MAKING AN ENTRANCE By Peter Filichia
Isn’t it queer? In “Send in the Clowns,” Desiree sings about “making my entrance again with my usual flair.” And yet, in A Little Night Music, Desiree sings this lyric long after she’s made her first-ever entrance – one that isn’t full of flair.
For Hugh Wheeler and Sondheim had decided that provincial actress Desiree Armfeldt would enter on the run after just having packed up her luggage en route to performing in Rottvik. It wasn’t a clean Great Star Entrance moment for Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons or any other Great Star who’s played the part.
And we do like a Great Star to have a nice, clean and memorable Great Star Entrance, don’t we? It can involve an actress coming up (Chita Rivera and Bebe Neuwirth as Chicago’s Velma Kelly rose from below the stage on an elevator) or coming down. (Angela Lansbury as Mame appeared on a staircase before descending – although not until she’d blown a bugle. The cast album that was originally issued didn’t include the bleat; the CD and downloads do.)
Great Star Entrances don’t need to be big Ta-da! moments. Annie Get Your Gun has, as the stage directions state, “Dolly sitting on a bench, the green hedge behind her obscures her figure. The bird on her hat, however, stands above it. Suddenly we hear the sound of a rifle and the bird lands center stage. Annie Oakley enters, carrying an old gun.”
And if you think the sound from that rifle was loud, what about the thunderous applause that Ethel Merman got as she sauntered on?
Annie Oakley was Merman’s second-favorite role; Rose in Gypsy was her first. Today, someone entering from the back of the house, walking down an aisle and tromping onto the stage is hardly big news. But it was a novelty in 1959. Imagine those theatergoers still disgruntled because the best orchestra seats they could get to Gypsy were X 1 or X 101 — and then, during the opening scene, they realized that that person who suddenly was standing next to them was not a mere latecomer but Ethel Merman. No, they wouldn’t have a good view of the stage, but they’d be the ones to hear “Sing Out, Louise!” best of all.
Three years earlier, Merman had another Great Star Entrance in Happy Hunting. This musical concerned “The Wedding of the Century” when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The show had reporters swirling around the palace gates hoping that the Oscar-winning Princess-to-Be would make an appearance and give them a juicy quotation.
Then a woman suddenly entered with her face obscured by an enormous hat. It had to be she! Grace – a.k.a. Her Future Grace — was trying to put one over on them! They rushed over, encircled her and – nope, it was Liz Livingstone, better known to us as Ethel Merman.
She bleated out “All right, all right! So it ain’t Kelly under the Kelly!” – which was indeed a type of hat popular back then. Then Merman launched into what would be one of her signature songs in the ensuing years: “Gee, But It’s Good to Be Here.”
But only after she got titanic Great Star Entrance applause.
That Great Star Entrance is known as “The Reveal,” and it was put to good advantage in Hairspray. We saw a woman from the neck down, but couldn’t see her face because it was obscured by a large handkerchief. Then she took away the hankie and there was not only Edna Turnblad, a home laundress by trade, but also Harvey Fierstein, who got Great Star Entrance applause.
Hello, Dolly! begins, as Michael Stewart’s stage directions dictate, “Horsecar enters bearing several ladies, newspapers in front of their faces.” Dropping her newspaper last is ”Dolly Levi!” as Carol Channing gleefully admitted. What’s most interesting is that Stewart’s stage directions aren’t above including the word “Applause.”
The Pirate Queen had its curtain rise on a scrim, lit from behind, so that the audience could see a person standing at and steering the wheel of a ship. The scrim was released from the top of the proscenium, fell to the stage floor and made for a magnificent and unexpected coup de theatre. A man wasn’t at the wheel; it was a woman, namely Stephanie J. Block.
Granted, for a show called The Pirate Queen we should have expected a woman as the ship’s captain. But here’s betting that many in the audience automatically assumed that a male was in command. Each theatergoer had had a lifetime’s experience of reading books and seeing films in which men and only men steered their ships. Such a supposition isn’t easily whisked away.
The Reveal is not solely relegated to female stars. What was good for these geese was just as good for the gander in The Producers – and we got quite a gander at Nathan Lane when Funny Boy first-nighters surrounded producer Max Bialystock and then gave him air (and the air) before he sang his first air “The King of Old Broadway.”
Another failed fictitious Broadway producer got an even grander entrance. Oscar Jaffee’s henchmen Owen and Oliver were waiting for him so that they can all board On the Twentieth Century luxury liner between Chi-NY. But he wasn’t there when the train left the station – or so it seemed. As Comden and Green’s stage direction dictates, “We see the figure of Oscar Jaffee, hanging on the outside of the train, hand-over-handing from window to window.” Once he got inside, we were awfully glad that John Cullum made it.
The Late Great Star Entrance hits the spot, too. In All-American, a bevy of immigrants had deplaned at JFK, but not Professor Fodorski – namely Ray Bolger. When he did arrive, he proclaimed. “I forgot my umbrella!” Well, yes, but only so he could get a Great Star Entrance. He then started a new chorus of one of Strouse and Adams’ most marvelously infectious tunes: “Melt Us,” the immigrants enthusiastically insist into America’s melting pot.
Then there’s The Out-of-the-Blue Great Star Entrance. We’re conditioned to seeing musical greats come on stage by walking or dancing. So 1961 audiences were delightfully surprised when Robert Morse’s J. Pierrepont Finch dressed in a window washer’s uniform came down from the proscenium arch on a 20th century deus ex machina. He wasn’t doing any washing but instead was reading and learning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Thirty years later, Keith Carradine entered from above as well, albeit hanging onto a thick, Western-style rope as the title character in The Will Rogers Follies. By the time he finished “I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” we liked him, too.
Bookwriter Peter Stone, director Peter Hunt and conceiver-songwriter Sherman Edwards knew enough not to have Benjamin Franklin appear in 1776’s opening number. Had he been there, we’d have immediately recognized the visage we’d seen on everything from $100 bills to the Saturday Evening Post. And that would have pulled focus from Main Event John Adams.
Besides, a musical is a marathon, not a mere race, and those who create them need to pace themselves and save their surprises. So, as the lights came up quickly on Scene Two and we saw Franklin, we chuckled with recognition. Every musical can use every clean laugh it can get.
Cars are always welcome on a stage and get an “Ooooh!” from the audience. But in Wildcat, the “Ooooh!” that greeted a ramshackle Stutz-Bearcat was immediately trumped once the audience saw who was emerging from under the wounded vehicle: Lucille Ball, no less, unable to fix what ailed the car, but still game enough to invite us to “Hey, Look Me Over.” We were happy to oblige.
And if a mere stalled car can get our pulses racing, what about one that drives on – especially with The De Paul Sisters (née The Andrews Sisters) in Over Here! As they arrived in Army camouflage fatigues atop a jeep, even those young ‘uns who didn’t know The Andrews Sisters from The Ames Brothers had to clap as if Tinkerbelle’s life depended on it.
And Tinkerbelle, making her first appearance in the darling Darling bedroom when the children are asleep, sets the stage for the Greatest Star Entrance of Them All. For the shutters suddenly opened wide on an already open window and in flew Mary Martin as Peter Pan. All these years later, it’s The Great Star Entrance that has entranced us the most.
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.