Happy Birthday, Abie Baby By Peter Filichia
Since the advent of Presidents’ Day in the ‘80s, not much has been made of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
There was a time when Americans were very much aware that the sixteenth President of the United States had been born on February 12. Oh, it was never as big a deal as George Washington’s birthday ten days later; we all got a day off for that one. But still, we did tend to be aware that Lincoln had come into this world on the twelfth day of the second month of the year 1809.
I say that we return to those golden days of yesteryear to acknowledge Honest Abe on February 12th – in, of course, a musical theater way – which is not out of order. For according to Thomas A. Bogar, author of American Presidents Attend the Theatre, Lincoln was a fan of the stage. In 1860, he went to a revue, heard a song with which he immediately fell in love, clapped loudly and said “Let’s have it again!” And, of course, the performers obliged by singing “Dixie” one more time.
Lincoln’s eventual take on Dixie – the area, not the song – led to a cruel irony. This president who passionately loved the theater would be assassinated in one – and by an actor he’d often seen and admired.
So on Feb. 12, do we play Assassins or “Abie Baby” from Hair or “Opening Night” from The Producers? In case you’ve forgotten, the last-named informs us that impresario Max Bialystock, who mounted a musical of Hamlet called Funny Boy, “did to Shakespeare what Booth did to Lincoln.”
No, a better way to celebrate Lincoln is by playing albums from Lincoln Center productions. New York City historians are quick to point out that Lincoln Center wasn’t quite really for Lincoln; the center was named for nearby Lincoln Square. Yeah, but for whom was the square named? As Aldonza sings in Man of La Mancha (whose first Broadway revival took place in Lincoln Center), “It’s all the same.”
From 1964 through 1969 at the new State Theatre, nine musicals were presented and seven got cast albums. (West Side Story in 1968 and Oklahoma! in 1969 did not.) All were recorded in stereo, which hadn’t been available when these shows originally opened. Hell, in 1905 when The Merry Widow premiered, the original Viennese cast would have had little option but wax cylinders or acoustic discs.
Expecting anyone from even the 1907 original Broadway Merry Widow cast to still be around for this 1964 revival would have been too much to ask. But three Lincoln Center revivals had their original stars retackling their roles.
Twelve years after Kismet opened, Alfred Drake was back in his Tony-winning role as – as whom, exactly? We never know his name, for he’s simply established as “The Poet” who later pretends to be a beggar named Hajj. But for all we know, he might be named Jimmy, Joe, John, Jim or Jack.
We certainly know that the names of the lead characters in Carousel and Annie Get Your Gun; they’re respectively Billy Bigelow and Annie Oakley. A full twenty years after the shows had had their Broadway debuts, both John Raitt and Ethel Merman returned to reprise their legendary roles.
Despite the passing of two decades, Raitt could still sing the score, including the most demanding “Soliloquy.” Of course it takes talent to do that well.
And if we’re talking talent, that brings us to Merman in her second-most famous role. Nothing can trump Rose in Gypsy, wouldn’t you say? On the other hand, The Merm had more to do in this 1946 smash hit, which was only the second book musical to pass 1,000 performances. She either dominated or participated in nine songs – until this production, when she got half – the fun half – of a tenth one: “An Old Fashioned Wedding,” the last great quodlibet from Irving Berlin.
The other Lincoln Center revivals sported some new faces in the lead roles. Playing Nellie Forbush in the 1967 South Pacific revival was Florence Henderson. It was one of her last jobs before she became the matriarch of The Brady Bunch.
The 1966 Show Boat had Barbara Cook as Magnolia, which allowed her to sing “Make Believe” and “Why Do I Love You?” both with former Joe (Damn Yankees) Hardy: Stephen Douglass. Also on hand as Cap’n Andy is the first man to ever win a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a musical: David Wayne, the original Og of Finian’s Rainbow.
Most will agree that the 1977 Broadway revival of The King and I with no less than Yul Brynner in his trademark role is the quintessential recording of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit. However, if you’re looking for a change of pace, the Lincoln Center cast had Darren McGavin taking on opera diva Risë Stevens.
And speaking of The King and I, that musical allows us to extend our Lincoln Celebration by a couple of days to Feb. 14.
Why, you ask? Remember the scene in which The King says to Anna, “Tell me about President Lingkong in America. Shall Mr. Lingkong be winning this war he’s fighting at present? Does he have enough guns and elephants?” Anna – “not quite smiling,” states Hammerstein’s stage direction – says, “I don’t think they have elephants in America, your Majesty.” “No elephants!” exclaims the King. “Then I shall send him some. Write letter to Mr. Lingkong!” This actually happened. Dwight Young’s Dear Mr. President —subtitled “Letters to the Oval Office from the Files of the National Archives” – offers a photocopy of the actual letter that King Mongkut sent to Lincoln on February 14, 1861. The letterhead sports a drawing that includes an elephant, which suggests the importance of the animal in Siamese life and culture. The letter begins jauntily: “Sendeth friendly Greeting! Respected and Distinguished Sir.” In the first of his 19 paragraphs, King Mongkut notes that this “Royal letter” comes “under separate envelope” with complimentary presents. Although Young either doesn’t know or doesn’t say what all the goodies were, Mongkut does reveal one gift: “A sword with photographic likeness of ourselves.” He apparently wasn’t above using this variation on “The Royal ‘We,’” which does fit in with Hammerstein’s characterization. After Mongkut acknowledged that the year was 1861 in America, he pointed out it was 1222 in Siam. Then we find that he sent the letter to the President through Captain Berrein who’d helmed “a sailing vessel of the United States Navy, the John Adams” which “came up to pay a friendly visit.” (This King apparently didn’t assume or fear that he was seeing four black dragons.) Then the King reveals that Berrein had told him of his admiration for the elephants he was seeing throughout Siam, for America had none. “Elephants are regarded as the most remarkable of the large quadripeds by the Americans,” Mongkut wrote. “So there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests.” Aha! In The King and I, Hammerstein has the King dictate to Anna, “If several pairs of young male elephants were turned loose in the forests of America, after a while they would increase” – prompting Anna to rebut, “Your Majesty – just male elephants?” So in truth, King Mongkut didn’t make the “male only” mistake. Over the years, some have criticized Hammerstein for making an Englishwoman smart and a Thai ruler and his subjects less enlightened. While I haven’t agreed with that take, this piece of evidence does add fuel to the other side’s argument. Actually, The King didn’t offer to send elephants. “We have no means, nor are we able to convey elephants to America, the distance being too great,” he wrote. But he would give them if the President and Congress saw “fit to approve a large vessel loaded with hay and other food suitable for elephants on the voyage, with tanks holding a sufficiency of fresh water and arranged with stalls so that the elephants can both stand & lie down on the ship.” (The elephants would have certainly received better treatment than Lun Tha and Tuptim.) Dwight Young doesn’t show us the complete response that Lincoln gave The King but just says “Lincoln thought (the elephants) weren’t such a good idea.” He noted “America’s preference for steam” before he quotes Lincoln’s statement that it is “our best and most efficient agent of transportation.” Show-off! Finally, I would love to tell you that Mongkut’s letter included the phrase “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” and ended with his signature and “KM / AL” in the corner underneath, which would indicate that it was dictated to and actually handwritten by Anna Leonowens. But if I did, not only would each statement be a lie, but each would be a false lie.
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.