By Peter Filichia –
So it was 50 years ago last week that Barbra Streisand made her first dynamic splash – when she opened on March 22, 1962 in I Can Get It for You Wholesale.
In Jerome Weidman and Harold Rome’s look at the garment trade in the 1930s, Streisand’s Yetta Tessye Marmelstein was greatly heralded. That was mostly thanks to her show-stopping semi-eponymous song “Miss Marmelstein.” It’s a complaint from a workaday drudge who feels unappreciated both professionally and romantically.
Part of the fun of the song is that many of us can relate to her outlook. That Rome offered amusing lyrics certainly helped. (“Pardon the big words I apply, but I was an English major at CCNY.”) But Streisand’s full-out, unapologetically down-to-earth, let’s-face-the-facts performance put it over. It’s a rare musical theater enthusiast who doesn’t know it — and an even rarer one who doesn’t love it.
But as terrific as performance, melody and lyric are in “Miss Marmelstein,” there are 15 other impressive songs in Rome’s much underrated, Jewish-flavored score. The main reason that Wholesale closed on Dec. 8, 1962 after a disappointing 300 performances was that the show was uncompromisingly bitter.
Its hero is an anti-hero: Harry Bogen, played by Elliot Gould in what was to be his breakout role. Not quite; his success would only come almost a decade later, and in films. It came after he’d been divorced from the woman whom he met in Wholesale: Barbra Streisand.
Harry knows how to succeed in business without really being ethical. To get to the top, Harry will cross everyone on Seventh Avenue and every one of its cross streets. As he sings in his first song, he’s caught on to “The Way Things Are”: “Never let your heart start bleeding, or your conscience reel. You know you’re succeeding when you’re called all kinds of a heel.”
Actually, the lyric was compromised for the recording. On stage, Harry sang that one should never let his “conscience itch,” and that success would only come when “you’re called a son-of-a-bitch.” Record producer Goddard Lieberson wasn’t particularly prudish; he just hoped for radio airplay. (In those days, hearing a cut from an original cast album wasn’t unheard of.)
But Harry does have the usual Achilles heel that many men possess: a woman. But – surprise! – it’s not Ruthie Rivkin, who’s loved him since childhood. It’s his mother, to whom he’s greatly devoted. Although he sings of his ardor in “Momma, Momma, Momma,” it has a pulsating melody that shows Harry is no momma’s boy. Besides, only seconds afterwards, he’s romancing showgirl Martha Mills as both sing about what turns them on: “The Sound of Money.” (As good as the song is, the dance music – by Peter Howard, who was one of the best in the business – is even better.)
Harry does have affection for Ruthie, albeit not as much as she wants. They do have fun talking about astrology; Rome gives them some nice wordplay — “Did the planets plan it?” – in a charming song called “When Gemini Meets Capricorn.” (Note that the two pronounce that Sign of the Twins as “Gem-in-ee,” and not, as we say, “Gem-in-eye.” Back in the 1930s in the Bronx, however, the “ee” pronunciation was the one routinely used.)
But Mrs. Bogen, played by comeback star Lillian Roth, sings to Ruthie not to give her heart away “Too Soon.” (If we’re going to be really technical, what she actually sings is “Too soon, don’t give your heart away,” in that inverse way that Jews were known to speak in the 1930s.)
What makes this song extraordinary is that it comes from a mother who very much likes this young woman and would be proud to have her as a daughter-in-law. Still, she tells Ruthie not to get involved with the son, as much as she loves him, too. The reason is not that Mrs. Bogen knows that her son is a skunk – not yet – but because she has genuine affection for Ruthie and wants the best for her. Mrs. Bogen knows what many of us have later learned: you can’t make someone love you.
When Mrs. Bogen does discover that Harry has illegally engineered his way to the top – and has been able to shift the blame to others – she sings a song that all budding musical theater writers should investigate: “Eat a Little Something.” Here she does what mothers do – feeds her child – but to a slow melody that shows how disappointed she is with him, and that she’s offering him food mostly to avoid talking about his horrible way of life.
The expression that professional songwriters use to describe obvious writing is “on the nose.” Rome was guilty of this in his previous show, Destry Rides Again, when he wrote “I Hate Him.” That comes right down to brass tacks, doesn’t it? And in case you missed the point from the title, the song starts with Dolores Gray singing “I Hate Him” literally ten times in a row. “Eat a Little Something” is hardly “on the nose,” but instead is a punch in the stomach.
But Rome also offers nicer songs for other family situations. One is even called “Family Way,” in which all of Harry’s partners and their wives meet his mother and Ruthie. “A Gift Today” is a lovely waltz for a post-Bar Mitzvah party. “Have I Told You Lately?” is an endearing soft-shoe for one of Harry’s partners and his wife.
Lest it all sound like peaches and cream, Rome provides harder-hitting songs for the business world. “Ballad of the Garment Trade” may be misnamed – it’s actually a march – but it does capture the excitement and nervous energy of people trying to put on a fashion show. Teddy, one of Harry’s associates (played by Broadway favorite Harold Lang), blatantly moves in on Martha in “What’s In It for Me?” A bigger question is asked at the end of the show when Harry’s company goes bust: “What Are They Doing to Us Now?”
That last one is a demented waltz headed by Streisand. She has ample opportunity to vocalize, and does so splendidly. Streisand also has the honor of singing the first lyrics in the entire show: “He’s not a well man,” referring to Harry’s then boss, Mr. Pulvermacher. “His aches have got aches; his pains are in pain,” she sings. Yes, but Harry will give him more of both as time goes on.
Many assume that Streisand must have won a Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. No; Phyllis Newman did for Subways Are for Sleeping. Streisand was nominated, however, getting the only nod the show managed from the Tony committee.
Someone else in the cast would win a Tony, although it would happen a long nineteen years later, and after many career ups-and-downs: Marilyn Cooper, who won for playing a hausfrau in curlers in Woman of the Year. She was on stage for fewer than ten minutes, but made an impact with the memorable “The Grass Is Always Greener” with Lauren Bacall.
In Wholesale, Cooper played Ruthie. Her best song stressed that she was a nice Jewish girl who was out to better herself culturally as well as romantically in “Who Knows?”
And who knows what would have happened to both Streisand and Cooper if director Arthur Laurents had followed through on his impulse to have Streisand play Ruthie and Cooper portray Miss Marmelstein? The next time you listen to the disc, try switching their voices on each of their songs. But even if you don’t, you’ll find much to admire here. I Can Get It for You Wholesale shines in every detail like a ring you’re buying retail.