By Peter Filichia — Sept. 21, 1998. The pilot episode of Will & Grace airs on NBC. Will Truman and his friends – including Jack McFarland – are playing poker. Jack is stalling, wondering if he should hold or discard. And while he wonders, he starts singing to himself.
“A room without windows,” he drones. “A room without doors.”
In the next eight years, the series will many times reiterate that Jack knows musical theater – but this certainly is Exhibit A. Even the most ardent fan of Broadway could be pardoned for not knowing the song. True, “A Room without Windows” did reach a modicum of popularity back in 1964 when Steve Lawrence recorded it. But it’s since faded away.
So has the show from which it sprang: Ervin Drake’s musical version of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 breakout novel What Makes Sammy Run? that starred Lawrence. The cast album hasn’t been seen for some time in record stores, and there’s been only one way to buy it: by going to the website that Lawrence shares with his wife Eydie Gormé. There the cast album is being sold for an exorbitant $25 – and only in monophonic sound.
Now, happily enough, MasterworksBroadway has brought back What Makes Sammy Run? – not only at a lower price but also in glorious stereo.
Drake was a pop songwriter who co-wrote such very successful 1950’s songs as “Tico-Tico” and “I Believe.” In 1961, he wrote the song for which he’d become most famous, but when What Makes Sammy Run? opened in 1964, that song’s success was still more than a year away. For while The Kingston Trio had already recorded “It Was a Very Good Year,” it was Frank Sinatra’s 1965 recording that made it a standard.
Early 1964 wasn’t starting out to be a very good year for Drake, for What Makes Sammy Run? was in serious trouble in Philadelphia in January. Director Arthur Storch was deemed to be the problem, and he left the production in favor of Abe Burrows, one of Broadway’s most respected show doctors. Burrows’s most recent show, for which he wrote the book and directed, was How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying, which nabbed the Pulitzer Prize.
This time, Burrows would “only” direct, for Budd Schulberg had co-written the musical’s book with his brother Stuart. Burrows decreed that the show needed more preparation time and would have to postpone its planned Feb. 6 New York opening. Luckily for Sammy, another musical was having trouble on the road – Funny Girl – and it postponed its Broadway opening from Feb. 27 to March 26. Now that Feb. 27 was suddenly freed up, What Makes Sammy Run? would open on that date.
Apparently Burrows’s suggestions and improvements were solid ones, for What Makes Sammy Run? was able to run for 540 performances. At the time, only about four dozen book musicals had ever run longer.
The score is quite an achievement for a Broadway novice – all the more when one considers the difficulties in musicalizing Schulberg’s anti-hero. Super-go-getter Sammy Glick (born Shmelka Glickstein) is a copy boy at a New York tabloid – but not for long. Ambition should not be made of any sterner stuff than Glick’s. He’s the type of guy who gets comps to a Broadway show – and sells them. When he explains his rationale to reporter Al Manheim (Robert Alda), he says it was simply to buy “A New Pair of Shoes.” Drake was smart to make this song a waltz; the three-quarter tempo suggests a smoothness, which is what Sammy Glick is endeavoring to have.
Sammy’s real goal is Hollywood. Once he gets there, he determines that this should have been “My Home Town.” What’s fascinating is that it’s the most romantic song that Drake wrote for Sammy – and yet it’s not to a person, but to a Los Angeles neighborhood.
Sammy meets Kit Sargent (Sally Ann Howes), a screenwriter to whom he’s attracted – because she’s higher up the Hollywood food chain than he. Yet the tall willowy blonde admits she’s attracted to this little guy. (Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? As the line goes in The Boys in the Band, “In affairs of the heart, there are no rules.”)
Kit’s feelings for Sammy yield her three solos – two exhibiting her love, one her frustration. All showcase Howes’ thrilling soprano. She also shares with Alda one of the most beautiful unheralded musical theater songs: “Maybe Some Other Time.” Here Manheim, who’s moved to Hollywood, too, expresses his love for Kit (for all the good it does him).
The British-born Howes’s New York resumé includes Eliza Doolittle and Desirée Armfeldt, but did she ever expect to play Alexander Graham Bell as a child? She does in “Lights! Camera! Platitude!” in which she, Sammy and Al spoof the movies. Sammy also shows how that the line “Doctor, there are some things man was not meant to tamper with” could be used in any number of films: horror, prison, show biz and others. (That also tells you something about Sammy’s artistic principles: one size fits all.) The number also gives Steve Lawrence the chance to show he can do an excellent Boris Karloff imitation.
And while Sammy tries to romance Kit in “A Room without Windows,” he’s more interested in Laurette (Bernice Massi), the prospective studio-head’s daughter. “I See Something,” Laurette sings – but what she sees is someone to string along. Later when Laurette gets to know him, she proclaims “You’re No Good,” which actually turns out to be part of his appeal to a woman who admits she’s no good, too. That’s why they wind up in bed and do “The Friendliest Thing” two people can do. Credit to Drake for finding an elegant euphemism for carnal knowledge; it’s a song that Cole Porter would have been proud to write.
It all leads to Sammy and Laurette in “The Wedding of the Year.” And oh, how 1964 audiences gasped when Sammy unexpectedly entered their honeymoon suite and found Laurette consorting with another man while she was still in her wedding dress.
That’s not going to destroy someone like Sammy. “Some Days Everything Goes Wrong,” he says, trying to slough it off in his own version of “Rose’s Turn.”
Oh, and of the thousands of musical theater songs that Jack McFarland undoubtedly knew, why was he singing “A Room without Windows” in that pilot? My guess is that it was suggested to him by Will & Grace’s director and executive producer: James Burrows – Abe’s son.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com