By Peter Filichia
If you didn’t get to the Lion Theatre last month, then you missed your chance.
Musicals Tonight! did an excellent staged reading of Hazel Flagg.
At least there’s that 1953 original cast album of the Jule Styne-Bob Hilliard score.
The first of those two names you undoubtedly know. Jule Styne was the composer of Gypsy, Funny Girl, Bells Are Ringing and plenty of other worthy musicals.
The second is probably less familiar. Bob Hilliard had five years earlier written the lyrics for Angel in the Wings, which
helped Elaine Stritch on the road to stardom by co-writing what became her signature song for a while: “Civilization,” better known by its release: “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo.”
Hilliard also wrote a bevy of pop hits, including “(I love those) Dear Hearts and Gentle People.” He never did another Broadway show after Hazel Flagg. Do you think it’s because he loved dear hearts and gentle people, few of whom could be found on Broadway?
Hazel Flagg was innovative because it would be – get this — a musical based on a property that had originated as a movie. Imagine! A movie made into a stage musical?! What will they think of next?
If this musical of Nothing Sacred opened today, it would of course be called Nothing Sacred: The Musical. But back in those days, creators and producers felt that an adaptation had to have a different title to show that it was something brand-spanking new.
Although it’s a 1937 film, Nothing Sacred was set in 1933. Hazel Flagg, living in Stonyhead, Vermont, works in a watch factory where she paints the faces with radium. Putting a paintbrush to her mouth to get a finer tip led to Hazel’s getting terminal radium poisoning.
Hazel’s tale of woe reaches New York Morning Star reporter Wallace Cook. He decides there’s a great human interest story here, and invites Hazel to New York where she’ll get the key and total access to the city.
Before she’s to go, however, Hazel learns that the doctor has misdiagnosed her and that she’s fit as a Stradivarius. What to do, what to do?
Lie. Hazel really wants to see New York, which many of us can understand. However, we might question her destinations of choice while she’s here: “Grant’s Tomb, the Statue of Liberty and Coney Island” she says in that order. Well, we all have our values, but in 1933, Broadway was offering Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, Jerome Kern’s Roberta, the original production of The Threepenny Opera and two musicals by the Gershwins: Let ‘Em Eat Cake and, in fact, the show that Musicals Tonight! is doing through the end of this week: Pardon My English.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive! How can Hazel tell Wally the truth, now that they’ve fallen in love? Actually, he’s thrilled when he discovers the woman he loves isn’t dying, although he does get in trouble with his boss – one Oliver Stone. (Who knew that that name would pick up an entirely new meaning some three decades later?)
Styne saw musical possibilities, but balked when David O. Selznick, the producer of the film (and Gone with the Wind, for that matter) wanted $10,000 for the rights. He eventually paid it but couldn’t help noticing that the canceled check had been endorsed from Gristede’s, a Manhattan supermarket chain. Styne was curious enough to see what had happened and learned that Selznick turned over the check as partial payment to the store he owed $16,000. Where did all the money go from Selznick’s illustrious, eighty-seven film producing career? Gone with the wind.
Also down on his luck was Ben Hecht, the original screenwriter who agreed to adapt his screenplay for $2,500, half of what he used to make each week. No matter what John Wilkes Booth says in Assassins, fame is indeed fleeting.
The film is only 75 minutes, which left plenty of room for songs. The collaborators kept the 1933 timeframe but changed the publication to Everywhere Magazine and the sex of its editor. Oliver Stone was now Laura Carew and was played by Ethel Merman’s good buddy Benay Venuta (not to be confused with B’nai B’rith). She got the snazzy opening number “A Little More Heart,” in which the plot is launched to make the doomed Hazel a dazzling celebrity.
Hazel Flagg is a benign Chicago, for both stress that the average person grooves on celebrity. One of the best songs comes when Laura admits that “Everybody Loves to Take a Bow.” Hilliard may not have been a first-class lyricist (although he might have become one had he not died at a much-too-young 53), but he chose a smart way of showing our need to be acknowledged by one and all; “Everybody Loves to Be Adored” or “Everybody Loves to Be Famous” would have been far more blatant, but “take a bow” was a gentler way of putting it.
Hazel was played by Helen Gallagher, a former (Pal Joey) and future (No, No, Nanette) Tony-winner, who’s tender in appreciating life in “The World Is Beautiful Today” and full of beans in “I’m Glad I’m Leaving” Vermont. Once she arrives in New York, she’s greeted by plenty of razz-ma-tazz types. “Hello, Hazel,” they all sing, although my favorite greeters are the showgirls at the thirty-eight second mark of the song.
Even the mayor gets into the act. He was patterned after James J. Walker, a hizzoner who wrote songs on the side. Thus, here was a logical place for a Styne-Hilliard song. They didn’t quite identify their mayor as Walker – we’d have to wait sixteen more years before he’d show up in a musical of his own called, of course, Jimmy – but they did write him a honey of a song that was better than anything the real Walker wrote: “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York.” It’s a love letter to the city, in which the Mayor celebrated such places Mulberry Street and Union Square and bragged “Those bridges and buildings will never come down.”
That one got a bit of airplay, but getting even more in 1953 was “How Do You Speak to an Angel?” sung by Wallace (John Howard, in his one and only Broadway appearance).
You might have missed that a film version of Hazel Flagg was indeed made, because it was retitled Living It Up. The 1954 Paramount feature took quite a few liberties, especially in the matter of sex. No, it was hardly a porno flick, but three characters did undergo sex-changes.
Hazel Flagg became Homer Flagg played by – are you ready for this? — Jerry Lewis. Wallace still had a masculine-sounding name in Wally, but was a woman portrayed by Janet Leigh.
The most fascinating bit of casting? Laura Crews became Oliver Stone again, so with Benay Venuta ineligible, the role went to Fred Clark – who at the time was married to – yes — Benay Venuta.
But wait – would Janet Leigh really go for Jerry Lewis? No, she wound up with Lewis’ then-partner Dean Martin, who played — are you ready for this? — the doctor. Would you entrust your health to Dean Martin? Of course, the plot had always typified him as incompetent, but screenwriters Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson took no chances; they established that he’d finished last in his class.
The film was contemporized. Homer’s alleged radium poisoning came from accidentally driving through the grounds of a New Mexico atom-bomb facility. Martin and Lewis sang “Every Street’s a Boulevard” with the latter retaining his silly-squawky voice persona. (No wonder there was no soundtrack album.)
Sheree North – the only Hazel Flagg cast member to make it into the film – did what was advertised as “the first rock n roll number on screen.” Luckily, Broadway still preferred its Golden Age sound, making us understand why Homer, like his forebear, would lie to get to New York; after all, The Boy Friend, Fanny, The Girl in Pink Tights, The Golden Apple, House of Flowers, Kismet, Me and Juliet, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan and Wonderful Town were playing.
A sad irony: “You’re Gonna Dance with Me, Willie,” the first-act closer, was set in Roseland. As Musicals Tonight! was unveiling its Hazel Flagg, the legendary dance hall was being demolished. So much for “Those bridges and buildings will never come down.” At least the original cast album of Hazel Flagg is still with us.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.