John Verderber, one of our most promising musical theater writers, asked a terrific question on Facebook the other day.
“‘The Room Where It Happens,’” he wrote, citing a ditty in Hamilton, “is on its way to becoming a famous musical theatre song. And in keeping with that theme, there’s a room where it happened that I would have liked to have been in — where Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and (I’d imagine) dance arranger Peter Howard created ‘The Hot Honey Rag’ in Chicago, which is perhaps my favorite piece of Fosse choreography. It was crafted out-of-town in Philly, so it must have been in a hotel ballroom or the like. But gosh, that would have been a thrill to see. Does anyone have any other ‘room where it happened’ wishes that they’d like to share?”
You bet, John! Let me count the ways, in chronological order:
No. 1. Vinton Freedley Decides to Replace the Book to Anything Goes (1934). The old story goes that Freedley scuttled Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse’s libretto about a shipwreck because the S.S. Morro Castle, a genuine luxury liner, had sunk off the coast of New Jersey just before the musical was to start rehearsals. Freedley told the press that doing a light-hearted show about a similar tragedy would be in terrible taste.
But in recent years, rumor has leaked that Freedley brought in new bookwriters Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse because the Bolton-Wodehouse book wasn’t good. Only those who were in the room where it happened can say for sure.
Would a script about a sinking have really sunk the show? Thirties’ audiences were conditioned to enjoy songs and not worry their heads about the story. Listen to Anything Goes and you might well come to the conclusion that in those less demanding times, “I Get a Kick out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and the title song would have been enough to make Anything Goes go.
No. 2. Lerner and Loewe Audition My Lady Liza for Mary Martin (1954). Wouldn’t it be loverly if they could get The Second Lady of Musical Theatre to play Eliza Doolittle? So, after a performance of Peter Pan, Martin, husband Richard Halliday and even Mainbocher – Martin’s designer of choice – give a listen to what L&L have.
The famous story goes that Martin decided that “Those dear boys have lost their talent.” We’ve long been led to infer that Martin was a swine before Lerner and Loewe’s pearls.
But what did “the boys” play for her? In Richard C. Norton’s forthcoming biography of Loewe, he informs us that the pair auditioned “Just You Wait,” “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight,” “Ascot Gavotte,” “Please Don’t Marry Me” and “Lady Liza.”
The first one became world-famous, yes, but the second was cut (albeit later inserted into Gigi), the third one had nothing to do with Eliza as did the fourth (which was replaced by “I’m an Ordinary Man”) and the fifth was a later-dropped song in which Higgins and Pickering tried to bolster Eliza’s confidence after the Ascot debacle.
No, if you want to sign a star, you play the songs she’ll sing. Martin might have said yes had she heard “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Show Me,” “Without You” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”
No. 3. Comden or Green Comes up with a Brilliant Line (1955). No one really knows which lines and lyrics originated with Betty and which came from Adolph (and damn if I could ever get either one of them to tell me). Still, when the pair (or maybe even composer-horseplayer Jule Styne) came up with the idea of “It’s a Simple Little System” – in which the name of a classical composer would stand in for the name of a racetrack – I suspect Green was the one who jumped out of his chair and yelled “Hialeah!” for “Hallelujah!” for Handel.
No. 4. Happy Hunting Starts Rehearsals (1956). At the first read-through, superstar Ethel Merman and Broadway neophyte Fernando Lamas read a scene. Midway, Lamas asks, “Excuse me, but I would like to know — is this the way it’s going to be? Am I going to say my lines to Miss Merman while she says hers to the audience?”
That prompted The Merm to say, “Mr. Lamas, I’ll have you know that I have been saying lines on Broadway like this for nearly thirty years” – which spurred Lamas to say “That doesn’t mean you’re right; that just means you’re old.”
(Actually, Lamas was born in 1915, which didn’t make him that much younger than Merman, who came into the world anywhere between 1906 and 1908, depending on whom you believe.)
But this isn’t the star’s only early-rehearsal headache. After she warbles through a number, composer Harold Karr rebukes, “Miss Merman, if that’s the way I’d wanted my music sung, that’s the way I would have written it.” Merman responds by telling director Abe Burrows, “That man is not permitted to speak to me again.” And considering The Merm’s trademark clarion voice, I wouldn’t be surprised if you could have heard her in the room three doors down from where it happened.
Merman called Happy Hunting “a jeep among limousines” — meaning the first-class vehicles in which she usually starred. And yet, she spent much of her career opening concerts with the show’s “Gee, But It’s Good to Be Here.” She even got to sing the show’s pop hit – “Mutual Admiration Society” – for which lyricist Matt Dubey was smart to include a prominent “u,” for Merman had an un-u-sually distinctive way of delivering that vowel.
No. 5. Barbra Streisand Arrives Late for Her I Can Get It for You Wholesale Audition (1961). Her not-so-hot excuse is that she’s been window-shopping. Producer David Merrick takes one look at her and essentially says, “If a girl isn’t pretty like a Miss Atlantic City, then she won’t be in my show.” Director Arthur Laurents thinks otherwise, and so does composer-lyricist Harold Rome. Streisand’s look and manner inspires him to write the show’s most enduring song: “Miss Marmelstein” — although Streisand’s performance has had something to do with the song’s longevity.
I’d also like to be in the ballroom where this happened: The Waldorf-Astoria is hosting the 1961-62 Tonys®. Merrick – who’s also produced that season’s Subways Are for Sleeping, for which Phyllis Newman is now in competition with Streisand – tells Newman just before the winner is announced in that category, “I voted for Streisand.” What look does Newman give her boss when she emerges victorious over Streisand?
No. 6 — Cy Feuer, Co-producer and Director of Little Me Tells Lyricist Carolyn Leigh in Philadelphia that “Lafayette, We Are Here” Must Be Cut (1962). Now usually, director and writer talk these things out, but Leigh leaves the theater in a huff and soon returns — with a policeman. “Arrest that man!” she says. The cop won’t oblige.
Given Little Me’s marvelous original cast album, did we miss another great Carolyn Leigh-Cy Coleman song? Would the album be poorer with it? One of these days, I’d like to be in a room where it happens to be played.
No. 7. Jerry Herman Visits David Merrick’s Office (1963). It’s not a social call; the young composer-lyricist is to play the songs he hurriedly wrote on spec over the weekend, all to convince Broadway’s most powerful and prolific producer into letting him write Hello, Dolly! At the end of the session, Merrick says, “Kid, the show is yours.”
Take out any of Dolly’s three cast albums – Carol Channing’s, Mary Martin’s (my favorite) or Pearl Bailey’s – and hear what convinced Merrick: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Dancing,” and the “Call on Dolly/I Put My Hand In” sequence.
What you won’t hear on any Dolly album is the other Herman auditionee: “I Still Love the Love That First I Loved When First in Love I Fell” which he’d eventually replace with “Ribbons down My Back.” Considering that cumbersome title, I’m surprised that Merrick didn’t say, “Kid, the show isn’t yours.”
No. 8. Kermit Bloomgarden Has Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents Listen to Some Advice (1964). Bloomgarden, the producer of Anyone Can Whistle, sees the show floundering in Philadelphia but believes he has the right play-doctor to fix it: his sixteen-year-old son John, who starts giving notes.
Actually, you might have wanted to leave the room where this happened, for the famously difficult, irascible and hot-tempered Laurents could not have gone gently into that good theater.
But considering that Laurents’ book to Whistle is nigh impossible, Little John might have had some good points. However, if the kid railed against the music and lyrics, I’m on Sondheim’s side. Although it has a sequence called “Simple,” this is hardly a simple score.
No. 9. Michael Bennett Injures Himself During a Chorus Line Rehearsal (1975). Actually, he doesn’t — but he wants his cast to think he has. Bennett feels that his actors haven’t been convincing enough during the scene in which Paul San Marco falls in pain, so he decides that the only way to make them realize precisely what they’d feel was to see someone they cared about go down.
Indeed, the actors are horrified – although not as horrified moments later when Bennett easily stands and says, “Okay, now remember how you felt and what you were doing when this happened.”
Recalling this incident got me to play A Chorus Line – but, for a change of pace, the 2006 revival cast album. What I didn’t realize from previous listenings is that there’s some “Stereo Action” on the recording – meaning that sound travels along with the dancers from speaker to speaker. And for this, at least, you can be in the room where it happens.
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.