UP WITH THE SUN AND MUSICALS, TOO By Peter Filichia
Sometimes we breeze past an “Author’s Note” because we’re so anxious to get to the meat of a book.
Don’t do that with Thomas Mallon’s new 337-page tome.
“UP WITH THE SUN,” he wrote, “is a fictionalized rendering of Dick Kallman’s life and death. It is inspired by actual events that have been considerably altered by the author’s imagination. Some of this novel’s characters never existed at all, and those that have some basis in actual people are not meant to be factual depictions of those persons.”
Kallman had a featured role in the 1951 musical SEVENTEEN; played J. Pierrepont Finch in the 1962 national tour of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING; and, in 1966, succeeded Tommy Steele for the last two weeks of the Broadway run of HALF A SIXPENCE and then toured the country with it.
Those who watched network TV from late 1965 to early 1966 might instead remember Kallman from 26 episodes of HANK, a TV series whose title song sported Johnny Mercer lyrics. That’s where “up with the sun” comes from, for Hank, a lovable rogue, needed to rise bright and early to think up new ways to manipulate, deceive and get ahead.
Mallon’s portrait of Kallman suggests that the actor was typecast. He says that the “magnetic and mischievous” Kallman lied in his Playbill bio about attending a fashionable prep school and that Kallman had had many ups-and-downs between obsequious adventures with Kenneth Nelson, Dolores Gray, Carole Cook, Robert Osborne and Lucille Ball.
In the ‘50s, Ball believed in Kallman enough to bring him and many other young hopefuls to Hollywood; there they’d join a workshop that could result in some TV exposure and perhaps fame and fortune. As Mallon sees or envisions it, Kallman didn’t handle the situation well; it leads to the book’s most startling and unforgettable passage when he visits Ball backstage after her performance in WILDCAT.
Ball sure doesn’t sing “Hey, Look Me Over” to welcome him; instead, she barely looks him over but instead lives up to her musical’s and character’s name by verbally eviscerating him. It’s the most chilling part of the book – and that includes every description of Kallman’s bloody murder.
We should have anticipated Ball’s reaction; earlier in the book, Mallon has her daughter Lucie Arnaz say that her mother believed that “If Dick told you it was sunny out, it was only because he wanted you to go out the door without an umbrella and get drenched.”
Ball’s rebuff occurs on page 131, but by then we’re totally immersed in the story that starts in 1980, returns to the past, and back to the ‘80s through dozens of alternating chapters. Guiding us through this fascinating journey is the fictional Matt Lionnetto, whom Mallon decided to make a pit pianist on SEVENTEEN.
Lionnetto reunited with Kallman in early 1980 and was actually in his apartment not long before the faded semi-star and his new beau Steven were brutally murdered there.
Much of the book deals with finding the killers and bringing them to justice. Those interested in the Broadway of yore will be more riveted during each flashback.
Kallman auditioned for the lead in SEVENTEEN: Willie Baxter, then well-known to Broadway audiences; they’d read Booth Tarkington’s best-selling novel on which the musical was based. It lovingly reminisced about Indiana teenagers at the turn of the century.
Willie and his neighborhood pals were vamped by the arrival of Lola Pratt, an uber-feminine lass who purposely spoke with a lisp in order to sound distinctively endearing. She infuriated the other girls in town who expected that they’d have plenty of boyfriends this summer. They sang, in one of Kim Gannon’ best lyrics, “She’s taken our boys ‘nd she oughta be poisoned!”
But Willie went to Kenneth Nelson; Kallman was chosen to understudy him. It was a thankless job, for in those days, performers didn’t routinely miss performances; Nelson did all 182 as Kallman watched.
Mallon suggests that Kallman’s personality was too strong to play a lovesick minor. According to one of SEVENTEEN’s violinists, “If Lola Pratt refused him, he’d beat her to death with her parasol.”
And yet, Kallman, who also had the smaller part of Joe, won a Theatre World Award while Nelson didn’t. What Kallman really wanted to win, though, was Nelson who (as Mallon tells the story) unceremoniously rebuffed him.
Somerset Maugham once said, “The only love that lasts is love that is never returned.” Yes and no in Kallman’s case. Being spurned led him to spend the ‘50s denigrating the performer as “Half-Nelson” and insisting that the man’s career was “nowhere.”
Look who’s talking. In 1959, Kallman auditioned for TAKE ME ALONG (Bob Merrill’s best score, by the way) but lost the part to Robert Morse. Those who know this adaptation of Eugene O’ Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS! may think that management preferred that Morse play teen Richard Miller because he was younger than Kallman; no, Morse actually was two years older.
Soon after, in May, 1960, Nelson originated the role of “The Boy” in THE FANTASTICKS (at $45 a week). Near the end of the ‘60s, Nelson played a very different kind of “boy”: Michael, the lead in THE BOYS IN THE BAND.
“Did they ever make a cast album of SEVENTEEN?” Steven asks. Indeed they did, soon after the show had opened at the Broadhurst a mere five days after Barbara Cook and FLAHOOLEY had closed there.
Lionnetto says that his favorite SEVENTEEN song was “How Do You Do, Miss Pratt?” and that “The closest the show had to an eleven o’clock number was ‘After All, It’s Spring.’” Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions, but I’d say that SEVENTEEN does have a standout eleven o’clock number: “I Could Get Married Today.”
Here, Willie is surprised to discover that his family’s handyman was 17 – his age – when he first tied the knot. The lad then muses on that if he followed suit, his life would change, to use an expression heard at many a marriage ceremony, for better or for worse.
Kallman had mixed feelings about playing Finch in HOW TO SUCCEED, for he would have rather done it in town than in Chicago. Still, he ultimately was glad he did it, for TV scouts looking for their Hank saw him, and the rest is minor TV history.
Mallon is excellent with theatrical details. You’ll either discover or be reminded that HOW TO SUCEED’s Frank Loesser originally wrote “I Believe in You” for Rosemary and only later gave it to Finch. (In fact, they both got a chance to do it in the film version.)
Dolores Gray appears in the book because she went into the antiques business with Kallman after he’d abandoned show business. Lionnetto describes her by starting to sing “First, you’re another sloe-eyed vamp …”
Mallon reiterates what’s been said for decades: Gray was one tough cookie-cutter. Exhibit A: Gray offhandedly mentions, “I had a bullet in my lung for more than 15 years.” It’s true; she got in the way of a drive-by shooting and took the bullet that was meant for someone else.
(… or maybe not …?)
Carole Cook appears in the ’50s flashbacks. She was Mildred Cook then until mentor Lucille Ball urged her to change it. Cook reappears in the ‘80s section, when she had a featured role in that decade’s first smash-hit: 42ND STREET. You’ll hear her in four songs on the original cast album.
Walter Winchell’s column is often mentioned, which is why Leo in THE PRODUCERS yearned to be in it. Winchell was the inspiration for J.J. Hunsecker in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, this century’s most underrated musical. The 1957 film version saw Barbara Nichols in a small part. She too is mentioned in UP WITH THE SUN, but if you don’t know her, just listen to her do “I Wouldn’t Have Had To” in LET IT RIDE! and you’ll never, ever, ever forget it.
As for HALF A SIXPENCE, Mallon says that “Like the title of one of its numbers, the show was all ‘Flash! Bang! Wallop!’” True, there are energetic songs in David Heneker’s score: “Money to Burn” and “The Party’s on the House.” But there are more subdued if spritely moments in “If the Rain’s Got to Fall” and the title tune.
Ballads includes “She’s Too Far above Me,” which Mallon uses to good advantage. He has Kallman at a party talking to a woman who could be helpful to him; that spurred one of his SIXPENCE cast members to hum the song as an editorial comment.
Mallon’s mixing actual people with fictional ones brings to mind E.L. Doctorow, who made his reputation by doing the same in his 1975 novel RAGTIME. As we all know, that became an esteemed musical, so perhaps the same happy fate awaits UP WITH THE SUN. I’d sure relish the chance to hear “I Could Get Married Today.”
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.