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September 6, 2013

Bless You, Ben West, for BLESS YOU ALL

On the night of Sept, 26, 1960, was Arnold Auerbach gritting his teeth, shaking his head and thinking BLESS YOU ALL?

I suspect he was, as he watched, with 70 million other Americans, the first debate between Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and Republican contender Richard M. Nixon. Many came away thinking that Nixon was the better debater and gave a superior presentation. Nevertheless, the electorate embraced Kennedy because he looked so good in the first-ever televised presidential-contender debate.

Ten years earlier, when Auerbach was writing BLESS YOU ALL, a musical revue with composer-lyricist Harold Rome, he penned a sketch in which he predicted just such a scenario. As John Chapman wrote in his review, the musical had Jules Munshin “running for the presidency in 1960 and conducting his campaign entirely by television.”

It’s one of the sketches you’ll be able to see when Ben West and his UnsungMusicalsCo. presents BLESS YOU ALL from Sept. 19 to Oct. 5. at The Connelly Theatre at 220 East 4th Street. It’s the first New York revival since the show closed after 84 performances on Feb. 24, 1951.

BLESS YOU ALL was the next revue that Rome and Auerbach wrote after CALL ME MISTER, their 1946 hit about military men returning from World War II. The sergeants, corporals and privates are grateful to revert to plain ol’ misters while enjoying civilian life.

At 743 performances, CALL ME MISTER was then the 13th-longest-running musical in Broadway history. Decca recorded it and 20th Century-Fox filmed it in 1951. But you know how Hollywood treated Broadway musicals in those days -- with about as much care as Sweeney Todd showed to Judge Turpin in their second act scene together. The movie-makers not only imposed a story on the revue, but also relegated its biggest hit song to background music.

To be fair, “South America, Take It Away” had nothing to do with military men coming home. It dealt with the nation’s preoccupation with Latin music. Perhaps by 1951, the movie-makers felt that the mania had faded. But only a year earlier, Rome certainly thought it was still remembered, for in BLESS YOU ALL he wrote a lyric that states “South Carolina, Take It Away.” Rome didn’t worry that they wouldn’t get the joke.

Ben West, all of 30, got it, too. But then again, he has a wild penchant for Broadway of yore. So he can often be found with a copy of Steven Suskin’s OPENING NIGHTS ON BROADWAY in his back-pack. “I jump around the book, looking for shows that sound intriguing,” he says. “And BLESS YOU ALL did.”

We’ve all seen authors follow up a big hit with a big flop. Mitch Leigh: MAN OF LA MANCHA, CHU CHEM. Bob Merrill: FUNNY GIRL, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. So too with Rome and Auerbach. Perhaps BLESS YOU ALL wasn’t as good as CALL ME MISTER, but which of us today knows the earlier show to compare it to the later one?

West wonders if the lack of a theme or through-line – a la CALL ME MISTER’s returning military men – hurt BLESS YOU ALL. The closest Rome and Auerbach came to a theme was in the title song/opening number. “Bless You All” was aimed directly at the audience and thanked them for buying tickets. This must have been increasingly poignant as the run attracted smaller and smaller audiences.
How sad for the stars, although many would go on to greater hits: Pearl Bailey (HELLO, DOLLY!), Gene Barry (LA CAGE AUX FOLLES) and Mary McCarty (FOLLIES).

West isn’t just putting the entire revue on stage, but, as was his wont with THE FIG LEAVES ARE FALLING and many of his other presentations, he’s doing 90 minutes’ worth. If this sounds to be somewhere between heresy and blasphemy, John Chapman also said in his review “The director, John C. Wilson, might have fared better had he held a long, sharp needle in one hand and a long, sharp pair of cutting shears in the other.”

So two songs are gone. “There was a dance specialty for Valerie Bettis that we won’t be able to do,” he says, “but I do promise a lot of dancing. We have a terrific choreographer named Ray Hesselink who really understands the period.”

West’s reason for dropping a sketch about “The Cold War” was more pragmatic. “Next year, I plan to do a show using Arnold Auerbach’s sketches that he did with Frank Loesser when they were in the army. It’s going to be called UP IN ARMS, and I don’t care that there’s a Danny Kaye movie of the same name. It has nothing to do with what I’m doing; I just like the title.”

He won’t be doing one sketch called “Peter and the PTA” for a pragmatic reason. “I simply could not find it,” he moans. “Frankly, even if I had come across it, I know from the descriptions I’ve read that I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Peter is actually Peter Pan, and I don’t have the resources to fly anyone.”

No, West’s show won’t be as opulent as the original. “All the reviews made a point of saying how beautiful it was,” he says. In a season where OUT OF THIS WORLD, CALL ME MADAM, GUYS & DOLLS, Leonard Bernstein’s PETER PAN and even MICHAEL TODD’S PEEP SHOW ran longer, BLESS YOU ALL’S Miles White won the Tony for Best Costumes.

As opposed to MACK & MABEL, which celebrated “Hundreds of Girls,” BLESS YOU ALL in its ads mentioned its “Hundreds of Naked Girls.” Ah, but they really weren’t, in those days of flesh-colored tights. Perhaps tired businessmen who came expecting to see more than they actually did spread poisonous word-of-mouth about the false advertising. BLESS YOU ALL might have done better by just using its other ad line: “A swarm of sultry sylphs.” That it delivered.

West, having mounted and staged so many of these vintage shows – from AT HOME ABROAD (1935) to PLATINUM (1978) – now knows how to get them. He first goes to the U.S. Copyright Office, finds the authors’ heirs and then sees if they’ll grant him permission to proceed. In this case, West found and reached Rome’s son Joshua and Auerbach’s daughter Nina. Both heirs enthusiastically granted him access to private papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. There West found a piano vocal score for BLESS YOU ALL, which would serve nicely for his usual combo of piano, bass and drums.

Says West, “Bless Chamisa Nash, who runs the duplication service at the Library. She’s been just wonderful to me.”

But alas, those music and lyrics were all that West could find. West hoped to find all the sketches at the Lincoln Center Library, but found only a few. When Joshua Rome suggested Yale where many of his daddy’s papers reside, West researched there and found quite a few more.

“Not everything,” he cautions. “But enough to do a show.”

Soon up on West’s agenda: a concert of CAESAR’S WIFE, a musical that Carolyn Leigh of WILDCAT, LITTLE ME and HOW NOW, DOW JONES fame wrote with Lee Pockriss, somewhat known for TOVARICH and ERNEST IN LOVE, but far more famous for “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.”

“It’s about Calpurnia, Caesar’s fourth wife,” says West. “He wants to get out of politics, so they stage a mock-assassination and run off together.” Those who know WICKED and DARLING OF THE DAY will see some parallels.

“Concert” actually isn’t an accurate enough term. As West says on his website, he’ll be “blending live performances with audio clips of the songwriters’ original demo recording as well as original author correspondence, production outlines and authors’ notes. This world premiere of CAESAR’S WIFE is a unique exploration inside the artistic process of two legendary authors.”

Lest West strike you as relentlessly retro, he also plans to do a revue in the NEW FACES mold. He’ll audition new composers and lyricists to write new material for new performers. Plenty of people are going to be blessing Ben West for years to come.

         — Peter Filichia

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