No, the recent production of 70, Girls, 70 at HB Studios will never be the definitive one. A group of well-meaning seniors who take class at the famed acting school did their best in conveying John Kander’s music, Fred Ebb’s lyrics, and the book that Ebb and Norman L. Martin fashioned after Joe (Cabaret) Masteroff started the project and then left it.
But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the musical’s the thing, and for those who missed the Encores! revival in 2006 or original production forty-six years ago, the production did answer questions that a mere listen to the original cast album can’t answer.
Forty-six years! Back then, this musical about senior citizens sported one juvenile: Tommy Breslin was twenty-four among a cast of twenty-four. He was born in 1946, which now makes him – yes — 70, girls and boys, 70.
Tempus does indeed fugit, but the cast album lives on. That it was recorded was a near-miracle. When the show closed literally a month after it had opened, only ten other musicals in all of Broadway history that had run that short length of time or less had been immortalized on vinyl. Two dozen others of these month-long-runners, despite having recording contracts with established companies, saw those promises canceled. Bravo to Columbia Records and its cast album producer Thomas Z. Shepard for saying “Let’s do it, anyway.”
Well, it is a Kander and Ebb score, and that always means quality. They wrote tenderly about seniors (Abby Lewis and Steve Mills) who, despite fading memories, know that they still greatly love each other (“You and I, Love”). The songwriters were more playful in “Do We?” which had Lucie Lancaster and Gil Lamb tease the audience by having them guess: are these old-timers still sexually active?
The book, however, steps into dangerous territory because its plot has seventy-ish Ida Dodd encouraging her friends to join her in a shoplifting spree. No – make that a grand larceny spree. Shoplifting suggests a minor crime — a pot, a pan, a broom, a hat. These seniors are actually lifting minks worth thousands with the rationale that the posh stores can afford it.
But the point that original playwright Peter Coke wanted to make in his 1958 play Breath of Spring – and one that the 70, Girls, 70 team reiterated — was that seniors could get away with crimes because “Whoever notices old people?” That’s the real message – that many young or middle-aged folks look the other way when an old person approaches. They may be reluctant to see their future or they may believe that this aged individual in front of them is, as Fred Ebb says in “Old Folks” (the show’s opening number), petulant, grumbling, sighing and moaning. So, Ida tells her friends, why not show them that we still have a lot on the ball and are capable of pulling off crimes for which young ‘uns would get easily caught? Besides, it’s what society deserves, considering that so many people work for the same company for forty years and are lucky to get a gold watch; many get a boot – out the door.
Still, the truism that two wrongs don’t make a right wasn’t lost on 70, Girls, 70’s crew. They appropriated Coke’s altruistic idea that the seniors were stealing so that they could subsidize housing for other seniors who were destitute and homeless. But they added that the seniors also wanted to spruce up the SRO hotel in which they lived, which isn’t as lofty a goal. (And maybe that’s why 70, Girls, 70 was never SRO.)
To ameliorate that, the creators decided to establish that the cast members were actually entertainers who were clearly pretending to put on a show about senior citizen thieves. That way, audiences wouldn’t sit in judgment of the performers who were just doing their jobs in conveying this story. “We’re all of us actors,” stated Lillian Hayman (four years after she won a Tony for Hallelujah, Baby!). “Home for an actor is right here on a stage.”
In order to cement that concept, the Playbill only alphabetically gave the names of the performers, from Thomas Anderson to Coley Worth, and never named the characters they played. And while the program made clear that scenes took place in nine New York City locales, it listed one of them as “The Broadhurst Theatre” – the actual house in which 70, Girls, 70 was playing.
So that’s why so many numbers in the show don’t seem to add to the plot – because they’re strictly diagetic performance numbers that remind us that we’re seeing and hearing entertainers and not characters. Act One, Scene Six begins with Hayman’s stating in front of the curtain “This is what we call in the theater a ‘crossover.’ It’s supposed to allow time for people in the cast to make costume changes.” And that leads us into the delightful if irrelevant song “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” which Hayman and Goldye Shaw sell superbly. (I’m not the only one who likes it. Mandy Patinkin later recorded it.)
If you’re going to have performance numbers, why not one celebrating Broadway? You know how much K&E love the place, for it’s been awfully good to them (Tonys in the ‘60s, ‘80s and ‘90s). That resulted in “Broadway, My Street” which Hayman sings with feverish love to our favorite neck of the woods.
Am I giving the impression that Hayman was the show’s original star? No, that was the always elegant Mildred Natwick as Ida, the former public school teacher who’s mysteriously been away from the hotel. Now she returns looking like a million dollars (which was a lot of money in those days). She’s glad she’s “Home.” True, Broadway is littered with songs about “Home,” but few can boast of being a rhumba with such an intoxicating piano accompaniment.
70, Girls, 70 isn’t afraid of death. Ida whimsically asks “Where do the elephants go?” after they die in her penultimate song. And she establishes that she indeed has died when she returns on a crescent moon to sing my all-time favorite song from a musical.
People are always asking me what that is. Although I’ll bet I’ve heard at least 5,000 of them from “A-B-C” in How Now, Dow Jones to “Zulu Love Song” in The Zulu and the Zayda, I always say “‘Yes’ from 70, Girls, 70.” (I used to just say “Yes,” but that often resulted in a “Who’s-on-First” Abbott and Costello routine, so now I’m more specific.)
How can anyone resist these lyrics? “Life keeps happening every day. Say ‘Yes!’ when opportunities come your way … you never win if you never play: Say ‘Yes!’ … Don’t say ‘Why?’ – Say, ‘Why not?’ You can’t look back on a chance that’s lost. Say ‘Yes!’ The dice mean nothing unless they’re tossed. The throw is usually worth the cost. Say ‘Yes! … Yes, I’ll try! Yes, I’ll care!’”
Thank you, Fred Ebb, for these words to live by – ones that the HB seniors took to heart.
Alas, death also impacted the original production. David Burns, a two-time Tony winner (but perhaps best-known for originating Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!) was with the show during its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia. On March 12, 1971, however, he collapsed moments after he’d finished singing “Go Visit” (another diagetic dandy). Ebb would often say, “People who knew what happened to Davey came to 70, Girls and were worried about everyone up there. No one could really relax and just enjoy the show. Death was always in the back of everyone’s mind.”
Happily, the original cast album spares us any such anxiety – and delivers the show that Kander and Ebb often said was their favorite. Perhaps it will be yours, too.
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.