This Friday, January 29, I’ll step into the Palace Theatre to see An American in Paris.
It’ll be precisely fifty years since I entered the Palace for the first time to see a musical.
That was January 29, 1966, when a teenaged me attended the opening night of Sweet Charity. I bought an F 28 front mezzanine seat at a much higher price than I’d ever paid for even any orchestra seat in my previous five dozen trips to the theater.
True, I’d been a little disappointed after I’d reached the Palace entrance. Where were the klieg lights and a marquee (or at least a sandwich sign) that proudly proclaimed “Opening Tonight!”? As Alan Swann would remind us a couple of decades later in My Favorite Year, the world is not like the movies.
But as I was on the steps of the Palace en route to F 28, I was still thrilled to be there. The husband-and-wife team of Gwen Verdon and director-choreographer Bob Fosse – each of whom had won four Tonys — hadn’t worked together on Broadway for more than six years. Given how wildly critics and audiences had embraced them three times in a four-year span – via Damn Yankees (1955), New Girl in Town (1957) and Redhead (1959) – we all felt they were long overdue to collaborate on another show.
In the ensuing years, Fosse had been thinking of one – well, two, actually. He’d liked a pair of recent Italian films: Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, about a prostitute who wished to find true love, and Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street, a farce about incompetent robbers who planned to escape by helicopter but didn’t.
Yes – a quarter century before the creators of Miss Saigon decided on an on-stage helicopter, Fosse had already thought of it.
Fosse eventually decided to expand Cabiria into a full-length musical and drop the other property. As the cast of Avenue Q would sing many moons later, “But only for now.” Fosse did Big Deal in 1986 and probably regretted it. The show lost every dime during a run that lasted about a ninth as long as Sweet Charity’s 608 performances.
Charity might not have stayed around that long had Fosse not made an important change from the film: Cabiria the prostitute became Charity Hope Valentine (she originally had an Agnes in there, too) the taxi-dancer. That occupation is now pretty much forgotten, but there was a time when women made their living by dancing with men who paid a fee for the privilege.
This change gave Verdon much more opportunity to dance, which was her specialty. And while no one ever confused taxi-dancers with nuns, people still considered them a step up from prostitutes on the morality food chain, so the decision was more audience-friendly.
Fosse enlisted as his composer Cy Coleman, who was in the process of becoming Broadway’s best equal-opportunity collaborator. Of the dozen of Coleman’s musicals that actually got on, seven involved female lyricists.
He’d already done two with a woman: Carolyn Leigh on Wildcat in 1960 and Little Me in 1962. Considering how (famously) difficult Leigh was, Coleman was ready to move on to – well, we can’t say greener fields, because Dorothy Fields was hardly green. As Coleman was coming into the world on June 14, 1929, Fields was deciding which of her two Broadway musicals she’d attend the following night, what with both closing.
Putting it another way: in the ‘40s, you could find Fields’ name on the book and/or lyrics of five musicals, including Annie Get Your Gun. Of the five, the least successful show was Mexican Hayride at 481 performances — which at that point was enough of a run to make it one of the top twenty-five longest-running book musicals in Broadway history.
And while most of Fields’ shows pre-dated the Tonys, she did manage to get one for her work on the 1958-59 Best Musical Redhead — which proved that she could write for Verdon.
In 1966, although rock ‘n’ roll – as rock was then known – had been in existence for more than ten years and was still dominating the sales charts, there were still some easy-listening radio stations left that played cover recordings of Charity’s songs.
So, as the overture began with a six-note vamp, I immediately recognized it from Peggy Lee’s rendition of “Big Spender.” Although that segued to a song I didn’t yet know (“If My Friends Could See Me Now”), I knew the following one — “You Wanna Bet?” — from Barbra Streisand’s recording.
But wait a minute — that song had been dropped in Detroit! Why was it still in the Overture?
Within two hours, I’d learn the answer: Fields had refitted Coleman’s melody with a new lyric. Now it was the show’s title song.
I knew the next one, too: “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” courtesy of Sylvia Syms’ 45 rpm record. On the reverse side was another Charity song: “Poor Everybody Else.” But that too had been dropped, albeit in Philadelphia. It would surface again in seven years in Coleman and Fields’ next and final musical Seesaw.
The Overture then gave me “Where Am I Going?” which was on the other side of the Streisand 45. After another unfamiliar one (“I’m a Brass Band”), the Overture came to a close – surprising me, for I’d assumed that “Baby, Dream Your Dream,” which I knew from Tony Bennett’s recording, would be included.
All these recordings – save Lee’s – were on Columbia Records, which made sense, for that company held Charity’s original cast album rights. But how many musicals today can boast of having seven songs available to the public before the show opens?
To quote Fosse’s longest-running musical, “In fifty years or so, it’s gonna change, you know.” (And as you know, it certainly has.)
I heard a new-to-me melody soon after the curtain went up. There, with her back to us in a provocative pose, was Verdon who started dancing to “Charity’s Theme.” When the cast album was first released, this was repositioned as a type of Entr’acte on the record’s second side. Once the CD came into being, the theme was correctly repositioned in its post-Overture position. There aren’t many cast albums that begin with two lyric-less selections, but Sweet Charity is now one of them.
Has a title character’s first song ever been a jazz waltz? “You Should See Yourself” swung, which made sense for Coleman was a jazz-scene stalwart before he turned to Broadway in earnest. Another discovery was “Charity’s Soliloquy,” in which Verdon gave us the character’s inner thoughts while she danced with various Fandango Ballroom clients.
It had a great then-topical joke: Charity complained that Charley had wanted “to go to Florida — Cummon down!” That referenced an Eastern Airline TV commercial that was then airing incessantly and humiliating those of us who didn’t have the money to “Cummon down!” and bask in the balmy weather.
“The Rich Man’s Frug” was an astonishing trio of dances, but the music was marvelous, too. We got one selection on the LP and two on the CD. Might there be a third in the vaults to further intoxicate us?
I savored the lyrics in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” that Syms hadn’t revealed to me. Charity’s friend Helene (the always-superb Helen Gallagher) told of her ambition to be a hat-check girl. Although she started with “Check your hat, sir?” not much time passed before she was asking the handsome stranger “Check your pants?” as well as “I’ll check you – and you check me.” Yeah, you can take the girl out of the dance hall, but there’d still be a lot of dance hall in the girl.
Charity, however, wanted more from life, and may have found him in Oscar Lindquist, with whom she got stuck in an elevator. Her singing “I’m the Bravest Individual” helped keep this claustrophobic sane, which spurred him to invite Charity to a church service.
The term is used loosely; it was a cult religion at best. But the song the congregants sang was unquestionably heavenly: “The Rhythm of Life.” It included another topical reference, albeit a musical one. When the singers went “doobee-doobee-do,” they were aping the style of the then-popular Swingle Singers, who never sang actual lyrics but only scatted.
How I loved the extra lyrics in “Baby, Dream Your Dream,” as Charity’s colleagues mocked her budding romance with Oscar and predicted doom — only to admit “But come to think of it, how happy I would be if someday I could find the kind of guy who’d say to me, ‘Baby, dream your dream’ … Brother, would I buy it.” What a powerful moment of truth!
Charity had Verdon solo five songs, participate in two others, and stay on stage for four more. No wonder that in his Herald Tribune review Walter Kerr wrote that “There are at least six things that will interest you in Sweet Charity — the dances, the scenery, the songs, Gwen Verdon, Gwen Verdon, Gwen Verdon.”
Alas, she, Fosse, Coleman, Fields and so many others connected with the original production will not be around to celebrate the 50th anniversary on Friday. But that original cast album of Sweet Charity at least continues to display the glories of the score.
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.