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July 10, 2015

Something Wonderful vs. Something Rotten!

So I see that SOMETHING ROTTEN! – the marvelous musical at the St. James – is still advertising itself as “Loser! Best Musical! 2015 Tony Award!”

The ad goes on to say “We’re in great company,” citing ten other shows (from WEST SIDE STORY to ALADDIN), none of which heard its name called when the ultimate prize at the Antoinette Perry Awards was announced.

While the ad has reminded some of the full-page spread in the Herald Tribune that David Merrick engineered for SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING -- he found seven men with the names of the seven New York newspaper critics and had them write raves for his newest also-ran -- I’m more reminded of an ad taken out by LIVIN’ THE LIFE.

Don’t know it? It was the musical version of TOM SAWYER that opened at the Phoenix Theatre on Second Avenue on April 27, 1957. Six days later, Friday, May 3, management took out a quarter-page ad in the Times that quoted:

1--“Conventional.” -- New York Herald Tribune

2--“Most of the dancing lacks the earthiness of Mark Twain.” – New York Times

3--“The authors have been looking at their source material through a pair of stove-lids.” – New York Daily News

4--“Casting Timmy Everett in the part of Tom doesn’t strike me as being a happy notion.” -- New York Daily News

5--“Mock battle is not only arch and irrelevant but fuzzily executed.” -- New York Herald Tribune

6--“A macabre minstrel interlude.” – The New York Mirror

7--“Comes to a dead stop with monotonous regularity.” – The New York Daily News

8--“I certainly wish that Alice Ghostley never tackled the role of Aunt Polly.” – The New York World Telegram & Sun

9--“The rumor that Mark Twain’s Mississippi stories had been turned into a musical comedy was exaggerated.” – The New York Herald Tribune

Were they masochists? No – co-producers T. Edward Hambelton and Norris Houghton wanted to make a point about the various tastes of critics. At the top of their ad they offered a Twain quotation: “It were not best we should all think alike. It is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”

And so Hambleton and Houghton went to the races with this ad, which offered nine enthusiastic rebuttals to the nine knocks cited above: Read them in context of the above-numbered entries.

1--“Off-beat.” -- New York Daily Mirror

2--“Extraordinary choreography and musical numbers.” – Associated Press

3--“The authors have made a clever musical romp out of folklore.” – New York Times

4--“Excellent casting, principally in the selection of Timmy Everett as Tom Sawyer.” -- Variety

5--“When the spry and agile youngsters are staging mock battles, the become infectiously joyous.” – Women’s Wear Daily

6--“A minstrel show number that is gay and invigorating.” – The New York Post

7--“All action-packed and amusing.” – The New York Daily Mirror

8--“Alice Ghostley, who can sing and act, is well-cast as the spinster Polly.” – The New York Daily Mirror

9--“Adaptation is spirited and colorful … the production ranks as one of the best original productions presented at the Phoenix thus far.” – Variety.

These 18 squibs were followed by “We were amused – and thought you might be, too – by the startling contradiction among New York critics on aspects of LIVIN’ THE LIFE. We think the show is a lot of fun, a treat for the eye and ear. We know that those younger in spirit than some of its detractors will enjoy it. Audiences who have seen the show before and after its opening have proved this to us.”

A not-so-veiled ageist knock might not have been the best way to go. The Phoenix was a theater that usually did classics – the season had already offered SAINT JOAN, THE DIARY OF A SCOUNDREL, THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, MEASURE FOR MEASURE and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW – the type of fare that appealed to middle-aged theatergoers and older. I’ll bet a goodly number of their subscribers had been born in the previous century.

The classics named above were all limited engagements, but LIVIN’ THE LIFE was placed last in the hopes that it would have the success that the Phoenix had experienced with THE GOLDEN APPLE. (An aside: have you heard the new two-disc set? Amazing!). Three years earlier, the Jerome Moross-John Latouche masterpiece had played a limited engagement of 48 performances at the Phoenix, but producers then took it uptown to the Alvin where it played an additional 124.

But that adaptation of Greek myths was a reasonably arcane show for Broadway; a TOM SAWYER musical would seem to be nicely commercial.

No. LIVIN’ THE LIFE stopped livin’ after 25 performances.

I wanted to know more, but bookwriter-lyricist Bruce Geller and show doctor Dale Wasserman – who asked for and got first-billing credit on the book – are both gone now. Wasserman lived to 94 and saw his MAN OF LA MANCHA become a classic, and while Geller knew great success, too – he conceived the TV series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – he was in 1978 tragically killed in a plane crash at the mere age of 47.
So of the collaborators, the only one left is Jack Urbont, whose music for ALL IN LOVE I greatly admire. I contacted him, and he pointed out that musical director Anton Coppola, although a nonagenarian, was still around, too. (He’s also Francis Ford’s uncle. We met at Urbont’s apartment to discuss LIVIN’ THE LIFE.

“NBC agreed to do it,” said Urbont, citing a time when prime-time TV routinely programmed musicals, be they original or from Broadway. “They were going to give Bruce and me $5,000 each, so I left the meeting and went right out and bought $3,000 of stereo equipment. Then the next week, before we’d signed any contracts, NBC learned that CBS had already bought an original TOM SAWYER musical (which in fact aired on Nov, 21, 1956). So they canceled ours and suddenly I was $3,000 in debt.”

Both had little good to say about director David Alexander, who, after leading PAL JOEY to the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history, had two quick flops with HAZEL FLAGG and THE VAMP.

“He said Bruce’s book was episodic, and he wanted Dale to come in,” says Urbont. “Dale just made it plodding and took out all of Bruce’s youthful charm.”

“Alexander didn’t add anything to the show,” added Coppola.

“Our choreographer John Butler hired phenomenal dancers,” Urbont added. “Lee Becker and Kevin Carlisle became choreographers themselves and I don’t have to tell you what happened to Edward Villella.”

“But John just didn’t know what to do with them,” said Coppola. ”He had a lot of dancing even at moments that didn’t call for dancing.”

Talking to old pros about old shows inevitably leads to talk of others.
Coppola also did the out-of-town closer ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1956 that starred Tallulah Bankhead, so of course like everyone else he has a story that involves her not wearing underwear. On a loftier note:

Urbont: “Back in the early ‘50s, I was sitting in the waiting room of Cheryl Crawford’s office while inside she was talking to Lerner and Loewe about PAINT YOUR WAGON. Even with the door closed, I could overhear Loewe telling her ‘I’m already better than Richard Rodgers!’”

Coppola: “When I did NEW FACES OF ’56, Maggie Smith was cast in a number about Ziegfeld girls. Here was this elegant woman cast as a Follies showgirl and she had no idea what she was doing. She went back to London with her tail between her legs.

Urbont: “I knew Robert Russell Bennett was an extraordinary music man the day that I saw him orchestrating VICTORY AT SEA while the radio was playing music” …

Coppola: “John Kenley, the famous producer of summer stock shows in the Midwest, was a genuine hermaphrodite who used to carry around documentation stating his two sexes. That way, whenever he was a dressed as a woman and a cop wanted to arrest him, he could pull out the papers that said he was entitled to dress that way.”

Urbont: “John Kenley used to dress as a woman when he worked as a secretary for the Shuberts.”

Coppola: “Want to know how I got the NEW FACES job? I did a lot of opera on Broadway when they used to do them on Broadway in the ‘40s and ‘50s. So later when I was conducting at Radio City Music Hall -- when Leon Leonidoff was running it -- Leonard Sillman (the NEW FACES OF ’52 producer) called him and said ‘For this show, we got a sketch by Ronny Graham that involves opera. Who you got there who could do it?’ And I got the job. And because I got along with Ronny, he recommended me 10 years later when he wrote BRAVO, GIOVANNI.”

And Paul Lynde, who made his mark in NEW FACES OF ‘52?

Coppola: “I hated him. I had no use for him.”

‘Nuff said.

         — Peter Filichia



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