News

George M!: The Musical That NBC Sabotaged By Peter Filichia

Fifty years ago last month The Twenty-Second Annual Tony Awards were dispensed. Hallelujah, Baby! beat out The Happy Time, Illya Darling and How Now, Dow Jones for Best Musical.

It might not have won if George M! had opened just a little bit sooner – or if NBC hadn’t made a demand that the Tonys couldn’t refuse.

The American Theatre Wing, which solely administered the Tonys in those days, decreed that shows officially opened by April 11, 1968 would be eligible for its prizes. That posed no problem for George M! which had set April 10th for its debut.

This was a smart move by lead producer David Black. George M! would be the final show of the season and thus the freshest in the nominators’ minds.

Then NBC executives said they wanted to air the Tonys on April 21st. The reason? Sweeps – a term that has nothing to do with Mary Poppins.

TV’s Nielsen Ratings are always important, but May is one of the four months of the year earmarked for “sweeps” – meaning extra scrutiny. Although the Tonys, first televised the year before, had garnered decent ratings, NBC didn’t want to take any chances.

The Wing didn’t risk the wrath of the network. The Tonys’ cut-off date suddenly became March 15 – which was indeed The Ides of March for George M! The show would then still be in Detroit.

Lead producer David Black went to far as to sue; he got his day in court, and a sad one it was: Judge Hayman Korn threw out the case.

Black was incensed. He’d produced eight Broadway shows (one of which succeeded: The Impossible Years), but never had had a Great Big Broadway Musical. When he heard that Michael Stewart was working on George M. Cohan’s life story using the giant’s own song catalogue, he was interested.

Yes, friends, the idea of a “jukebox musical” isn’t as recent a phenomenon as you might have assumed. In actuality, no Cohan song probably ever made an appearance in any jukebox; his last full score for Broadway was heard in 1928 and jukeboxes had started appearing in earnest only the year before. But the term “jukebox musical” is used loosely on Broadway, isn’t it?

Librettist Stewart was having a great 1960s. Put it this way: Stewart’s shortest-running musical of the three he’d done in that decade was Bye Bye Birdie; outrunning it were both Carnival and of course Hello, Dolly! As it turned out, he would share the bookwriting duties with his sister Francine Pascal (whose lucrative Sweet Valley High days were yet ahead of her) and her husband John.

(Broadway scuttlebutt had it that they did most of the work; a record-breaking smash like Dolly keeps a man healthy, wealthy and away from the typewriter.)

Where to find a leading man, though? That question was answered after Joel Grey made a splash as The Kit Kat Club’s Emcee in Cabaret. He’d won a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical; now would be his chance to win the bigger prize.

Black felt fortunate to land Joe Layton as his director-choreographer. He’d done the dances for nine musicals (including The Sound of Music and No Strings, for which he won a Tony) and had directed four of them, too.

So in February, everyone headed to Detroit with high hopes. Layton struggled mightily to make a ten-minute ballet work, only to throw it out after a single performance after the Fisher Theatre audience didn’t respond. Then came word of NBC’s meddling, which dampened spirits.

Although Clive Barnes, then the all-powerful critic of The New York Times decreed on April 11, 1968 “George M! can have a personal Tony Award from me, and Joel Grey can have a couple,” the musical passed its first anniversary and almost immediately passed away after. Although 433 performances is nothing to be ashamed of, one must wonder if George M. would have run longer if the Tonys had accommodated it. Hallelujah, Baby! – despite its excellent score – had a weak book and had already closed; it remains the only Tony-winning musical that wasn’t running when it received the prize. The freshly-minted George M! might have taken it.

Would Joel Grey have won the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical? Quite possibly, for Robert Goulet – who did win for The Happy Time – hadn’t been as acclaimed that year as Grey was.

The following year when it was eligible, George M! didn’t even get a Best Musical nomination. Grey was indeed nominated, but didn’t win; Jerry Orbach did for Promises, Promises. Layton, however, did win for Best Choreography. Among his three competitors was Michael Bennett, who lost for the third consecutive time. Needless to say, better days were ahead for him.

Wakefield Poole, who would later have a career in the industry that has since made Stormy Daniels famous, assisted Layton. He was very impressed with the actress who was playing Cohan’s sister Josie, especially after happening to spy an entry in her open notebook.

“She had maybe thirty lines of dialogue in the whole show, so she had written things down to help her,” he reported in his memoir Dirty Poole. “She’d made up an entire scene where George comes into her room late one night and sits on her bed. He talks about his ambition and his love for his family. It continued, expanding her every moment in the show to help her overcome the brevity of her scenes. She’d done this on her own, and her hard work paid off. She was terrific. I knew that with her talent, brains, ambition and her mother’s help that she would become a star.”

And Bernadette Peters indeed did – although her Broadway career had had a rocky start. In 1958, she appeared in This Is Goggle, which closed in Washington. Almost ten years had to pass before she got her next Broadway job, albeit as an understudy to Heather North, who’ll always be remembered for giving voice to Daphne on Scooby-Doo. The play was called The Girl in the Freudian Slip, and with such a title, you won’t be surprised to hear that it closed after four performances.

That was three more than Peters got in her next Broadway job, although she did have a genuine part in Johnny No-Trump.

So the following month when she landed George M! you think she’d cherish the prospect of a long run. But after only twenty-one weeks, Peters left to do a new off-Broadway musical. This was a big gamble, for the hit you know is better than the show you don’t. Besides, an off-Broadway salary is almost always a fraction of what one receives on The Great White Way.

But George M! only gave Peters two songs (as the original cast album will inform you: “Oh, You Wonderful Boy” and “Ring to the Name of Rosie”) while the new show had her as the star with six songs and one reprise. As it turned out, Peters made the right decision, for Dames at Sea was a surprise hit that gave the town the greater chance to notice who she was. Critics and theatergoers did.

Peters did reunite with Grey in 1970 to do the TV special of George M! that aired – no, not on NBC, but ABC. No soundtrack album was made, so the original cast album remains the only recording of the score.

It’s a fine one despite the fact that Grey didn’t do his own tap dancing for the recording; Poole did. The first act (and, in the days of LPs, first side) offers the most obscure songs from early in Cohan’s career. Don’t miss “Twentieth Century Love,” which still demands attention in the twenty-first century.

You know that “Give My Regards to Broadway” has to be there, and it’s given a place of honor: Act One’s closer. The second act brings in “Harrigan” and “Over There” as well as two others that were just as expected: “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” (which Cohan originally titled “You’re a Grand Old Rag” until too many people thought the noun disrespectful) and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in which the title character of Little Johnny Jones sings that he was “born on the Fourth of July.” Eventually Cohan made that claim, too, although it was an alternative fact; he actually came into the world on July 3, 1878.

Patriotism was obviously the reason for the fib; we doubt that George M. lied about his age to seem younger. Whatever the case, we can’t blame NBC for that.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.