We’re about to mark the 60th anniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most obscure musical.
True, Me and Juliet endured the longest of their three least-successful shows. The musical that opened on May 28, 1953 lasted 358 performances; that bested the team’s 1947 effort Allegro (315 showings) and their 1955 entry Pipe Dream (which could only manage 246).
Also true: Me and Juliet yielded a smash hit song, while those other two musicals didn’t. Sixty years ago this week, the then white-hot Perry Como recorded “No Other Love,” a rare Rodgers tango. It would eventually reach Number One on the Billboard chart. No song in either Allegro or Pipe Dream remotely attained that success.
And yet, both Allegro and Pipe Dream were well-regarded enough to be chosen by Encores! for concert revivals. And while all three musicals received original cast albums on RCA Victor, only Allegro and Pipe Dream have enjoyed subsequent and more complete recordings. Me and Juliet is still waiting to be selected by Encores! and re-recorded with the cuts that have gone missing for six decades.
Like Allegro (but unlike Pipe Dream), Me and Juliet was an original musical. Hammerstein, along with the rest of us, had endured many of Hollywood’s backstage comedies, dramas and musicals about readying a show. They were all the same: four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse; three weeks, and it couldn’t be worse. One week, will it ever be right? Then out of the hat, it’s that big first night – and rave reviews. And who better than Hammerstein knew that it didn’t always turn out like that?
In Me and Juliet, Hammerstein would draw on what he’d seen backstage during the runs of his shows – the first of which (Furs and Frills) opened when World War One was still raging (in 1917). Considering that Hammerstein wrote book and/or lyrics for more than two dozen musicals before he sat down to write Me and Juliet, he knew the territory and that quite a bit went on behind the scenes.
Me and Juliet dealt with a musical called Me and Juliet (now in its sixth smash month), and some of the songs that he and Rodgers wrote went into that musical-within-a-musical. Lest I confuse you, from now on I’ll call that show-within-a-show M&J; whenever I’m speaking of the full, two-and-a-half hour musical that actually played the Majestic Theatre, I’ll use Me and Juliet.
Let’s take the “real” musical first. Me and Juliet tells of Jeanie (Isabel Bigley), a chorus girl who’s been dating Bob (Mark Dawson), the show’s electrician who treats her badly. But you know how so many women prefer bad boys to good guys. “That’s the Way It Happens,” Jeanie sings in what must be the Rodgers and Hammerstein song that, shall-we-say, “swings” the most. You’d swear that Rodgers had written it in his younger days with Lorenz Hart.
Larry (Bill Hayes), the show’s assistant stage manager, sings it, too – bemoaning that he didn’t make a play for Jeanie before she got involved with this brute. Still, he feels he loves her, and when a better role opens up in the show, he’s determined to see her get it. He’ll put her in front of “The Big Black Giant” – meaning the audience. R&H were famous for their anthems, and here’s the one from this show.
Musicals in those days had subplots, and this one involved Mac (Ray Walston, two years before his Damn Yankees success). He tells Larry that a cardinal rule in show business is “never be involved with a woman in the show you’re working.” Complications arrive when Betty (Joan McCracken), the woman Mac has been dating, gets a job in M&J.
Here’s one of musical theater’s favorite conflicts: career vs. love. It’s all solved pretty easily, however, for Mac is simply transferred by his producer to another show.
Things don’t work out as easily for Larry, Jeanie and Bob. Once Jeanie dumps Bob and marries Larry, Bob tries to kill her. Yes, kill her – by dropping a heavy sandbag on her when she makes an entrance. Good Lord! At the end of the show, Larry replaces Mac, and now he’s Bob’s boss.
You mean Bob wasn’t fired for attempted murder? In R&H’s previous shows, Jud Fry, Billy Bigelow and the King of Siam all paid for their sins; Bob gets off with a song that tells how “It Feels Good” to get drunk.
M&J is described as an “unconventional dance opera.” Indeed, that is the type of show that would appeal to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were envelope pushers long before that expression existed. And yet, from what we hear of it, it seems to be a simple musical comedy. In addition to “No Other Love,” M&J had one of those Latin numbers where you can picture dozens of guys in puffed sleeves shaking maracas. It was called “Keep It Gay,” and it is very different in tone and intent from the song with the same name that Mel Brooks wrote forty-eight years later.
M&J also sported “Marriage Type Love,” a Ziegfeldian production number that sounds as if it has the scope of Funny Girl’s “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” (An aside: if Ziegfeld didn’t want “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” to be a spoof, why did he put the homely Fanny Brice as the number’s centerpiece? Another aside: leave it to the famously straight-arrow Hammerstein to think of the ultimate in romance as Marriage-type love.)
The best number came after intermission, although it was called “Intermission Talk.” See my column from Dec. 4, 2012 for a detailed analysis of this musical scene – or settle for this quick analysis: the number shows theatergoers who had just finished watching Act One of M&J commenting on how much – or little – they liked it. Not much time had to pass before most everyone reached the conclusion that “The theater is dying! The theater is dying!”
Ah, but you know Hammerstein’s optimism: “You’ll never walk alone.” “Climb ev’ry mountain, ford every stream, follow ev’ry rainbow, till you find your dream.” “You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” After the theatergoers started mentioning other shows that they’d lately seen and liked, they came to the conclusion that “The theater is living! The theater is living!”
The theater was then, and, sixty years later, it still is. If at the end of the ‘50s people had been asked this question — “Fifty years from now, which of these entertainment options will cease to exist: the drive-in movie, the TV western or the Broadway show?” – what would they have answered?
Undoubtedly most people would have guessed that Broadway would be extinct, for during the decade, orchestra tickets for a musical had soared from $6.00 to $9.90, while drive-in movies were offering two films for a buck and TV westerns were absolutely free.
But ho-ho-ho, who’s got the last laugh now? Although twenty-six westerns were on the air in 1959 (eight of which were in the Top 10), rarely does one surface in the 21st century. While 4,000 drive-ins once comprised 25% of the nation’s 16,000 movie theaters, that figure is now down to 1.5%.
And Broadway? There were thirty-two theaters in operation when Me and Juliet (and M&J) debuted. Now there are thirty-eight. The theater is living! The theater is living!