Of course you know the song, “Hello, Dolly!” But do you know the song, “Hello, Hazel?”
It comes midway through the first act of Hazel Flagg the musical adaptation of the 1936 movie Nothing Sacred. (And you thought making musicals from movies was a recent development!) That’s the film where New York Morning Star reporter Wallace “Wally” Cook convinces his editor Oliver Stone (yes, Oliver Stone!) that they should make a big story of Hazel’s plight. The Warsaw, Vermont resident is dying of radium poisoning, so the Star, Cook reasons, should give her a terrific (and circulating-boosting) send-off in New York before she succumbs.
The Ben Hecht-Jule Styne-Bob Hilliard musical version opened 57 years ago this week: Feb. 11, 1953 – the same day that George and Barbara Bush welcomed Jeb into the family.
“Hello, Hazel” has New Yorkers singing to Ms. Flagg (Helen Gallagher), brought to their fair city by Laura Crewe (Benay Venuta), editor of Everywhere Magazine. Note that not only did the writers change the publication’s name, but also the sex of the editor. (Broadway wasn’t shy about turning men into women, so that the more pleasant female voice could be heard; two years later, sports columnist Luster Head in the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant became Gloria Thorpe in Damn Yankees.)
What Crewe and Cook (John Howard) don’t know is that Hazel’s physician, chummily known as Doc Downer (Thomas Mitchell), made a downer of a mis-diagnosis, and Hazel is as healthy as can be. Sure, she should have come clean to Everywhere, but who can turn down a trip to New York — and Broadway?
So here’s the whole town welcoming her. There’s a wonderful moment that comes 37 seconds into the song; some chorines, sounding like genuine bubbleheads, come out with a hilarious “Hello, Hazel.” Listen for it.
There are bigger pleasures to be had, from the melodic opening number “A Little More Heart,” where Laura determines that’s what the city must have, to a nifty eleven o’clock number, “Everybody Loves to Take a Bow.” In between, the Mayor gets to sing the score’s best-known song, “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York.”
That Mitchell won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical is pretty astonishing, considering that he didn’t sing a note in the entire show. So, alas, you won’t hear him on the cast album – or, of course, his understudy: Jonathan Harris, who would later get some TV fame as the nefarious Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost in Space.
But the recording is a fine showcase for Helen Gallagher. As critic William Hawkins wrote in the New York World-Telegram & Sun, “Her voice in a ballad has the old Garland ring.” He’s right, as is proved by Gallagher’s work in the plaintive “The World Is Beautiful Today” and the brave “I Feel Like I’m Gonna Live Forever.”
In 1954, Hazel Flagg morphed into a movie. In this era when Hollywood often played fast ‘n’ loose with Broadway musicals, it really outdid itself here. First came a change of title – to Living It Up – followed by many more sex changes. Hazel became Homer Flagg, goonily portrayed by Jerry Lewis, and the reporter was turned female (Janet Leigh), though her name – Wally Cook – remained. (She must have been named for the Duchess of Windsor.) The doctor stayed male, though he was renamed Steve Harris, and was played by Lewis’ then-partner Dean Martin.
Living It Up returned to Nothing Sacred’s template when dealing with the editor: Once again, he was Oliver Stone who headed a newspaper (albeit the New York Chronicle). Playing him was Fred Clark, and his replacing Venuta had an extra irony; the two were married at the time. (You won’t find it on www.ibdb.com, but a subsequent Hazel Flagg souvenir booklet proves that at some point, Nancy Andrews – later the elder Belle Poitrine in Little Me — succeeded Venuta.)
Hazel Flagg’s opening night playbill offers some charming ads. “Gay French Revue — Dozens of Stars — Exquisite Girls – Delicious Food – No Cover Charge at the Latin Quarter.” Ah, but more expensive was the show with Johnnie Ray, the Nicholas Brothers, and Betty and Jane Kean at the Copacabana: “Dinner $2.75,” it warned. American Airlines bragged that it had seven ONE-stop flights daily to Los Angeles, and crowed that it could do the job in 11 hrs and 15 minutes. So that little plane trip that Hazel took from Vermont to LaGuardia might well have lasted as long as one we’d take to Los Angeles today.
Interesting that Hazel Flagg is a story about indomitability, for that’s been the history of the original cast album. Originally released by RCA Victor on LP in 1953, it stayed in print for only three years, but 20 years later, the company felt compelled to reissue it. A British pressing came out on CD in 2003, and now Hazel Flagg is back home in America. Masterworks Broadway issued the only authorized digital version of the recording last year, which is available through iTunes (with digital booklet) and other DSPs, and as a manufacture-on-demand physical CD from www.Arkivmusic.com. I feel like it’s gonna live forever.
Peter Filichia also can be found each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia