By Peter Filichia
Forty-four years ago this week, Broadway was hit by a hit that changed the course of musical theater.
In the twenty years before the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette, eleven commercial musical revivals had opened on Broadway. In the twenty years following Nanette’s smash critical reception and financial success, seventy-five such revivals were mounted.
Revisals, really, although the term — meaning “a revival in which some of the work has been revised” — had not yet been forged. But a look at Nanette’s original 1925 program shows that five songs that had been written by composer Vincent Youmans and lyricists Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach were dropped for the 1971 version and three were added.
Those actions would be enough to warrant the term “revisal.” But the original book that Harbach and Frank Mandel fashioned also saw changes first made by Charles Gaynor and then by Burt Shevelove.
Gaynor’s name appears nowhere on the marvelous cast album, for he was one of thirty-five people fired, as is detailed in Don Dunn’s amazing 1973 tell-all The Making of No, No, Nanette. Because it weighs in at 350 pages, pro-rated, one person gets fired every ten pages.
The biggest imbroglio occurred between two producers: Harry Rigby, whom Dunn describes as “a near-penniless Broadway gadfly” and Cyma Rubin, wife to Sam Rubin, the Faberge and Revlon magnate.
Rigby conceived of bringing Nanette back to Broadway with Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley, two old pros who had dazzled Hollywood with Dames, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 and, of course, 42nd Street.
Under Berkeley’s direction and choreography, Keeler would play Sue, the well-to-do wife of Jimmy (Hiram Sherman), who is suspected of philandering — although he isn’t. Sue’s friend Lucille (Helen Gallagher) makes certain that the wife isn’t the last to know, but soon suspects her own husband Billy (Bobby Van) of fooling around — although he too isn’t.
And how would a potential break-up of Jimmy and Sue’s marriage affect their ward Nanette (Carole Demas)? Frankly, she’s now more interested in her new beau Tom (Roger Rathburn). Although they’ll have many a lovers’ quarrel before Act Three (yes, three) comes to an end, they and everyone else will reconcile.
Was that enough plot for a 1971 musical? Everyone banked on Keeler and the score to carry the day. The latter did, after all, contain the standards “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy.”
But musical tastes had changed since the ‘20s. Were there enough theatergoers to pay back the $600,000 budget? That was twelve times the cost of the original Nanette – although, as Dunn editorializes, the show had a cast of “only thirty-four.”
“Only?” Since Nanette’s opening, 474 musicals have made do with fewer performers. Today, we’d use “only” to cite ticket costs: $12 on weeknights $15 on weekends. Capacity was $107,000 each week, not including the money made from standing room at $5 a pop.
Of course, back then Equity minimum was $175. Demas would get, Dunn reports, “approximately one-fifth of what was paid Louise Grody (the original Nanette) forty-five years earlier.”
Berkeley was gung-ho at returning to the stage, but Keeler wasn’t keen. To entice her, Rubin and Rigby offered her daughter a chorus role, which the young woman declined. But offers to her son to be the show’s stage manager and to her sister simply to be a moral-support companion resulted in a yes from each.
Alas, when Berkeley arrived at JFK, he got off the plane and immediately fell. Dunn notes that when the legend sat, he “slumped in an armchair like a sack of potatoes.” Some weeks later at a dinner party, Berkeley fainted. So Rubin decreed that a new director and choreographer be found and that Berkeley’s percentage would be halved from 2% to 1%.
Shevelove, best known as the co-librettist of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – but had directed the Tony-winning Hallelujah, Baby! – was hired to stage the show, unaware that he’d soon have to rewrite Gaynor’s rewrite. Keeler criticized Shevelove’s writing, but both agreed on one issue: each wanted more money, and each got it.
Donald Saddler was the new choreographer, although he would pretend to seek Berkeley’s okay after he conceived a number. Berkeley always said yes before dozing off.
When word of these scandals got out, few on the outside expected much from Nanette. Even Dunn had his doubts, for in assessing the upcoming season, he listed the incoming musicals in the order that he saw them most anticipated: 1) Two by Two 2) Ari 3) The Rothschilds 4) Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen 5) Follies.
(Today we marvel at Dunn’s Number Five choice.)
Another skeptic was David Merrick, who could then boast of producing Broadway’s longest-running musical (Hello, Dolly!). In predicting a three-week run, he was off by 101 weeks, as Nanette played 861 performances, running longer than any one of Dunn’s five choices — and, in fact, longer than his Numbers Two, Three and Four lumped together.
But that success was later. En route, one general manager quit, and the one who succeeded him quit, too. Saddler’s assistant was fired. Rubin wanted Gallagher to wear furs, but Gallagher didn’t want to and spent time in group therapy talking about it. Sam Rubin wanted “Tea for Two” cut. No wonder that Keeler told a radio interviewer that “I’m not excited about the show.”
Shevelove grandly and warmly introduced Demas’s mother to the cast less than a day before he fired the actress. Rubin suggested that her own daughter play Nanette, but Shevelove chose Susan Watson, best-known as Bye Bye Birdie’s pre-Ann Margret Kim.
Demas felt terrible, of course, but did get a settlement. She phoned Rathburn for sympathy, and he told her to spend the money on acting lessons.
Watson had nine days to learn seven songs and the “Tea for Two” dance. The first Boston preview was canceled, but when early performances turned out to be triumphant, Dunn infers that Rubin got the idea to make it all her own and dispense with Rigby.
Actually, she may have had that brainstorm earlier, for she had given Rigby a contract that essentially made him a mere employee of her new corporation. In Rigby’s haste to be amenable, he didn’t read carefully, simply signed the contract and assumed all would go well.
He was fired on Christmas Day. Rubin claimed that Rigby said he’d raise half the money but that in actuality he raised “not five cents.” Dunn endorses Rigby. When he first describes Rubin, he puts the word producer in quotation marks. “Cyma,” says Dunn, is a word that means “wave,” and Lord knows that Rubin waved goodbye to plenty of Nanetters.
Frankly, as Sondheim would write sixteen years later, “It takes two.” Rigby couldn’t have done it without Rubin, who couldn’t have done it without Rigby.
Sherman became too ill to continue, so Frank McHugh was hired. He played three performances and then was fired in favor of Jack Gilford. A dancer was canned just as she was boarding the Boston-Toronto flight. Rathburn quit the show, but returned. Meanwhile, Berkeley was given the task of punching the holes in new pages so they could be accommodated in three-ring binders.
And yet, the cast album captures only the triumph and none of the stress. “Tea for Two” has delicious Luther Henderson dance music in a 4:36 cut. “I Want to Be Happy” is almost six minutes in length, extending over three tracks to accommodate 1) the song; 2) Keeler’s solo tapping; 3) the ensemble’s tapping. Gallagher would win a Tony, and all you need do is hear her first number – “Too Many Rings around Rosie” – to understand why.
Bless producer Thomas Z. Shepard for recording a song that had been dropped: “Only a Moment Ago,” a charming nostalgic duet between Keeler and Gilford in which they wonder where all the time went. We didn’t hear it until CD technology allowed for more space on an album. Even those who vowed they’d never replace their LPs with CDs broke down when they heard “Only a Moment Ago” at friends’ houses.
Great as it is, however, it’s not the CD’s most amazing bonus track. That comes near the end, where we hear interviews with various Nanette participants. Bobby Van says “There have been no fights in this whole show of 50 people and nobody’s had any misunderstandings since we started. That’s remarkable.”
And the moon is made of cheese.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-to-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.