he was motivated to revive NEW FACES and build the show around him.
As it turned out, Graham wasn’t just valuable as a performer. He wound up writing six songs for the show. (It was a good tune-up for his writing BRAVO GIOVANNI ten years later and receiving a Tony nomination for it.)
One lyricist that Sillman engaged was his sister June Carroll. When she went to a nightclub to hear potential New Face Eartha Kitt, she and composer Arthur Siegel wrote “Monotonous” for her.
Alas, it wasn’t working out during the Philadelphia tryout because Kitt smiled her way through it. Not until Carroll insisted that she sing it as if “bored to death” – as the title implied – did Kitt have a hit with the number.
Ironically, Carroll would die on May 16, 2004 — the precise fifty-second anniversary of the opening of NEW FACES OF 1952.
However, the team of Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd would write the show’s standout song: “Guess Who I Saw Today?”
in which a woman tells her husband about going into a restaurant and seeing “Two people at the bar who were so in love that even I could spot it clear across the room… Guess who I saw today? I saw you.”
It’s a song that’s been recorded by everyone from Tony-winner Donna McKechnie, Grammy-winner Nancy Wilson and EGOT-winner (Rita Moreno). Even Eartha Kitt eventually took it on.
Sillman tells of his history with Charlotte Rae, whom we’ll always remember for her stunning appearance in CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU’S Dec. 9, 1962 episode where her husband and his colleagues try to buy tickets for (among many others) HOW TO SUCCEED, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED, NO STRINGS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and MILK AND HONEY. Marquees were shown, which proves what’s otherwise hard to believe: Hermione Gingold did indeed take over for Molly Picon in MILK AND HONEY.
Rae was doing all the backers’ auditions for NEW FACES including the one attended by Abe Burrows, whom Sillman was courting to direct. Although Burrows attended, he then said he couldn’t accept Sillman’s offer because he’d already been signed to stage THREE WISHES FOR JAMIE.
“And,” he said to Sillman who had Rae by his side, “if I weren’t such a good friend of yours, I’d steal Charlotte Rae for my show.”
Sillman saw that “Charlotte’s eyebrows fluttered like antennae when Abe made that remark.” The next day, when Burrows called Rae and offered her the part, she took it.
That infuriated Sillman who had to go scrambling for a replacement. Both Kaye (THE GOLDEN APPLE) Ballard and Nancy (LITTLE ME) Andrews turned him down, leaving the field open for a part-time stenographer at LIFE magazine: Alice Ghostley. She got to sing “The Boston Beguine,” the first song that newcomer Sheldon Harnick had on Broadway. Little did he know what fortunes awaited him in Anatevka a dozen years later.
As for Ghostley, she never again had to return to the steno pool.
Sillman loved when THREE WISHES FOR JAMIE and Rae “opened to no fanfare at all and closed in three weeks.” But be fair, Leonard! THREE WISHES ran ninety-two performances. True, eleven-and-a-half weeks doesn’t mean a helluva lot, but it’s still not merely three.
However, many who knew the producer over the years have alleged that HERE LIES LEONARD SILLMAN was a carefully crafted title. While on the surface it suggests a tombstone marking, it can also be interpreted as Sillman’s admitting that he tells fibs.
In addition to Burrows, Moss Hart, Robert Lewis, Jose Ferrer and Otto Preminger were asked to direct but turned down the show. History repeated itself when Preminger pulled a Burrows and offered Graham a part in his new project. After Graham said yes, Sillman was apoplectic. Graham felt guilty that he’d betrayed him and stayed.
However, Graham got terrible stage fright and/or lost confidence in the show just before the Philadelphia tryout. He said he was quitting. Virtually everyone associated with the project – especially director John Murray Anderson – asked him to stay, but no one could convince him – that is, until Virginia de Luce, playing a sexpot, made Graham change his mind. “How she did it,” wrote Sillman, “I’ll never know.”
(That doesn’t mean that Leonard didn’t infer…)
Other New Faces of 1952 included Carol (WEST SIDE STORY; SARATOGA) Lawrence, Robert (HOGAN’S HEROES) Clary and Paul (BYE BYE BIRDIE) Lynde. Sillman said he actually auditioned Lynde over the telephone and was impressed enough by the call that he took him literally sight-unseen.
Sillman brought three more NEW FACES revues to Broadway. The 1962 and 1968 editions were busts, but the one in 1956 ran a respectable 220 performances and featured a performer who would become a mega-star. A listen to the original cast album has us hear “Hello, I’m Maggie Smith” in the voice we’d come to know so well.
Also in that production were Jane Connell, who’d become Agnes Gooch in MAME; Virginia Martin (Hedy in HOW TO SUCCEED and The Younger Belle Poitrine in LITTLE ME), Bill McCutcheon (Tony-winner for the 1987 ANYTHING GOES), John Reardon (who introduced “Make Someone Happy” in DO RE MI) and Inga Swenson (Lizzie in 110 IN THE SHADE). Not a bad lineup, wouldn’t you say?
Researching NEW FACES last week did remind me of my favorite Broadway joke:
Q. “Which Broadway producer had the most plastic surgery?”
A. “Leonard Sillman. He had seven new faces.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.