What’s the best production number I’ve seen in more than a half-century of attending musicals?
“Who’s That Woman?” from Follies, of course.
“We’ll Take a Glass Together” from Grand Hotel, natch.
And who gets the brass ring of third place? The title song of Mame, the musical’s first-act closer, which Broadway came to know 50 years ago last week.
“What?!” some longtime musical theater enthusiasts exclaim when I list my three chart-toppers. “Not ‘Hello, Dolly!’?”
That’s in fourth place. What puts “Mame” ahead is the strong emotion attached to it.
Long before the TV series Cheers told us that “You want to go where everybody knows your name,” “Hello, Dolly!” made the same point. The waiters at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant love a former customer who’s been away too long; thus, upon her return, they make a nice big deal out of her.
Fine! Granted! Terrific! But all Dolly must do to get that reaction is to show up. Mame Dennis must earn her tribute, which is not an easy task.
Here’s the set-up: Mame, during the Depression, takes any job at all – and that includes getting her hands on Beauregard Jackson Picket Burnside’s hands when he comes in for a manicure. The two are immediately smitten to the point where Mame doesn’t notice that she’s not only filing his nails but also drawing blood; he’s so entranced by her that he doesn’t care.
The boss does, however, and Mame is summarily fired. Yes, she’s discouraged, but she tries to rally her troops – Young Patrick, Agnes Gooch and Ito – by insisting “We need a little Christmas now.”
(A digression: Jerry Herman, who wrote both Mame and Dolly, might not have realized that he was writing a Yuletide standard when he penned this song, it does reflect what happens in the original Lawrence and Lee play, so Herman was just writing for the situation. Still, even “Hello, Dolly!” has not been the Herman song that has been heard the most; “We Need a Little Christmas” is.)
Back to our story: Christmas indeed arrives early when Beau tracks down where Mame lives. This leads to one of my all-time favorite lines: after Beau leaves for a second to pay the cab, Agnes confidently advises “Marry him the minute he asks you.”
Easier said than done. Beau has a girl back home in Georgia, one Sally Cato MacDougal, who isn’t pleased that her almost-fiance has a new interest. That’s also true of Beau’s mother, friends and relatives who greatly distrust this Yankee.
Sally tries to stress that anyone who’d be involved with Beau would have to love horses — so Mame says she rides each day, thus falling into Sally’s trap. Sally Cato quickly arranges a foxhunt and makes certain that Mame gets the plantation’s most incorrigible horse: Lightnin’ Rod, an animal that would not make Shakespeare ask “What’s in a name?”
As staunch as the steed is, he can’t throw Mame any more than Sally Cato could. What’s more, Mame brings back the fox alive. Her explanation? “I looked down at him and he looked down at me, and we sort of struck up a friendship.” Yes, as we’ll soon hear, Mame can “coax the blues right out of the horn,” but she can even relate to and charm members of the animal kingdom.
Friendship, however, is not enough for Beau after he sees Mame’s achievement. He proposes on the spot, and literally sings Mame’s praises along with most everyone else — Sally Cato takes her leave — in the memorable title song.
The Harmonia Gardens waiters already loved Dolly; the Southerners did not like Mame, and were suspicious of her. Winning over a whole group of people is no easy task, but Mame does it – and that’s why celebrating her means more than celebrating Dolly. Mrs. Levi may indeed be a big tipper, but that’s not the same as staying on Lightnin’ Rod and retrieving a fox.
West Side Story and Gypsy librettist Arthur Laurents, famous for making backhanded compliments (when he made any at all) was fond of saying, “There’s nothing in Mame that’s true, but Jerry believes it is.”
A better take comes from musical theater historian extraordinaire Miles Krueger, who opines, “If you had a fatal disease when you went in to one of Jerry Herman’s shows, you were cured when you came out.” Of course it’s hyperbole, but there are very few true musical theater enthusiasts who don’t know what he means.
Herman has always defended his sense of optimism: “I’m a builder. I just can’t help it.” He discloses that the title song of Mame is “a Southern spoof of cakewalks.” That still doesn’t keep it from being One of the Greatest Production Numbers in Broadway history.
Goddard Lieberson always tried to start the second side of an original cast album with the song most likely to be a hit. The edge of a record did have a bit more space that the bands between songs, so resituating the needle and playing the hit over and over again was a little easier.
Those who know Camelot will tell you that “If Ever I Would Leave You” did not appear in the show where it came on the long-playing record, but Lieberson knew it was to be the show’s Big Hit and that listeners would want to play it one time after another. So the first song on the second side it was.
But The Great “Mame” Production Number actually happened in the show at the same point where the record needed to move from the first side to the second. And because Bobby Darin had already had a hit recording with it (albeit not nearly as big a hit as Louis Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!”), Lieberson was happy that the positioning of the songs dovetailed with his preference.
Take it from one who was at Mame’s second Boston performance. The fanfare that begins the Overture offers the first twenty-two notes of “Mame,” and even at that early stage of the game, the audience burst into applause of recognition.
However – and this is significant – what we hear on the record is not quite what happened in the show. Here Lieberson was more intent with the listening experience than with authenticity. For near the end of the number, we hear from Young Patrick.
You’ll recall that Patrick’s father had died, and with Mame his only living relative, the ten-year-old had to go to live with her. Mame teaches Patrick to “Open a New Window” as well as bottles of gin and vermouth from which he makes a mean martini. When Mame’s first attempt at employment results in her being fired, he sings to her that she’s “My Best Girl” (which, by the way, the show used as its title during its gestation). Mame answers by singing just as sincerely “You’re my best beau.” She also states “And if some day, another beau comes along determined to take your place, I hope he’s resigned to fall in behind my best beau.”
Another “beau” literally does in Beauregard. So as we’re swept away into celebrating “Mame” with all of them, suddenly Young Patrick comes on and repeats Mame’s earlier words to him: “And if some day, another beau comes along determined to take my place …” And suddenly, as the first act curtain falls, we were all ashamed for having forgotten the little boy. What made us all the more embarrassed was that Young Patrick, played by eventual Tony-winner Frankie Michaels, was so brave about the situation.
None of this is on the recording, though. Lieberson wanted us to have a non-stop jamboree.
Last Thursday, May 26th, Mame cast members gathered for a 50th Anniversary Celebration at Sardi’s. Producer John Bowab and dancer Diana Baffa Brill, who have directed and choreographed numerous productions of Mame throughout the world, coordinated this special reunion.
Twenty-five company members attended, including Lansbury and Jerry Lanning, who had originated the role of Older Patrick. Frankie Michaels wasn’t there, for he had died fewer than two months earlier. Who would have thought that Lansbury, almost thirty years older, would have outlived him? At least we still have Michaels’ voice on the album in his one and only Broadway appearance.
But not, alas, on the title song. And it’s that extra emotion that puts it ahead of “Hello, Dolly!”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.