By Peter Filichia – Might you indulge me in a personal story?
It’s Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1965 around 5 p.m., and I’m returning home from school — but not before I stop at Harvard University’s “Coop” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For some time now, I’ve been treating myself to an original cast album every payday, and today I’m getting Out of This World.
The Coop isn’t far from where I work: the Holiday Inn on Massachusetts Avenue. I drop by to see a co-worker/friend, and, as luck would have it, four other employees are leaving right then; the one who has a car is offering me a ride home with the three others.
I gratefully accept, but because I was the last to be asked, I automatically make sure I sit in the car’s least comfortable seat: the dreaded center position in back. We swerve out of the parking lot and onto Massachusetts Avenue where we’re immediately stuck in rush hour traffic. As we all silently wonder just how much time will pass before we reach our destinations, we suddenly see, one by one, the lights on every building go out.
“Wow!” exclaims the driver. “All Cambridge has lost its power!” Little does he know how much of an understatement this will turn out to be. After he turns on the car radio, we all hear that this isn’t just a local blackout, but one that’s affecting the entire Northeast corridor from Canada all the way to Washington.
And that’s when I blurt out, “Then how is The Zulu and the Zayda going to open?!?!”
To this day, I can still see, by virtue of the many headlights’ illumination seeping into the car, the two in the front bucket seats slowly turning around as well as the befuddled expressions on their faces. I could also feel that the two people surrounding me in the back seat were turning their faces towards me and offering what I expected to be grimaces just as quizzical. All four were non-Jews, so the term “zayda” was a most foreign one, and “Zulu” wasn’t one used too often in our small talk, either.
Well, The Zulu and the Zayda, a play with music, didn’t open at the Cort Theatre as scheduled on Nov. 9, 1965, but had to wait until Nov. 10 to debut. It’s one of those shows that we’re all glad has dated, for it deals with apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa. The zayda (Menasha Skulnik) – grandfather – comes to live with his adult son Harry (Joe Silver) and his two grandsons Arthur and David. Grandfilial devotion is not uppermost on the lads’ minds, for they’d prefer to see their zayda in a rest home. Luckily, their Zulu butler Johannes (Ossie Davis) has a brother Paulus who can zayda-sit.
Paulus was, in fact, portrayed by Louis Gossett, Jr., the future Academy Award-winner for An Officer and a Gentleman. Although Gossett would do three more plays on Broadway, this was his last musical appearance until 2002, when he did a very short stint in Chicago as Billy Flynn.
Of course the Zayda learns a good deal from the Zulu and vice versa. It’s a feel-good show. The original cast album, now available once more after a four-decade hiatus, displays that admirably, with the number of songs given the Zulus and the Zayda split pretty much down the middle.
When the project was announced with Harold J. Rome as the composer-lyricist, Broadway was half-convinced he’d do a good job. After all, much of his career was centered on the Jewish experience, be it through his first show (Pins and Needles) or his most recent (I Can Get It for You Wholesale), both of which dealt with Seventh Avenue garment workers. In between was “Wish You Were Here” , one of his longest-runners about vacationers in the Catskills.
But what about these African songs? To be sure, Rome had written for African-Americans in Call Me Mister, his post-wartime hit about soldiers returning and for Pearl Bailey in Bless You All in 1950. But music that actually sounded as if it were written by Zulu tribe members?
Well, only a trained African musicologist can say for sure, but to a Broadway ear, Rome’s Zulu songs passed muster. Ossie Davis, who’d previously appeared in only one Broadway musical (Jamaica in 1957), gets the album off to a good start with “Tkambuza” (which loosely translates to “Mighty Hunter”) and “Crocodile Wife” with a drum nicely punctuating.
Then it’s time for the Zayda to take over. While Skulnik was hardly a genuine singer and never made an album called Menasha Skulnik Wishes You a Happy Chanukah, he did have a spirit and a musical sense that makes his opening number delightful – which is exactly what you want from a song called “It’s Good to Be Alive.” Here he’s joined by the future Sgt. Emil Foley – Gossett, who just can’t help joining in to celebrate life.
Speaking of life, only the bravest – or most foolhardy – of Broadway songwriters would have taken on the challenge of writing a song “L’Chayim” when one of the songs from the still-selling-out Fiddler on the Roof had one, too. You may or may not feel that Rome trumped Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s ace, but hearing how another songwriter tackles the same subject is always fun.
There’s some pathos in “River of Tears,” a waltz that sounds as if it’s a centuries-old Jewish folk song, And what would a musical be without romance? Hence, Gossett gets to sing “Zulu Love Song” late on the recording.
By the way, Rome’s bookwriters on the show were Felix Leon and Howard DaSilva — yes, that same Howard DaSilva who’d play Benjamin Franklin in 1776 four years later. Perhaps his working on The Zulu and the Zayda, a show that centered on equality, helped his later performance in a show that stressed “All men are created equal.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com