ART IMITATES LIFE
Nice to see that Peter Gallagher has returned to ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY after missing a peck of performances. I was getting a little worried there that he was going to take his leave. More to the point, I was wondering if the last time he sang “The Legacy” -- Oscar Jaffee’s farewell to the theater – whether or not he was actually saying goodbye to the show.
If that had been the case – and I’m certainly glad it’s not – Gallagher wouldn’t be the first to have the experience of singing a song whose lyric has an inadvertently ironic – even cruel -- double meaning. In JUNO, when Mrs. Madigan (Jean Stapelton), Mrs. Brady (Nancy Andrews), Mrs. Coyne (Sada Thompson) and Miss Quinn (Beulah Garrick) commiserated with each other, singing “You Poor Thing,” they undoubtedly meant it on March 21, 1959 – when they closed the show.
At least Thompson went on to stardom as a Tony-winner for TWIGS and Stapleton eventually became a household name via ALL IN THE FAMILY. But that closing night, they didn’t know that such success was in their future; they might well have assumed that they would be “poor things” for quite some time.
Mary Martin had already experienced stardom and household-name status when she decided to headline JENNIE, which she opened in 1963 but couldn’t keep alive to 1964. On Dec. 28, 1963 when George Wallace, her leading man sang “See Seattle,” he proclaimed it a place where “We’ll be in the black and out of the red.”
Was Martin thinking on that night that she should have taken JENNIE to Seattle? On Broadway, the only black the musical experienced was many a black eye from critics, who caused the show to be in the red for $550,000.
Layer that season, Carol Burnett was doing sellout business in FADE OUT-FADE IN at the Hellinger. The week of June 7 saw the show break MY FAIR LADY’S house record (granted, because of higher ticket prices): $83,958. That record lasted a mere week, for June 14’s week brought in $83,969. Only two weeks had to pass before that one was broken by a $84,876 gross.
Alas, Burnett started missing performances because of “an abdominal ailment.” Then she said she needed “minor surgery” and would be out for a week. The producers went looking for a name replacement and settled for Betty Hutton, who hadn’t done a Broadway musical since 1940.
FADE OUT-FADE IN was probably the first good offer Hutton had had in a while. By 1964, she hadn’t made a film in seven years and her 1959 TV series had folded after a season.
So Hutton came in -- and grossed $29,039.
As bad as Hutton must have suffered in seeing dozens of rows of empty seats, she must have felt even worse while singing the show’s terrific eleven o’clock number that was a take-off on Shirley Temple’s saccharine cheer-up songs. “When you think you’ve hit the bottom, and you’re feelin’ really low, you mustn’t be discouraged; there’s always one step further down you can go.”
How Hutton must have agonized when singing those lines, feeling that she’d taken one step further down the ladder that led to show-biz hell.
And how did Bill Hayes feel on the 358th and final performance of the disappointing ME AND JULIET – the Rodgers and Hammerstein flop that once had high expectations, given that the team’s two previous shows had been SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I. Hayes had to sing “The Big Black Giant” which included the line “For an actor in a flop, there isn’t any choice but to look for another show.”
So after the April 3, 1954 closing, the cast of sixty (!) indeed went looking for other shows. Fourteen made it to one more Broadway outing, but twenty-three -- more than 38% -- never again found work on a Broadway stage. Granted, Isabel Bigley who’d already won a Tony as Sarah Brown in GUYS & DOLLS, made a choice to retire; she married the president of MCA and had six children by him. But Hayes was one of the sad twenty-three.
At least when Milton Watson, playing Frank Butler in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN sang “The closing, when the customers won’t come” on the show’s final night on Feb. 12, 1949, the musical was giving its 1,147th performance, enough to then make it the second-longest-running book musical in Broadway history. So the cast had to have the wistful feeling of “All good things must come to an end” rather than the glum frustration and humiliation of failure.
Nevertheless, these ironies occur in hits, too. At the August 9, 1975 performance of Chicago, the audience was having such a good time enjoying Liza Minnelli play Roxie Hart. From her “I gotta pee” to her solidly hitting that note in “He LOVES me so” to her playing Billy Flynn’s dummy to her informing us that “screwing around was foolin’ around without dinner,” Minnelli gave what I still believe was the best performance I ever saw an actress give in a musical – especially because this was only her second performance in her pinch-hitting stint for Gwen Verdon.
Laughs abounded throughout the performance until Minnelli delivered one line that caused many in the house to gasp and others to fall suddenly silent – when Roxie said that she “didn’t get enough love in her childhood – and that’s show business.”
Few if any had genuine first-hand knowledge on whether or not this applied to Minnelli herself. But the sound in the house indicated that they believed Minnelli -- given her mother, not-always-around father and step-father -- might well have shared Roxie’s experience.
Let’s go to the movies. I remember a person sitting near me at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts letting out with an “Ohhhhhhh!” during the film version of BELLS ARE RINGING. It happened soon after we’d met Jeffrey Moss, played by Dean Martin. Moss was a playwright who’d recently separated from his writing partner and was having trouble getting started on a solo project. After he gamely sang “Do It Yourself,” he lost his confidence and said “What’s the use? I’ll never make it on my own.”
No wonder the audience member moaned. Only four years earlier, Martin had split from Jerry Lewis, his partner of ten wildly successful years. When that happened in 1956, many predicted that Martin indeed would never make it on his own. Lewis was the more beloved by audiences, many of whom branded him a comic genius. Martin, people reasoned, was a straight man who could be replaced by anyone.
(Not necessarily. Do you know that the standard contract for comedy teams gives 60% to the straight man and 40% to the comic?
Surprising, isn’t it?)
Considering that this was Martin’s twenty-fourth film and that he’d already established a terrible reputation for being difficult on the set, I’m surprised that he even agreed to say the line. So was that Regent Theatre attendee.
Speaking of moaning, Mary Tyler Moore must have groaned a bit when she attended the premiere of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, in which she played Miss Dorothy. When she was filming in late 1965 and early 1966, the line “The world of the stage doesn’t seem to want me” didn’t have the impact it would have when the film debuted on March 21, 1967 – fewer than fourteen weeks after Moore had learned that the stage didn’t want her, not after her lackluster performance as Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Out of town in Philadelphia and Boston, the musical was even called HOLLY GOLIGHTLY in her honor. Did the title change ever strike Moore as an oblique demotion?
Both of Stephen Sondheim’s biggest Broadway failures carried with them dialogue that inadvertently commented on how thing were going.
We must wonder what was going through Harry Guardino’s head during the ninth and final performance of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE when he sang “Everybody Says Don’t” and got to the lyric “And if you fail, you fail!” – knowing full well that the show had.
For that matter, what did he and Lee Remick think when, in the midst of singing “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” they reached the lyric “We had a moment.” The entire ANYONE CAN WHISTLE experience might well have seemed like a mere moment to both of them.
The previous week, when Guardino and Remick sang that they’d had “a marvelous moment,” critics Taubman, Kerr and Watts did not agree. Critics Chapman, Nadel and McClain did, but they weren’t the most influential aisle-sitters, so the show posted its closing notice.
Seventeen-and-a-half years later, Sondheim’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG started its second act with producer Joe Josephson (the just-starting-out Jason Alexander) in the lobby of the Alvin as his new production MUSICAL HUSBANDS was playing inside. “It’s FUNNY GIRL, FIDDLER and DOLLY combined,” he sang joyously in “It’s a Hit!” After the song ended, he proclaimed that he was “going back in to see the closing” – meaning the last few minutes of the show – but after he realized how that sounded, he looked to heaven and made clear “I didn’t mean the closing!”
On Nov. 28, 1981 -- MERRILY’s closing night after a mere sixteen performances -- you might assume that the audience en masse gave a verbal wince of pain. No: many in the sold-out house knew the line was coming, for they were MERRILY mavens who had already seen the show countless times. Because they were prepared, the sound they gave the line was somewhat wistful. It even got some “That’s-life” chuckles.
And yet, there was strength in that sound, too, as the audience admired the courage of Alexander, now only an hour away from unemployment, for being able to say the line without a trace of all-knowing subtext.
There was also a tinge of confidence in the audience’s reaction, too. Many attendees had a strong feeling that both Alexander and MERRILY were headed for better times. Indeed they were.
Let’s hope that Peter Gallagher is, too.
— Peter Filichia