If one word describes the music of Jule Styne it’s unique. Unique because his scores are marvelously tuneful, and Styne succeeded with so many different lyricists. He was capable of stylizing his scores to highlight the traits of such diverse characters as Gypsy’s Madame (not Mama) Rose, Fanny Brice, Peter Pan and, less familiar, but delightful Sara Longstreet in the rarely produced High Button Shoes. (She sings “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?”)
In considering the music of Jule Styne, four musicals that haven’t been produced locally are in need of attention:
A Girl’s Best Friend
Two books published in the 1920s captured the social climate of the period. The first, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, revealed secrets of the nouveau riche and is still a bestseller that’s taught in English classes, while Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady by Anita Loos has fallen out of fashion. This is a pity because the novel, complete with its misspellings, composition errors and malapropisms, is a breezy pleasure. The book chronicles the life of gold-digging flapper Lorelei Lee, “A Little Girl from Little Rock” with an affinity for diamonds.
In 1946 Anita Loos and Joseph Fields created a libretto with lyrics by Leo Robin and Styne’s music for a musical version of the book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes exploded on Broadway and introduced audiences to a luminescent force of nature named Carol Channing as Lorelei.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a shipboard musical about the mishaps that Lee and her girlfriend Dorothy Shaw encounter as they sail to France. Leaving behind her wealthy boyfriend, Gus Esmond, the Button King of Chicago, Lorelei befriends diamond broker Sir Francis Beekman. Complications arise because Lady Beekman learns her diamond tiara is missing, presumably stolen by Lorelei. In true romantic musical comedy fashion, things work out and the show ends happily.
While “Bye Bye Baby,” “I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock,” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” may be familiar, the score includes such other gems as “Just a Kiss Apart,” “You Say You Care” and “Button Up with Esmond.” The script has standout roles for just about everyone in the ensemble, too.
Most of us know Howard Hawks’ 1953 film version with Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei and Jane Russell as Dorothy. The movie differs considerably from the stage version but follows the basic story. The film was intended as a star-making vehicle for Monroe, and Hoagy Carmichael wrote new songs for the movie. Most audiences don’t really know the original play Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Styne’s delightful score. Discovering this show anew would be a delightful experience.
A Gift from the Gods
Rarely, but sometimes, a performer emerges who appears like a gift from the gods. Judy Holliday was such a performer. Along with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, she was part of a Greenwich Village troupe called The Revuers, but she earned stardom when she replaced Jean Arthur as Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin’s classic comedy, Born Yesterday. Holliday later won an Oscar for her performance, leaving Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Eleanor Parker in Caged and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., empty-handed in 1950. Comden and Green created Bells are Ringing especially for Judy Holliday and in 1956 she won the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. (Fellow nominee Julie Andrews, for My Fair Lady, has never won a Tony Award.)
Set in the mid-1950s, Ella Peterson, works for her cousin Sue at an answering service called Susanswerphone. Ella impersonates various characters for her clients including a dentist who composes music on his air hose, an actor who imitates Marlon Brando and Jeffrey Moss, a blocked playwright who calls her “Mom.”
Moss is something of a playboy, so in order to keep him from missing a deadline Ella goes to his apartment to assist, causing suspicions from a detective, who thinks the Service is the front for an Escort Service. Meanwhile, Sue’s boyfriend, Otto, plans to use the service for an undercover numbers scheme, using “A Simple Little System” of classical composers as the procedure to identify various racetracks and horses. The show’s two standards, “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over" are only part of a score that includes “Drop That Name,” “The Midas Touch” and one of the greatest 11 o’clock numbers ever written, “I’m Going Back.”
And while the role of Ella Peterson is a terrific, showy role for its leading lady, there are many good, showy roles in Bells are Ringing, a remarkably entertaining musical.
The Girl Can’t Help It
Cultural changes following WWII brought us television, and Elvis Presley brought us rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll brought us jukeboxes. Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday) wrote a satirical novella about the jukebox industry titled Do Re Mi. The story found it’s way to Hollywood where Frank Tashlin used part of the story for his film, The Girl Can’t Help It. Like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, this was a star-making vehicle for Jayne Mansfield. It’s trashy entertainment, with fine comic turns from Tom Ewell and Edmond O”Brien, but the plot is so thin, the movie was enhanced by sequences featuring such popular performers of the period as Julie London, Fats Domino, The Platters and Little Richard.
David Merrick saw musical potential in the material, so he hired Kanin to write the script and direct; Styne wrote the score for the lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The leading roles, Hubert and Kay Cram, were given to Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko) and Nancy Walker (Rhoda, Macmillan and Wife) with Nancy Dussault in the Mansfield role. The story concentrates on Hubert, a con man who is convinced by his wife to get a job because “It’s Legitimate.” He and three pals, Fatso O'Rear, Brains Berman and Skin Demopoulos start selling jukeboxes. Meanwhile, Hubie discovers a singer and starts her on her career while his pals are brought to trial and frame Hubie for their wrongdoings.
The score imitates vaudeville-style music, with “Make Someone Happy,” now a standard. One local company has considered Do Re Mi for production, but thus far, this refreshing show hasn’t been presented. Having seen The Girl Can’t Help It in an Encores Revival with Nathan Lane, I can’t help hoping this will be produced sometime soon.
Doing It for Sugar
Whenever “Abominable Showman,” David Merrick, got an idea to put a movie onstage, he was successful: Carnival (Lili), Promises, Promises (The Apartment), 42nd Street and State Fair were all Merrick productions. It was his idea to make Some Like it Hot, which New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called “the greatest comedy since sound came in.” With a cast featuring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, George Raft and Joe E. Brown, this is certainly one of the best film comedies ever made. Merrick transformed Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s drag comedy into the musical Sugar.
Merrick assigned the music and lyrics to Styne and Bob Merrill (Styne’s most successful collaborator, see Funny Girl), while Peter Stone did the adaptation. It was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, with Robert Morse (How to Succeed, Tru) in the Lemmon role, Tony Roberts (Annie Hall) in the Curtis role, Cyril Ritchard (Peter Pan) in the Brown role, with newcomer Elaine Joyce (now Mrs. Neil Simon) as Sugar Kane, the title character.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, get the DVD.
Sugar was a moderate success and went on the road with Morse and Roberts repeating their roles. Leland Palmer (All That Jazz) played Sugar and Gale Gordon (I Love Lucy) played Osgood. Sugar, like another screen to stage musical, Singin’ in the Rain, has been more successful in London, but is rarely produced in the U.S. It has a good script and a pleasant score that includes “Sun on My Face,” “When You Meet a Man in Chicago,” “Hey Why Not?” and the title tune. An inventive theater company could give us a smashing production.