By Peter Filichia — Thirty years have passed since the most famous Winter Garden incident happened.
After David Merrick had heard his production of 42nd Street get loads of love and applause from the opening night house, he walked on stage. “I’m sorry to report …,” he said, causing everyone to laugh uproariously. Leave it to Merrick to do something unexpected.
Indeed he did, although it was not to be as lighthearted and clever as most of his publicity stunts. “No, no,” he said. “This is tragic. You don’t understand. Gower Champion died this morning.”
That Aug. 25, 1980 opening became a sad chapter in musical theater history. Never more would musicals have the distinctive Gower Champion touch – staging that was warm and inviting.
Champion, of course, was first famous as a performer, as part of the Marge and Gower Champion dance team in the late 1940s. Long before the couple’s 26-year marriage ended in 1973, he would segue from dancing to working on musicals.
In 1948 Champion choreographed Small Wonder, and a year later, Lend an Ear – winning a Tony® for the latter. Then he choreographed Make a Wish (which will soon have its original cast album again made available, after decades of being out-of-print).
No one trusted Champion to direct and choreograph, however, until producers Paul Gregory and Charles Laughton (!) hired him for a 1955 revue called 3 for Tonight. That was contingent on his and Marge’s performing in the show. The show only ran 10 weeks, but Harry Belafonte got a Tony® for performing in it. We’ll never know how much or little Champion had to do with helping his performance to win the prize.
But Charles Strouse, who wrote the music to Bye Bye Birdie, says that Champion, in his first directorial-and-choreographic assignment, certainly helped that show become a hit. “Gower had the idea that during the overture, we’d see a movie of Conrad Birdie’s performance (and hips), which was novel. And when Lee Adams and I first played ‘How Lovely to Be a Woman’ for him, he asked us how we’d envisioned Kim McAfee singing it. We had no answer – and no idea. Then he snapped his fingers and said that it would work if, during the number, Kim would dress like a sloppy teenage kid in boys’ clothes. That would play nicely against the lyric. The number always gets a laugh every time I see it, but that laugh belongs to Gower.”
Lada Edmund, Jr., one of the teens whom Champion cast in Birdie, recalls that he’d put up with no nonsense. “He told us that we absolutely, positively could never be late for rehearsal,” she said. “When one very talented girl was late, he fired her. I’ll tell you, after seeing that happen, I’ve never been late for anything in the last 50 years.”
Chita Rivera remembers what happened when she was screen-testing for the film version of Carnival (which would never be made). “Gower had directed and choreographed it on Broadway,” she says. “He came to Hollywood and went on camera before my test to introduce me. He didn’t have to do that, but he really wanted me to have the part.”
Carol Channing, Champion’s leading lady in Hello, Dolly! refers to him as “a benign despot.” Exhibit A came on November 22, 1963, when Champion learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated and that that night’s performance would be canceled. Says Channing, “He used the time to rehearse the company and make changes. He put a box of Kleenex near the footlights, so that if anyone wanted to cry, he could get a tissue, wipe the tears–and then return to work.”
Dolly! would be an enormous hit, opening on Jan. 16, 1964 to virtually unanimous raves. Many a director would rest on his significant laurels, but Champion brought the company back into rehearsal to make the show even better. He replaced a song “Come Be My Butterfly” with a polka contest. Most every subsequent production has included that contest.
A few months after Dolly! opened, Noel Coward was having trouble staging the musical High Spirits, although it was based on a property he knew well – his own play Blithe Spirit. So to whom did Coward turn for help? Says Hugh Martin, one of the show’s writers, “Gower Champion. Frankly, Noel was worried because he’d had a failure earlier that same season with The Girl Who Came to Supper, and he didn’t want another.” Martin adds that Coward ended many scenes in the living room by pulling curtains across, and only after they were totally closed, started the next scene in front of them. “That was okay in the 1930’s,” says Martin, “but Gower eliminated them, because he knew it didn’t work in the 1960s.”
Winning Tonys® for direction AND choreography in one year isn’t easy. In the ‘60s, Champion did it three times, for Bye Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly! and The Happy Time.
Even with a two-person show — I Do! I Do! — Champion did something unprecedented. When the script stated that characters Michael and Agnes (no less than Robert Preston and Mary Martin) would age significantly, Champion simply had them come down to the footlights, take out make-up cases, and gray themselves into senior citizenship.
There were other musicals, too, on Champion’s resume, including a big hit (Carnival), a little hit (Sugar, a fascinating failure (Mack & Mabel) and outright disasters (Prettybelle and Rockabye Hamlet). The last-named was a 1976 rock musical of you-know-what; Ophelia strangled herself with her microphone cord.
But as Champion wrote in his Playbill bio, “With Rockabye Hamlet, Champion effects a marriage between the Broadway musical and the rock concert.” And viewed from that perspective, Champion was completely successful, directing it in the style later adopted by this generation’s Passing Strange and American Idiot.
Nevertheless, the last line of his bio was pretty telling, too. “Champion’s most renowned accomplishment is probably his staging of a musical production number which begins with a lady in a red dress making her entrance down a staircase.”
Perhaps. But 42nd Street outran Dolly! by 642 performances – although, of course, he didn’t live to see it become his biggest hit.
And yet, it may well be a one-performance flop that Gower Champion doctored that said it all. In 1978 a Broadway musical that was actually called A Broadway Musical – because it dealt with the production of same – had a lyric about this art form. Lee Adams’ lyric was set to bouncy Charles Strouse music: “But when it works / Forget the jerks / Who told you it couldn’t go / For there’s nothing like a Broadway show.”
And there was nothing like a Gower Champion show, either.
Peter Filichia writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia