STAR VEHICLES By Peter Filichia
So what musicals were specifically tailored for certain performers?
We know that from the outset Judy Holliday and no one else would be considered for Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing. Betty Comden and Adolph Green purposely wrote it for their old pal whom they first knew as Judith Tuvim; they all had performed together in the ‘40s in a night-club act called The Revuers.
Ethel Merman was the only choice for a certain Miss Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun; ditto her Sally Adams (read: Perle Mesta, the hostess with the mostest) in Call Me Madam. Michael John La Chiusa wrote Marie Christine with Audra McDonald in mind and Stephen Schwartz has said that once Kristin Chenoweth was signed for Wicked, he started writing songs that would be right for her.
Famous names all among so many others. But who would have imagined that a musical would be specifically written for Teddy Hart and Jimmy Savo?
Hart (1897-1971) had played “Bell Boy” in his 1920 Broadway debut and “Stink Foot Louie” in his next assignment. At least by the near-end of the ‘30s, he’d had nice roles in Room Service and Three Men on a Horse (which would be musicalized twice; you can hear the second incarnation as Let It Ride!).
But in a total of six Broadway appearances, Hart had never sung a note. So why would anyone write a musical for him?
At least the four Broadway shows that had featured Jimmy Savo (1892-1960) were musicals. None, however, had been big hits. His Hollywood career involved five films, none of which made a big splash, including his debut where he played “Specialty Dancer.”
So who’d specifically write a show for these guys?
Well, in the It’s-Not-What-You-Know-It’s-Who-You-Know Department, Teddy Hart’s brother was Lorenz Hart. By 1937 he’d taken the melodies given him by Richard Rodgers and lyricized them into such hits as “Manhattan,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” “Little Girl Blue” and “My Romance.”
More recently, Rodgers and Hart had had great success with On Your Toes which gave us “It’s Got to Be Love,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and the song that all musical theater enthusiasts sing when they play Monopoly: “There’s a Small Hotel.” Babes in Arms soon followed and yielded “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One Note” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
Evergreens all – not to mention the score for the 1930 London musical Ever Green. (One of its songs, not so incidentally, was called “The Lion King.”)
So, Rodgers and Hart wondered, what would be a good subject for their twentieth Broadway musical (in a mere eighteen years, mind you). On a train ride to Atlantic City, they talked about adapting one of Shakespeare’s plays. But which of the thirty-seven would be best?
Then Hart recalled that his brother Teddy had often complained that he was endlessly mistaken for comedian Jimmy Savo. And because each was diminutive, wouldn’t they be great Dromios in a musical version of The Comedy of Errors?
Yes, that took care of the casting of one pair of identical twins. But what about the other? Could director-bookwriter George Abbott possibly find two leading-men types who could pass for lookalikes?
Abbott got lucky. As Antipholus of Ephesus, he had Ronald Graham who did in fact bear a more-than-striking resemblance to his Antipholus of Syracuse: Eddie Albert – yes, that Eddie Albert who made Eva Gabor’s life miserable for five-and-a-half years on Green Acres.
(Ronald Graham is not to be confused with Ronnie Graham, who wouldn’t be a new face on Broadway for fifteen more years in New Faces of ’52 or a Tony-nominated lyricist for Bravo Giovanni for ten more after that.)
For the modest role of “Tailor’s Apprentice,” Abbott cast a rank beginner named Burl Ives. He’d only make six more Broadway appearances, one of which was significant: Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He got to preserve his role on film, too.
Ives, however, is most remembered as a middle-of-the-road folksinger. And yet, his biggest hit wasn’t folksy at all. Never a December goes by that you won’t hear it: “A Holly Jolly Christmas.”
Abbott, Rodgers and Hart called their musical The Boys from Syracuse, an inside joke that longtime Broadway observers caught: “The Boys from Syracuse” was a nickname given Sam, Lee and J.J. Shubert who hailed from that New York city. (In fact, The Boys from Syracuse is the title of one of their biographies.)
The show would run for 235 performances which in those days was more than respectable. It yielded two ballads that became standards: “Falling in Love with Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.”
Neither Hart nor Savo participated in them; they were only on hand for comic relief. Lorenz Hart certainly knew how to write tender ballads, but seemed to especially relish the concocting of comedy songs. Thus he certainly didn’t shortchange his brother and Savo.
Hart, as Dromio of Ephesus, rebutted as best he could his wife Luce’s complaint of “What Can You Do with a Man?” This was an era when, sad to say, fat-shaming was in style, so the lyricist took advantage by having Dromio note that his wife had “acres and acres of beauty going to waste.” Or did he mean “waist”? Theatergoers’ choice!
Savo, as Dromio of Syracuse, shared “He and She” with Luce in a scene where she mistakenly thought he was her husband. Both give their opinions of a holier-than-thou couple – so much holier, in fact, “that when they died and went to heaven all the angels moved to hell.”
Not so incidentally, Broadway almost saw a musical of Savo’s life. Little World, Hello was his 1947 book about his time in Italy post-retirement. After he died, his wife Nina decided it would make a good musical. She co-wrote the libretto to a score by Dick Manning who’d never written a Broadway show, but did have a Top Twenty hit in 1954 both here and in England with the unwieldy title “Gilley, Gilley, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea.”
You know how in The Producers Max Bialystock says of Springtime for Hitler, “This play is guaranteed to close on page four”? Little World, Hello closed four days before rehearsals were to begin.
As for The Boys from Syracuse, it received no original cast album. In 1938, the concept of replicating the actual sound of a show as heard in the theater wouldn’t start in earnest until the 1940s (although the staff of The Cradle Will Rock did take pains to make a private recording seven months before Boys would open on Broadway.)
When Columbia Records A&R manager Goddard Lieberson and conductor Lehman Engel decided to record musicals that had been produced before the advent of original cast albums, The Boys from Syracuse was one of their select few. Whether or not the two sets of twins looked identical wasn’t an issue on an audio recording. But certainly both Dromios sound alike, because one man was assigned to both roles. He was Stanley Prager, whom we hear on the original cast album of The Pajama Game as Prez and who directed both the aforementioned Bravo Giovanni and Let It Ride!
One man was assigned the Antipholi, too: Jack Cassidy, in between his stints in Wish You Were Here and his Tony-winning job in She Loves Me.
Needless to say, The Boys from Syracuse wasn’t written for Prager and Cassidy, but listening to them perform with such brio, you’d never know that it wasn’t.
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 available at www.amazon.com.