Before we say goodbye to May, let’s remember Richard Adler, who liked to say, “May is my favorite month.”
Adler wrote six musicals for Broadway, but the two that became household-name hits opened in what were very merry months of May for him.
Even better, they won consecutive Best Musical Tonys. No one – not Rodgers and Hammerstein, not Frank Loesser, not Jerry Herman, not even Stephen Sondheim – can boast of that.
DAMN YANKEES – named after New York’s most famous team – was far from a sure thing. Adler recalled how the esteemed Moss Hart, who’d recently agreed to direct the upcoming MY FAIR LADY, came to New Haven and urged the producers to shutter there and not even brave a Boston tryout.
“He told us that shows about baseball never work and gave us plenty of examples,” Adler said. “We knew that the show was really about an aging man getting a second chance to relive his youth. All adults could relate to that – even non-baseball fans.”
Adler’s partner-in-rhyme-and music was Jerry Ross. Their Broadway debut came through JOHN MURRAY ANDERSON’S ALMANAC, a 1953 revue for which they contributed seven of the show’s twenty-two songs.
At that time, Adler was thirty-three to Ross’ twenty-seven. Little did the latter know when ALMANAC opened that his diseased lung would give him less than two years to live. Indeed, Ross died five months before DAMN YANKEES won that Best Musical Tony – four months before his thirtieth birthday.
Life was never the same after that for Adler, for theirs was a true collaboration. One didn’t write music and the other lyrics; both sat in the same room and threw out verbal and musical phrases, each one improving the other’s suggestion until both were satisfied that they’d written a terrific song.
They wrote plenty of them. Few fifties musicals had three songs that became pop hit standards, but both Adler-and-Ross hits did.
THE PAJAMA GAME offered “Steam Heat,” which Adler had actually written himself when he was young, broke and the resident of an apartment that had a bathroom radiator that made hissing noises; “Hernando’s Hideaway” rode the wave of then-popular Latin-infused songs; and “Hey There,” of which Adler was particularly proud: John Raitt sang into a then-state-of-the-art Dictaphone before playing it back and commenting on what he’d sung, all making for a unique duet.
YANKEES had “Whatever Lola Wants,” which became Gwen Verdon’s signature song; “Two Lost Souls,” when she, the devil’s henchwoman, and baseball superstar Joe Hardy admit that they’ll have to give the Devil his due and go to hell with him; and most famously, “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” the song that the Washington Senators’ manager uses to inspire his team.
YOU GOTTA HAVE HEART became the title of Adler’s memoir. “There’s a lot I didn’t include,” he told me after we became friends in 1994. Admittedly, this happened after I had given a good review to OFF-KEY, the musical for which he’d provided the entire score to a book by Bill C. (MASS APPEAL) Davis. Many a time he’d have me over to his townhouse near the Metropolitan Museum. You’d never know what he did for a living from what was on his walls. There were no window cards of the shows; instead, there were Picassos, Gauguins and (seriously) Zero Mostels.
(Little did I know that when I was growing up and incessantly listening to his musicals that I’d be the one who would break the sad news to him in 2000 that Gwen Verdon had died.)
Most of the time, though, we just had fun, as he told stories that he had omitted from the autobiography. One had him giving Ross credit during rehearsals for DAMN YANKEES, when they both felt that something was missing in Joe’s telling his wife “A Man Doesn’t Know (What He Has until He Loses It).”
“We thought about adding recitative,” Adler said, “but Jerry was smart enough to say to Shannon Bolin, who was playing the wife, ‘What would you say if you were in that situation?’ She told him it’d be something like ‘I know what you mean Joe, only too well, because I’m lonely just like you.’ And Jerry looked at me, grinned and said. ‘That’s it!” And it was. We put it in and it made the number so much more tender.”
Adler loved to give the names that the DAMN YANKEES film was given overseas. “People around the world weren’t necessarily aware of the ‘Bronx Bombers,’” he’d say, putting air-quotation marks around the team’s nickname. “So instead of DAMN YANKEES, it was WHAT LOLA WANTS – not WHATEVER LOLA WANTS, but WHAT LOLA WANTS – in England, Finland, Poland, Argentina and Mexico. In Brazil, they called it SATAN’S PARTNER, and I don’t know what Denmark was thinking when they called it LOLA TOPPLES THE CITY. Only Hungary and Spain weren’t afraid to call it DAMN YANKEES.”
Both this film and THE PAJAMA GAME used virtually all of the original casts. Adler felt bad that Stephen Douglass couldn’t replicate his Joe Hardy for the film. “But Steve was already pushing thirty-five, which in those days was considered very old in baseball,” he said. “And film has close-ups.”
He recalled that Tab Hunter, Douglass’ replacement, wasn’t George Abbott’s choice. Although Abbott had steered the stage show to success, he’d only co-direct with Stanley Donen (as he had on the film of THE PAJAMA GAME).
“But Donen wanted Hunter,” Adler said, making clear that the co-director of the ON THE TOWN and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN films was the real power. “He also wanted Cary Grant for Applegate and for Lola, Mitzi Gaynor. Stanley told me flat-out that he didn’t think Gwen was attractive enough for a man to be seduced by her.”
The soundtrack album retains two of Joe’s songs. Tab Hunter can only be heard in the conclusion of “Goodbye, Old Girl,” after Joe has been transformed, and a bit of “Two Lost Souls.” His brief vocal stint may have surprised attendees, for Hunter was then enjoying an active recording career; his “Young Love” was a Number One hit in both the United States and United Kingdom in 1957, the year before the film debuted.
Adler told me that Hunter and Bolin filmed “Near to You.” “Unfortunately,” he said, “it was shot at a time when the set for another picture was being built nearby, and the technicians couldn’t get rid of the noise. Shannon had already returned to New York, and the studio didn’t want to spend the money to bring her back so they cut the number instead.”
If you get the original cast album, you’ll see the initial artwork in which Verdon was shown in a baseball uniform. When both the show and album weren’t selling well, a redesign was ordered. Verdon was then shown in a bustier bodysuit that became one of those most famous costumes from all ‘50s musicals. Then business boomed.
You don’t fiddle with success, so when RCA Victor released the soundtrack album, it used that same sexy, arms-akimbo picture. But nine years ago, Masterworks Broadway decided to reinstate on the original cast album the baseball photo. I was at Adler’s house shortly after he was sent it, and he was beaming.
It was a day, by the way, in May.