TEN AT THE LUNT-FONTANNE By Peter Filichia
I’d planned this week to be at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin.
(You know why I had to cancel my trip.)
Never heard of the place? It’s where famed acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne called home. They were fond of fireplaces, and had no fewer than ten of them. And just as “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, where there are fireplaces, there are chimneys. Hence their affectionate name for their manse: Ten Chimneys.
Seventeen years ago, Ten Chimneys was named a National Historic Landmark – fitting for a place that housed two stars who themselves became national historic landmarks, for they were devoted to national tours and made history in many cities.
You may not have ever seen them, for Lunt did all of seven films and Fontanne did merely four. In contrast, each did a dozen shows without the other and twenty-six together.
Their final Broadway appearance was in 1958 in THE VISIT. The theater built as The Globe in 1910 – but which had been a cinema since 1931 — returned to live theater with them. Best of all, the theater was ceremoniously named for them.
This week, in honor of both that theater and Ten Chimneys, let’s cite ten musicals that once played The Lunt-Fontanne. We’ll limit it to scores you may not have heard. (That eliminates THE SOUND OF MUSIC, doesn’t it?)
GOLDILOCKS (1958): Many think of Elaine Stritch as the acerbic observer who snarls out “Does anyone still wear … a hat?” and “I’ll drink to that!” You’ll certainly hear that attitude here when she castigates her employer for not being as tough as she. (“Where is the beast in you?” she demands.) However, you’ll also discover that Stritch had a soft and vulnerable side when she sings one of the quietest and loveliest eleven o’clock numbers: “I Never Know When (to Say When).” Give the little lady a great big hand!
That, by the way, is a lyric from Stritch’s snazzy opening number, with jaunty music from Leroy Anderson and lyrics by Joan Ford, Jean Kerr and – yes – Walter Kerr. (Let’s have a GOLDILOCKS revival at The Walter Kerr!)
LITTLE ME (1962-63): One of the funniest musicals ever – no surprise given that Neil Simon wrote the book. But lyricist Carolyn Leigh was equally hilarious when penning words to Cy Coleman’s snazzy music.
One example of many: Belle Poitrine (!) describes her memoir: “Stack me up with all three Gabors,” she sings, citing the questionably talented Eva (five marriages), Magda (six) and Zsa Zsa (nine). Then Belle adds “I’ll reduce ‘em to cut-rate – ”
And just when you think that she’s going to use the vulgarism for “prostitute” … she sings “stores.”
Four of the seven critics raved over LITTLE ME; the aforementioned Walter Kerr called it “a blockbuster.” It would have been, too, if star Sid Caesar hadn’t been fighting as many demons as the Gabors had had husbands. His performance deteriorated as the run continued, but luckily cast albums in those days were recorded on the Sunday after opening.
BAJOUR (1965): Yes, it began at the Shubert, but segued to The Lunt-Fontanne. Nancy Dussault’s opening song – one of the weirdest in the history of Broadway – has made many disrespect Walter Marks’ music and lyrics. No, stay with it and find plenty of bright tunes and ideas. That Marks wrote a plot-advancing song out of a word-association test is proof. And what an eleven o’clocker is “Honest Man,” written during the Philadelphia tryout.
HOW NOW, DOW JONES (1967-68): Elmer Bernstein, who wrote THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s butch theme (which was even used for a Marlboro cigarette commercial) composed a delicate waltz in “Walk Away.” Carolyn Leigh’s lyrics match in sensitivity before moving onto to droll comedy songs “Shakespeare Lied” and “He’s Here.”
THE ROTHSCHILDS (1970-72): A majestic overture introduces a great Bock and Harnick score. Listen and be impressed that both the clever “He Tossed a Coin” and the stirring “In My Own Lifetime” were written during the tryout.
RAISIN (1975): Yes, this Tony-winning Best Musical of A RAISIN IN THE SUN opened at The Winter Garden, but it played almost as many of its 847 performances at The Lunt-Fontanne. Ralph Carter is best remembered from the 1974-79 TV series GOOD TIMES in which he appeared in all 133 episodes. Catch the end credits of the early episodes and you’ll see that RAISIN is credited for releasing Carter from his contract so he could go Hollywood. Before he left, though, he was Travis Younger, singing a soulful rendition of “Sidewalk Tree.”
MY FAIR LADY (1976-77): Few Tony-winners who played supporting roles did so well that the nominators felt compelled to put them in the Leading Actor category. One is George Rose in the first revival of Lerner and Loewe’s classic, for his Alfred P. Doolittle. True, he had more than a little bit of luck – after all, A CHORUS LINE, which won most everything that season, didn’t really have a leading man – but Rose had the charm that made audiences love this lovable rogue.
Playing Henry Higgins (and losing to Rose) was a reasonably unknown actor who acquired his fame fourteen years later: Ian Richardson by playing Francis Urquhart in HOUSE OF CARDS. His incessant statement “You might well think that … I couldn’t possibly comment” became a catchphrase throughout the nineties.
As Eliza, Christine Andreas does splendidly. A great story from her grammar school days: a nun noticed early on her pupil’s extraordinary voice. She called Andreas’ mother and said in a most castigating voice (even for a nun) “If you don’t let your daughter sing for a living, you’ll go to hell.”
(Apparently Mrs. Andreas is now in heaven.)
TITANIC (1997-99) – The Best Musical Drama Desk Award winner is usually the same one that the Tonys anoint a week later. But in 1997, after THE LIFE won that prize from the Deskers, TITANIC took the Tony. Maury Yeston won for Best Score, too — his second full set of music and lyrics to achieve that honor (NINE was his first). In between, Yeston added songs to GRAND HOTEL that proved beneficial to that show’s 1,000-plus performance run.
The great excitement and optimism of everyone singing “I Must Get on That Ship” cannot, of course, hold as The HMS Titanic meets its destiny. Yeston’s journey from musical stem to stern was, to say the least, far more successful.
A CHRISTMAS STORY (2012) – Justin Paul and Benj Pasek are more famous now for DEAR EVAN HANSEN, but this early work shows the range these two Tony-winners possess. Here they splendidly replicate the sounds of the Middle-America in the ‘40s. “Ralphie to the Rescue” has our little hero show what he’d do with his Red Ryder carbine action BB gun if he were so blessed to get one for Christmas: NO, he wouldn’t be violent and terrorize, but if his teacher or brother were being victimized, he’d be there to save the day.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2017-18) – And just as Ralphie wants to protect people, the young hero of this musical sings in “A Letter from Charlie Bucket” that he wants to find a Golden Ticket not for himself, but for his mother and grandparents so that they can have an easier time of it. If you only have the London cast album of this Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score, you don’t have this song; it was added for Broadway, and many are glad it was.
And while we’re discussing musicals, let’s mention KISS ME, KATE, for Lunt and Fontanne were obliquely responsible for that Cole Porter classic.
In 1935, they were in a revival of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, where young production associate Arnold Subber noticed that as much as Petruchio and Katharina fought on stage, so did Lunt and Fontanne before the show, at intermission and after it, too.
A decade or so later, after he’d canonized himself as Saint Subber, he was looking to commission a musical that mirrored what he’d seen at that SHREW. That’s how KISS ME, KATE was born. Wouldn’t it be nice if the next revival winds up at The Lunt-Fontanne?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.