“WISH YOU WERE HERE”: I’M STILL HERE! By Peter Filichia
Although I greatly admired Sanaz Toosi’s WISH YOU WERE HERE at Playwrights Horizons, I couldn’t help thinking of the 1952 musical with the same title.
How it got its name is a fun story. The musical with a vivid Harold J. Rome score was based on the second-longest running play of the 1937-1938 season: “HAVING WONDERFUL TIME.”
That was the go-to phrase that happy vacationers would write on postcards to their friends and relatives. In fact, because the play quoted the phrase, its title was buttressed by quotation marks.
The line with which they usually followed it was “Wish you were here.” Thus came the decision to use that as the play’s successor.
This time the quotation marks were instead two musical notes joined together at the top by what musicians call a beam: ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫.
“HAVING WONDERFUL TIME” was set in upstate New York, where, from the early 1900s to the late 1960s, many from Manhattan and other boroughs would avoid the scorching summer heat by traveling 130 miles upstate to such resort hotels as The Concord or Grossinger’s.
Teddy Stern – she/her – wants to get away from her job, her family and Emil, the cocksure man that her parents (but not she) want her to marry. Once she arrives at Camp Karefree, it’s hate at first sight with Chick, the law student who’s waiting tables to pay next year’s tuition. By the end of the show, of course, the hate has morphed to love.
Seventy years ago this week at the Imperial, ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫ started the first of its 26 previews. That doesn’t sound like so many now, but more than two dozen was most atypical back then. Virtually all shows had out-of-town tryouts, came to Broadway and played a preview or two; rarely were there any additional ones.
However, ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫ didn’t go to Philly, Boston or Baltimo’. It opened cold in the hot weather of summer, for long before a falling chandelier, a rising helicopter and a floating mansion dotted the Broadway landscape, ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫ offered a genuine swimming pool.
Truth to tell, a 1941 flop called VIVA O’BRIEN had made a splash with its pool 11 years earlier, but fewer than two dozen audiences would witness it; ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫ would, all told, entertain 624 crowds. When it closed in late 1953, it was one of the 20 longest-running musicals of all time.
After its Broadway run, it made its way to summer stock tents. You might assume that such venues eliminated the swimming pool, but not on your lifeguard. Far more often than not, what usually served as the orchestra pit was flooded, and the musicians were placed elsewhere in the house.
But the score’s the thing, and Rome – whose PINS AND NEEDLES was the biggest hit of that same season when “HAVING WONDERFUL TIME” debuted – came up with a fun-packed score.
Considering that Teddy in “HAVING WONDERFUL TIME” had already brushed off Emil, you might assume that her first song “Goodbye Love” would center on that. No: Teddy in the musical was now engaged to the renamed Herman but wasn’t so sure she’d done the right thing in promising to marry him. So maybe she’d use her two weeks to do some shopping around.
Yet, the song “Shopping Around” went to Teddy’s good friend Fay, who has also come to Camp Kare-Free (yes, the musical added the hyphen) to see how much fun she could have assessing the men on the premises.
Fay was played by Sheila Bond, a name you may not recognize, but the Tony voters that year did; she won the Best Featured Actress in a Musical prize in a season where it could have just as easily gone to Edie Adams, who was portraying Ruth Sherwood’s sister Eileen in WONDERFUL TOWN.
Oh, well; Adams did win it for LI’L ABNER four years later, proving that she wasn’t past her prime.
Patricia Marand who later played Lois Lane – not in KISS ME, KATE but in “IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S SUPERMAN” – must have been exactly the Teddy that fussy director Joshua Logan wanted; she got the role after he had fired not merely one but two other women to whom he’d previously given the part.
Actually, Marand was also a replacement in SUPERMAN. One must wonder if top-billed Jack Cassidy recommended her after the first Lois was found wanting, for he was Marand’s leading man in ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE ♫.
As for “Goodbye Love,” it didn’t stay in the show very long; Logan replaced it after the show had received poor reviews. It was only one of the many changes that he made that turned the flop into a surprise hit. By the time ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫ became a summer-hot ticket, however, “Goodbye Love” had already been recorded. Those who enjoy pre-rock ‘50s music will be glad it was, for it will bring a smile to their faces.
In the musical, Teddy and Chick aren’t the adversaries that they were in the play. Here they’re attracted to each other, but each has an obstacle. Chick can’t get saddled with marital responsibilities when law school has its own many demands; Teddy must remember that she’s engaged, although both of them conveniently put that out of their minds as they dance and the band plays “Wish You Were Here.”
Back then, a crooner named Eddie Fisher was the Flavor of Quite a Few Months – nay, Years. His recording of the musical’s title song received much credit for immeasurably helping the show. Many have claimed, however, that his millions of teenage female fans pushed it to a Number One gold record not so much for the song, but for the four-color picture sleeve (RCA Victor’s first) of handsome him that they could paste on their bedroom walls.
♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫ also had in its cast someone vital to such resorts: a tummler. As the dictionary informs us, he was “a professional entertainer or comedian who encouraged an audience and guests to participate in the entertainments or activities.”
So, Rome wrote “Ballad of a Social Director” in which his tummler (fancifully named Itchy) stated that his occupation demanded him to be a combination of 25 people. They included “Emily Post, Sigmund Freud, Superman, William Boyd, Moss Hart, Danny Kaye, Sir Laurence Olivier …”
Kaye and Olivier were rumored to be clandestine lovers. Did Rome want to show that he was in on the joke by listing them next to each other?
Wish we were there during the writing of ♫WISH YOU WERE HERE♫ to know for sure.
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 can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.