Ben West: Make His Manhattan
Ilona in She Loves Me certainly got a great deal out of her trip to the library. But she has nothing on Ben West.
The 29-year-old wunderkind who started Unsung Musicals Company can often be found in the New York Library of the Performing Arts. It usually happens after he reads about a musical of yore, becomes captivated by it and rushes uptown to learn more about it.
Such research has resulted in West’s mounting what he likes to call “exploratory readings” of 1947’s Barefoot Boy with Cheek, 1950’s Arms and the Girl and 1969’s The Fig Leaves Are Falling – although for the last-named, he did a few revisions (with permission). West also took his scalpel to Platinum and How Now, Dow Jones, to which he gave full productions. For the previously unproduced Gatsby, he simply staged a concert.
So when West heads to the West Side library, he doesn’t know if the trip will result in a reading of the show as originally mounted; a reading of a revisal; a full production of a revival or a full production of a revisal. “All I knew when I went to Lincoln Center last year,” he says, “is that I wanted to know more about Make Mine Manhattan. For one thing, it starred such great names as Sid Caesar, David Burns, Sheila Bond and Danny Daniels. Bert Lahr later took over for Caesar, and Bob Fosse performed in the national tour. For another thing, Steven Suskin had reported good things about it in his Opening Nights on Broadway.”
Indeed, Suskin had reported that out of the seven New York theater critics, five had raved on Jan. 16, 1948. Not just approved, mind you: raved. Make Mine Manhattan then ran 51 weeks on Broadway and racked up 429 performances -- enough to then make the 14th longest-running revue in Broadway history.
“It got good reviews in Philadelphia, butttttt,” West says, drawing out the word so that he can stall until he can find a certain piece of paper in his notes. He smiles when he does – “This is from the Philadelphia Bulletin’s gossip columnist” – and starts reading that Make Mine Manhattan was “undergoing last-minute tightening and sandpapering before braving Broadway. Writer-director George S. Kaufman dropped in last week to give the once-over for the skits in the Forrest SRO hit, for which his sidekick and frequent collaborator Moss Hart anted up 10% of the $165,000 nut. Kaufman reinstated one sketch, an item concerning drama critics. As of Friday night, the revue’s finale has been bolstered with new lyrics.”
One must love the word “sandpapering” used in this context, but one must also wonder how Moss Hart reacted to being called George S. Kaufman’s “sidekick.” It didn’t keep him from helping the show, however; the program proclaimed that “Make Mine Manhattan gratefully thanks Moss Hart for his valued suggestions.”
And yet, you may be pardoned if you’ve never heard of the show. For one thing, Make Mine Manhattan never received an original cast album, because it opened in the year that a strike had prevented a number of shows from getting waxed. Yes, in 1977, Ben Bagley recorded an album called Make Mine Manhattan and Great Revues Revisited, but the long-playing record (as its title implies) only devoted one side of the disc to the show. “That meant we heard only nine of the 15 songs,” says West.
There’s another reason few know of Make Mine Manhattan. It’s a rare musical revue that gets revived on Broadway -- only 10 have in the entire history of The Street – so even an erstwhile big hit can fade away now and forever.
And yet, Make Mine Manhattan was responsible for one of early television’s biggest successes. For on Feb. 25, 1950 – only 58 weeks after Make Mine Manhattan had shuttered on Broadway, Max Liebman, who’d directed its sketches, and Sid Caesar, its breakthrough star, teamed again to do Your Show of Shows. Until 1954, it was must-see Saturday night television to mid-century America.
So maybe, West thought, this could be his next exploratory reading. After all, with 37 in the cast, he couldn’t hope to mount a production that would do justice to the original.
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, once West got into the files, he suddenly saw how a genuine production could be possible – one that would actually mirror the original intentions of lyricist-librettist Arnold B. Horwitt and composer Richard Lewine.
“Although it turned out to be a great big Broadway show,” says West, “the creators had originally envisioned it as a small and intimate musical with only eight characters.”
Want proof? West nods curtly. He opens his copy of the first draft, when Horwitt and Lewine had called their loving send-up of New York City A Nice Place to Visit. West then reads aloud that the authors originally saw “a pocket revue designed for a cast of eight on a small stage, with either two pianos or a small orchestra. The cast should be highly versatile. They sing, play in sketches and dance a few steps now and then, and may step out as one of the revolving narrators. The look is stylish but unpretentious; no curtain is necessary and only occasional but simple furniture and props are needed. Most of the time, these are pushed on or brought on stage by the cast members themselves. The scenes flow from one to the other almost as dissolves and the whole atmosphere is light. The cast members enjoy what they do and show it.”
West shuts the script with a definitive case-closed slam. “It’s a party!” he coos. “And with only eight characters, I found that I could afford to do a full production.” He’ll direct it, too.
What’s more, West has “pretty much” restored the running order that the creators had initially envisioned. He’s also reinserting a song called “Schrafft’s,” which had been dropped, because the candy and lunchroom company it mentioned took umbrage. As a result, the authors rewrote and obfuscated their meaning by creating a song called “Traftz.” Too bad the company brass weren’t smart enough to realize that having its name associated with a Broadway show would be good for business. And while we can’t say that the company no longer exists because of this short-sightedness, we can say that the punishment fit the crime.
West is dropping a parody of Allegro, the Rodgers and Hammerstein show that had opened only three months earlier as one of the most anticipated musicals of all time (for it was following Oklahoma! and Carousel). Because “allegro” is a musical term, the authors chose as the title of their sketch “Once Over Lightly.” While the R&H flop quickly introduced us to a grandmother, mother, father and a junior, “Once Over Lightly” concentrated on a mother-in-law, great aunt and second cousin. “But,” says West, “I doubt that many people today would get the references.”
He’s also excising “The Fountain Pen Sketch,” which was so acclaimed in its time that it was even included in a 1949 film called Always Leave Them Laughing. Understand that the film had nothing to do with Make Mine Manhattan; that the sketch had been so well-received was the reason that Hollywood wanted it.
So if it’s so wonderful, why isn’t West including it? “Well,” he says, “it does require a tank of water more than five feet high.”
Make Mine Manhattan, starring Nicolas Dromard, Nadine Isenegger, Dennis O’Bannion , Greg Reuter, Gabrielle Ruiz, LaQuet Sharnell, Bret Shuford and Kristen J. Smith, plays March 1-17 at the Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street, New York City.
— Peter Filichia