In 1999 — literally the 70th anniversary of Robert Wright’s meeting George “Chet” Forrest — I interviewed the gentlemen at their impressive apartment at 100 West 57th Street.
I loved that the place was a veritable Wright-and Forrest Museum. The walls were covered to the square inch with memorabilia from their Hollywood films, Copacabana days and Broadway musicals.
Such an apartment was in stark contrast to some of other digs of composer- lyricists into which I’d been welcomed. If you’d have walked into the townhouse owned by Richard Adler (of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees fame), you’d never know what he did for a living; his walls were covered with Picassos, Gauguins and (seriously) Zero Mostels.
Jerry Herman’s townhouse had a large room devoted to three-sheets, window cards and the like, but all the hardware was relegated to the top floor; some visitors probably never made it up there but had to be impressed by the beautifully appointed furniture and artwork.
Not Wright and Forrest. Their walls had framed evidence that they were longtime collaborators who wrote music and lyrics as a trade. If you’d ever doubted that “Elena” from Kean made it to sheet music or that Judy Garland had recorded “Sweet Danger” from that same score, this suite would have proved you wrong.
Had you gone into the bathroom, you’d have found framed multiple copies of sheet music from the team’s first monster hit: “The Donkey Serenade” (in an era when a song called “The Donkey Serenade” could be a monster hit). One sheet had the movie logo of The Firefly, the film from which the song sprang; the other covers had the pictures of artists who’d recorded it: Mario Lanza, The Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller, Perry Como as well as Jones pere and fils: Jack Jones followed in his father’s vocal cords by singing the 1937 hit long after his daddy Allan Jones had sung it in the famous film and made it (believe it or not!) the third highest-selling single in the entire history of RCA Victor Records.
(My favorite piece of W&F sheet music? “I Hate Music Lessons” from the film Blondie Goes Latin. The picture on the cover identified the little girl who introduced the song as “Baby Dumpling.”)
Little horizontal spaces between the tops of doors and the ceiling were just the right size for framed CD booklets that accompanied various recordings of Song of Norway, Kean, Kismet (eight of them!) and Magdalena.
Last week, when I noticed that September 20 was the 68th anniversary of Magdalena’s opening, I remembered that although I’d interviewed W&F in the summer of 1999, I then, to my utmost shame, never transcribed the tapes or wrote the story.
It’s far too late now for them to see it. Forrest, born in 1915, died a mere months after the interview, on Oct. 10, 1999. Wright, who had come into the world a year earlier, survived until July 27, 2005. Those six years must have been terribly difficult for Wright, for he and Forrest had met in the tenth grade where they shared their first musical theater dreams. The only difference between them and other musically inclined schoolboys is that they saw their dreams come true far sooner than most schoolboys enjoy.
“In our early twenties, we were already providing songs for Hollywood films,” said Wright. “We wound up writing for sixty-one movies,” he added in a no-doubt-about-it-voice. “And between 1939 and 1943, when we weren’t even yet thirty, we’d racked up three Oscar nominations for Best Song.”
Everyone assumes that Kismet was their biggest hit, but if performance numbers are any criterion (and you’re well in your rights to say they aren’t), Song of Norway ran 860 to Kismet’s 583. Grand Hotel ran 1,017, but to their lifelong regret, it wasn’t entirely their show, because director-choreographer Tommy Tune brought in Maury Yeston to write new songs to enhance the script or to replace W&F’s work.
Song of Norway, the 1944 smash operetta (yes, there was once such a thing), set the tone for many W&F projects to come – because this was the first time they’d adapted music from an illustrious classical composer (Edvard Grieg) and got songs (and sometimes genuine hits) out of them. Anya (Sergei Rachmaninoff), Dumas & Son (Camille Saint-Saëns) and Kismet (Alexander Borodin).
Said Wright, “Sometimes I think that we shouldn’t have had the credits on these shows say ‘musical adaptation by’ but ‘inspired by the music of.’ We did a lot of our own composing on these shows. In Song of Norway, almost all of ‘Strange Music’ – one of the big hits from the show – was all ours. For Kismet, much of ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’ is ours, and you can probably count the number of notes on one hand that we took from ‘Rhymes Have I.’”
Wright was able to better illustrate this point by a story from Kismet’s opening night. “One critic – I won’t tell you who – during ‘Rahadlakum’ was heard to say ‘Now that’s clearly Borodin’s music. Nobody but he could write a melody like that. Well, honestly, we weren’t offended even though we had written virtually the entire thing ourselves; we were glad that a fan of Borodin’s music was essentially saying we got it so right.”
Adapting did turn out to be difficult where Magdalena was concerned. W&F were all set to adapt melodies from Hietor Villa-Lobos, considered the best composer that Brazil produced during the entire 20th century. “We listened to 700 of his compositions – I’m serious, 700,” Wright insisted, “and he came to New York to be involved in the show. Really involved: he hadn’t read his contract correctly, for his English was virtually non-existent and he didn’t understand what we were doing. He wanted to write a new Broadway score and have a big commercial success. Well, we did get the score, but because we all had to speak French as our second language, we couldn’t make our show as good as it could have been.
“People today assume that Magdalena must be the name of the main character, but it wasn’t,” said Wright. “Probably people back when it opened did, too, unless they saw the fine print under the title: ‘A Romance of the Magdalena River Jungle.’ Yes, Magdalena is actually a river in Colombia!
“Gwen Verdon was the assistant choreographer,” Wright recalled. “She kept saying that the score was so difficult, because one song was in 11/4 and John Raitt had another that went 5/4, 3/4 and 2/4. She and Jack Cole were dubious that their dancers could dance to it, but they made it happen, all of them – and there were plenty of them. As the window cards said, ‘With a cast of 100.’”
If you’ve noticed that Wright did all the talking while Forrest hadn’t said anything, there was a sad but solid reason for it. Forrest in recent years had been attacked by hooligans and had lost a good deal of his ability to communicate. And yet …and yet … without fail, whenever Wright was stuck for a last name, he turned to Forrest and asked him and Forrest provided the surname. (W: “Ken?” F: “Stevens.” … “W: “Arthur?” F: “Treacher.” … W: “Diane?” F: “Davis.”)
The biggest potential smash that didn’t quite happen? “In the early fifties,” said Wright, “David Selznick was interested in our writing a musical version of Gone with the Wind. But then he decided against it and that’s when we got Kismet, thanks to Edwin Lester, a producer who commissioned quite a bit from us.”
But had Selznick persevered, W&F would have done it. “I think one of the secrets to our success,” Wright said, “was that we never said ‘No’ to anyone. We always said ‘We’ll try.’”
And so many times, the result of trying was resounding success.
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.