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It would be difficult, indeed, to imagine anyone more qualified to give us a celebration, from the perspective of an insider, of the Broadway musical. From the first run of Guys and Dolls in 1950 to the recent debut of Rent, Stuart Ostrow, a prot^D'eg^D'e of the great composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, has been personally involved in many of the major Broadway productions of our time. The steadily growing number of fans of the Great White Way will delight in his reminiscences about the shows that have shaped musical theater, such as Hello Dolly, Funny Girl, Man of LaMancha, Cabaret, 1776, and M. Butterfly—to name just a few.
Readers of A Producer's Broadway Journey will certainly be entertained by Ostrow's behind-the-scenes anecdotes of Bob Fosse, Barbra Streisand, Betty Buckley, Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, Hal Prince, Ethel Merman, and many other legends encountered in his accomplished career. But in addition to the tales or re-writes, stand-ins, near-disasters, and moments of theatrical magic, the author also provides a unique historical perspective on almost half a century of the musical.
Broadway Babies: Adler and Ross,
Stephen Sondheim, Bock and
Harnick, and Meredith Willson
In the fifties the parameters of the American musical theatre were five blocks long by about one and a half blocks wide; from Forty-fourth to Forty-ninth Streets, between Eighth Avenue and Broadway. Dinty Moore's and Sardi's restaurants were the club hangouts and the League of New York Theatres was a loose confederation of enlightened, talented, risk-taking Broadway producers: Feuer and Martin, Leland Hayward, Cheryl Crawford, Robert Fryer, Griffith and Prince, Herman Levin, Kermit Bloomgarden, David Merrick, and a few passive theatre landlords who periodically negotiated collective bargaining agreements with the actors', musicians', and stagehands' unions. It was an exciting cottage industry with lots of old-fashioned kickbacks, extortion, and patronage for those who played the management-labor game. The average musical cost $150,000 to produce and the price of a ticket was $7. There were as many as ninety attractions electric-lighted on Broadway in one season and it was not uncommon for sixteen of them to be musicals. The New York middle-class audience went to the theatre at least five times a year—new productions were prolific, and hit songs from Broadway musicals were heard everywhere. The reign of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hammerstein was nearly over. Loesser, Lerner and Loewe, Bernstein, Comden and Green, and Jule Styne, all of whom started in the late forties, were at the peak of theircreativity with Guys and Dolls, Wonderful Town, My Fair Lady, and Gypsy, but it was the new kids on the block who would set the pace for the next generation. Dick Adler and Jerry Ross wrote The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, back to back hits; twenty-seven-year-old lyricist Stephen Sondheim's collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne was auspicious; Jerry Bock's and Sheldon Harnick's Fiorello! won the Pulitzer Prize; and Meredith Willson marched into town with The Music Man.
There were dozens of young producers trying their wings in the fifties, which is one reason why the theatre soared. I made my way into the legitimate theatre at twenty-two, working for Frank Loesser, and have been a stage-struck child since. Since I was a trained musician (clarinetist) in search of a career, my music education brought me closer to understanding the composer's goals and realizing my own aspirations to be creative. Writers trusted my instincts and I was continually shooting arrows into the air, hoping that they might fall somewhere that counted. If you can't write, produce. For the moment, however, I had to be content helping to find, publish, and plug hit songs for Frank Music Corp.: "Unchained Melody," "Cry Me a River," "The Twelfth of Never," and "Yellowbird" made me a contender.
Yip Harburg said, "Music makes you feel a feeling, words make you think a thought. A song makes you feel a thought." And it takes a creative producer to present it to the public, I said to myself. So, obeying Loesser's first commandment, I began cultivating new and experienced theatre writers: Norman Gimbel, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke, Oscar Brown, Jr., Lew Spence, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Arthur Hamilton, Jerry Livingston and Paul Francis Webster, Alex North, Rod McKuen, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, Hoagy Carmichael, Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen, Mark McIntyre, Bob Wells, Sammy Fain, David Amram, Milton Schafer, Lee Pockriss and Hal David, Peter Udell, Robert Waldman and Alfred Uhry, Hy Zaret and Lou Singer, Charles Gaynor, Phil Springer, Ervin Drake, Julie Mandel, Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf, Richard Lewine and Arnold Horwitt, Richard Maltby and David Shire, Billy Goldenberg, Bob James and Jack O'Brien, and Helen Deutsch.
When the new decade began I flew to London to tell Frank I had to leave to produce my first solo musical. He was annoyed but smiled and said, "What the hell, I've had the best years of your life, and don't forget, producers come and go; copyrights are forever." He was right of course, so when in 1994 the late William Henry III, Time magazine drama critic, called me an endangered species, I thought it was the saddest compliment I'd ever earned.
Forty-Sixth Street Theatre
Opened Friday, November 24, 1950
Feuer and Martin present:
Guys and Dolls
Based on a Story and Characters by Damon Runyon; Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser; Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows; Dances and Musical Numbers staged by Michael Kidd; Settings and Lighting by Jo Mielziner; Costumes by Alvin Colt; Staged by George S. Kaufman. Cast: Sam Levine, Vivian Blaine, Robert Alda.
My Broadway journey began with Frank Loesser. I was a student in Manhattan's High School of Music & Art and my first big date was with a knockout cello player who was also a devotee of Broadway musicals. She bought two balcony seats to Guys and Dolls for my birthday and we sat mesmerized watching and listening to a trio of horse-players sing "Fugue for Tinhorns," then a Salvation Army chorale imploring gamblers to "Follow the Fold," and a flood of surprising, funny songs—canons and gospels—sexy, gymnastic dances, thrilling orchestration and vocal arrangements, and a new language, where Hotbox strippers tell their boy friends to take back their "poils," because they're not one of those "goils." At the final curtain I was hopelessly in love. Not so much with the knockout cello player as with the Broadway musical. And when I was a twenty-one-year-old buck sergeant in the United States Air Force in 1953, producer/director of various camp shows and weekly network radio broadcasts during our Korean Police Action, my love affair with Guys and Dolls paid off.
The Air Force wanted a morale building National Touring Stage Show along the lines of Irving Berlin's This Is the Army and Moss Hart's Winged Victory to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of powered flight, and they asked me to produce it. I convinced the Colonel in charge that professional writers were needed (Frank Loesser, of course) and hitched a C-54 ride to Mitchell Air Force Base in Long Island. I gave the elevator man at Manhattan's Warwick Hotel twenty bucks to tell me what floor Mr. Loesser was on, and rang the doorbell in the tower suite. It was a payoff that changed my life. Looking like a small dapper Anthony Quinn, and as warm and funny and smart as anyone I have ever known, Frank Loesser invited me in and we drank up the night. We exchanged loop-to-loop concepts for the Air Force musical and I swear he even wrote a lyric for a General who gambled: "Old crap-shooters never die, they just stay faded," he ad-libbed at the piano. After a couple of deals before dawn, Frank announced he would write the score, only if I hired Abe Burrows to write the book. Was I dreaming? I had lunch the next day with Burrows at the 21 Club, and was back in Washington, D.C., that afternoon with an agreement from two Broadway giants—the creators of my Guys and Dolls, to write the USAF Conquest of the Air. The colonel thought I was a genius and gave me a three-day pass. The following week I was told to appear before the Senate Government Operations Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. I was asked what my political affiliations were, was I ever a member of the Labor Party, wasn't my father born in Kiev, Russia? It was frightening. What did this have to do with putting on a show for the Air Force? It wasn't until my Colonel vouched for me and explained that McCarthyism was in the air—synonymous with political opportunism and public character assassination—and that Abe Burrows was under investigation for alleged Communist sympathy, that I realized what Loesser's intention was. If the United States Air Force would hire Burrows, the witch hunt would stop. It was why Frank agreed to write the musical, giving up a year of his life and putting his reputation on the line. It was called friendship. In the end my chicken Colonel wouldn't fight the barnyard cocks and I had to tell Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows the Air Force couldn't use them.
After my release from the service, Loesser's Frank Music Corp. hired me and I worked my way up the ladder from song plugger to press agent to governor general of the Hollywood office to vice president and General Professional Manager at twenty-eight. It was seven years good luck and I like to think there was enough of J. Pierrepoint Finch in me to have earned Frank's farewell letter when I quit to produce my first Broadway musical. It arrived with a $10,000 check, a lot of money in 1961—the year How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opened—which simply, but to me grandeloquently, said: "I believe in you. Love, Frank."
Frank was all about taking chances. Never allowing himself to become too comfortable with subject, tone, rhythm, or syntax. Unlike Alan Jay Lerner, who, after My Fair Lady and Gigi, said he had found his sound. Loesser leaped from English farce, Where's Charley?, to Manhattan mugs, Guys and Dolls, to Napa Valley sweethearts, The Most Happy Fella. His genius for writing authentic lyrics and muscular music set the tone of Guys and Dolls by having its Broadway denizens sing in Runyonesque patois, as in this example from the title song sung by two main stem gamblers reciting odds: "Call it sad / Call it funny / But it's better than even money / Call it hell / Call it heaven / It's a probable twelve to seven." In the first four bars of "Fugue For Tinhorns," Loesser not only confirms half the title of the show by having Nicely Nicely Johnson reading and singing from a racing form: "And here's a guy that says if the weather's clear / Can do," but also establishes the character's métier. Bennie Southstreet adds more bookie lingo: "I'm picking Valentine 'cause on the morning line / The guy has got him figured at five to nine / Has chance," and finally Rusty Charlie verifies the show's New York City locale by citing one of its 1950 daily newspapers: "But look at Epitaph, he wins it by a half / According to this here in the Telegraph." For this fugue Loesser composed a more complicated canon than "Frere Jaques" but the musical satisfaction of listening to three separate stories with the same overlapping melody was just as enjoyable. Phrases such as "feed box noise," "no bum steer," and "a handicapper that's real sincere" came straight from the horse's mouth and transported us into fable.
Guys and Dolls director George S. Kaufman was the celebrated author of Once in a Lifetime, You Can't Take It With You, and The Man Who Came To Dinner. A member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, Kaufman was known for the destructive wisecrack, the verbal ricochet, and it was never more resonant than when fledgling bookwriter Abe Burrows proudly boasted "Fugue For Tinhorns" would take place on a treadmill, a stunt never before performed by actors on Broadway. "Isn't that great, George?" asked Abe, breathlessly. Deadpan, Kaufman replied: "That depends upon what they are saying on the treadmill, Mr. Burrows." Burrows never asked Kaufman another question. Another tense moment was addressed when Kaufman, Loesser, and producer Cy Feuer took a taxicab to New Jersey in order to see Mielziner's set being built. The cabby zoomed through downtown onto the West Side Highway, running three red lights and nearly mowing down an old lady. The passengers were silent with fear and not a word had been spoken until the George Washington Bridge came into sight. At that moment, taciturn Kaufman gently tapped the crazed driver on the shoulder: "See that bridge, driver?" asked Kaufman. "Yea, so what?" the driver sneered. Kaufman leaned over and whispered into his ear: "Don't cross it until you come to it."
"Follow the Fold" starts off as a typical Salvation Army hymn: "Follow the fold and stray no more / Put down the bottle and we'll say no more," Sister Sarah and her group pray. Then an unexpected afterthought—an extra pick-up bar leading back to the chorus: "Before you take another swallow" makes us laugh. In another parody, "The Oldest Established," guys sing of the Biltmore garage wanting a grand and not having a grand on hand, being a good scout, looking for action even when the heat is on; then joining in pious harmony to sing an oxymoron: "To the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York." In "Adelaide's Lament" the character gets her tips from a medical journal rather than a racing form, and diagnoses her cold symptoms as being caused by too many postponed wedding dates. It remains a classic comic turn for broads with a Bronx accent. "My Time of Day" is a soliloquy in which we're given a glimpse into the character's soul; in this case, a surprisingly poetic one hidden within a mug's demeanor. Sky Masterson is the most adventurous gambler on the street; he has won his bet that he could get prim and proper Salvation Army Sarah to Havana to spend the night with him. Now that she's had too much to drink, for the clincher, he sings: "When the smell of the rain-washed pavement / Comes up clean and fresh and cold / And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold / That's my time of day / And you're the only doll I've ever wanted to share it with me." It also gave Loesser another chance to compose a beautiful melody with difficult intervals, ninths, as he did before with the popular standard, "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year." "More I Cannot Wish You," the show's charm song, was given to beloved vaudevillian Pat Rooney, Sr., who plays fairy Godfather to Sarah, and wishes her a lover: "With the sheep's eye / And the lickerish tooth."
One final untold story regarding Guys and Dolls, this one about the movie version. Hollywood adaptations of hit Broadway musicals, with too few exceptions, fail. Why? For openers, you don't photograph sweat, the crucial result of energy on stage. Whereas it is the theatre's aim to transform commentary into dramatic action, films indulge in reaction shots and romantic close-ups. Stage scenery is an abstraction, movies love panoramic reality. The most difficult transition to overcome, however, is the movie star. Samuel Goldwyn's movie of Guys and Dolls was no exception and brought Frank head to head with another Frank—Sinatra—who insisted on crooning Nathan Detroit's half-spoken begrudging apology to Adelaide for postponing yet another wedding date: "Alright already! / I'm just a no good-nick / Alright already it's true, so nu? / So sue me." When Loesser heard the throbbing string section accompany Sinatra at the pre-recording session, he belted him, right in front of Goldwyn and director Joe Mankiewicz, and was banned from the set. Which is why Marion Brando, who was playing Sky Masterson, wound up with the new hit song, "A Woman In Love," originally intended for Sinatra.
* * *
Opened Thursday, October 12, 1950
Leland Hayward presents:
Call Me Madam
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; Directed by George Abbott; Dances and Musical Numbers staged by Jerome Robbins; Scenery and Costumes by Raoul Pene du Bois.
Cast: Ethel Merman, Russell Nype, Paul Lucas.
Irving Berlin is American songwriting and although his Broadway output was not as prolific as Rodgers & Hammerstein's or Cole Porter's, his genius for matching emotion with melody and lyric was unequaled. His songs were simple and direct and often old-fashioned because he wanted you to feel you could have written them. (Berlin loved the phrase "old fashioned"; indeed, he used it in Miss Liberty for "Let's Take an Old Fashioned Walk," and again in Call Me Madam, reminding us "Marrying for Love" is an old-fashioned idea.) Listen to "Always," and the inevitability of its title: "I'll be loving you / Always, with a love that's true / Always / ... Not for just an hour / Not for just a day / Not for just a year / But always." Or his musical emphasis on the "won-" of wonderful from "They Say It's Wonderful": "They say that falling in love is wonderful / It's wonderful / So they say."
The great Irving Berlin was 62 when he wrote Call Me Madam, a parody of Washington's famous party-giver-appointed-Ambassador to Luxembourg Pearl Mesta. He gave the character (as played by Ethel Merman) a terrific verse to "The Hostess with the Mostes' on the Ball," but the show was not in the same class as his past Broadway hits: Ziegfeld Follies, As Thousands Cheer, Louisiana Purchase, This Is the Army, and Annie Get Your Gun. As for Call Me Madam, Merman was the powerhouse. You could hear every lyric, no matter how difficult the melody, and she never missed a performance. The intrepid theatregoer could count on her, snow, rain, gloom of night, and lack of microphones notwithstanding. The duet she sang with Russell Nype, "You're Just in Love," seemed too close for comfort to Loesser's 1949 "Baby It's Cold Outside," for me, until Frank told me that Berlin had invented the contrapuntal pop song in 1914 with "Play a Simple Melody" and that he was imitating the master. La Merman and "It's a Lovely Day Today," "Marrying for Love," and "The Best Thing for You Would Be Me" made Madam Berlin's last hit Broadway musical.
Many trunk songs have found their way in and out of Broadway musicals; for example, Frank Loesser's "A Bushel and a Peck" from Guys and Dolls was originally written for a Betty Hutton movie, and Cole Porter's "From This Moment On" was dropped from Out of This World, only to wind up in the film version of Kiss Me Kate. Berlin was no exception. For As Thousands Cheer, he went into his trunk and found "Smile and Show Your Dimple," which he changed to "Easter Parade." Piece of cake. If you're Irving.
* * *
St. James Theatre
Opened Thursday, March 29, 1951
Rodgers and Hammerstein present:
The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers; Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Based on the Novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landen; Directed by Jon van Druten; Settings and Lighting by Jo Mielziner; Costumes Designed by Irene Sharaff; Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Cast: Gertrude Lawrence, Yul Brynner, Doretta Morrow.
At mid-century Rogers & Hammerstein were the crowned heads of Broadway, having reinvented the musical form with Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and now The King and I. They were the class act on the block, and as if they needed to prove it, adapted the novel Anna and the King of Siam for the very British star Gertrude Lawrence. Although The King and I was set on the other side of the world—exotic Siam—with a despotic King being taught the ways of the West by a cultured British governess, opposites were attracted to each other, just like Sarah and Sky. "Hello, Young Lovers" had the difficult assignment of convincing audiences that a middle-aged widow could feel romance. It succeeded due to an exquisite lyric and a charming melody for a leading lady with a limited vocal range. Both Lawrence and Yul Brynner were superb actors, but not great voices, and so began the era of speak-singing. (Lerner and Loewe capitalized on the style seven years later for another Brit, Rex Harrison, in My Fair Lady.) Spoken or sung, the score was wonderful. The charming Gertrude, in her best Noël Coward delivery, delivered: "Whenever I feel afraid / I hold my head erect / And whistle a happy tune." Note the similarity to another Hammerstein lyric: "When you walk through a storm / Hold your head up high." Hammerstein's eternal optimism was matched by Rodgers' buoyant melody. (R&H were masters of the art: "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," and "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.")
Even Buddha couldn't show the way to a confused monarch in "A Puzzlement," compelling King Yul to shout; so the big ballads were given to supporting characters with trained voices. Opera's Dorothy Sarnoff, as Lady Thiang, one of the King's many wives, informs us her lord and master is a man who thinks with his heart, stumbles and falls, yet tries again, and now and then says, "Something Wonderful." It was an unusual soliloquy sung by one character about another. Soprano Doretta Morrow and tenor Larry Douglas caressed the high notes in "We Kiss in a Shadow," but the show-stoppers were written for and performed by Gertrude Lawrence; and wow, did she know how to thrill an audience! One of the most memorable moments in Broadway history was when Anna teaches the King how to, in "Shall We Dance?" (The three after-beats in the tune were used by Jerome Robbins to emphasize the arduous necessity of keeping in step—and ultimately as a demonstration of their ability to fly!) "Getting to Know You" was the other; when upper-class English Anna puts it her way, but nicely: "You are precisely / My cup of tea."
When Gertrude Lawrence died of cancer during the run, replacing her was a monumental problem until casting director John Fearnley suggested a brilliant actress from the Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue—Miriam Silverstein, the Streisand of her day. Rodgers was intrigued but Hammerstein doubted she could lose her Jewish accent. Nevertheless they rehearsed day and night, and miraculously the actress was able to perfect a British enunciation worthy of royalty. Her audition astonished everyone when, in flawless English, she sang: "Getting to know you / Getting to know all about you." An incredulous Hammerstein turned to Fearnley: "You're a genius, John," he complimented. A moment later, Silverstein concluded with "You are precisely / My glass of tea."
* * *
Opened Thursday, April 19, 1951
George Abbott in association with Robert Fryer presents:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Book by Betty Smith and George Abbott; Based on Miss Smith's novel of the same name; Music by Arthur Schwartz; Lyrics by Dorothy Fields; Scenery and Costumes by Irene Scharaff; Choreography by Herbert Ross; Directed by George Abbott. Cast: Shirley Booth, Johnny Johnston, Marcia Van Dyke.
It was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn's misfortune to open in the same season as Guys and Dolls, The King and I, and Call Me Madam, and as a result it was never rightly acclaimed. Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields wrote an enchanting score featuring yet another great actress/speak-singer, Shirley Booth, and a terrific new leading man, pop singer Johnny Johnston. Johnston, playing a struggling alcoholic, owned "I'm Like a New Broom" and the touching "I'll Buy You a Star": "Not just a star but the best one in the sky / But I won't rest until I buy the moon." Fields knew how to make us care for her characters, and melodies poured out of Schwartz—none lovelier than "Make the Man Love Me." The music staff was the best in the business: Jay Blackton, Joe Glover, Robert Russell Bennett, and Max Goberman, and Mr. Abbott introduced another brilliant choreographer to Broadway, Herbert Ross. (In addition to Jerome Robbins, Abbott also gave Bob Fosse his first gig.) Recent attempts to revive A Tree Grows in Brooklyn have been foiled by the creators' estates, which correctly insist on not sharing any subsidiary rights with the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
Michael Todd's Peep Show opened the 1950-1951 Broadway season with songs by Sammy Fain, Harold Rome, and Jule Styne. Gian-Carlo Menotti premiered The Telephone and The Medium, as did Benjamin Britten with Let's Make an Opera. Cole Porter's songs "Use Your Imagination" and "Nobody's Chasing Me" were squandered in Agnes de Mille's production of Out of This World. All in all, an unparalleled season, not to be repeated in the next five decades.
Broadway Babies: Adler & Ross, Stephen Sondheim, Bock & Harnick, Meredith Willson
1960-70 The Beginning of the End of Camelot: Rock 'N Roll, 'N Revolution
1970-80 The British Are Coming: Andrew Lloyd Webber
1980-90 Less is Less: Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera
1990-97 Stomp, Rent, Bring In 'Da Noise Bring In 'Da Funk: Quo Vadis?