Whether you’re discovering or revisiting Harold Rome’s score for I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, you’ll have a splendid time.
The 1962 musical was not his biggest hit. The revues PINS AND NEEDLES and CALL ME MISTER ran longer. Rome’s book shows, FANNY and DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, did, too. WHOLESALE played 300 performances and couldn’t make it to 1963.
WHOLESALE, though, was right in Rome’s wheelhouse. He was the Broadway composer-lyricist who best replicated the musical and lyrical style of his Jewish heritage.
Rome had used it to good advantage in PINS AND NEEDLES, a celebration of Garment Center workers. It opened in 1937, before the original cast album era, so a studio cast album came 25 years later, shortly after WHOLESALE opened. Because its orchestrations offer only piano, bass, guitar and drums, it’s an excellent late-night listen. Around midnight, you don’t want to face the slam-bang of the original cast album of LORELEI.
Also out for fun was WISH YOU WERE HERE, in which Jewish singles went to the Catskills for their annual summer vacations, all the while hoping that this one would include Mr. or Miss Right. The musical’s sole aim was to be a romantic comedy with some lighthearted fun, which Rome’s score nicely underlined.
WHOLESALE, though, was a tough musical, based on Jerome Weidman’s 1937 gritty novel of the same name. Harry Bogen lives in the Bronx on Honeywell Avenue, only about 10 miles away from the Garment District. But the distance seems much greater to Harry. To make it on Seventh Avenue, he’d commit seven deadly sins.
All right, Harry avoids Gluttony and Sloth, but he’ll display Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy and Pride before the final curtain.
Weidman wrote the libretto, too, and now another Weidman – John, his son – has made some smart changes for this current revisal at Classic Stage Company. He starts by showing us Harry as a kid who’s called the K-word by an unfeeling Gentile. We get the impression that this isn’t the first time it’s happened, and it causes Harry to become unfeeling, too.
Weidman the Son also has the adult Harry speak directly to us. Because Santino Fontana plays him with likeability and charm, he immediately gets our sympathy and gets us squarely on his side.
However, we sense some danger in “The Way Things Are.” Rome gave Harry a pulsating, unapologetic, glass-totally-empty worldview. It’s a harsh but solid song that, without a doubt, lets us know where Harry is coming from.
Where Ruthie Rivkin is coming from is work. She’s desperately in love with Harry while he seems so utterly uninterested in her that we might suspect that he’s gay. No: Harry requires a trophy wife, and he regards Ruthie as a Certificate of Participation.
Ruthie won’t quit. She’ll try to charm him with “When Gemini Meets Capricorn,” in which she suggests that astrology is pushing them together. (Nice wordplay from Rome with the lyric “Did the planets plan it?”)
The original cast album offers a surprise. Marilyn Cooper, the original Ruthie, sings “Gem-in-EEE,” not “Gem-in-EYE,” as we all do. Either Ruthie has only seen the word in newspapers, or people living in the Bronx in the ‘30s said Gem-in-EEE.
That Harry will ever match Ruthie’s appreciation of the arts is doubtful. In her soaring ballad “Who Knows?”, she asks him, “Don’t you think Odets is great?” He bluffs by echoing her “Great” instead of coming clean and saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Today’s audiences won’t know what Ruthie’s talking about when she sings “We get last-minute balcony down at Gray’s Cut Rate.” In the ‘30s and beyond, Gray’s Drugstore at Broadway and 43rd was the forerunner of TKTS.
Even bad guys have good moments. The way that Weidman the Father softened Harry was to make him totally devoted to his mother. Rome helped with Harry’s “Momma, Momma,” a joyous, Semitic-flavored melody enhanced by lyrics that had him give Momma one expensive present after another. Weidman the Son has retained Harry’s maternal devotion, and it does help … a little.
One of Rome’s best moves was having Momma sing to Ruthie, “Too soon, don’t give your heart away.” (Some New York Jews have been known to put the second part of a phrase instead of saying, as many would in this case, “Don’t give your heart away too soon.”) What’s extraordinary is that Momma is not blindly loyal to her son but, aware that Harry doesn’t love Ruthie, wants to spare this poor soul romantic disappointment.
(To paraphrase a dropped song from GYPSY, “Nice, she is.”)
Did Rome write a certain lyric after Lillian Roth had been cast as Momma? Roth, who’d had stage and screen success at an early age, lost it all when she became a seemingly hopeless alcoholic. She named her autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow, so is it just coincidental that Rome had her sing to Ruthie, “You may have tears tomorrow”?
Ruthie will. Harry’s out to seduce showgirl Martha Mills who, like him, appreciates not the sound of music, but “The Sound of Money.” Later Martha does half of a duet called “What’s in It for Me?” Rome obviously got the title What’s in It for Me? from Weidman the Father’s second novel, which came out a year after WHOLESALE debuted.
Martha sings it with Teddy, one of Harry’s two partners. The other is Meyer, an inspired dress designer. He’ll trust Harry to the end; Teddy much earlier becomes suspicious with good reason.
(Oh, well. Has there ever been a successful triumvirate?)
In Act Two, Ruthie gives up Harry in favor of a lawyer, one that Harry minimizes as a “legal beagle” in the dynamic song “A Funny Thing Happened.” That still happens now, but Weidman the Father had her eventually return to Harry, luring him with the $10,000 her father had put aside for her. Harry needs it to get out of trouble, and so 1962 audiences got the impression that they’d marry and live unhappily ever after.
By the way, $10,000 in 1937 is more than $203,000 in today’s money. Chances are, though, that Weidman the Son eliminated his daddy’s ending because today’s audiences would not accept a wimpy woman who never wised up. He instead stresses that if you alienate enough people, you’ll ultimately be alienated.
Alas, that includes the audience. Many in it gasped in horror when Harry did the opposite of what they’d expected. They didn’t see this coming, didn’t want to, and thus officially washed their hands and brains of him. Harry’s rationalization that followed wasn’t enough to get theatergoers back on his side, which they’d been slowly easing away from anyway as the musical continued. The best either Weidman pere or fils could hope for is that audiences take WHOLESALE as a morality tale: how a good boy becomes a bad man.
Even Trip Cullman’s excellent and sure-footed production wouldn’t wash away their revulsion.
Still, they relished “The Family Way,” when the three partners, two wives, one mother and one friend use affectionate Yiddishisms on one another. There are enough dye-dye-dyes to die for – nay, to live for. And long before FALSETTOS came on the scene, Rome wrote a song for a bar mitzvah, which is a minor-key mini-masterpiece.
And what could be more Jewish than the song devoted to “Miss Marmelstein”? This one catapulted Barbra Streisand into the entertainment world’s consciousness. After Rome got a good look at the performer that director Arthur Laurents had cast, he remembered “Nobody Makes a Pass at Me,” from PINS AND NEEDLES, and cut “Miss Marmelstein” out of the same cloth. (Streisand sings the earlier song, too, on that aforementioned studio cast album.)
But WHOLESALE’s cast album gives us Streisand’s first-ever official recording in a professional studio. She’s also heard on “Ballad of the Garment Trade,” leading up to Harry’s big, make-or-break fashion show, and “What Are They Doing to Us Now?” her cry for help as the repossessors strip the company bare.
In the original, Streisand also has the first lines of the first song, reaffirming her boss’ insistence that “I’m Not a Well Man.” Curiously – and sadly – Weidman the Son dropped this number in favor of another that might well have been a song that Rome wrote during rehearsals and then decided that he could do better.
Meyer and his wife Blanche get their own love song: “Have I Told You Lately (how much your husband loves you?)” When I heard the album as a teen, I smiled at the line “Have I told you lately how much your stroolie loves you?” Given that I’m a Gentile, I assumed that “stroolie” was a Yiddish term of endearment.
Years would pass before I realized that Meyer and Blanche were actually singing, “Have I told you lately how much yours truly loves you?”
And that’s the report on I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE from your stroolie.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.