The Rise and Rise of Legs Diamond By Peter Filichia
They couldn’t wait for the thirtieth anniversary so they made certain that they saw each just before the twenty-ninth.
From the way that they performed the solid Legs Diamond score at two reunion concerts at Feinstein’s/54 Below, you would have never guessed that the musical that had debuted on Dec. 26, 1988 had been a terrible flop.
Peter Allen’s score, although abridged, showed such melody, spirit and power that belied a run of only sixty-four performances.
Luckily, the musical version of the 1960 film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond – about a shady underworld figure — also lives on through its original cast album.
But nineteen people associated with Legs have since died — including Allen and co-star Julie Wilson. At Feinstein’s/54 Below, she lived on through a video of “The Music Went out of My Life.” Wish she could have heard the tribute applause that rained and reigned throughout the house.
Fourteen survivors from the original cast attended, including Jonathan Stuart Cerullo, who skillfully directed this celebration. During the sprightly overture, he wasn’t the only one whose body was bouncing to the music.
We were reminded that “When I Get My Name in Lights” (the opening number that was added during previews) is a fine musical theater song. So are “Cut of the Cards,” which Legs sang after being thought assassinated (wonderfully essayed by Kevin Weldon, Adrian Bailey and Mark Manley) and “The Man Nobody Could Love” in which three of Legs’ lovers learn about the other two. Brenda Braxton, Ruth Gottschall and Randall Edwards did dazzlingly by it.
Edwards sizzled just as much with “I Was Made for Champagne.” (There’s a subtle double entendre there if you look for it.) Audience member Edward Santos, my generous host for the evening, was introduced as the show’s biggest fan and proved it by ordering a magnum to honor the song.
Feinstein’s/54 Below offers many score-heavy concerts now, and all reiterate what anyone interested in Broadway learned early on: a book is almost always a musical’s major problem. Now with Legs’ libretto cut to little more than a journalist’s “who, what, where, when and why,” time was also allotted to the cast so they could relate memories.
Emcee Jim Fyfe said that he was so anxious to see what Frank Rich, then the chief theater critic for the then-all-important New York Times, thought of him. He still remembers: “Jim Fyfe rounds out the cast.”
Bob Stillman expressed his excitement at being cast as Eddie, Legs’ straight-arrow brother who had a thing for Alice, a cigarette girl. This would be his Broadway debut! Better still, Legs would open on Dec. 1st, the day before his birthday. Might Dec. 2nd bring good reviews that would serve as his presents? Certainly he’d get the huzzahs from his fifty-or-so parents and friends after they saw him on Dec. 8th.
Because Legs needed more work, the opening was delayed. On Stillman’s birthday, he got the phone call that told him he was being written out of the show – not long before his parents arrived to take him to his birthday dinner.
Stillman wasn’t immediately dismissed; he’d stay on until the 4th – but not the 8th.
Christine Andreas, playing Alice, was eliminated, too. Andreas didn’t have, as Snowboy exclaims in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “a touching good story” of her rise and fall with the show, but simply said “I was canned.”
Andreas sang “Come Save Me,” a plea to Legs, with whom she was desperately in love. (You know how some women are; they just c-r-a-v-e the bad boys who are bad for them.) Stillman did “Gentleman on a Spree,” in which Eddie professed his love for Alice, mourning that she preferred his brother — the dapper “gentleman” instead of him, a genuine “gentle man.” (Good wordplay there, no?)
Both songs suggested that if Andreas and Stillman had not been axed, they and the audience would have had two more excellent songs to savor.
Shaelynn Parker could still perfectly recite her one line in the show: “Mr. Diamond, your accountant called.” Alas, during one performance, the 200-pound show curtain came down and hit her in the head just as she was coming out to deliver her Big Line. Parker couldn’t even get out her five words.
The following evening the cast gave her a pre-show present: a hard hat.
Parker wasn’t the only one to sustain an injury. Manley sadly related how he’d injured his Achilles’ tendon during “Gangland Chase.” He was then housebound but was mollified by all the food that the sympathetic cast sent him.
Norman Kauahi recalled staying very late one night to learn a new song and was astonished to see Allen still there. He explained in very non-star-like fashion “I can’t go home until you do.”
After a whopping seventy-nine previews, Legs opened and was doomed after Rich called it “a sobering interlude of minimum-security imprisonment that may inspire you to pull out a pen and attend to long-neglected tasks, like finishing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle or balancing a checkbook.”
Gottschall in her show jacket (remember those?) recalled that even after the bad reviews, whenever she’d pass Allen’s dressing room at half-hour, the author-star would be perky, cry out “It’s showtime!” and display enthusiasm over going out there.
Edwards remembered Allen’s outrage when he heard that sexagenarian Julie Wilson, playing one of Legs’ lovers, was living in Jersey City and thus would commute on a subway and a PATH train. Allen wouldn’t hear of it, paid for a car service to eliminate the arduous journey and treated Wilson as the legend she was.
Not everyone lionized Allen. Weldon (now in politics) said that after he was cast, he was asked “Are you afraid of heights?” By saying “No,” he became Allen’s stunt double who flew in from the rafters.
“Peter was later interviewed on a TV show,” Weldon recalled. “When they asked him how he liked doing that stunt, he said ‘Super!’”
Jennifer Paulson Lee appreciated Legs as her first job as assistant choreographer who started her career here. She’s since staged the dances for productions at Paper Mill, Goodspeed and off-Broadway.
Cast member Carol Ann Baxter didn’t perform, but served as the concert’s associate producer. She took to the stage to auction the show’s autographed window card at each performance. Baxter made a fine auctioneer, for she enticed $1,100 from the two audiences. Now Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ jobs are a bit easier.
One must concede, however, that Allen erred in a number of ways – right away, in fact, when he saw The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and said “What a great musical that’d make!”
No. Gangsters are acceptable in musicals when they’re funny rather than threatening. (Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate are solid Exhibits A and B.) The gangsters in Allen’s musical were more realistic thugs and thus didn’t lend themselves to musicalization and comedy.
Secondly, Allen wasn’t the right leading man. He was a number of wonderful things but he looked more likely to be a hit man’s victim than a hit with he-men.
And Allen’s lyrics? The word “knockers” has one definition that lacks class — and Allen used it. Here, loftier heads prevailed and little xylophone mallets were the only reference to knockers.
If he’d only written the music – and to a different property – Peter Allen might have become a major Broadway composer. But hubris made him think he could do all three jobs.
Even Broadway fans who hated Legs Diamond found that midway through the run they suddenly wanted it to run forever. That’s because it was playing the Mark Hellinger, one of Broadway’s most beautiful theaters. But its owner, the Nederlanders, arranged that whenever Legs folded, The Times Square Church would lease the property for five years.
Would that it had only been for that long! Soon the Nederlanders outright sold the prime house to the Church. Not much time had to pass for them to realize the magnitude of their blunder: Broadway’s version of Custer’s Last Stand, the Yugo and New Coke.
We haven’t got the Hellinger back in lo these twenty-nine years, but we did get some of Legs Diamond back at New York’s niftiest nightspot. This time, the cut of the cards was just right.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.