By Peter Filichia
It was hardly George Abbott’s first Broadway show.
In fact, he already worked on or at least had his name on more than a hundred.
But it certainly was the first Broadway effort for the musical’s star and songwriting team.
All experienced bittersweet results from this musical called Flora, the Red Menace which opened fifty years ago on May 11, 1965. It certainly was a great experience for one Liza Minnelli, the Broadway rookie who thirty-three days later would become the youngest woman to ever win a Best Actress in a Musical Tony. She was a mere nineteen years, three months and one day old.
(Good genes had something to do with her success, wouldn’t you say?)
Alas, Minnelli wasn’t employed for very long. Forty-one days after her victory, Flora, the Red Menace closed at almost a complete loss. For every dollar an investor put in, he received a return of two-and-three-quarters cents.
So things didn’t bode well for this show’s new collaborators: John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. That was sad, for they’d certainly done their job, given the less-than-terrific book that Abbott and Robert Russell had given them.
They’d adapted Lester Atwell’s Love Is Just around the Corner, published only two years earlier. In Atwell’s novel, Flora Meszaros is working as a commercial artist, but has trouble with her boss because he doesn’t like the way she draws hands and feet.
Hasn’t he ever seen any logo drawn by Hilary Knight?
No, because Knight’s first Broadway assignment was Half a Sixpence in 1965, and Atwell’s story takes place during The Great Depression. So Abbott and Russell decided to start the show by showing each unemployed apple-seller trying to put on a happy face. Kander and Ebb segued from a mournful dirge to a jaunty tune where all remembered happy times. But starting this way was still too dour.
(An interesting point: Annie once opened with a similar scene, as you can hear on the bonus track of the most recent Annie re-release. The creators eventually dropped the conceit, and Annie wound up running twenty-seven times longer than Flora.)
But hold on! Just as the apple-sellers finished, onto the stage came bleachers on which stood a bevy of female high school grads in caps and gowns. With Flora as their valedictorian, they sang that they were “Unafraid.” Only the most hard-hearted theatergoer wouldn’t have been moved by these young girls singing softly but firmly their intent to stay strong.
The Flora in the novel was very much past this point in her life. Not only had she already landed a job, but she was also running an art studio on the side. Abbott and Russell saw conflict in her having to find a job, and had Kander and Ebb set the search to music.
“Application for no job,” Flora grouses before filling in the blanks. “Home address, 307 West Fourth.” Here’s one of the best in-jokes in musical theater history. Ebb didn’t arbitrarily choose that address; at the time, Kander was living there at that precise location.
For the record — not that it’s on the record – in Boston this led to a song where Flora’s attitude was somewhere between ironic and sarcastic, when she sang she wanted the job simply to be “Among the People” while of course she wanted it because she needed the money. Only later did she sing “All I Need Is One Good Break,” a forceful and expertly crafted song where she expressed her passion to work and her feeling that she was talented enough to get a chance. Going from the verse of “Among the People,” then cutting the refrain and swinging right to “All I Need Is One Good Break” was done, to make another Half a Sixpence reference, all in the cause of economy – to make things happen faster, which is always what creators of musicals try to do.
An aside: I was teaching a class at Yale and started to show them the clip of Minnelli doing this song on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Oh, Liza Minnelli,” they scorned. Bitter and contemptuous laughs followed from everyone even before Minnelli could finish the verse. I stopped the tape and said “She was nineteen when she did this. You’re older than that now. Do you think you could have carried a Broadway musical at that age and have won a Tony, too?” My, that sobered them, and they watched the rest of the clip with respect and admiration.
Minnelli was in fact marvelous, getting the first great song (among dozens, of course) that Kander and Ebb would write: “A Quiet Thing,” when Flora realizes that her sudden success has come in on little cat’s feet and not with a roar. And while you may think that by sudden success, I mean romance – nope, not at all. She’s thrilled to get the job. Romance, which has been a possibility with Harry Toukarian since they met and sang the charming “Not Every Day of the Week,” can come later.
It can’t come soon enough for Harry, who’s been trying to bed Flora for quite some time. This was the pre-birth control ‘30s, so Flora is afraid. When she finally gets up enough nerve to do the deed, she goes to his apartment while singing a nice waltz: “Dear Love.”
Flora waited too long. By now, a vixen named Charlotte has taken an interest in Harry, whom she encourages in song: “Express Yourself.” In urging Harry to take more speedy action, Ebb got in a joke that may only score with those who live in cities with sophisticated subway systems: “Get off that local train” isn’t just a metaphor, as we see with the final line: “and express yourself to me.”
Flora knew Charlotte, for they and Harry had long ago joined the Communist party, which was, in some circles, the thing to do in the ‘30s. It certainly wasn’t the thing to do when Flora, the Red Menace was being written. Why would anyone in 1965 do a musical that involved Communism, considering that the HUAC, witch-hunts and blacklists had taken place only slightly over a decade earlier? Even in the mid ‘60s, The Red Scare was still pretty scary.
To be fair, Abbott and Russell wisely ameliorated that by having a younger and unaffiliated Flora meet the Communist Harry and be seduced by his fast-talk. We even wonder how much he’s aware of what he’s getting himself into when he sings “Are you in favor of democracy?” – a term not usually applied to Communism.
Good song, though, this “Sign Here,” and it certainly does move the action forward, for in fewer than four minutes, Flora has signed. When the Communists want her to sabotage her new workplace, well, there’s the rub.
The show rubbed the critics the wrong way, but Kander and Ebb could hold their heads up high. Despite a song about Harry’s stutter (I’m serious), there’s a great deal of ‘30s flavor in the score, when “Knock, Knock” jokes were so popular that Kander and Ebb were moved to write a novelty song about them.
And yet, what was it like for Kander and Ebb on July 24, 1965, when they watched the show’s final performance? This was the tenth musical on which Harold Prince’s name had appeared as a producer — and the shortest-running one of his eleven years he’d been sponsoring shows.
What was this new team feeling when they heard “All I Need Is One Good Break” — knowing that they’d just had as good a break as one could expect: Prince as producer and Abbott as director? And it still hadn’t worked out!
In recent years, each had separately endured an early Broadway closing. Ebb had worked on From A to Z, a revue that had only lasted a fourth as long, but there he was just one of fourteen contributors to that revue. At least Kander could look to a certain if virtually negligible level of progress: A Family Affair lasted twenty-two fewer performances.
Or, during that closing performance, were they inspired when they heard Mary Louise Wilson sing, “You must do more! You much do much more!”? What about when Minnelli sang “Sing Happy,” the eleven o’clock number they’d quickly written in Boston when something, anything, had to go in? For there was Minnelli stating “Sing me a happy song about happy endings” when there wasn’t one here for Kander and Ebb. How did they feel when they heard the words, “There’s quite enough around me that’s breaking my heart”?
As Ethan Mordden pointed out in Open a New Window, his excellent study of ‘60s musicals, in “Sing Happy” Ebb brought the lyric “impossible dream” to Broadway more than six months before Joe Darion did in Man of La Mancha. But on this hot July day, were he and Kander assuming that another chance at Broadway would be “an impossible dream?”
No – Prince believed in the two, and had already agreed to produce their next show, which turned out to be Cabaret. Kander and Ebb were then on their way and never had to look back – not in the real sense of the word. But no one could blame them for looking back and listening to the original cast album of Flora, the Red Menace. Its charms still entice a half-century later.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.