Turning a motion picture into a Broadway musical is a pretty ordinary occurrence now, but it wasn’t in 1953 when HAZEL FLAGG opened.
This was the song-and-dance adaptation of NOTHING SACRED, the 1937 film in which Hazel, a young woman living in Vermont, is diagnosed with a fatal illness.
Wally Cook, a reporter for a New York’s Morning Star, hears of her plight. He’d recently made a big mistake, which caused his editor Oliver Stone (!) to lose confidence in him. Wally feels that Hazel will make a great human-interest story; circulation will rise when the Star makes Hazel a star. He’ll bring her to New York, give her the key to the city and a ticker-tape parade.
However, the doctor made a misdiagnosis; Hazel is healthy and doesn’t need as much as a dab of Witch-Hazel. But she’s not telling Wally that because she desperately wants to visit New York.
Well, who can blame her? As The Mayor would sing in HAZEL FLAGG, “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York.”
(All right, it’s an exaggeration, but we know where he’s coming from.)
HAZEL FLAGG changed Oliver Stone to Laura Carew, who was played by Broadway favorite Benay Venuta. She got a terrific opening number –
“A Little More Heart” and an even better eleven o’clocker – “Everybody Loves to Take a Bow.”
In both the film and the musical, Wally takes Hazel on the town, and while each property mentions “theater tickets,” we don’t know what shows the two attended.
Shall we at least speculate on 1953? There were so many good musicals playing that Hazel would have a torturously hard time choosing which she’d want to attend first.
And what could be a better introduction to this wonderful town than WONDERFUL TOWN? It is, after all, a celebration of New York City, warts and all.
Hazel might have seen Rosalind Russell in her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1942 film MY SISTER EILEEN – which she reprised in this musical version of that play. Moreover, to see Russell live in a show with music by Leonard Bernstein?
WONDERFUL TOWN’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green were famous for great song ideas: “Carried Away” (ON THE TOWN), “Drop That Name” (BELLS ARE RINGING) and “The Late, Late Show” (DO RE MI). Here they had Russell sing “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man.” Truth to tell, they only detailed four, but the ones they chose were beauties. Yes, Hazel would have been wonderfully entertained at WONDERFUL TOWN.
Another big star was on then Broadway: Bette Davis in the revue TWO’S COMPANY. Hazel might have seen Davis in the film DARK VICTORY because it’s set in Vermont, only to find that her Oscar-nominated performance made a bigger impression than shots of maple trees.
What a thrill Hazel would get hearing the orchestra start the show with one of the most peppy and hummable tunes that ever began an Overture: “The Theatre Is a Lady.” As soon as that ended, Hazel wouldn’t have had to wait long to hear the song again, for it’s the show’s opening number.
Let’s be honest: Davis’ first song “Just Turn Me Loose on Broadway” reveals that, well … what’s the phrase I’m looking for …?
She couldn’t sing.
Yet all true musical theater enthusiasts must experience this song at least once in their lives. The result will be gales of laughter.
So Hazel wouldn’t have been impressed with Davis voice, but she might have thought “Hmmm, who wrote that wonderfully funny song about Frank Lloyd Wright?” In fact, it was Sheldon Harnick, who at that time was composing his own music to his own lyrics.
“A Man’s Home” spoofed Wright’s belief that a house should blend in with its surroundings. Trouble is, this one melds in so well that its owner can’t find it.
He, incidentally, was played by Hiram Sherman, whose performance in TWO’S COMPANY got him a Tony. He’d get another one fifteen years later for HOW NOW, DOW JONES, which we hope that Hazel also saw on a subsequent trip to New York.
Perhaps Hazel was so impressed with Harnick that she went to see NEW FACES OF 1952 (still running in 1953), for he had written a song in that one as well.
“Boston Beguine” had a just-starting-out Alice Ghostley sing about meeting a Harvard student. She expected that it would lead to something romantic only to find it couldn’t. The reason? Neither she nor he knew how to proceed because “all the books we should have read were all suppressed in Boston.”
Hazel would have been impressed by so many of the cast’s other new faces who would soon make their mark in other properties: Carol Lawrence (WEST SIDE STORY), Robert Clary (HOGAN’S HEROES), Paul Lynde (BYE BYE BIRDIE), Eartha Kitt (THE WILD PARTY).
If Hazel were a fan of Richard Rodgers – and who isn’t? – she’d find three of his shows all within easy walking distance on West 44th Street.
(An aside: Eighth Avenue at West 44th sports a street that proclaims it as “Rodgers & Hammerstein Row.” It was redubbed that on March 31, 1993 – the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of OKLAHOMA!)
In 1953, THE KING AND I was still at the St. James, alas, without Gertrude Lawrence, who had died, but still with this new sensation named Yul Brynner. Hazel might have felt that she’d better see him play The King while she could, for she might never have the opportunity again.
That would turn out be as incorrect as the doctor’s diagnosis. Needless to say, Brynner played His Highness thousands of times more, as is proved by the 1977 revival cast album, often considered the best recording of the score.
If this were a Wednesday or Saturday, Hazel could have caught a KING AND I matinee before crossing the street to the Majestic to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ME AND JULIET that night. Or would she go steps away to the Broadhurst to witness Rodgers and Hart’s PAL JOEY, on its way of setting a record as the longest running revival in Broadway history?
If she chose the latter, she’d see Nancy Walker play Gladys, because Tony-winner Helen Gallagher would have left the revival by then to play … Hazel Flagg in HAZEL FLAGG.
When the film version of HAZEL FLAGG was made in 1954, it was retitled LIVING IT UP. That was hardly the only change; there were three gender-bending switches. Hazel became Homer, played by Jerry Lewis. Wally stayed Wally in name, but portrayed by Janet Leigh.
Oliver Stone returned as the editor-in-chief, so Benay Venuta was out of the running; Fred Clark took her place. The irony is that Venuta and Clark were married in real life. One wonders how much umbrage Venuta had in Clark’s “stealing” her role. If there were any serious hard feelings, they didn’t end the marriage.
(Not then and there, anyway; they didn’t divorce until 1962.)
As for Homer Flagg, he experienced another change from Hazel. He didn’t hail from Vermont, but New Mexico. When he arrived on Broadway in 1954, here’s hoping he saw THE BOY FRIEND, FANNY, THE GIRL IN PINK TIGHTS, THE GOLDEN APPLE, ON YOUR TOES, THE PAJAMA GAME and PETER PAN. If he did, he might just wonder why New Mexico’s nickname is “The Land of Enchantment.”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.