Here’s hoping that you can make it to New York this month and next to see the York Theatre Company’s four “Musicals in Mufti.”
Starting this weekend, Mufti – which does readings of musicals without benefit of costumes – will do Two by Two (February 15-17). It will be followed by Hollywood Pinafore (March 1-3), Happy Hunting (March 15-17) and Silk Stockings (March 22-24).
However, if you can’t make it to the York, you can at least experience three of the musicals through their original cast albums. You’ll only be denied Hollywood Pinafore, for which George S. Kaufman took Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music for H.M.S. Pinafore and wrote new lyrics that commented on then-present-day Tinseltown. There was no original cast album; perhaps we’ll get a recording this time around.
Hollywood Pinafore was one of the most anticipated 1944-1945 Broadway musicals, just as Two by Two was for the 1970-1971 season. Although Richard Rodgers hadn’t had much luck with his previous musical — Do I Hear a Waltz? – most everyone agreed that his music was lovely. Now he’d have Peter Stone, fresh from writing 1776 — the best book in Broadway history — adapting Clifford Odets’ The Flowering Peach; it made Noah (of ark fame) and his brood into a typical Jewish family with a few love-hate relationships.
Martin Charnin, the excellent lyricist, expected to have his first hit with this one, but had to wait seven more years when he made Annie happen. Two by Two disappointed mainly because of star Danny Kaye’s misbehavior. Once he broke his leg, he began fooling with the script and songs.
Luckily, that happened long after the cast album was recorded (a week after opening). “Why Me?” has him wonder why God chose him, of all people; “Ninety Again!” is his joy at God’s changing him from 600 years to a comparatively youthful nonagenarian; the title song has him reveal the ark’s passenger list; “You” proclaims his love to his wife and “Hey, Girlie” are his last words to her before she dies. Finally, “The Covenant” has Noah demand of God a sign that He won’t destroy the earth ever again. He gets a lovely rainbow – the best bow with which to wrap a gift.
Yet the best songs went to newcomer Walter Willison as Noah’s angry young son. “Something, Somewhere” is his plea to God that total destruction shouldn’t have been an option; the bolt-of-lighting ballad “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You” has him coveting his brother Ham’s wife.
But Ham doesn’t want her, anyway. He’s smitten with Goldie, played by newcomer Madeline Kahn. Those who only know Kahn as a comedienne should discover her silver voice in “The Golden Ram,” a Joan Sutherland parody merged with a Rodgers waltz.
Willison received a Tony nomination; Kaye, who might well have expected to win the prize, wasn’t even nominated, possibly as punishment for his on-stage crimes. At Mufti, Noah will be played by Jason Alexander, a Tony-winner for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. There he was the smart emcee, long before his George Costanza days. Interesting, too, that Alexander’s Broadway debut — Merrily We Roll Along – didn’t see him as the perennial loser that Seinfeld did; here, he played Broadway’s best producer who wasn’t impressed by Franklin and Charley’s attempt at songwriting. “There’s not a tune you can hum,” he sang in a most tuneful Sondheim song.
There was a time when Broadway musicals didn’t take now and forever to get mounted. Grace Kelly became engaged to Prince Rainier in May, 1955, and the musical that referenced their wedding – Happy Hunting – was starting its out-of-town tryout seventeen months later in Philadelphia prior to a Dec. 6, 1956 opening at the Majestic.
It starred Ethel Merman, who scorned it as “a jeep among limousines” before adding “the music was by a dentist named Harold Karr,” which was no compliment. But The Merm had a hard time with this show; Karr insulted her early into rehearsals, and co-star Fernando Lamas came to dislike her so much that, after their second-act kiss, he’d take his right arm, put it to his lips and wipe away any residue or remembrance of the buss.
(I once asked his son Lorenzo Lamas about it. “That only happened once,” he insisted, voice rising, with a decisive finger-point. How nice that he dutifully defended his daddy, although the young Lamas wouldn’t be born until fifty-one days after Happy Hunting had closed.)
Klea Blackhurst, who’s long performed a popular Merman tribute show, is ideal casting for Liz Livingstone, the nouveau-riche who comes to Monaco to snag a prince for her daughter Beth. The lass would prefer the commoner she’s been dating – and gets him, as Liz gets the prince.
Superb as Blackhurst will be, we remember that Mrs. Brice in Funny Girl claimed that some “might prefer the original manufacturer.” She can be found on the original cast album, proclaiming “Gee, But It’s Good to Be Here.” Merman seems to mean it throughout the recording, exuberantly remembering her husband in “Mr. Livingstone” and celebrating “This Is What I Call Love.” (It includes trademark Merman in the joyous way she sings, “Now ya’r tokkkk-ing!”) Merman also gets part of the show’s then-hit, “Mutual Admiration Society,” in which mother and daughter express their affection for each other. Needless to say, Merman gives her usual twist to the “u” in “mutual” that you may know from the “u” in “blueberry pie” in “Some People” in Gypsy.
Silk Stockings, which opened on Feb. 24, 1955, ran for more than a year. It was the perfect show for the Cold War era – proving that the Soviet way of life simply isn’t as freeing or as much fun as the American plan. Many had seen that sixteen years earlier when Ninotchka, Silk Stockings’ source, made its film debut.
Cole Porter’s last score for the theater has a plethora of pleasant tunes. “All of You” has talent agent Steve Canfield interested in the “east, west, north and the south” of Ninotchka, the Soviet official who’s come to Paris to reprimand three emissaries who have succumbed to Parisian pleasures.
You know Porter: if he had a chance to write about Paris, he would. Here he decided that “Paris Loves Lovers,” courtesy of future Oscar-winner Don Ameche. To be sure, Steve wants to make Ninotchka his lover, but he’s also out to see that Soviet composer Peter Ilyitch Boroff writes the score for a new movie. It’s to star Janice Dayton, who admits that her contribution to the picture won’t be as valued as “Stereophonic Sound.”
That was one of the many songs in the 1957 film version that saw its lyrics bowdlerized. While the stage show sang about a starlet whose “bosom’s five feet wide,” the film changed the body part to “mouth.” More startling was a lyric that said Ava Gardner’s portraying Lady Godiva would play second fiddle to stereo: “The people wouldn’t pay a cent to see her in the bare” became “The people wouldn’t pay a cent; they wouldn’t even care.” My, the ‘50s were prudish.
The entire set of lyrics was dropped from the title song, although the reason couldn’t be because they were thought ribald. Hear them and everything else on the three cast albums if you can’t get to New York’s Silk Stocking District and travel a few blocks to the York on 54th Street near Lexington Avenue. But if you’re in town, you should wind up happy that you hunted for four tickets so that you and your three friends could sit together two by two.