So you think that the first “so-bad-it’s-good” musical was The Rocky Horror Show?
A case can be made for a very different property: Say, Darling.
Truth to tell, Say, Darling was less of a musical than a play with music. We assume that it was a musical because the 1958 show yielded an original cast album. Considering that the recording starts with an overture prior to offering a dozen fully orchestrated songs, we have every right to assume that Say, Darling was a great big Broadway show. But Sid Ramin specifically wrote orchestrations for the recording. In the show, only two pianos were used — all to simulate the sound of a musical in rehearsal.
With such names as Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green on board, cast album fans also naturally assumed that this would be a musical of great quality. That was not the authors’ goal; more to the point, to write good songs was never their assignment. Say, Darling was supposed to be a show about a bad musical that had to make plenty of changes in order to become a good one. Thus, some of the songs are out-and-out spoofs.
The “comedy about a musical” was based on Richard Bissell’s novel Say, Darling — a roman à clef about his adapting his novel 7 1/2 Cents into the 1954 smash hit The Pajama Game with co-librettist and director George Abbott. One of the three producers was first-timer Harold S. Prince, who allowed songwriters Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who’d scored with a couple of pop hits, to write their first full Broadway score.
Bissell, a lifelong Iowan, was pretty wary of Broadway types and was quite the fish out of water — or shall we say “Pike out of the Mississippi,” given that Pike was his middle name and his home town of Dubuque borders the Big River? Truth to tell, Bissell’s book is more than a bissel condescending to the Broadway types who urged him to write The Pajama Game — the only reason that his name remains in front of the public; all his other books have long gone out of print. Still, he changed the names to protect those he deemed guilty. Abbott became Richard Hackett (Jerome Cowan); Prince was Ted Snow (Robert Morse); Adler and Ross were morphed into one entity: Rudy Lorraine (Johnny Desmond), who was once married to Irene Lovelle (Vivian Blaine) – who now wants to be the show’s leading lady. Bissell’s own alter ego was Jack Jordan (David Wayne), author of the best-seller Paddlewheel, and a man who can’t understand the business of Broadway.
You might assume that one Broadway bugaboo that Bissell might attack is nepotism. But he really couldn’t because the third writer credited on the play version of Say, Darling is Marian Bissell — his wife. We could infer that the middle-billed writer was the brains of the operation: no less than Tony-winner Abe (Guys and Dolls) Burrows, fewer than four years away from his How to Succeed Pulitzer Prize. And while Burrows never worked with Abbott or Prince, he certainly knew plenty of directors and producers during his three-decade-plus Broadway career.
Hackett is said to have been born in Nebraska and “has been in the theater forty-four years with over twenty musical shows on Broadway.” While Abbott was born in rural New York, he’d been involved with Broadway for that number of years, starting as an actor in The Misleading Lady in late 1913. As for musicals, his first was The Yeoman of the Guard (as Second Yeoman) in 1915, en route to an association with twenty-three other musicals (and many more plays).
Abbott loved mentoring young people with new approaches, so Hackett’s hiring Rudy fits that template. Rudy, who refers to himself in the third person, was said to more resemble Adler than Ross.
How prescient the Bissells and Burrows were: Rudy is, as are so many songwriters who land on Broadway today, a pop songwriter with no theatrical experience or know-how. But his “Chief of Love” has been Number One for the last four weeks — and never mind that Jack, while driving and listening to it on the radio, found himself getting carsick. Rudy thinks it and everything else he writes is marvelous.
When Say, Darling opened on April 3, 1958, the song that was making its climb to Number One was David Seville’s “Witch Doctor,” which included the immortal lyrics, “”Oo ee oo ah-ah; ting-tang, walla-walla bing bang.” Rudy’s “Chief of Love” isn’t much loftier.
But if Rudy isn’t good, he is fast. When the words “The Husking Bee” are mentioned in passing as a potential locale for the show, Rudy pours out the music and lyrics of an A-B-C-D song as easily as A-B-C. Alas, Jack’s response is “If I’d wanted Uncle Orville to sound that way, I would have written him that way.” (This was a sly reference to one of Broadway’s biggest ‘50s scandals: when the composer of Happy Hunting said something very similar to Ethel Merman.)
Rudy keeps coming up with atrocities, such as “It’s Doom.” As soon as he plays it for the staff, Ted says it’s “Quite interesting” while the more straightforward Hackett asks “What else do you got?”
In fact, “It’s the Second Time You Meet That Matters.” Now Snow is more lavish with his praise: “Very interesting,” he intones.
But if Jack is flummoxed by the songwriting, imagine how he feels when Hackett changes the entire plot of his beloved Paddlewheel. What had been an Ode to Uncle Orville was now becoming “the adventures of a river boat captain at the turn of the century. He is hired by a small traveling carnival to tow their barge down the river. Our handsome captain falls in love with the beautiful young lady from the carnival.” She is Rosie, the title character of The Girl from Indiana.
Actually, what might be easier to believe is that Jordan’s novel was called The Girl from Indiana and the musical version became Paddlewheel! While Broadway had already seen eleven musicals that were called The Girl from … (including Texas, Dixie, Wyoming, Brighton, Brazil, Paris and of course Broadway), the last one had been in 1945: the twelve-performance disaster The Girl from Nantucket. Could it be that the authors purposely chose to mirror the name of a reasonably recent catastrophe to indicate how bad their musical was supposed to be? (By the way, since 1945, there has never been another musical on Broadway called The Girl from …)
The authors were ahead of their time in another way. Morty Krebs (Walter Klavun), one of the show’s main backers, says, “To me a show is like any other product. It’s got to be merchandized. Think of Broadway as a big supermarket … What would make me want to select your show is packaging. Packaging is the heart and soul of merchandizing.”
Hackett and Snow dismiss those ideas out of hand. Today they’d be forced to listen carefully. And long before Joe Josephson in Merrily We Roll Along sang a few bars of “Some Enchanted Evening” – badly — to indicate the quality of a song that should be in a show, Morty had cited that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic as his example of an exemplary tune.
The staff considers cutting the song “Say, Darling” but that is dismissed out of hand because “Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher have already recorded it.” That they were all signed to RCA Victor – the company that would record Say, Darling’s cast album (and its first-ever in stereo) — must have had something to do with their being included in the dialogue.
Actually, if Say, Darling’s cast album had reflected every note of music heard in the actual play, it would have included “I Could Have Danced All Night.” True, that comes from a much different (and much more successful) show, but it appeared a half-dozen times in Say, Darling. Well, at least the first few bars of it does. Suffice to say, when Hackett and Snow are auditioning leading ladies, they find that this is the song of the moment for every female auditionee. Imagine the producer and director’s relief when a young woman comes in and instead starts singing a verse that no one has ever heard. Turns out that she wrote the verse herself — as an unconventional intro to “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
We may see a revival of Say, Darling in the near future. Ben West, the founder of Unsung Musicals (and a splendid director in his own right) recently staged a terrific (albeit cut-down) reading of the play. He hoped that the invited audience might respond enough to convince him to mount a full production.
Many people certainly did and profusely thanked him for letting them realize that Say, Darling’s score was as much of a spoof as any tunestack in Forbidden Broadway. Now, for those who weren’t there either in 1958 or last month, the cast album can let you in on the joke, too.