Love is simply heavenly but sex means you’re going to hell.
So thinks Joyce in Simply Heavenly, the 1957 Broadway musical for which the illustrious Langston Hughes wrote book and lyrics to David Martin’s music.
As was the case with so many women in the Eisenhower and pre-birth control pill era, Joyce (Marilyn Berry) believes “Love Is Simply Heavenly” but insists there will be no sex before marriage – especially because Jess Simple (Melvin Stewart), her current beau, still hasn’t gotten an official divorce from his wife.
Joyce won’t even let Jess see her undress and insists that he turn around while she does. Jess obliges, but he isn’t above accidentally-on-purpose dropping his cigarette pack, picking it up while spreading his legs wide and taking an upside-down peek. To play fast and loose with a famous expression, there’s more than one way a cat can see skin.
Down at Paddy’s Bar, we meet Mamie, a Big Beautiful Woman who works as a maid. She admits “I got a lot of flesh here to nourish – which is why I like to work for rich folks. Poor folks ain’t got enough to feed me.”
Serendipitously, Mamie was played by Claudia McNeil, who seventeen months later would originate Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun — the play that took its name from a Langston Hughes poem.
Surprised to hear McNeil in a musical? Indeed she had “bassa profunda” vocal cords that seem to have been marinated in bourbon. She’s actually the vocal standout on this album.
Mamie certainly gets attention from Melon (John Bouie). Both discuss Jess’s new love and are glad that he’s no longer with Zarita (Anna English). Snarls Mamie, “She wears her morals like a loose garment.”
Jess, entering the bar, overhears and agrees: “A man can hardly keep Zarita in his arms, let alone in his heart.”
He’s certainly not in his wife’s heart, who writes that she’s met a new man and they’re willing to pay for two-thirds of the $400 divorce but he must pay his $133.33 share. The letter’s complimentary close isn’t very complimentary: “Once sincerely yours — but not now.”
Zarita enters, urging Jess to come with her for some late-night bar-hopping in New Jersey – and in her snazzy convertible, yet. “Let Me Take You for a Ride” is a snazzy song, but her offer to pay for drinks gets Jess to agree. Mamie shakes her head sadly and thinks of Joyce: “Ain’t it a shame the kind of deal a good woman gets when she goes to bed early?”
And isn’t it a shame that Zarita gets into an accident and Jess winds up in the hospital with an impaired gluteus maximus? (“I’m all bruised up on my sit-downer.”) What’s worse: “I’m broke, busted and disgusted.”
It leads him to do the “Flying Saucer Monologue” that’s included on this cast album. In it, Jess is essentially saying that Black Lives Matter.
He’s not the only one with troubles. Melon rues that the bars in which he used to sing and play guitar for a few bucks have now installed jukeboxes. Now doesn’t that situation call for a blues song?
Starlight Express has a song that states “The first line of the blues always gets sung a second time” followed by – yes — “The first line of the blues always gets sung a second time.” That’s not quite the case with “Did You Ever Hear the Blues?” that Melon and Mamie sing. But it may well be a song that you’ll play a second, third or more times.
Gitfiddle (Brownie McGhee) is a guitarist with a more optimistic outlook. Even if he endures a broken string, he feels he can play with five. Even if every string bends and snaps, he can find a way to entertain. Hear his unique philosophy in “Broken Strings.”
And Jess? He takes his inspiration from an African-American folk hero. “I’m Gonna Be John Henry,” he insists – or at least be as strong as he when dealing with Zarita. And with resolve that’s his own version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the first act comes to an end.
Second acts of musicals usually start with a barn-burner, so why, you may ask, does Simply Heavenly start its Act Two with “When I’m in a Quiet Mood”? Surprisingly, it’s not a ballad but an up-tempo comedy song. Mamie’s frustrated for when she’s in that quiet mood, Melon is always there wanting to be with her. Some men won’t take “No!” for an answer, but Melon can’t even consider “No, definitely not!” As he keeps pushing himself on her, Mamie growls, “Melon, you got more nerve than Liberace has sequins.”
Hughes makes certain that we don’t see Melon as a stalker, but as a little puppy who needs attention. The message of the song is that everyone needs a little time alone, no matter how much affection he or she has for another person.
Meanwhile, the sides of the triangle among Jess, Joyce and Zarita are getting sharper. Zarita lets us see that Jess is just one of “The Men in My Life.” She’d really like Sammy Davis, Jr. to be one of them. What’s fun is hearing her refer to him as “Mr. Wonderful,” for that was the name of the show that Davis opened on Broadway in 1956 and kept on the boards for the next eleven months. (Failing Davis, Zarita would also accept then-Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and/or Jackie Robinson, assuming that the now-retired Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman will now have some time on his hands.)
What Joyce and Zarita do have in common is that “Look for the Morning Star” is their favorite song. This could have been a pop hit if some superstar of the ’50s had got on the ball and taken it on. In a way, it’s the African-American version of “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Look for the similarities.
As Joyce believes that Jess has put Zarita behind her, she brightly sings to him that “(You’re the) Gatekeeper of My Castle,” an easy listening tune before deciding that “Life is really wonderful!” Jess responds “I wouldn’t be caught dead without it.”
Joyce will soon cut him dead when she discovers that Zarita is in his rented room. We know that the harlot barged in and insisted “Let’s Ball Awhile,” a raucous song of seduction. Luckily, one of Jess’s friends makes a point of telling Joyce that her beau is on the up and up. Happy ending!
There’s one in store for Mamie and Melon, too, after she establishes that she’s a “Good Old Girl” and deserves a good bold man. Melon promises to be that guy.
Between these two blessed events comes a divertissement that musicals of the ’50s and ’60s often included. Just as Damn Yankees celebrated the mambo and Mr. President acknowledged the twist, Simply Heavenly became musically au courant by including a calypso: “Beat It Out, Mon.” If you remember calypsos, this will be a nice nostalgic voyage; if you don’t, here’s your chance to witness a Major Musical Craze of the late ’50s.
Before all comes to an end, Langston Hughes has an important message to deliver. All show long, Melvin Stewart has been an uncertain Jess, but here he’s resolute as he imagines himself as no less than a general in the army. Jess’s friends tell him it’s all fantasy, but he can’t see any reason why he couldn’t achieve this goal. Whether or not Jess did make general, we know that Colin Powell and six more African Americans after him certainly did.
And that’s Simply Heavenly – a mixture of show tunes, jazz and rhythm and blues. From its mini-overture played by a trumpeter with a silver plated wah-wah mute, Simply Heavenly qualifies as an All-American musical, for it offers all three of those musical categories in one forty-minute package.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.