“And the nominees for Best Musical are A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Little Me, Oliver! and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.”
So heard the elegantly dressed audience at the 17th annual Tony® Awards, April 28, 1963 at the Hotel Americana (now the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel).
This came some minutes after the assembled had heard that the nominees for Best Composer and Lyricist of a Musical also included Little Me, Oliver! and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off – but not A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Funny Thing would win Best Musical; Best Score went to Lionel Bart for Oliver! And here we are, fifty-three years after these awards, and musical theater aficionados are still wondering how Stephen Sondheim’s score for Best Musical could be omitted in favor of – what?
In 2004, when I was sent producer-director Philip Rose’s memoir, You Can’t Do This on Broadway! the first thing I did was check the index to see on which pages Rose would discuss his production of Bravo, Giovanni.
What I found, though, was no listing at all for the musical with book by A.J. Russell, music by Milton Schafer, and lyrics by Ronny Graham that opened at the Broadhurst fifty-four years ago this week — on May 19, 1962. It was based on Howard Shaw’s 1960 novel The Crime of Giovanni Venturi, which told of a new Italian restaurant that opened next door to an already successful Italian restaurant — in order to steal its dinners through a tunnel and serve them to its own customers.
Okay, that doesn’t make Bravo, Giovanni sound like much, but I wasn’t happy to see it missing from Rose’s memoir. I’ve always been fascinated by the musical because it’s a show I came thisclose to seeing.
And it led to an experience that I suspect each reader has had, too.
In August of 1962, my parents agreed to take me to New York (from our Boston home) to see shows. In those days, my lifeline to Broadway was The New Yorker, which our local drugstore brought in every week. I chose what I would see: How to Succeed, of course. A Funny Thing Happened, natch. Camelot. No Strings.
But, alas, not Bravo, Giovanni. According to the magazine, it was “on vacation” and wouldn’t resume in September. (It didn’t occur to me back then that “on vacation” meant it had to close because no one was coming. I just thought the cast wanted the summer off. Remember, I was very young then.)
The reason Bravo, Giovanni interested me was its pedigree of a Columbia original cast album, copies of which I constantly saw in my local record stores. Does that surprise you — that every record store I entered had it? Such was the power of original cast albums in those days. Ethan Mordden, in his wonderful book Open a New Window: The Broadway Musicals in the 1960s, mentions that Natalie Wood, on a trip to Pisa, brought with her the cast albums of Funny Thing, No Strings and – yes – Bravo, Giovanni.
Unlike Wood, I hadn’t yet bought the album, but just knowing that the show had been recorded by the best manufacturer of original cast albums made it a player in my mind.
We got to New York, and as I went down 44th Street to the Majestic to get my Camelot ticket, I saw the Broadhurst marquee brightly beaming with the sign for Bravo, Giovanni. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, The New Yorker was wrong! The show hadn’t gone on vacation! It was still there!
And that’s when I learned the painful lesson that a show’s marquee may still be up, but that doesn’t mean the show is still playing inside. I can still see that forlorn little piece of paper taped to the Broadhurst door saying that Bravo, Giovanni was indeed on vacation.
Now even Phil Rose couldn’t fill me in? I called him and asked why he didn’t put Bravo, Giovanni in his book.
“Gee,” he said, “I thought I did.” And off he went to tell me about his adventures with his first musical. “We had a terrible time with Ronny Graham,” he said, citing the now-deceased personality who had rocketed to success in New Faces of 1952, but never again matched that accomplishment. His last big gig was portraying Miss Hannigan’s partner-in-crime in the Annie 2 debacle that shuttered in Washington in 1990.
“Graham,” said Rose, “could be funny, but there were times when we needed him to be at backers’ auditions. But Ronny would show up very late and give an excuse like, ‘I had to take my maid to Brooklyn.’
“I didn’t plan to open in May, but much earlier in the season. I even had theater parties booked. But Ronny always kept us far behind. I once locked him in a room to make him write lyrics.
Graham came to the production courtesy of director Stanley Prager. “The whole show was really Stanley’s,” said Rose. “I read the novel and called the writer to get the rights, but because it was my first attempt at a musical” – Purlie and Shenandoah would come later – “I was perfectly willing to let Stanley run with the ball, and entrusted everything to him.”
True, Prager had staged Neil Simon’s first-ever hit – Come Blow Your Horn – but he hadn’t done so well with Let It Ride! only a few months earlier. But he had played Prez in the original Pajama Game, and that counted with Rose.
“Because Stanley patterned his direction after George Abbott, who directed The Pajama Game,” he said before telling the most intriguing story one could ever hear about Bravo, Giovanni.
“Barbra Streisand came up to my 57th Street office, and there was something about her personality and guts that fascinated me,” said Rose. “I called Stanley to meet her, and after he did and even after he auditioned her as our leading lady, he said it was out of the question, that she was too ugly. Over the years, I never let him forget it — even though we wound up with a very nice leading lady in Michele Lee, who made her Broadway debut with the show.”
At nineteen yet – Streisand’s age, too, when she opened I Can Get It for You Wholesale at the Shubert two months before Bravo, Giovanni would saunter next door into the Broadhurst.
Rose was most proud of snaring Bravo, Giovanni’s leading man. “I originally wanted to become an opera singer,” he said, “so I was in awe of Cesare Siepi, whom I’d seen many times at the Met. When I realized that the show concerned a handsome Italian, I immediately thought of him. I was pleasantly surprised when he turned out to be interested. He was charming wonderful man.”
Rose was still amused at what Siepi did on opening night. “We opened on a day when the temperatures hit 100 degrees, and after the show we were sweltering in my apartment waiting for the reviews. When we read out loud the review by Kerr, who really went after us viciously, I can still remember hearing Siepi’s voice over everyone else’s saying, ‘Did he at least like my singing?’”
Not long after, Bravo, Giovanni announced its “vacation” from July 14, September 6. In 2005, when I interviewed Baayork Lee – a Bravo, Giovanni chorus member — I asked her if she suspected when the show took its “vacation” that it would not reopen. Although she was a mere teenager, Lee was already a savvy show biz vet of more than a decade’s standing, given that she was one of the original Siamese children who had marched in The King and I. Lee admitted that she did not think the show would resume performances, but she was wrong. It indeed did reopen on September 7.
And closed Sept. 15.
But the cast album lives on. Whether or not Kerr liked Siepi’s singing, you will on “Rome,” a lovely Italianate song, and “If I Were the Man,” Giovanni’s middle-aged realization that the woman he loves may simply be too young for him.
That’s Miranda, the character played by Lee. Despite the age difference, she’s obviously attracted to Giovanni, leading to “Steady, Steady,” a song that Lee liked so much that she put it on her debut album for Columbia. (Lee, of course, is most famous for her Rosemary in the film of How to Succeed, the role she assumed on Broadway soon after the smash had opened and Bonnie Scott bolted.)
But what was to be the Big Song from the show was “Ah! Camminare,” covered by Jerry Vale, who was then a favorite of Italian-American audiences. Ten years earlier, it would have made the charts, but rock ‘n’ roll, as rock was still called, was pushing such songs into oblivion.
Every musical comedy needs comedy, and that’s where the husband-and-wife team of George S. Irving and Maria Karnilova came in. In their second Broadway teaming – they’d been in Two’s Company a decade earlier – Irving got to say “Arrivederci, Virtue” while Karnilova did a dance called “The Kangaroo,” which was more than just a jump to the left and then a step to the right.
Graham does have some imaginative lyrics throughout, suggesting that that lock-up that Rose imposed did some good. Schafer has a gift for melody – three years later he wrote Drat! The Cat! which featured “She Touched Me” whose pronoun was changed in the song’s most famous cover version. Schafer wound up hearing Barbra Streisand sing one of his songs, after all.
You may not ultimately feel that the Tony® nomination should have been denied Funny Thing, but you may well see what put Bravo, Giovanni into contention.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.