By Peter Filichia –
Here’s a Broadway trivia question that’s not easy to answer. What musical opened on a holiday that celebrates a person mentioned in one of its songs?
No, no musical that opened on St. Valentine’s Day cites that saint. No musical that opened on St. Patrick’s Day mentions him, either.
But Columbus Day — Oct. 12 – was the day that Let It Ride! opened on Broadway. And Columbus is indeed invoked in a lyric of the title song.
Let It Ride! isn’t merely marking an anniversary this week; it’s celebrating a significant one. It debuted 50 years ago on Oct. 12, 1961. The score was written by the illustrious songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. They were born within fifty-two days of each other in 1915, and met in 1934 while at the University of California. There they decided to collaborate, and did right up to Livingston’s death in 2001.
The team is best-known for three Oscar-winning hits, “Buttons and Bows,” “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera, Sera.” Two other movie songs, “Silver Bells” and “Tammy,” were smash pop hits, too. On television, they provided the theme songs for two very different but very popular series of the ‘60s: Bonanza and Mr. Ed.
To be frank, they didn’t do as well on Broadway. Their musical version of The Captain’s Paradise, called Oh, Captain! lasted 192 performances in 1958. Tony Randall starred, and to his dying day, he would quote you what the dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune said: “When Mr. Randall dances, he tortures the air.” (Still, any album on which Susan Johnson appears is worth having.)
Three years later, Livingston and Evans were back with this musicalization of Three Men on a Horse. It was a smash-hit comedy in 1935; when it closed after 835 performances, only two Broadway comedies – Abie’s Irish Rose and Lightnin’ — had ever run longer.
It’s the story of Erwin, who writes four-line poems for greeting cards. (This was the era when sentimental verses, not ribald or insulting jokes, appeared inside such cards.) Erwin’s a diminutive man who’s married to the more imposing Audrey. On his way to work every day, Erwin opens his newspaper to the sports section and picks what horses look good to him. What he never does, however, is actually bet. Perhaps it’s this lack of pressure that makes Erwin always choose the winning horse.
One day Erwin has simply had enough from a too-demanding boss and his equally pressuring wife. So he goes to a bar, starts drinking and divulges his uncanny talent to some barflies there – including Patsy and his cronies, who are inveterate horse-players. Needless to say, when they discover Erwin’s talent, they immediately want to make him their new best friend. Patsy’s girlfriend Mabel isn’t happy that they’re taking advantage of Erwin, and her interest in him will not please Audrey as time goes on.
Actually, Broadway had seen a musical version of the play fewer than seven years after its debut. Banjo Eyes, it was called, mostly because its star, Eddie Cantor, was often described as having them. The musical lasted only 126 performances, although it did have the bad fortune to open a mere eighteen days after Pearl Harbor Day, when the nation had much more on its mind.
So nearly twenty years later, Let It Ride! opened – and stayed around about half as long, for 68 performances. Maybe the show suffered from book trouble. The cover of the long-playing record suggests as much. For while the front says “Book by Abram S. Ginnes,” the back states “Book (Libretto) copyright 1961 by Abram S. Ginnes and Ronnie Graham.” (The latter had been one of the stars of New Faces of 1952.)
However much or little Graham worked on the show, someone deserves credit for a good idea. While the original play made Audrey a harridan of a spouse, the musical reinvented her as his doting girlfriend, still very much in love because he’s “The Nicest Thing” – a good example of what musical theater mentor Lehman Engel called “a charm song.”
Audrey was played by Paula Stewart, who, the season before, had portrayed Lucille Ball’s sister in Wildcat. But the main roles were played by three well-known performers: one from television, one from the theater and one from film.
George Gobel portrayed Erwin. His TV variety show, appropriately called The George Gobel Show, lasted from 1954 until 1960. On it, he offered a mild-mannered persona, often referring to himself as “Lonesome George.” This made him a good choice for the demure poet.
Sam Levene, who’ll always be known as the original Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, was chosen for Patsy. And who could make better claim to the role? After all, he’d originated Patsy in the original play.
Barbara Nichols was chosen for Mabel. At this point, she was best-known from the film version of Sweet Smell of Success, where she played the betrayed girlfriend of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis).
Truth to tell, Livingston and Evans did not score with each song they wrote. In fact, a 1991 off-off-Broadway production of Let It Ride! simply discarded “Broads Ain’t People.” MasterworksBroadway’s Arkiv reissue of the original cast album of Let It Ride! has let it be for the purposes of historical accuracy.
But every now and then, one comes across a terrific song. Take Gobel’s eleven o’clock number, “His Own Little Island.” For those who’ve ever thought of forgetting everyone and everything and getting away from it all, here’s their theme song in this plaintive and beautiful waltz.
Gobel gets a charm song, too, with the atypical title of “Hey Jimmy Joe John Jim Jack.” Here’s where Erwin converses with neighborhood children and fills them in on his backstory: that his parents made him fear life, often unnecessarily. It’s done as a musical fable, and yes, it does take its inspiration from an Oscar-winner that Livingston and Evans did NOT write: Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “High Hopes.” But on its own terms, it’s a very nice song.
Gobel and Levene do a jaunty soft-shoe called “I’ll Learn Ya,” in which Erwin asks Patsy to make him more a man of the world. And Nichols has Mabel – now a stripper — rue what her life might have been like if she’d met Erwin first and not Patsy. “I Wouldn’t Have Had To” is the official title that purposely obfuscates what’s on the song’s mind: “I wouldn’t have had to shake it, I wouldn’t have had to grind it.”
There’s no question that this piece of material is not on the lofty side, but I’ve been at many a party of musical theater enthusiasts where someone has picked up the Let It Ride! cast album and said, “Listen, you’ve just got to hear this.” The song is bold, brassy and kitschy, but I’ve never known anyone who’s heard it who hasn’t been happy that he has.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.