Yes, we like that, on every July 4, Turner Classic Movies shows a film of a Broadway musical that concludes on that date.
But the situation would be even better if it could also broadcast a Broadway musical that starts on that date.
For in addition to 1776, in a more perfect union, TCM would next broadcast a film version of TAKE ME ALONG.
After all, the 1959 musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS! begins on Independence Day.
Perhaps if there hadn’t been SUMMER HOLIDAY, a movie musical of O’Neill’s play in 1948, TAKE ME ALONG would have been taken by Hollywood. Too bad, for the film’s Harry Warren-Ralph Blane score can’t hold a matchstick – let alone a candle – to what Bob Merrill wrote. It’s a great, Golden Age score that deserves much more attention.
The project began with David Merrick shortly after he’d had success with FANNY, his first solo producing effort in 1954. Merrick had loved AH, WILDERNESS! since his youth in St. Louis, where he’d seen George M. Cohan play the lead. So, in 1955, he enlisted John Latouche, who’d written the book and lyrics for the highly regarded THE GOLDEN APPLE, and the lesser-known Coleman Dowell, to write the music.
You know Merrick. He fired them both.
Well, the collaborators weren’t getting along, anyway; Dowell would later say of Latouche, “When I think of him, I hope Hell has real flames.”
Merrick then considered the HAPPY HUNTING team of Matt Dubey and Harold Karr, whom he’d pair with legendary bookwriters Herbert and Dorothy Fields.
Then Bob Merrill’s first score for a much different O’Neill play – about prostitute Anna Christie – opened as NEW GIRL IN TOWN to mostly good reviews. Merrick called the New Boy in Town that very day and engaged him to write would become TAKE ME ALONG.
To a Joseph Stein book (massaged by Robert Russell), Bob Merrill came up with a magnificent set of music and lyrics. Those who know his work from the mid-60s on might be surprised that TAKE ME ALONG didn’t include what would become Merrill’s trademark: straining for rhymes:
“Kid, my heart ain’t made of marble, but your rhythm’s really har’ble” (FUNNY GIRL).
“Here’s today’s Times, so start lookin’ in. Find a nice room in Queens or in Brook-a-lyn” (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S).
“Your crazy music truly tickles us, although your whole technique’s ridick-ul-us” (HENRY, SWEET HENRY).
Some have alleged that Merrill also provided “All the guests of Mister Hackl are feeling great and look spec-tack-u-lar” from a certain Tony-winning musical. As Jerry Herman would later write, “Who knows? Who knows? Who knows?”
(But it sure sounds like Merrill.)
Truth to tell, in TAKE ME ALONG’s opening number, Merrill did add an “a” to the word “attractive,” resulting in “attract-a-tive.” Here, though, it was a syllable filler, not a tortured rhyme.
It came in the spirited opening number “The Parade.” The citizens of Centerville, Connecticut use that adjective to describe the new fire engine that newspaper editor Nat Miller secured for their town.
Nat was the Cohan role, here played by two-time Oscar nominee Walter Pidgeon. Here, he’d get a Best Actor in a Musical Tony nomination, partly, of course, because Merrill gave him terrific material.
A father dealing with his son does have dramatic possibilities, but the surprise here is that when controversy erupts, Dad is squarely on the side of 16-year-old Richard. The lad has been wooing the proverbial Girl Next Door, to her father’s white-hot fury. True, Robert Morse was then close to twice Richard’s age, but he must have been very good, for he too would receive a Best Actor in a Musical Tony nomination.
Nat knows that there’s nothin’ dirty goin’ on; Richard has just been reading some romantic poetry to her and claims that “I Would Die” for her.
So, in his potent soliloquy “Staying Young,” Nat shows that he’s open-minded not worried. As he insists, “I’ll bet Richard doesn’t even know what girls are for yet!”
Certainly his brother-in-law Sid does. The man-child celebrated as “Sid, Ol’ Kid” (a rousing song) by the townies introduces this colorful character.
Sid has lately been in Waterbury, Connecticut, about which he doesn’t have much good to say. Yet Merrill has him say it very well, including Sid’s giving a detailed description of practical jokes. One involves ketchup, and another a saw. (Oh, that Sid!)
So, while Pidgeon had five songs and two reprises, the performer playing Sid secured seven and one reprise. No, Nat was no longer the main character, as he’d been in O’Neill’s original play – not with Jackie Gleason around to play the part.
It had to be. When TAKE ME ALONG debuted in 1959, Gleason was by far the bigger star. To this day, some know or remember him as Ralph Kramden, the long-suffering bus driver in THE HONEYMOONERS. Yes, some know him from THE HUSTLER, for which he was Oscar-nominated, or SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II, for which he was not. But those assignments aren’t what got a Gleason-as-Kramden statue in front of New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Once Gleason’s TV adventures ended in 1958, he was free to make his first Broadway appearance in a decade. Gleason would not settle for a supporting role (let alone anything that resembled a supporting player’s salary). It resulted in a situation that hasn’t happened with the Tonys before or since: THREE nominees who did eight-a-week were competitors for the Best Actor in a Musical medallion. Not only that, Gleason won.
Sid provided a romantic interest for Lily, Nat’s unmarried sister-in-law who was living with the family. Lily does like Sid and his sense of humor, even when his ribald utterances make her respond “I Get Embarrassed.” She’s reluctant to marry him, though, because he’s often quite drunk.
So will Richard be, when Muriel is ordered not to see him. “That’s How It Starts,” the poor lad sings, dogged by puppy love. When he arrives home quite under the influence, Sid is the only one who can empathize. He tells the kid will see a “Little Green Snake” (thanks to delirium tremens) if he continues slurping the sauce.
Sid tries to romance Lily, admitting that he’s all sorts of things “But Yours” (an utterly charming song). She wishes he could “Promise Me a Rose” (as opposed to rosé wine) and that each night she could say “We’re Home” (both are lovely tunes).
Alas, she feels and fears that he can’t come through. The cast album does reveal how it all turns out in a delightful reprise.
As for Richard and Muriel, she promises to sneak out of the house and meet him at “Nine O’Clock.” Indeed, she does. So those two will have a happy ending.
Although Gleason was the star, Pidgeon had the show’s most touching moment. Although he insisted in Act One that “I’m staying young, and ev’ryone around me’s growin’ old – but me,” he realizes by Act Two That “ev’ryone around me’s growin’ old – like me.”
So many times, throughout Broadway history, reprises have been employed simply to remind audiences that the song they’d heard in Act One was worth hearing again. Often the lyrics were simply repeated.
Not here. The best show songs take us to a different place by song’s end than we were at the beginning; that doesn’t happen in reprises. Merrill has Nat change from a man in denial about his age to a man who acknowledges it. This doesn’t negate what he essentially said earlier – that he’s young at heart – but we can’t deny that whatever we feel in our heads is not necessarily analogous to what we feel in the rest of our bodies.
Gleason and Pidgeon shared a duet in the terrific title song. Although the Fourth of July always means fireworks, Sid and Nat celebrate it in a nifty soft-shoe.
Merrick wasn’t happy years later when the Republican presidential candidate in 1968 used “Take Me Along” as his campaign song. The producer, a totally devoted and lifelong Democrat, hated hearing “Nixon’s the One! Nixon’s the One!” blaring from the TV.
However, in 1974, when government officials were looking for the guiltiest perpetrator of Watergate, we can well imagine Merrick singing “Nixon’s the One!”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.