Coming up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950sby Ethan Mordden
The 1950s saw an explosion in the American musical theater. The Broadway show, catapulted into the limelight in the 20s and solidified during the 40s thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein, now entered its most revolutionary phase, brashly redefining itself and forging a new kind of storytelling. In Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, Ethan Mordden… See more details below
The 1950s saw an explosion in the American musical theater. The Broadway show, catapulted into the limelight in the 20s and solidified during the 40s thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein, now entered its most revolutionary phase, brashly redefining itself and forging a new kind of storytelling. In Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, Ethan Mordden gives us a guided tour of this rich decade.
With loving detail, Mordden highlights the shift in Broadway from shows that were mere star vehicles, showcasing a big-name talent, to the bolder stories, stuffed with character and atmosphere. During this period, subject matter became more intricate, even controversial, and plots more human and complex; Mordden demonstrates how, in response, musical conventions were polished, writing became more finely crafted, and dance became truly indispensable. Along the way we meet the key players: such greats as Ethel Merman, George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and many others. We get the backstage scoop on why Guys and Dolls is so well-made, why West Side Story is so timeless, why The King and I and Gypsy pushed the envelope, and why no one ever talks about Ankles Aweigh. All this is peppered with a dash of industry gossipthe directorial struggles, last-minute script rewrites and cast replacements, the power of the poster listingsthat made Broadway so nerve-wrackingly vibrant.
This passionate and informed study illuminates a crucial period in American musical theater and shows us the origins of many of the musicals recently revived to huge success on Broadway.
"This volume offers a rich compendium of hits and misses that kept theatergoers lining up at the box office during the decade many remember as bland white bread.... Brimming with opinions, reminiscences and anecdotes, the pleasure here comes from Mordden's jaundiced eye, sharp wit and passion for his subject. This is must for every theater lover."Publishers Weekly
"...as a tightly focused discussion of Broadway during its last decade of growth, this isn't a bad little book."Jack Helbig,Booklist
"Coming Up Roses may not be an exhaustive treatment of the 1950's musical, but it's canny and intensely readable."Randy Hall,Star
"While well-researched and of interest to the scholar, this lively book is as entertaining as its subject and will be enjoyed by the casual reader as well"Library Journal
- Oxford University Press, USA
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- 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Street, 1950
You hear it as soon as the overture starts: a fanfare of confidence, ingenuity, surprise. Once, musical comedy overtures were simply medleys of the choice tunes, one after another. Now, they're a touch symphonic, thematic, a kind of bragging: for in the 1950s the Broadway musical was beginning the fourth decade of its golden age.
The musical then was central to American culture. Its songs not only topped the Hit Parade but, unlike most pop music, often passed into classic status. Its stars were American icons; better, its ability to create stardom, at times "overnight," was awesome. Its earning power could be terrific. With production costs holding at about $150,000 to $300,000, a hit could start paying off inside of six months, with further profits from recordings, touring and foreign mountings, and Hollywood transformation, routine in a day when all Americans, it seemed, loved musicals.
This golden age, launched in the 1920s, when a new generation of composers teamed up with a new generation of librettists to rebuild the musical's style from the bottom up, counted some of these talents thirty years later. True, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, and Lorenz Hart were dead; Ira Gershwin and B. G. De Sylva had retired. (The latter died in 1950.) But Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Guy Bolton were still working, and Richard Rodgers, now partnering Oscar Hammerstein II, had given continuity to the age by reinvigorating the form with their highly influential "musical play" in the 1940s--Oklahoma!, Carousel, Allegro, and South Pacific. Then, too, the 1930s and 1940s had added to the mix such talents as Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Alan Jay Lerner, Kurt Weill, and Frederick Loewe. In all, the Broadway musical had never been more successful, sure of itself, and even prestigious. It claimed a noble tradition and, apparently, an endless future.
Of course, Broadway in general was enjoying this power. The ever-looming Eugene O'Neill typifies the decade's air of mingled conservatism and revolution, for though dead he was yet to present the theatre world with a few final productions, most notably A Long Day's Journey Into Night, arguably his masterpiece, in 1956. The once shocking O'Neill had long since been taken into Broadway's old guard, yet he was still shocking; this was good news. Furthermore, many long-established actors were still in trim--Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Judith Anderson, Eva Le Gallienne. Yet Broadway was only just absorbing the revelation, by Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), of a new and stimulating naturalism, a style that shatters style (especially that of Cornell, Hayes, and company). As for playwrights, Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge were promising Broadway to be the Big Three, their each new title (not least when directed by Elia Kazan) fairly described as "eagerly awaited."
Broadway had some problems, widely assumed to be minor. The overexpansion of New York theatre realty in the boom years of the 1920s saw the second half of the overloaded 1927-28 season in real distress, with too many productions for an audience that had reached its maximum and could not expand further. A year later, the Stock Market Crash cut this audience back and tightened the flow of capital for new productions; simultaneously the development of the talking film lured away customers even more than the silent film had. The "road" shrank, from a gleeful network of anything and everything to a solemn touring of Broadway hits.
In all, this was regarded as regrettable but unavoidable. After all, what was lost was supposed to be a glut of lowly genre productions--the murder mysteries, domestic comedies, cheesy revues, and melodramas that no one really cared about, anyway. Oh--there was television, too. But in 1950 this was a laughable novelty, with its tiny black-and-white screen, its spotty scheduling on a mere four networks, its kiddie shows and Amos 'n' Andy and Milton Berle.
So the American theatre was on a roll, fielding some fifty-one productions in Broadway's 1949-50 season. (This is to ignore evenings of dance and Gilbert and Sullivan that occupied legitimate theatres that year.) Fifteen of these fifty-one shows were musicals, and perhaps a good place to start would be with Big Broadway, in a star vehicle produced by Leland Hayward for Ethel Merman with an Irving Berlin score, a Howard Lindsay-Russel Crouse book, direction by George Abbott, and choreography by Jerome Robbins: Call Me Madam (1950).
In fact, this is an ideal jumping-off place, for Call Me Madam is prototypal, a conventional piece in every respect. Technically an "original" (that is, not based on a prior source), it is little more than a three-hour novelty act--Merman as our ambassador to a tiny European country. Her character, Sally Adams, was modeled on Perle Mesta, a Washington, D.C., partygiver whose service to the Democrats was rewarded with just such a post, in Luxembourg. But the real fun in Call Me Madam lay in watching our anything-but-tactful Merman taking on the diplomatic set.
"The play is laid in two mythical countries," the program announced. "One is called Lichtenburg, the other the United States of America." There is a lot of topical fun--Merman on the phone with President Truman (whom she calls "Harry"), beltway jokes, contemporary D.C. compared with picturesque Lichtenburg, with its operetta costumes and its ocarina, something between a tin whistle and a recorder. Still, Call Me Madam has a story, an at times touching one: how naive American power comes up against crafty European politics... and both sides win. We make a friend, they get a power plant, and Merman charms an old-world conservative into loving America and marrying Merman.
The book is overlong and has dull patches, but Lindsay and Crouse gave Merman plenty of those raucous zingers that were her specialty. (Of her deluxe gown for a royal reception, she cries, "I don't mind a train, but did they have to give me the Super Chief?.") There were a few choice jabs at America's political scene, as when Sally's vis-a-vis, Cosmo Constantine (Paul Lukas), complains about Lichtenburg's prime minister:
COSMO: He has a mind like a steel trap. Unfortunately, it snapped shut twenty-five years ago and hasn't opened since.
SALLY: He must be your Senator Taft.
What's attractive about Call Me Madam's book is how smoothly it integrates the more elaborate sets with the in-between scenes "in one" (downstage, in front of a traveler curtain, allowing the stagehands to prepare the next larger set). That was state of the art by 1950, a way to keep a story jumping from place to place while respecting fourth-wall "realism." The way the show organized its musical spots, too, is representative, with an assortment of functional songs, character songs, love songs, and atmosphere songs, every one of which is fairly evoked by the plot.
For instance, the first act begins in the office of Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, the set created by a backdrop dominated by what looks like a Gilbert Stuart framed by partly drawn curtains. Typical Washingtonians, grouped at center stage, suddenly break their cluster--revealing Merman being sworn in by a Supreme Court justice as Acheson looks on. This is a real surprise appearance, as Merman normally made an Entrance, with a lot of buildup and furore. A relatively short book scene led up to another Merman zinger--"Hey, Dean, where the hell is Lichtenburg?"--and a blackout, as the curtains closed and the chorus bopped onstage for the first number, "Mrs. Sally Adams."
The song establishes Sally's persona and sets up for the ensuing party scene, while choreographer Jerome Robbins planned it to play in one until the second, full-stage set was ready, when the traveler curtain parted and the chorus simply folded into the guests at Sally's big farewell bash. The new set presented a vaguely art nouveau living room with a double staircase upstage and three fancy sofas in front, leaving plenty of room for entrances and exits as Lindsay and Crouse banged out more exposition, mainly to introduce Sally's new secretary, Kenneth Gibson (Russell Nype), a young and idealistic foil to her older cynicism. It was Kenneth who cued in the first of what were to prove Call Me Madam's host of standards, "The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," a made-for-Merman number if ever there was one.
By Broadway timing, one now expected some all-out, full-stage dancing, and Robbins obliged with "Washington Square Dance." This led to the next blackout, as ocarinas ushered in our first look at Lichtenburg--again, in one, as Cosmo addressed the audience on local politics while Lichtenburgers paraded past. Another number, "Lichtenburg," insured that the stagehands had readied the big U.S. embassy set and that the public had some understanding of the problems besetting the humble little nation that Sally hoped to help. So it went through the evening, small set to big set and back as the action remained fluid.
Note that Sally and Cosmo supplied one love plot and that Kenneth, with Lichtenburg's Princess Maria (Galina Talva), supplied the other. Musicals almost invariably counted two romantic couples, in a tradition that dates back to the eighteenth century. Typically, the main couple was grander, the other couple younger. The King and I fixes it for us, with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner sparring over who owns the show while dear little Doretta Morrow and Larry Douglas pine and die. As we'll see, however, the musical was ceaselessly protean in these years, usually conventional but always developing convention, twisting it, replacing it. Who's the first couple in Guys and Dolls? Nathan and Adelaide? Sky and Sarah? Aren't the pairs perfectly equal in importance? Pipe Dream has no second couple at all; My Fair Lady makes do with a sort-of triangle when Freddy tries to woo Eliza away from Higgins. West Side Story honors the tradition--Tony and Maria are romantic while Anita and Bernardo are sexy--or have we another triangle, the main love plot being that of Riff-loves-Tony-who-loves Maria? (More of this later.)
Note, too, that one absolute convention of popular musical theatre has lost grip--the curtain-up number. It was a mark of the musical's growing rationalization that this throwaway genre was starting to vanish. Why should every story start in the same way if every story isn't the same? Once deemed necessary though virtually pointless, the opening number, usually a chorus but sometimes a solo (as in Mary , Oklahoma! , or Kismet ), was by 1950 likely but not requisite. Call Me Madam begins where the story begins, as Sally is sworn in on her new job. Then came the number, because that's where the number belongs in the story.
The overture, however, was a convention never questioned in the entire decade. As I've said, the fifties overture tended to begin imposingly, as if not auditioning but proclaiming its melodies. Call Me Madam's overture takes off on a reveille in the brass: jazzy triplets over emphatic brass chords that move from an A Flat Major sixth chord to an a fiat minor sixth, a bluesy effect that recalls Jerome Kern's famous reply to the question, "What is Irving Berlin's place in American music?": "Irving Berlin is American music." Something wonderfully basic occurs when Berlin is in form (as he is throughout this score), something that communicates instantly and effortlessly. Here, in 1950, forty years after his first published songs, Berlin still occupies the center of what middle-class Americans call music. Yet Berlin puts his personal spin on everything, as when he fills out each A quatrain in the AABA of the overture's first title, "Something To Dance About," with two bars of waltz at odds with the song's overall 4/4 time. It's as if Berlin is trying to stuff his sound with dance. Indeed, the number itself, the second-act opener, puts the dancing ensemble through a cavalcade of styles--"Argentine Tango," Charleston, "Quasi Guy Lombardo Waltz Tempo," blues, rhumba (with a pride of needling brass), and fox trot.
Four of Call Me Madam's thirteen songs are ensemble dance numbers, though all are strictly dance for dance's sake rather than narrative or psychological. The 1940s discovered the use of choreography to interpret or even advance the action (as in Oklahoma!'s dream ballet, "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind," or On the Town's "Miss Turnstiles"). The 1950s exuberantly caught this ball and ran with it, most climactically in West Side Story. But many shows, like Call Me Madam, used dance strictly as decoration--even while employing On the Town's and West Side Story's choreographer, Jerome Robbins.
Berlin's songs themselves are tuneful and motivated. "It's a Lovely Day Today" became an overnight classic, along with "You're Just in Love," the latest in Berlin's long line of quodlibets, two separate melodies performed successively and then, to the ear's delight, simultaneously. Yet Call Me Madam went out of town without "You're Just in Love"--without, truth to tell, a solid second act's worth of songs. One problem was the lazy, crazy "Mr. Monotony," a number Berlin was especially keen on but which had been dropped from several projects. It was so out of character for Sally Adams that even Merman couldn't make the audience like it. She also had a solo called "Free" (re-executed successfully for Rosemary Clooney in the film White Christmas as "Snow") that seemed preachy.
On the road, then, Call Me Madam was playing as a smash with a flop second act. So Berlin dropped "Mr. Monotony" and "Free" and put in "Something To Dance About." Now the second act opened with a spark. It continued well, too, with "They Like Ike," a bouncy salute to the man the Republicans were fingering as the solution to twenty years of Democratic hegemony in the White House. But the second act still needed an eleven o'clocker, a homer in the ninth inning. "Give me a song with the kid," Merman suggested, in reference to Nype's crew-cutted, preppy charm. That's when "You're Just in Love" went in. Then someone or other had a brainstorm--as President Truman is continually mentioned but never appears, why not finally bring him on stage ... during the curtain calls? An actor named Irving Fisher was a dead-ringer for Truman, and, after Merman took her bow, he walked on to lend her the presidential imprimatur.
Now Call Me Madam was playing. One thing remained--for Berlin to rewrite the "dummy" (temporary) lyric to the verse to "The Hostess With the Mostes'." Just before the New York opening, Berlin triumphantly entered Merman's dressing room to present her with the new couplets. Nothing doing: "Call me Miss Birdseye of 1950," Merman barked. "This show is frozen!"
Eisenhower was in the audience for the premiere, for he was then president of Columbia University. Ike liked the show, and so did the critics. Brooks Atkinson of the Times called Merman "an inspired pin-ball machine," which he meant as a compliment, and he intelligently analyzed the show's strengths--an "ingratiating" if at times "dull" book, one of Berlin's "most enchanting scores," Abbott's "jaunty" direction and Robbins' "festive" dances. Atkinson even singled out the two ocarina players by name.
The nation fell into line with the Times. Call Me Madam ran a year and a half and managed a yearlong post-Broadway tour (with Elaine Stritch in Merman's part), a hit London production with Billie Worth, and a successful movie version with Merman. It never became a classic, but it was very profitable, and that was all one asked of a show then, especially a musical comedy. The few titles that had established themselves as perennials by 1950 were virtually all operettas or the like; anyway, the notion that American culture might be building up a treasury of musical shows, a legacy of national art, was considerably in the future.
The coming together of Merman, Berlin, Abbott, and Robbins on a major success was not a lucky strike: it was what was supposed to happen, for the writing and staging of musicals were by 1950 something of a science. An unsteady science, granted: with an ever-volatile chemistry and a well-nigh inscrutable physics. But the periodic table, the schedule, so to say, of elements, was secure: the star (or a team of promising youngsters) in an unusual story competently narrated and punctuated by captivating music and lyrics and unique ensemble dances, the whole organized by a veteran staging expert.
Compare that with the elements of a musical in about 1920: the star in a cliche story that was merely a framing device for generic musical numbers, hoary joke-book gags, and the usual specialty performers in a staging more often than not by a hack. Three crucial revolutions reinvented the musical, making it more complex and unusual but, paradoxically, all the more likely to enjoy a greater success than the typical twenties hit. That is, as the shows got unique they also became more popular, and they got unique because (first revolution) the storytelling became more imaginative, because (second revolution) the choreography became more imaginative, and because (third revolution) the subject matter became more imaginative. In other words: Show Boat (1927), On Your Toes (1936), Lady in the Dark (1941).
The three revolutions came together most spectacularly perhaps in Oklahoma! in 1943, but, as the 1940s wore on, the extraordinary power of the dances in On the Town, the haunting darkness of Carousel, the operatic intensity of Street Scene, the satiric vision of Finian's Rainbow, the experimental daring of the first "concept" shows, Allegro and Love Life, and the sheer expertise in balancing the elements in the essentially unambitious Annie Get Your Gun proved that virtually all the musical's most popular and prestigious talents were thoroughly imbued with the revolutions.
Interestingly, when these same people or their counterparts could in the 1920s suffer the most ghastly failures, by 1950 they were far more likely to succeed. For instance, around 1925, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Oscar Hammerstein, Sigmund Romberg, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin all saw at least one show fold out of town and watched other shows stagger through ignominiously short runs. In the 1950s, the elite tended to enjoy smash hits, the succes d'estime, or at least four-or five-month failures that still left behind a cast album and thereby the possibility of future resuscitation.
A case in point would be Out of This World (1950), elementally comparable to Call Me Madam: a star (Charlotte Greenwood), Cole Porter in one of his most enchanting scores, and a major choreographer (Hanya Holm) and director (Agnes de Mille, whose out-of-town firing brings us yet closer to Madam in her unbilled replacement, George Abbott). There was one major difference between the two shows: Madam succeeded, but Out of This World failed.
A retelling of the Amphitryon legend, the piece proposed Greenwood as Juno, chasing after Jupiter (George Jongeyans, later Gaynes), who lusts for the bride (Priscilla Gillette) of an American newspaperman (William Eythe), in Greece for a story on a gangster (comic David Burns). Add an impish Mercury (William Redfield) and some luscious local color (Barbara Ashley), and one has a fine follow-up to Porter's previous show, Kiss Me, Kate: antique subject but modern worldview, ribald atmosphere, lots of melody and dance, and elaborate decor.
Something went wrong, because after a hectic tryout period the show opened in New York to tepid reviews, and the gala score couldn't produce a single hit. (It had had one till Abbott threw out "From This Moment On" in Boston, apparently because William Eythe, a non-singer, was killing his half of the whirlwind love duet. Why didn't Abbott reassign the number to Redfield and Ashley, whose characters it would in fact have suited?)
I blame Dwight Taylor, for his original plan was misconceived and humorless. It's easy to mistrust a script whose author has so vague a grasp on his subject that he runs through a host of titles. Taylor fondled Laughter in the Sky, Heaven on Earth, Day Dream, Stolen Fruit, Just Imagine, Summer Lightning, and the one Cole Porteresque title (think pun), Made in Heaven.
Taylor, who had written the book for a Porter show almost twenty years earlier--Gay Divorce--had been working in Hollywood meanwhile and forgot anything he might have known about the structure of musical comedy, which would have been antediluvian by 1950 anyway. He had one odd idea: for the evening to start with a man in evening clothes to leap out of a box seat onto the stage, to announce that he was Mercury, then to strip down to godly tights and introduce the show. It's fresh, at least. But Taylor's exposition was unbelievably lengthy, he did not include the comic gangster, and the Juno he wrote was little more than a featurette. Reginald Lawrence was brought in for rewrites even before rehearsals began, and when Abbott joined the show in Philadelphia he enlisted F. Hugh Herbert for more rewriting.
By Boston, the script had been drastically improved, but it wouldn't hold up. It was too silly, too given to masquerade and unmotivated appearances, as twenties musicals had been. The show got some publicity mileage out of Boston's pruning of certain erotic excesses, and these were indeed many. (The all-time gamiest Cole Porter double meaning occurs in this work, in "Cherry Pies Ought To Be You," in a reference to "Erroll Flynn, loose or tight," a jest on Flynn's bisexuality, unknown to the public but a hot item in Porter's set.) But New York took these in stride while regretting the book's shallow subterfuges. And this after Kiss Me, Kate, too!
New York did greet Greenwood with affection. A longtime Broadway veteran famed for her Letty series in the 1910s and early 1920s, she had been out of the musical for exactly as long as Dwight Taylor had. But here was one of the great comebacks. Wisely, Greenwood withheld her signature straight-leg high kicks for her eleven o'clock number, "Nobody's Chasing Me," as the house went mad. Everything else in the show was instant rubble, unfortunately including the songs. Porter's most popular score, in terms of sheer hit numbers, must be Anything Goes; his most popular score as a whole must be Kiss Me, Kate; his own favorite was Nymph Errant; and his best is Jubilee. Yet Out of This World is his loveliest in its own odd way. All mature Porter scores have their tender side and their sassy side; this score is the tenderest, but also the sassiest. It's Porterissimo, so winsome and pure in the American wife's ballads, "Use Your Imagination" and "I Am Loved," and "No Lover (for me)," so impishly gold-digging in "Where, Oh Where," so randy in the gods' music. Just the fact that Juno and Jupiter never duet is notable--what, paste some makeweight over that black hole of a relationship? Porter keeps the two separate, Jupiter for the hot stuff and Juno for the comedy. His "I Jupiter, I Rex" is eruditely hot: the music goes all horny, but the lyric quotes "the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes," as W.S. Gilbert put it. Mercury's "They Couldn't Compare To You," a salute to a bevy of showgirls, is plain hot, with a patter section on his many conquests (which range from Eve to Peggy Joyce, not excluding Pandora, who "let me open her box!").
When they build a highway, people buy cars. When they open a library, people borrow books. When they invent the long-playing record, people get to take show music home with them more or less as it was heard in the theatre, and this is a salient factor in our understanding of the American musical. Not counting a pair of piano-accompanied productions in the 1930s, there were no American "original-cast recordings" until the 1940s, at that only about two dozen, leaving some of the biggest hits unpreserved. Remember, only 50 percent of a given musical is what was actually written: the other 50 percent is how it was performed. Not till Columbia introduced the LP in 1948 did the recording industry have the flexibility and marketing power to capture some fifty minutes of a show's original performance for all time; and the relatively low cost of making the discs coupled with the popularity of show albums in fifties culture led Columbia, Victor, Capitol, and Decca (the inventor of the Big Broadway cast album, with This Is the Army in 1942) to vie for and ultimately secure literally every hit, every important score, and a good many objets trouves. From the 1950s on, we not only know what was written, but how it sounded--and Out of This World, for all its book problems, sounded just fine. Consider this aspect of the cast recording: in the 1920s, even the biggest hit, once it finished its national tour, could be gone forever. Columbia's LP of Out of This World stayed in the catalogue for twenty years, and, rereleased on CD, it's still with us--along with a recording of the 1995 Encores concert performance starring Andrea Martin that may well have been inspired by Columbia's disc.
Merman's grand and Greenwood's vexed experiences in star vehicles remind us that no element in musical-comedy craftsmanship is invulnerable. One potential diva saw her career virtually destroyed by poor craftsmanship. Nanette Fabray enjoyed a great 1940s. Still a teenager in her first ingenue roles, then a replacement lead in two huge hits, By Jupiter and Bloomer Girl, Fabray made stardom in High Button Shoes and Love Life and seemed poised to challenge the reigning queens, Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Fabray was cute, trim, and tomboyishly womanly, an ideal musical comedy type: something special that hadn't already happened. Then, unfortunately, the Theatre Guild offered her Arms and the Girl (1950) and she took it.
Actually, it must have seemed promising, a story rich in period Americana and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, a recipe that, a few years before, produced Oklahoma! and Carousel. However, Arms and the Girl's authors were not Rodgers and Hammerstein but Herbert and Dorothy Fields on book and Dorothy writing the score with Morton Gould, whose Billion Dollar Baby music had been so humdrum that only three songs were published, an unheard-of economy for the day. Other less than encouraging signs were Mamoulian's sharing libretto credit with the Fieldses--what did Mamoulian know about writing a script?--and the participation, as sole backer, of the Consolidated Edison heir and sometime producer Anthony Brady Farrell, whose taste was notoriously the worst on Broadway.
Still, the show offered Fabray a suitable role, as a Revolutionary War heroine who runs around in uniform bearing a sabre, sniffing for spies, and blowing up (the wrong) bridges. Her colleagues included Georges Guetary as a Hessian mercenary who defects to our side in admiration of democracy, and Pearl Bailey as a runaway slave who takes the name of whatever state she happens to be in. (Originally Virginia, she was recently Pennsylvania and is now Connecticut.) In the event, Gould and Fields came up with a tuneful score with two solid comic numbers in the loafing but gritty Bailey style, "Nothin' For Nothin'" and "There Must Be Somethin' Better Than Love." The choreographer was the excellent Michael Kidd, Horace Armistead designed sets reminiscent of the simplicity and harmony of Grandma Moses, and Farrell did not, to Fabray's relief, demand that she revive her by then abandoned signature trick of whistling through her teeth.
The show was lively and bright. Once again, there was no opening number: the curtain rose on a hayloft during a battle. Soldier Guetary ran in to take shelter and there met Bailey, also in hiding:
GUETARY: Slaves... I read about you in Europe.
BAILEY: They know about me in Europe already? I only run away last Sunday!
Now it was Fabray's turn, in a novel entrance, dashing in with sabre waving to shout, "Draw your sword, Hessian swine!"
So Fabray and Guetary meet cute. They court cute, too, because Arms and the Girl's source was a forgotten play called The Pursuit of Happiness, which featured a "bundling" scene, recalling the colonial custom of setting a young man and woman in bed together with a board between them, supposedly to insure warmth on winter nights. No authority whom I have consulted can or is willing to explain whether or not the kids were supposed to have sex, but The Pursuit of Happiness's bundling scene was considered highly titillating, and Arms and the Girl gave one not only to Fabray and Guetary but also to Fabray and John Conte, as an American general Fabray suspects of espionage. Thickening the plot, Connecticut names him as her owner, yet, in a scene of comic suspense, he fails to recognize her. Ha, an imposter!
So Guetary wanders around disguising his natural French accent in Pennsylvania Dutch ("Well, for dying I am too young yet..."), as if reserving a part in Plain and Fancy later in the decade, and Fabray finally gets into women's clothes in a gala Dressing Number, "He Will Tonight," during which the chorus girls build her a frilly outfit by retooling napkins, ribbons, Martha Washington caps, and so on. By the time General Washington strode onstage as deus ex machina to order Fabray to "stay the hell out of the Revolution!," it was clear that Arms and the Girl was no Oklahoma!. First of all, 1950 was late for the costume Americana that had flourished during the war years, and in any case a show that was merely competent needed something special if it was to run--a couple of hit tunes, something astonishing in design or choreography . . . or a theatre-filling personality who can exalt ordinary material. Fabray was to do exactly that a decade later in Irving Berlin's bomb Mr. President--but not, unfortunately, in Arms and the Girl.
Even more damaging to Fabray's career was Make a Wish (1951), the first time her name headlined alone above the title. This was an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's The Good Fairy, first seen on Broadway in 1931. A triangle involving a French adventuress with both a protegeur and a protege, it was sweetened and chastened for a delightful Hollywood version with Margaret Sullavan and further tamed in a remake for Deanna Durbin as I'll Be Yours. Preston Sturges, who had written the first film script, was hired to repeat himself for Make a Wish, but he knew nothing of how a musical is put together. Moreover, personal problems and an obsessive interest in his California theatre company led him to abandon the show in Philadelphia, where Abe Burrows (very hot because of the flash success of his book for Guys and Dolls) attempted to doctor a mirthless, heavy-handed script.
But then the show itself was heavy. At $340,000, it ended up as one of the most costly shows in Broadway history to that time, with elaborate sets and costumes by Raoul Pene du Bois that strove to fill the Winter Garden Theatre with the Parisian feeling that the show badly needed. Choreographer Gower Champion helped, with two ballets, "The Students' Ball" in Act One and "The Sale" (a spoof of department-store turmoil) in Act Two.
The designs and the dancing were the show's strong points. Hugh Martin's score was amiable but conventional, with the cliche opening number that doesn't really matter (so why do it?), the heroine's cliche character introduction number, "I Want To Be Good 'N' Bad," the cliche salute to Paris, "(Meet the lady known as) Paris, France," and the cliche late-in-the-second-act novelty, "Take Me Back To Texas With You," that finds two French girls suddenly conversant with cowboy folklore. The rewritten book still lacked humor, for Burrows, so clever at finding the ironies in Runyonland or the Corporation (in the later How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), had nothing to work with in Sturges's version of Molnar.
In all, Make a Wish had no reason for being, outside of its profit potential. The play and movies had succeeded--why not a musical in this very age of musicals? Maybe a drastic reworking would have discovered something in it; its authors certainly didn't: Fabray is an orphan waif who is befriended by rich Melville Cooper so she can befriend penniless lawyer Stephen Douglass. The non-singing Cooper blandly steers clear of the music while Fabray and Douglass go through the outline of a romance and dancers Harold Lang and Helen Gallagher provide the comic subplot of an American dating a Parisian--though a Parisian Helen Gallagher (as Poupette) was quite a contradiction in terms. "For some reason or other," Brooks Atkinson thought, "there does seem to be more scenery than show."
The reason was that Make a Wish had no personality, no outlook, no real story in the story. Everything that so captivated in Molnar had by now been adapted out of him, so there was nothing left but new stuff--the scenery and dancing, which, ironically, almost put the piece over. The critics were so impressed by these two factors that one reads a tone of grudging respect in notices that would otherwise have been damning. (George Jean Nathan, who really panned it, considered the $340,000 and estimated that five cents of it was spent on humor.) Fabray's personal notices ran short of the all-but-necessary wow! mark, and Make a Wish's three-month failure all but finished Fabray on Broadway.
Call Me Madam, Out of This World, Arms and the Girl, and Make a Wish are all examples of musical comedy, by 1950 the dominant form of Broadway musical: as opposed to revue (which was in steep decline), operetta (which almost invariably flopped), the musical play (which was becoming increasingly popular), and, oddly enough, opera. There had been four operas on Broadway between 1948 and 1950: Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (1948); Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of The Little Foxes as Regina (1949); Britten's The Little Sweep, presented as Let's Make an Opera (1949) because the audience takes part in the show; and Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul (1950). Only the last succeeded, in part because it is one of the few Menotti works rich in melody and also because its look at an Eastern European family trying desperately to emigrate to the free West was very timely.
The revue, once a Broadway staple in everything from lavish annuals such as the Ziegfeld Follies and George White's Scandals through themed evenings such as At Home Abroad down to little more than vaudeville with a title, had degenerated so badly that the fifties revue produced some of the most forgotten shows of the entire postwar era. Forgotten? Who heard of them then? Alive and Kicking (1950) at least boasted Jack Cole choreography (and Cole's lead dancer then, Gwen Verdon, in her Broadway debut), and Paul and Grace Hartman somehow found enough to do in Tickets Please (1950) to sustain business for seven months. But Pardon Our French (1950) brought back the eagerly unawaited Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who had perpetrated the Tobacco Road of musicals, Hellzapoppin, back in 1938, following it with sequels, of which this was the fourth and last. Then there was Michael Todd's Peep Show (1950), a genuinely slapdash affair of decent acts mixed with throw-it-in-anyway horrors. Todd did nothing for the dignity of revue by featuring in the score a song called "Blue Night" that was composed by Bhumibol Adulyadej--"His Majesty the King of Thailand," as the sheet music proudly proclaimed.
Operetta's big problem was that the musical play had stolen all its best qualities--passion, musicality, idealism--and left it with hoary jokes, pointlessly exotic decor, and Irra Petina. Actually, Petina was about all that operetta had going for it by 1950: a marvelous singer with a comedienne's delivery who was far too good for the Gypsy Ladys and Hit the Trails that she kept ending up in. What Petina really could have used was not operetta but one of those musical plays. Like, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1951).
Here's the science revealed at its surest, in fact by the two men who had recatalogued the table of elements. The King and I, amusingly, was in effect a commission, by Gertrude Lawrence, who wanted the boys to turn the Twentieth Century-Fox film Anna and the King of Siam into her starring vehicle. The finished work, however, was the opposite of Make a Wish: not a routine product of the serial transformation of material from, say, novel to play to movie to musical to movie musical (as with Patrick Dennis's novel Auntie Mame, more or less the same event in all its forms), but something so transformed by its adaptation that it becomes a thing in itself. Certainly, none of The King and I's tragic rhapsody can be found in the movie; and the novel doesn't even have a plot.
Coincidentally, we meet up with another King of Thailand, for such is the modern name of the nineteenth-century Siam in which The King and I takes place. Now, watch how artfully Hammerstein lays out his exposition. After the overture, a glowering march in the brass under brightly trembling strings and woodwind runs warn us that this is a musical play, a drama rather than a romp. Flute and strings then sound an Asian-or-so tune in canon as the curtain rises on Captain Orton's ship and young Louis runs on. A few lines between him and the Captain establish that they are approaching Bangkok, their port of call, Gertrude Lawrence calls to her son from offstage, and Louis's bit of repetitive fill as Lawrence enters is drowned in the audience's traditional Greeting of the Star. Fifteen seconds later, the Captain takes the opportunity to state the evening's central conceit: "I wonder if you know what you're facing, Ma'am--an Englishwoman here in the East."
But now the royal barge approaches, bearing the Kralahome (ORTON: "The King's right-hand man, you might say"), and the conceit is developed:
ORTON: That man has power, and he can use it for you or against you.
ANNA: (laughing) Oh.
Her laughter tells us how used Anna is to the amenities of Western Civilization and how unaware she is that she is about to lose them. Then, as the barge closes in, comes the first number, prompted by the situation--danger may threaten, but we're not afraid, are we? In fact, we're so nonchalant that we're whistling. "I Whistle a Happy Tune" establishes the mother-son relationship but also underlines Anna's ignorant boldness. She thinks she can't ever be in trouble because everyone in England is reasonable. She realizes that she's not in England any more during a scene with the Kralahome's interpreter, these two interjecting a little color into the show by miming their Siamese to piquant orchestral accompaniment.
The interpreter's questions become personal; Hammerstein shows us Anna's courage but also her inflexibility while warning us just how unWestern Siam is and giving the scene a surprise twist:
ANNA: (stiffening) Tell your master his business with me is in my capacity of schoolteacher to the royal children. He has no right to pry into my personal affairs. (Orton tries to signal a warning, but she turns to him impatiently.) Well, he hasn't, Captain Orton!
(The Interpreter gives the Kralahome her message. The Kralahome gives the Interpreter a kick on the shoulder which sends him sprawling out of the way.)
LOUIS: I don't like that man!
KRALAHOME: (Herewith revealing that he in fact speaks English) In foreign country is best you like everyone--until you leave.
Anna and the Kralahome continue in English, wrangling over a contractual point that, it appears, the King may not honor:
ANNA: I shall take nothing less than what I have been promised.
KRALAHOME: You will tell King this?
ANNA: I will tell King this.
(The faint suggestion of a smile curls the corner of the Kralahome's mouth.)
KRALAHOME: It will be very interesting meeting.
Thus Hammerstein introduces the King--unreliable, difficult--even before we've seen him, and though Anna and Louis exit whistling their happy tune, the air of wonderment set up at the scene's first moments has become one of anxiety.
Compare The King and I's exposition with Call Me Madam's: a quick look at Ethel Merman taking her ambassador's oath, a silly chorus number, then an endless party scene that does little more than introduce Merman to Russell Nype. Call Me Madam's through-line--an American woman in postwar Europe--is no more than a hook, an angle. The King and I's through-line--an Englishwoman in the East--pits two monumental characters in a war literally to the death (his) in a clash of cultures as well as personalities.
This West meets East is no hook but the very substance of the show, impelling the book and dominating the score in many small and large ways--in one procession of Buddhist priests while Anna's Siamese students pass singing "Home Sweet Home" in counterpoint; Louis and the Siamese prince reprising the King's first-act solo, "A Puzzlement," emphasizing in their racial diversity the song's sociopolitical ambivalence; the second-act opening, "Western People Funny," as the King's head wife, Lady Thiang, gives an ironic view of Western dress; a Siamese staging in Eastern theatre style of Uncle Tom's Cabin, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas"; Anna teaching the King to polka; and, even as the King dies, his son directing the court to bow and curtsey in the Western manner instead of making the customary kowtow, the scene played to the strains of Lady Thiang's "Something Wonderful," as if stating that the democratizing of Siam was in fact set into motion by the King.
We should compare also The King and I's score with Call Me Madam's, not to take advantage of the latter, but simply to show how integrated the best fifties scores were. Call Me Madam runs its plot, for the most part, between the numbers, which are not strongly characterized in any case. (Yes, "The Hostess With the Mostes'" is flavorful, but much of the rest is enjoyably generic.) However, navigating through "My Lord and Master," "Hello, Young Lovers," "A Puzzlement," "Getting to Know You," "We Kiss in a Shadow," "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You," "Something Wonderful," and "Shall We Dance?"--that is, hearing the songs alone--one can actually tell what the show is about. Even "I Have Dreamed" would be just another love song were it not for the fact that its singers risk death simply to utter those words. But then, Rodgers and Hammerstein's scores are unusual not because they were looking for out-of-the-ordinary topics but because they wrote about out-of-the ordinary characters.
For instance, consider the secondary couple: not frisky and young but senior and contemplative. Not only do they never duet--they share but one brief book scene. And they love not each other but the King: Lady Thiang and the Kralahome. This unqualified worship of their monarch enriches his persona, gives us an alternate context in which to view him, because we naturally assume Anna's view at first. She sees him as selfish and tyrannical. They see him as devoted to his people and struggling to break with his totalitarian traditions, Siam's first democrat.
The more orthodox supplementary couple is of course Tuptim and Lun Tha, young, pretty, and doomed. However, unlike the typical second pair, these two bear heavily on the story. Most of their counterparts maintain the most tenuous connection to the show; their main contribution lies in keeping the audience amused during scene changes. One thinks of Annie Get Your Gun's Tommy and Winnie, featured players with two numbers of their own but of such little value to the story that, for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival, they were entirely written out of the show, songs and all.
One could not stage The King and I without Tuptim and Lun Tha. She in particular is essential on a thematic level, as a slave who most vividly presents the horror of living as another person's property. Here is another side of the King revealed to us, for to Tuptim he is vindictive, destructive. Not surprisingly, she is the author of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," arguably the greatest of all set-piece dances in this age obsessed with Big Ballet. Tuptim's attraction to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel is, obviously, its denunciation of slavery (and, in a touch of feminism avant la lettre, simple pride in a woman's having written a novel). But our interest in the ballet lies in how Jerome Robbins utilizes the pageantry of the East to give a familiar story a new glow. And, because Little Eva must enter heaven as a sacrifice at the ballet's end, so must Tuptim serve as a sacrifice, her tragedy bringing in a new King of Siam, one who will govern, under Anna's tutelage, even more democratically than his father.
This brings us to the central couple, Anna and the King. Which is the protagonist, the character bearing the moral weight, the cultural superiority? The play's title (from her viewpoint) and its stated source (the King barely appears in the novel) suggest Anna as the ultimate principal, and of course Lawrence was billed alone above the title during the show's first run. Yet, from the very faithful movie version on, Yul Brynner began to crowd the Annas, and, in two major revivals, it was he who got solo headline billing.
In fact, the parts are equally weighted, though Anna pits a sympathetic democracy against the King's sometimes rash totalism, and though she has five major numbers to his one big number, one small number, and his minor share in "Shall We Dance?" No matter: each musical play in the Rodgers and Hammerstein style rebalances the elements, which is one reason why they prove so successful in revival: they lack the conventions that date a work, "type" it. It's difficult to imagine any other writing team tackling such unusual material in 1951, but if one had made the attempt, The King and I would surely have come out an operetta with a baritone King, not unlike The Desert Song's Red Shadow in pyjamas.
To my mind, Anna and the King are the two greatest roles in all Rodgers and Hammerstein, because they contend not for each other's souls but for the fate of a people. The King wants to accommodate, gradually, some form of enlightened monarchy; Anna wants to turn him into F.D.R., and not later than next Thursday.
It is an incendiary relationship, not only because of their political differences but because cultural taboos forbid them from consummating any physical desire they may feel. Certainly, the King, to refer to Brynner's performance in the film, harbors an overt interest in Anna, implicit until "Shall We Dance?" Not that this harmless polka is erotically metaphorical. But at one point Brynner takes Deborah Kerr in a firm grip as if annexing a disputed province; it's war, and it's love.
The entire Anna-King relationship is war and love, which gives it its unique richness. There is only one way to play Nellie and Emile in South Pacific and perhaps two or three ways to play Carousel's Julie and Billy. But Anna can be bossy or gently guiding, reckless or prudent, shrewish or eager; the King can be Brynner, Farley Granger, Darren McGavin, Rudolf Nuryeyev, or Lou Diamond Phillips, each of whom found something valid yet different to play. Granger was a charmer, only showing power when goaded. McGavin thundered and worried. Nuryeyev was heedlessly childish, as the dancer himself was. Phillips was warily boyish, not altogether sure of his power even as he exercised it.
It is the scene just after "Shall We Dance?" that defines each Anna and King. Rodgers and Hammerstein set it up with brutal irony, for the dainty polka tune and the shy lyrics emphasize all the unspoken substance of their bond. Anna sings of saying good night and meaning goodbye, but the number's subtext is is Shall we ever be able to be truly honest with each other? For their gala whirl around the room as the orchestra blasts out the melody--a great memory for theatregoers of this era and wonderfully preserved in the movie--brings them into an impossible moment: they finally agree on something. On the achievement of having brought off a diplomatic tour de force in eighteen hours, on how well each brings out the other's best qualities, on the refreshing vitality of the dance. At its end, they are closer than ever, laughing and carefree. The King demands an encore. This is excellent showmanship--but ingenious playmaking, too, for even the most alert member of the audience, disarmed by the warmth of the moment, has forgotten that Tuptim and Lun Tha are attempting to escape together to Burma. The encore lasts but seconds, for now comes the brutal part. A gong crashes, the music halts, and the Kralahome rushes in: "We have found Tuptim."
Instantly, the temperature on stage changes. Anna is terrified, the King cold and hard--"Miles away from Anna," as Hammerstein's stage directions tell us, and perhaps more apart from her than ever before. So intimate one moment and so opposed the next: that has been the pattern of their relationship almost from the beginning.
This night they really will mean goodbye, for the King prepares to whip Tuptim as Anna entreats him to forgive:
ANNA: She's only a child. She was running away because she was unhappy. Can't you understand that? Your Majesty, I beg of you--don't throw away everything you've done. This girl hurt your vanity. She didn't hurt your heart.
The King appearing obdurate, she abandons her plea--too soon!--and starts hacking away at him in frustration. In fury, it may be, at being denied control. Suddenly she is less concerned with Tuptim's fate than with the king's refusal to submit to her guidance. Watch how she changes tack in the line that directly follows the above:
ANNA: You haven't got a heart. You've never loved anyone. You never will.
Again, let's read Hammerstein's stage directions: "The King, stung by Anna's words, seeks a way to hurt her in return." That way is to whip Tuptim, who is by now no more than a pawn in Anna and the King's war for power.
In the event, the King cannot bring himself to beat Tuptim under Anna's fiercely challenging gaze. She has so transformed him that he now gauges his self-esteem on her rating system. His instincts demand Tuptim be punished, but his reason knows she shouldn't be. Trapped between the safe place of his authority as monarch and the dangerous place of Anna's authority as keeper of his self-respect, he panics and runs. Anna has finally made the King feel something he never felt before: shame.
It's trivia to note that The King and I was the fifth consecutive Rodgers and Hammerstein show in which someone dies (three of the six principals), but it does help reveal the adult nature of their subjects. If the 1950s was the decade that promised a continuation of the musical's crucial place in the culture, it was at least partly because the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution in the 1940s urged the musical to seek beyond typical fare for stories based on realistic character development: to become drama. Thus, the 1940s introduced the notion and the 1950s exploited it.
So this is the first decade filled with shows that are revived not just for their music (like The Student Prince or Anything Goes or Song of Norway) but for articulate, searching storytelling. I'm not going to list such titles here--this book is full of them--but I will offer The King and I as a show-and-tell exhibition for its wealth of psychological detail, not least in Hammerstein's ruthless dissection of his heroine's flaws.
This was the key to the musical's confidence, the security of its science: once, the great shows were the best of a particular kind. Now the great shows are unique.
Meet the Author
Ethan Mordden is a recognized authority on the American musical, and the author of Broadway Babies and Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s, both published by Oxford. He lives in Manhattan.
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