THERE IS ALWAYS LITTLE ME By Peter Filichia
In a used bookshop in Morristown, New Jersey, I sauntered by the magazine section and gave out with a smile.
Considering that the Life magazine that topped the pile was over 60 years old, it was in remarkable shape. After all, with its fold-over double cover, it had had twice as many opportunities to be crinkled, crumpled and crushed since it hit the streets on November 30, 1962.
It’s the issue that celebrated the much-heralded LITTLE ME at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
But, you ask, why a cover twice the normal size? Bigger hits – MY FAIR LADY, MAME and HELLO, DOLLY! – only rated the standard-issue single cover. How could LITTLE ME, which would achieve only a fraction of their runs, rate two?
For one thing, at the time LITTLE ME looked as if it could rival the runs of those smashes. Of the seven daily critics, two raved and four approved. (“A blockbuster” – Kerr, Herald Tribune. “Inventive, funny, attractive and expertly staged” – Chapman, Daily News.)
True, in those days, the rave you really wanted was from Howard Taubman in the Times. He said that the musical “lacks the glow of enchantment” but did concede that it ”gleams with show-business savvy.”
Fine, you say, but that’s far from “One of the best musicals of the century” that Brooks Atkinson of the Times called My FAIR LADY or “Don’t bother holding onto your hats; you’d only be throwing them in the air anyway” that Kerr said of DOLLY!
Still, it looked as if Feuer and Martin had their seventh hit in eight tries. (Their only misfire was WHOOP-UP, which they’d decided to produce instead of THE MUSIC MAN.) But the real reason that LITTLE ME was awarded a cover twice the usual size can be explained by the magazine’s headline: “7 Sid Caesars in a Wacky Show.”
For that’s how many characters the famed TV comic played in LITTLE ME. The gatefold cover showed them all: Otto Schnitzler, film director; Prince Cherney, a monarch of an indistinguishable country; Val du Val, a French song-and-dance man; Noble Eggleston, the young man who has wealth, culture and social position; Noble Eggleston, Jr., who lost his father’s wealth, culture and social position; Mr. Pinchley, a latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge; and Fred Poitrine, an endearing if incompetent doughboy.
Those who know LITTLE ME from Patrick Dennis’ 1961 novel will recognize that last surname, for the book centers on one Belle Poitrine (French for “beautiful chest”). Dennis, in writing a mock-memoir, was spoofing such Zsa Zsa Gabor-like “stars” who were simply famous for being famous and didn’t have, as Madame Rose says in GYPSY, “what I call talent.”
Neil Simon, who had had only one Broadway hit back then (COME BLOW YOUR HORN, which ran but rarely sold out), had worked with Caesar on his early 1950s’ TV series YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. Even to this day, it can be found on lists of television’s greatest series.
Simon was the one who convinced Feuer and Martin that the focus should be on the men in Belle’s life rather than on clueless her. Belle was one of those people who was stupid enough to assume everyone else is stupid, too. Exhibit A: Dennis’ Belle establishes in Chapter One that she was born in 1900, but she titles Chapter 21 – which takes place in 1960 – “Frankly Forty.” Belle fully and confidently expects that we won’t notice the discrepancy.
Simon wasn’t the only one who made the musical Belle smarter; so did lyricist Carolyn Leigh. In wanting her character to go to “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” she had her Belle yearn to “sit and fan on my fat divan while the butler buttles the tea.” To be frank, that deft wordplay is way beyond the ken of Dennis’ Belle.But give credit to Sheila White, in the 1984 London revival, for delivering the lyric in a distinctively different way. Just before she reached the verb “buttles,” she paused a split-second, made her face express confusion and then, after shrugging, sang the word. What she conveyed was, “I guess there’s a word for when a butler brings you tea; maybe it’s ‘buttles.’”
“On the other side of the tracks” is a distinctly American expression, so when in the first production of LITTLE ME went to London in 1964, Variety reported that the song was now called “At the Very Top of the Hill.” And yet, when the London cast album was released, there was Eileen Gourlay singing “On the Other Side of the Tracks.” What had happened?
I wouldn’t get a definitive answer until a quarter-century later, when I asked Cy Coleman about it while interviewing him for his upcoming CITY OF ANGELS. He said that Leigh had indeed written “At the Very Top of the Hill” but at the last minute decided that the British would catch on to the meaning of the other side of the tracks.
The apotheosis of Leigh’s making her Belle much smarter than Dennis’ came when she was urging Mr. Pinchley to find some niceness “Deep Down Inside” of him. She sang, “No man is a true pariah, deep down inside; no man is a true Uriah Heep down inside.”
The lyric is brilliant beyond belief – but alas, much beyond the ken of Belle, who would not have read David Copperfield, in which Heep is a most unlikable character.
But just as an unhealthy star had short-circuited the run of Coleman and Leigh’s previous musical – Lucille Ball in WILDCAT – so, too, did Caesar. The reason why a musical that should have but didn’t run substantially longer than 257 performances can be found in Caesar’s memoir Where Have I Been? He drank to excess and often wasn’t in total command when he performed. Audiences noticed and went away disappointed.
Luckily, Caesar was in fine shape when he made the cast album, which is an extraordinarily good one when taken on its own terms. Coleman, famous for jazz waltzes, left the jazz behind when writing the delicate “Real Live Girl” in ¾. “I’ve Got Your Number” became a modest pop hit in the era when rock was truly taking over because kids had allowance money to buy records while their parents didn’t because they were saving so they could put their children through college.
By the time you reach “I’ve Got Your Number,” you’ll already be glad that you got the numbers that Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh wrote for little me and you.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.