A Superb Thurber Carnival
By Peter Filichia –
A Thurber Carnival, the original cast album that Masterworks Broadway is re-issuing this week, could just as easily be called A Character Actors’ Carnival.
If you’re a vintage stage, movie or TV buff, you’ll immediately recognize the distinctively dry voices of Tom Ewell, Peggy Cass, Paul Ford, Alice Ghostley and John McGiver. None was a beautiful, glamorous, radiant, ravishing movie star, but, oh, those voices! Hear and savor them now on a crisp, clear recording of this 1960 revue that centered on the short stories and light prose of James Thurber (1894-1961).
The nation came to know Ewell’s workaday voice from The Seven Year Itch. He’d done it on Broadway in 1952, won a Tony and then repeated his role as a frustrated husband in the 1955 Hollywood version (not with original caster Vanessa Brown, of course, but with Marilyn Monroe).
This is the film in which Monroe startled Ewell by standing over a subway grate, from which the hot air made her white dress billow up high above her. Or so we’re led to believe. No matter how many pictures or statuettes show Monroe’s skirt rising, that moment is never shown in the movie. Ewell and the film’s crew were the lucky ones.
Cass, like Ewell, got to replay her Tony-winning Broadway role on film: Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame. Her guttural, gravel-tinged voice laced with a bit of whine can also be currently heard on The Game Show Network – via any of her two hundred or so episodes of To Tell the Truth.
Here Ford, with his side-of-the-mouth drawl, appears on his first original cast album – although he’d already originated a role in a musical that had been recorded: the notorious Whoop-Up. Apparently, he didn’t sing in that 1958 flop … or was he so embarrassed by the show that he chose not to participate? Ford also appeared as Mayor Shinn in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of The Music Man, albeit as a replacement in the former.
But Ford was best known for his two roles as army colonels. First came his Broadway assignment as the long-suffering Col. Purdy in The Teahouse of the August Moon, which – like Ewell and Cass – he repeated for the film version. However, Ford became more famous as Col. Hall, the longer-suffering military man who was constantly badgered and conned by Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko.
Ghostley broke out in New Faces of 1952, when she sang Sheldon Harnick’s “Boston Beguine” which – like Ewell, Cass and Ford – she repeated for the film version. (Because that movie was released in 1954, the title needed some tweaking. It was simply called New Faces to extend its shelf-life.) Ghostley’s come-down-to-brass-tacks voice often sounded as if she’d had a sip of a drink that would have been one too many had she completed it.
You’ve seen Ghostley, even if you don’t know her name, for she was in an iconic hit of the ‘60s (The Graduate) and the ‘70s (Grease). But she also appeared in one of Hollywood’s blue-chip titles: To Kill a Mockingbird, in which she portrayed a fussy, small-minded gossip Stephanie Crawford.
What’s astonishing to those who remember McGiver is that he died so young – at a mere 61 in 1975. Most of us became acquainted with this rotund, bald-headed man when he appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; he was the salesman who broke the bad news to Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard that objects at Tiffany’s were pretty expensive. He was around 47 when he filmed that one, and only 48 when he played the ethical senator murdered by Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. Didn’t he seem older in each? Perhaps that’s because he was always cast as the officious type whose clipped tones were just right for such expressions as “This is highly irregular.”
The recording starts with a cool jazz “overture” (courtesy of Don Elliott). Then Cass, McGiver, Ford and Ghostley (as well as four lesser-known performers) come in one by one to make some Thurberian observations in a way that Laugh-In would think of seven years later. There’s Ghostley’s “Well, you may call it sleep-walking, but I call it promiscuous” … Cass’ “But if I called the wrong number why did you answer the phone?” … Ford’s “So she said to me, ‘Why did we have to purchase Louisiana when we got the other states for nothing?’ … and McGiver’s “She never did see much of her husband until they were separated.”
But where’s Ewell? He’s saved for a star entrance. His droll, down-home matter-of-fact voice is perfect for one of Thurber’s blue-chip short stories: “The Night the Bed Fell,” which happened during one fateful evening in Thurber’s childhood. The author himself wrote in the very first paragraph of the tale that he believed the story would make “a better recitation.” Ewell proves him right.
Ewell may have often been cast in light comic roles, but he shows he has gravitas in “Memorial to a Dog.” Anyone who’s ever lost a dear pet will relate to this tender but unmawkish tribute.
Immediately following is “The Unicorn in the Garden,” which deals with a married couple that’s gone past the point of unhappiness. Now each is out for unmitigated revenge, and that’s achieved in a plot twist worthy of O. Henry. The story is dated in one way: the term “boobies” in the early ‘60s meant something very different from what it does today. But it’s worth hearing just to hear Ford call out, “Here, unicorn.” One can tell that he means well and wants to feed the animal, but he’s still quite wary.
Ford’s even more amusing when playing the villain in “The Little Girl and the Wolf.” Cass points out Thurber’s point that probably had occurred to many when they first heard the Little Red Riding Hood story: wouldn’t the lass only need a glance to see that the “person” in bed was actually a wolf in grandma’s clothing? She didn’t have to go to the bed and start remarking on the “woman’s” oversized features.
A Thurber Carnival is the answer to the trivia-question-cum-riddle “What show got two Tony Awards and no nominations?” The reason is that special awards were given to Burgess Meredith for directing, and to Thurber himself. Elliott Nugent, who had co-written The Male Animal with Thurber twenty-one years earlier, presented his collaborator with the medallion.
What may be surprising to listeners is that A Thurber Carnival doesn’t include Thurber’s most famous story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Actually, the stage show did — but Columbia Records producer Goddard Lieberson chose not to record it. Perhaps deep in his bones, he knew that in fewer than three years, he’d be recording a full off-Broadway musical based on the tale.
Still, what’s here is choice. Thurber once said that his prime ranged from “the year Lindbergh flew the Atlantic to the day that coffee was rationed.” If we’re going to be literal about it, that means May 20, 1927 to Nov. 29, 1942. Nevertheless, his writing has lived long enough to still warrant our attention – including on this original cast album of A Thurber Carnival.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.