Broadway’s First Jukebox Musical
By Peter Filichia —
You’re in the middle of holiday shopping. You want to get something nice for that couple next door and their toddler. But you don’t have much do-re-mi.
For the adults, get the original cast album of Do Re Mi. The musical that opened nearly 51 years ago at the St. James was a solid-selling album after it was released in January, 1961. But some cynics have alleged that many people bought it for this marvelous song they’d heard called “Do Re Mi” in which the musical scale was taught.
Legend has it that people knew just from the sound of the music that it was a show song, so they went looking for it in the original cast album section of their record stores. Once they came across a record called Do Re Mi, there was no way to stop their buying it.
They had to be impressed by the packaging, too. Do Re Mi looked like no other cast album before or since. It was twice as thick as conventional jackets and about a half-millimeter taller. And yet, it wasn’t one of those “gatefold” double covers, but a single black monolith. Three prominent die-cuts of the inside sleeve displayed: 1) “David Merrick presents Phil Silvers,” 2) a Hirschfeld of the star, along with “in The New Musical Do Re Mi” and 3) “also starring Nancy Walker; book by Garson Kanin; Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green” – all on a field of orangish-red.
But once owners of Do Re Mi got home, they listened in vain for information about a female deer, a drop of golden sun or a name that one calls himself. On the other hand, listeners did get a song they knew: “Make Someone Happy.” Considering that Styne, Comden and Green knew a hit when they heard one, one can be surprised that they didn’t choose Make Someone Happy as their new show’s title – especially because Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Do Re Mi” had already been a household-name hit for 13 months.
There was, however, reason for calling it Do Re Mi. Although the credits never said so, the show was based on Kanin’s 1955 novella Do Re Mi. It was a mere eighty-nine pages long – and twenty-two of those featured Hirschfelds. (Hmmm, given that Kanin’s Do Re Mi predates The Sound of Music by four years, did Rodgers and Hammerstein get the idea for their song from Kanin’s novella?)
The book captures the musings of Hubie, a small-time semi-hood who was then serving six-to-ten months for carrying four concealed weapons. And to think that Hubie had originally tried to go straight. He’d happened to see a jukebox in a bar, and that started him thinking: did the café owner get a piece of the action? Once he learned that magnate John Henry Wheeler got 100% of the profits, Hubie decided to start a jukebox business where he’d offer the restaurateur 10%.
Later, Hubie and pals Fatso and Skin discovered that elevator operator Nan Needles could sing. Now they were in the record-producing business, too. Trouble was, Nan fell in love with rival John Henry and the altercation that followed brought Hubie his jail sentence.
Kanin, Comden and Green gave Hubie both a last name (Cram) and a wife. Kay was only a girlfriend who got little more than passing mention in the novella, but in the musical, diminutive but brassy Nancy Walker could have a lot to say about a husband who always kept her “Waiting, Waiting” and doesn’t “Take a Job” – two of the first three songs that get the album off to a great start.
In the novella, Fatso’s the one to say he wants to go “only strictly legitimate from now on,” but Comden and Green gave this sentiment to Hubie – when they had him sing that the best aspect of the jukebox business is that “It’s Legitimate” in a terrific showstopper.
Comden and Green turned Nan Needles into Tilda Mullen (Nancy Dussault), a Virginia folksinger whom Hubie discovered singing in a pancake house. Her “Cry Like the Wind” is most ethereal-sounding, and quite a change of pace for Styne.
Tilda’s happy waitressing, but Hubie convinces her otherwise in the pulsating “Ambition.” Soon she’s got a recording contract and a boyfriend in John Henry (John Reardon). They both feel “Fireworks” and while they later have their difficulties, John Henry convinces her to “Make Someone Happy.”
By then, Tilda has had a big hit record with the type of “novelty” song that the nation used to love, one that bonded both adults and kids: “What’s New at the Zoo?” It was a rock ‘n’ roll parody in which animals complained about being crowded: “‘Ouch! You’re stepping on my pouch!’ to the bear said the kangaroo. ‘Oh! You’re stepping on my toe!’ to the kangaroo said the gnu.”
And that, dear friends, brings us to the gift you can get for the next door neighbor’s young child. In one of the great reinventions in Broadway history, What’s New at the Zoo? has now become a 35-page 9-by-12 inch children’s picture book (Blue Apple Books; $16.99).
Phyllis Newman, Green’s wife of 42 years, enlisted Travis Foster to illustrate each lyric. So in addition to the aforementioned bear, kangaroo and gnu, Foster has drawn an elephant, moose, goose, giraffe, wolf, porcupine, swine, chimpanzee and a few seals.
And speaking of seals, give the book a seal of approval because, in her introduction, Newman includes a replication (albeit small) of Do Re Mi’s window card. Above the credits are “Grand fun! Delectable!” (Kerr, Herald Tribune) and “A smasheroo!” (Coleman, Mirror).
Actually, Merrick had plenty of quotations from which to choose. As Steven Suskin reported in his excellent liner notes, Do Re Mi was also called “a great big razzle-dazzle of a musical” (Chapman, News), “a brassy and bountiful blockbuster” (McClain, Journal American) and “tuneful, funny and delightful.” (Watts, Post). Out of the seven daily newspaper critics, five raved, two approved, and no one gave a remotely negative notice.
So why didn’t Do Re Mi run longer than four hundred performances? You’d think it would have just from the imagination found in the song “The Late, Late Show.” Here Hubie needed Fatso and Skin to think that he’s not afraid to take on John Henry, whom he approaches to threaten. But cowardly Hubie instead asked John Henry if he watches such gangsters as Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney on late-night TV. By quoting their “Listen, punk” and “All right, wise guy,” Hubie gave his overhearing pals the impression that he was pressuring Henry while he was merely being nostalgic.
After it came the sensational “Adventure” in which Kay sang how life with Hubie was certainly exciting, and “Make Someone Happy.” So Do Re Mi seemed headed for a bright finish. But then came Hubie’s final song, “All of My Life,” which could be called a male version of “Rose’s Turn.” Here Hubie admitted that he hasn’t amounted to much and stared his sins right in the face. It was a strong piece of writing, but it wasn’t the right song for Phil Silvers. For years, Silvers had been playing characters who weren’t on the up-and-up (most notably Sgt. Bilko), but we somehow loved him all the more for it. Somehow, the persona that Silvers projected made him one of the few con-men we enjoyed, one whom we didn’t want to see get his comeuppance. After an enjoyable two hours, this song probably hit the wrong note with the audience.
So Do Re Mi’s LP was out of print by 1964, but reissued in 1965. The new jacket must have made Merrick happier. For the record had lost its black monolith and was now housed in “just” an ordinary single jacket – in the brash color known as “David Merrick red.”
The now-available CD replicates the original black cover, although the die-cuts are gone. The cuts that do remain, however, are sixteen wonderful ones, from another classic Jule Styne overture to a finale that stresses the show’s hit song. Now, by giving Do Re Mi and What’s New at the Zoo? as gifts, you can make more than one someone happy.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com