Before I launch into the last article for this series, I want you all to know that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. For this piece, I’ve selected six musicals from 1948’s Where’s Charley? to 1973’s revival of Irene. Some of them have admittedly dated libretti, but all of them have marvelous scores and would, like all of the musicals about which I’ve written, be outstanding additions to any theater season.
From Play to Musical
In the 1940s, Frank Loesser was a popular songwriter. He wrote one of Marlene Dietrich’s signature songs, See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have and the Army Air Force theme song Praise God and Pass the Ammunition. Producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin planned a musical version of Charley’s Aunt and hired Loesser to write the score.
Set at Oxford in the 1890s, Where’s Charley? is about a pair of students, Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham, who is bringing his aunt Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez for a visit. When she fails to appear, Jack, dressed in drag for a college theatrical, poses as the aunt. Of course complications arise. There are mistaken identities, slamming doors, but eventually, all is revealed, Donna Lucia arrives and everything ends happily.
Where’s Charley? featured choreography by George Balanchine and was directed by George Abbott. The score includes “Make a Miracle”, “The Gossips”, and “Once in Love with Amy”, a smash hit for the show’s star, Ray Bolger (The Wizard of Oz).
Loesser went on to write the scores for Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and the Pulitzer Prize-winner, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. If any theater chooses this unique show, I’ll be first in line for a ticket!
The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands…
Dogpatch, Al Capp’s town full of comic strip hillbillies held the nation’s interest for 43 year and its popularity grew when it was made into the musical, Li’l Abner.
With a script by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, music by Gene De Paul and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Li'l Abner features sharply drawn characters, sophisticated political satire and Capp’s topical commentaries. While it may appear dated, racist, and sexist, considering the present political climate, it’s surprisingly modern.
Michael Kidd, the remarkable choreographer, remembered for the exciting dances in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, staged Li’l Abner, with muscular newcomer Peter Palmer in the title role, Edie Adams as Daisy Mae, later TV stars Charlotte Rae, Joe E. Marks, Julie Newmar and Tina Louise (in order as Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Stupifyin’ Jones, and Apassionata Von Climax). Stubby Kaye played Marryin’ Sam.
It opens on “A Typical Day (in Dogpatch, USA)”. Their elected congressman, Senator Fogbound tells them that Dogpatch has been chosen for nuclear testing.
Yokumberry Tonic transforms weaklings into musclemen (with side effects similar to steroids). Tyrannical General Bullmoose wants the tonic, but learns that Abner plans to give it to the government. His girlfriend, Apassionata Von Climax chases Abner and with the help of henchman Evil Eye Fleagle, catches him during the Annual Sadie Hawkins race. Daisy May, unwillingly becomes the fiancée of the loathsome Earthquake McGoon, Abner’s rival.
As stated above, considering the current political climate, perhaps a revival of Li’l Abner is appropriate. Abner and Marryin’ Sam’s duet, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” is reflective of this election.
Unfortunately, the Native characters, Lonesome Polecat and Hairless Joe, inventors of Kickapoo Joy Juice, are a sad reminder of racist issues from the 1950s. The atmosphere surrounding the delightful, toe-tapping number Oh Happy Day in which government scientists hope that Yokumberry Tonic will lead to “assembly line women, conveyor belt men, settling down in push button homes,” is an allusion to the Nazi plan to create a Master Race. Putting the show into historic perspective will help but, if that is possible, Li’l Abner is a delightful show, ready for a new production.
Another Hooker with a Heart of Gold
Everybody knows about Les Miz and Miss Saigon, a pair of epic French musicals with legendary runs on Broadway followed by ceaseless revivals. However, one French musical played just over 500 performances, had an Encores production and deserves a new production. That musical is Irma la Douce. Written by Alexandre Breffort and Marguerite Monnot, its 1956 premiere was in Paris, followed by London and thanks to David Merrick, on Broadway in 1960. Its English translation is by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman.
Directed by esteemed Peter Brook, it originally starred Elizabeth Seal as Irma, the late Keith Michell (The Six Wives of Henry VIII), and Clive Revill (Oliver!).
Set in Paris, Irma is the most popular lady of the evening. When Nestor falls in love with her, he disguises himself as a wealthy man, working many jobs to “support” her. Over time, he tires of his ruse and “kills” his other self. Convicted of murder, he’s sent to Devil’s Island, but escapes, returns to Paris and proves his innocence so he can stay with his beloved Irma.
Irma La Douce is a smart adult musical with a rich and melodic score, a very entertaining book and character roles that will challenge its cast. Unfortunately, there’s only one woman in the show, but, among the men, this is an ensemble show. It needs a strong cast who truly love the material. While there are no familiar hit tunes from the score, standouts include “The Bridge of Caulaincourt”, “From a Prison Cell”, “Our Language of Love”, and the title tune.
For some reason, although both Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon can sing, director Billy Wilder eliminated the score (had his original choice to star, Marilyn Monroe, been alive to play the role, perhaps then it would’ve been a musical). While, like the film of Fanny, it uses music from the show in the background, this is a score that needs to be heard.
Take a look at this refreshing, risqué, and original entertainment.
Sin and Corruption
The source material for a musical can be found in the strangest places. Muckraking journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams is responsible for the short story, Night Bus, which became the classic comedy It Happened One Night. His fictionalized novel about Peggy O’Neill, who disrupted Andrew Jackson’s cabinet, became The Gorgeous Hussy starring Joan Crawford and his novel, The Harvey Girls, became an Oscar-winning movie starring Judy Garland, Angela Lansbury, and Ray Bolger.
However, of all Adams’ writing, the story of a fundamentalist minister, dedicated to exposing “the wages of virtue,” is an odd choice for musical theater. Tenderloin was adapted by George Abbott and Jerome Weidman (I Can Get It for You Wholesale), doctored by James (Follies) and William (Lord of the Flies) Goldman, with a luscious score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. It followed their Pulitzer Prize-winning political musical, Fiorello! the story of New York’s 99th Mayor.
In the 1890s, New York’s Tenderloin (“red light”) district was the target for Reverend Brock (based on Charles Henry Parkhurst), who convinces his followers to clean up the area. His plans are foiled by the Tenderloin’s denizens. A writer for a local scandal sheet plays the sides against one another, revealing Brock’s plot to raid brothels and shut everything down.
The original production played the same theater where Hamilton is currently in residence. Unlike the theater’s current resident, Tenderloin lasted six months. Directed by the renowned George Abbott, with dances by Joe Layton, a miscast Maurice Evans (Bewitched) played Reverend Brock, and Ron Hussman (On the Town) played his nemesis.
Bock and Harnick would later write the scores for She Loves Me, The Apple Tree (see below), The Rothschilds, and of course the massive hit, Fiddler on the Roof.
Tenderloin deserves another chance, like many of the shows I’ve discussed, because of its outstanding score. The hilarious “Little Old New York”, the haunting “Artificial Flowers”, the rousing “Dear Friend” (also the title for the song that leads into “Ice Cream” in She Loves Me) and “My Gentle Young Johnny” are among the highlights.
Tenderloin could be sold to audiences as a musical by the composers of She Loves Me, and more. While it might not be for everyone, producers should take a good look at the show and consider a production.
A Trilogy of Short Musicals
Following the amazing success of Fiddler on the Roof, Bock and Harnick turned their attention to a trio of short stories, The Apple Tree. Along with producer Stuart Ostrow (1776, Pippin) and director Mike Nichols (Angels in America). Alan Alda (MASH), Larry Blyden (On a Clear Day, Flower Drum Song) and the astounding Barbara Harris (Nashville, Family Plot), who won the Tony for her performance, headed the cast. The three stories were tied together by the theme that if you get what you think you want, you may realize you don’t want it at all.
Mark Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve, Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger? and Jules Feiffer’s Passionella are the three mini-musicals. The stories move from the beginning of time to a medieval town and then New York in the late 1950s. The Diary of Adam and Eve follows the first known humans as they shyly encounter one another, are tempted by the Snake and eat the forbidden fruit, move, have children, raise them, deal with the world’s first murder, grow old and leave us. Songs include “Here in Eden”, “Beautiful, Beautiful World”, the hilarious and the romantic “What Makes Me Love Him.”
Introduced by a Balladeer, The Lady or the Tiger follows the romance of a barbaric king’s daughter, the Princess Barbara whose suitors must choose their fate, which doesn’t include the hand of the Princess. Choosing one of two doors in an arena, behind one is a beautiful woman; behind the second is a vicious tiger, that will kill him. When Sanjar, Captain of the king’s guards returns from battle, Barbara is smitten. The two enjoy the stolen moments of their “Forbidden Love”. Contemplating elopement, they’re caught by the king, who sends Sanjar to the arena.
After bribing the Royal Tiger Keeper (“I've Got What You Want”), she learns that her rival will be behind the other door (“Tiger, Tiger”). As Sanjar’s attention is on Barbara (“Which Door”), she indicates one of them, never to be revealed, because the Balladeer enters, reminding the audience about the sorrows of being jealous, (“I'll Tell You a Truth”). Thus ends the second act.
The Apple Tree becomes more elaborate as a Narrator tells the story of Ella, a chimney sweep who longs “Oh, to be a Movie Star”. When her TV breaks, her Friendly Neighborhood Godmother visits, granting her wish, and immediately, she becomes Passionella, who only makes movies between the evening news and the end of the late, late show. (The story was written long before cable and all-night news.)
Men and women idolize her (“I Know”) but true to the theme of the show, Ella isn’t happy with all her fame, beauty or “Wealth”. When she meets Flip Brown, a pop singer, she falls in love him, but he sings to her “You Are Not Real”. Passionella makes a movie in which she plays a chimney sweep, and wins the Academy Award. The Oscar is handed to her by Flip, who proposes then and there. As morning approaches, the fairy tale ends and both return to their former selves, Ella, the chimney sweep and Flip as the mousey George L. Brown. Nonetheless, they live happily ever after.
The Apple Tree played a year at the Shubert Theater. A relatively easy show to produce, I saw it 25 years ago in a church basement, and the “Passionella” section was done by teenagers. An Encores production starring Kristen Chenoweth moved to Broadway, where it played 117 performances.
Because of its three musical format, audiences aren’t familiar with The Apple Tree. However, even my hometown community theater, which needs to produce big name shows – this season it’s Man of La Mancha – has produced it.
Depriving audiences of this very special musical should be a crime. Producing The Apple Tree would be a very smart move!
Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown
When I bought a new cassette deck, it came with three free cassettes. I chose a collection of Borodin classics, and the Original Cast recordings of Promises, Promises starring Jerry Orbach and Debbie Reynolds as Irene.
Originally produced in 1919 and based on Joseph McCarthy’s play Irene O’Dare, with Harry Tierney’s music enhancing McCarthy’s book and lyrics, the story of a working class shop assistant introduced to Long Island society when she’s hired to redecorate a mansion, Irene was a smash hit. It played 675 performances at a time when theaters were closed for summer due to the heat.
Four years later, film star Irene Dunne (I Remember Mama) took over the title role. Two film versions were made; a silent starring Colleen Moore (whose beautiful dollhouse is on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry). The 1940 version starred Anna Neagle and Ray Milland. Sequences from both are available on YouTube.
Irene features a very famous song, “Alice Blue Gown” named for the colorful style of dress made popular by Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice.
The show was largely forgotten until 1973, when producer Harry Rigby, the driving force behind the revival of No, No, Nanette, and later the producer who brought MGM stars Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller to Broadway in Sugar Babies (a successful celebration of burlesque) realized it could be a hit again. He hired another MGM alum, Debbie Reynolds, making her Broadway debut in the title role.
Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) revised the libretto, and only five songs from the original show remain. Songs McCarthy had written with others were added. Charles Gaynor, Otis Clements, Jack Lloyd wrote additional special material, as did Wally Harper, who would soon become Barbara Cook’s musical director.
Under the direction of esteemed actor and director John Gielgud, the first performances, in Toronto, were a disaster. Gower Champion replaced Gielgud. Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) worked on the script, while Peter Gennaro (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) staged the musical numbers. An endorsement from President Richard Nixon and his family gave the box office a huge boost as it moved to New York, where it was the first production to play the just-built Minskoff Theater (now home to The Lion King). Featuring a cast that also included Tony winner George S. Irving (Underdog), Patsy Kelly (Tony winner for No, No, Nanette), film actors Ruth Warrick (Citizen Kane) and TV actor Monty Markham, Carrie Fisher made her stage debut, before heading to London to attend RADA and eventually play Princess Leia. Jane Powell took over for Reynolds when her contract expired. They would both star in touring productions.
The new book follows Irene, who runs a music store on the upper West side with her mother. She’s sent to tune a piano for Donald Marshall II, son of a Long Island matron. Irene falls in love with him, and is fascinated by how the other half lives.
In the end, to the strains of “Alice Blue Gown”, Irene enters wearing the coat that matches it, but instead of the expected gown, she reveals her true identity by wearing her working clothes. Donald proposes to her and it ends happily.
In addition to the songs from its original score (“Alice Blue Gown”, “We’re Getting Away With It”, “The Last Part of Every Party”, and the title tune), the score also features “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”, “They Go Wild”, “Simply Wild Over Me”, “Mother Angel Darling”, and “You Made Me Love You”.
How can such a charming, tuneful musical classic be ignored? Irene will be a crowd pleaser!
Now, I’ve just spent a year sharing musicals written by outstanding composers. In that time, I was pleased that three recommendations, Lady in the Dark, Dear World, and Paint Your Wagon, were produced locally. Thank you to the University Opera, Ten Thousand Things, and the Ordway, and I sincerely hope many more of them will be produced in future.