Beyond the Golden Age, Yes, But Still Golden By Peter Filichia
Of course it starts with “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
What other song would you use to celebrate a look-back at Broadway?
But when you think of it, Irving Berlin’s classic anthem really isn’t the right song for Rick McKay’s BROADWAY: BEYOND THE GOLDEN AGE. Berlin wrote the song in the forties, and this compendium of clips, now available on PBS apps, centers on a later era.
Never mind; hearing it again is always a pleasure.
Although the film doesn’t strictly move in linear fashion, it pretty much starts in 1959 when George Abbott told Mary Rodgers that he’d only direct ONCE UPON A MATTRESS if she and her collaborators could finish it by May – the one month in the year that he’d be available.
Now Abbott in the fifties alone had had five musical hits – WONDERFUL TOWN, ME AND JULIET (yes, it paid back its investment, which is the official definition of a hit), THE PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES and NEW GIRL IN TOWN. So having the man often called “Mr. Broadway” on their team was motivation enough to get the four writers feverishly writing.
Although Parkinson’s Law insists “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” often there’s the obverse of that: if you don’t have much time, you get the work done faster. Rodgers, bookwriters Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer – the last-named wrote MATTRESS’ brilliant lyrics as well – finished the show in time for a May opening and saw it last on Broadway for the next fourteen months.
Liza Minnelli and Lesley Ann Warren, each born in 1946, were in their very early teens when they saw BYE BYE BIRDIE and decided that musical theater was what they wanted from life. Wouldn’t you think that Minnelli would have made such a decision long before then, given what her mother did for a living?
As it turns out, Minnelli arrived on Broadway in 1965 with FLORA THE RED MENACE, but that was a full nineteen months after Warren had made it to the Broadhurst with 110 IN THE SHADE. What a nice compliment Warren gave Inga Swenson, the musical’s leading lady, saying that she used to stand in the wings of every performance and watch the star so she could learn from her.
To illustrate Swenson’s achievement, the film offers us a clip of her singing “Is It Really Me?” one of the beautiful songs that Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones had written for her.
If Minnelli and Warren had attended BYE BYE BIRDIE on a Thursday, they’d have seen Charles Nelson Reilly sing “Kids!” Although he was there for the entire eighteen-month run, pulling in $127 a week for playing small parts, that one night of the week he substituted for Paul Lynde.
The usual Mr. McAfee, Kim’s harried father, took that night off each week to appear on a TV variety program called “The Perry Como Show.” The rest of the week he was in BIRDIE singing about “The Ed Sullivan Show” in “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.”
Dick Van Dyke gave BIRDIE director-choreographer Gower Champion immense credit not only for casting him, but also for saying “Give the kid a break” when the producers wanted him fired during the Philadelphia tryout. Van Dyke confessed that part of the problem was that he was no dancer, but he lauded Champion for making him look good.
We saw that through a clip of Van Dyke’s doing “Put on a Happy Face,” trying to cheer up “Sad Girl,” as she was called, because teen idol Conrad Birdie was army-bound.
Yet it was originally slated to be Chita Rivera’s number. There was no mention of where it was to be in the musical, but here’s betting it was in the first scene where Albert is distraught that Conrad will be unable to continue to sing his profit-making songs (such as “Ugga-Bugga-Boo”) once he’s in the Army.
Rivera lost another famous number for five weeks during the run of CHICAGO: “My Own Best Friend.” When Liza Minnelli spelled an ailing Gwen Verdon for much of August and a bit of September, 1975, she requested that she do the number as a solo. Rivera, ever gracious, honored the request.
Seeing Minnelli and Rivera in a few clips was thrilling. How many of us wished that we could have a Minnelli recording, too. But there are three consolations, for she did record “My Own Best Friend” “Me and My Baby” and – another Rivera hit – “All That Jazz.” They can be found and savored on THE BEST OF LIZA MINNELLI.
Ken Page, Charlaine Woodard and Armelia McQueen recalled the joys of performing AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ and sang snippets of songs a capella. But each pointed out, despite audience cheers at the end of the show, the accolades meant nothing once they were on the street and tried to hail taxis. Cab drivers were reluctant to pick up African-Americans simply because of their race.
All three mentioned that the solution was to ask a Caucasian to get a cab to stop; once the driver did, they’d get inside. Page mentioned the time that one cabbie was angry that the passenger he’d be driving was not whom he originally expected.
Jerry Orbach’s Julian Marsh was seen chastising Wanda Richert’s Peggy Sawyer for not wanting to take the lead in PRETTY LADY – “the biggest musical Broadway has seen in twenty years.” If the show’s name doesn’t ring an immediate bell, it’s 42ND STREET’S musical-within-a-musical. Orbach’s description can actually apply to that 1981 Tony-winner, considering that 42ND STREET sported forty-seven performers. (In contrast, the cast of the current musical SIX offers only – well, you do the math.)
Much time was devoted to the death of 42ND STREET’s Gower Champion, which had happened on the afternoon of opening night.
Richert, Carole Cook, Karen Prunczik, Lee Roy Reams and others had identical recollections of what producer David Merrick revealed after the curtain calls. Just as the sequence ran the risk of becoming sentimental, Cook reported that her husband had attended that performance with Ethel Merman, who, after hearing the news, quipped, “Well, if you gotta go, that’s the way to go.”
Then came A CHORUS LINE recollections. Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila, told of Michael Bennett’s inviting dancers to talk about their lives. Although he’d asked everyone to be brutally honest, he also conceded that the women wouldn’t be required to give their ages.
Bishop took issue with that by frankly stating “I’m going to be thirty real soon” before joking “And I’m real glad.” Little did she know that those two sentences would become ones that she’d be saying during her Tony-winning performance.
There was a generous amount of footage of the famous September 29, 1983 performance when A CHORUS LINE became Broadway’s longest-running show. During a rehearsal, Priscilla Lopez began singing “What I Did for Love,” and as the memories came flooding back, so did the tears. So when she got to the lyric “Look: my eyes are dry,” everyone in the rehearsal room just had to laugh at the irony.
Performance 3,389 would be no ordinary one; Bennett had decided to get as many performers who’d done the show on Broadway and elsewhere. He put them on stage at various moments, culminating with all 332 performers doing “One” as the finale.
With so many bodies up there, the stage had to be buttressed with stanchions, lest it collapse. Even then, there wasn’t enough room for everyone, so Bennett filled all the aisles with dancers. Watching nearly twenty-eight dozen performers in those champagne and gold costumes was, needless to say, really something.
And yet, seeing so many who were bubbling forth with story but who have since died was so sad: McQueen, Reilly, and Rodgers as well as Beatrice Arthur, Kaye Ballard, Nanette Fabray, Ben Gazzara, Robert Goulet, Tammy Grimes, Julie Harris, Alice Playten, Hal Prince and Elaine Stritch.
That list must also include Rick McKay himself, who started the project but unexpectedly died from a heart attack at a mere sixty-two in 2018. Bless Tony-winning producer Jamie DeRoy, noted Broadway critic and historian Jane Klain and others for steering the project to completion.
Host Jonathan Groff mentioned at the outset that theater was by its very nature ephemeral, and seeing the number of people no longer with us reiterated that grim reality. Luckily, we have some performances captured on camera and/or recordings. Those will probably outlast our own lifetimes.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.