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Does everybody get the joke in ON THE TOWN?

That occurred to me last week at the uber-popular Ellen’s Stardust Diner. How popular? Pass by, and you’ll undoubtedly see a line longer than the ones once witnessed at FUNNY GIRL, FIDDLER and DOLLY combined.

FUNNY GIRL comes to mind because Ellen’s, at Broadway and 51st Street, is next door to the Winter Garden, where the 1964 musical first played (and where BACK TO THE FUTURE now resides). This location marks the third iteration of the restaurant that owner Ellen Hart founded in 1987.

Hart was one of 200 or so women who received an honor that The New York City’s Transit Authority frequently awarded from 1941 to 1976. Rapid transit riders of yore needed only to look up and see placards that boasted headshots nestled next to bios that were approximately as long as one a musical’s ensemble member gets in a Playbill.

Each of these chosen women was dubbed Miss Subways.

That, in turn, inspired Miss Turnstiles, the character that romantic lead Gabey is desperate to find in ON THE TOWN.

Knowing that I was to meet Ms. Hart – a/k/a Miss Subways, March-April, 1959 – I was inspired in advance to revisit the famed 1960 ON THE TOWN recording. It was warmly received on its release to the many fans who’d endured the first recording of Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s 1944 surprise hit. The powers-that-be at Decca Records had decided that six songs would be enough to release, thank you.

They brought into the studio some but not all original casters. Nancy Walker reprised her Hildy in “I Can Cook, Too” and “Ya Got Me.” Comden (Claire de Loone) and Green (Ozzie) sang “Carried Away.”

So far, so great. But the Decca recording had two substantial oddities. Ozzie and his sailor pals Chip and Gabey, who’d been singing “New York, New York (a Helluva Town”) eight times a week, were replaced by the then-popular Lyn Murray Singers.

More bizarre was not hiring John Battles, who created the role of Gabey, to sing “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me.” Battles was supplanted by… Mary Martin.

We’re always glad to have someone of Martin’s caliber on any recording (including JENNIE). But Martin wasn’t professionally involved with ON THE TOWN, so why choose her? Yes, the concept of The Original Cast Album was still finding its way…

In 1960, Columbia Records guru Goddard Lieberson added ON THE TOWN to the list of studio cast albums he’d recorded throughout much of the ‘50s. Lieberson had Walker, Comden and Green reunite with Cris Alexander, the original Chip. Dance music aficionados were thrilled to hear almost 20 minutes of substantial dance music – including the one marked “Miss Turnstiles.”

That’s what I finished listening to just before leaving for a special event: Hart occasionally hosts a reunion of other Miss Subways. When I arrived, each was holding a replication of the sign that once gave them far more than 15 minutes of fame (for two months was the most usual length of any reign).

Hart’s bio from 1959 mentions that she “has appeared in school plays.” That turned out to be a very modest way of putting it, for, she informed me, she was Anna in THE KING AND I and Julie in CAROUSEL, in Queens, at Jamaica High School.

(Has this school ever, in fact, done JAMAICA? There’s still time for the school’s drama director to hear the marvelous Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg score and immediately put the show into rehearsal.)

No one’s saying that Hart could replicate her Anna if pressed into service, but she did deliver a mellifluous rendition of “Getting to Know You” as a packed house of regulars and tourists looked on.

Such singing from the sidelines is one of the diner’s main attractions, but it usually comes solely from the waitstaff. Do casting directors ever go here? They should.

To add something extra to the proceedings, Marilyn Maye was on hand. She was still buoyant from the mayor’s announcement that March 24 was “Marilyn Maye Day.”

Of course I was hoping she’d sing her hit from HOW NOW, DOW JONES (“Step to the Rear”) or the title song from CABARET. Instead, she did a pop song about rides, which added some subway subtext.

Time to interview each Miss Subway. My first question would be, “Was the honor of Miss Subways accompanied by free tickets to Broadway shows?” I was hoping to learn more about the musicals that preceded my birth or theatergoing.

Each said that she never ever received even a single comp to Broadway. Almost everyone had very little knowledge of Broadway, past or present. I found that out soon after I asked, “What’s your favorite Broadway musical?”

Many women followed with 20-second pauses before saying the evasive “Oh, there are so many…” and yet unable to think of one. At least Heidi Hafner (May-October 1976 – the final Miss Subways) was able to say, “CATS,” an opinion that brought a stony silence from many standing nearby.

Too bad that the school ticket programs and theatrical initiatives that many current New York City students now enjoy weren’t in place then. These Miss Subways just might have spent those mid-century years getting off the 1, 2 and E trains at 42nd Street en route to becoming devoted theater fans (who could have then related their reminiscences to me).

Only Ellen Ryan (Miss July-August 1964) wanted to talk Broadway. “My love for it began right with the first one: CAMELOT,” she said before pausing, half-closing her eyes and semi-swooning. “Richard Burton… Julie Andrews… Robert Goulet…”

They respectively portrayed King Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot, one of literature’s most infamous romantic triangles. And yet, when CAMELOT released its original cast album in early 1961, Burton and Andrews were billed above the title and Goulet wasn’t. In fact, two other actors billed below the title were nevertheless ahead of Goulet’s fifth-place finish.

CAMELOT made Goulet famous. He eventually won a Tony for THE HAPPY TIME; he sounds crisp and splendid on that cast album. By then, he’d been a teen idol for a brief but noteworthy reign – but enough to get him mentioned in a CHORUS LINE song.

So, when subsequent CAMELOTS were reissued on cassette and CD, Goulet not only leapfrogged over Roddy McDowall and Robert Coote, but also vaulted above the title, now only bested by Burton and Andrews.

If I missed talking to a Miss Subway or two, I apologize and will sing the line, “We’ll catch up some other time.” It comes from the most beautiful final song in any musical: “Some Other Time.”

The musical from which it springs is, of course, ON THE TOWN.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.