Although a number of musicals have exclamation points, one surprisingly doesn’t.
If you know the title song from Meredith Willson’s 1963 musical – a jaunty tune in which the title is mentioned many, many times – you’d hear Laurence Naismith as well as a chorus of adults and kids vocally put exclamation points after they had sung the two words.
But Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, didn’t.
The irony is that the logo of the show involved two exclamation points. Oh, they were meant to represent hearts, but the eye first saw them as, as they say in the journalism trade, bangs!
HERE’S LOVE gets a twenty-eight page chapter in Dr. Dominic McHugh’s new book THE BIG PARADE, which gives the details and the dish on the musicals of Meredith Willson. It starts with his biggest hit (THE MUSIC MAN in 1957) and goes through his biggest flop in 1969: a musical about Columbus trying to convince Spain’s royalty that a trip to find a new world is a good idea.
Because it took place the year before his famous landing on our shores, it was called 1491. We’re now in 2021, and 1491 still hasn’t reached Broadway.
What did make it to town was HERE’S LOVE, Willson’s musical version of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET.
You know the story: an elderly gent named Kris Kringle truly believes he’s Santa Claus. By the end of the show, even skeptical divorcee Doris and her daughter Susan also come to accept it as true.
One who became a believer much earlier is Fred Gayley, who’ll be glad to become Doris’ second husband and Susan’s stepfather. “Gayley” was the man’s surname in the film, but Willson decided to change it.
You’re inferring, aren’t you, that he didn’t want to risk theatergoers chuckling to themselves that Fred had a name that during his youth would have made him the recipient of many a playground beating. That couldn’t have been Willson’s reasoning, considering to what he changed it.
These days, such musicals as DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS and A CHRISTMAS STORY play during the holiday season and hang it up just as we’re hanging up our brand-new calendars. So was Willson crazy to think that theatergoers would want to see a Christmas musical in spring, summer and autumn?
Apparently not. HERE’S LOVE opened in early October 1963 and lasted until late July 1964. Although it fell before fall, its 334-performance run was substantially longer than any of these Christmas musicals whose producers can’t envision more than limited engagements.
And yet, one of McHugh’s most fascinating details is that the original MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET film opened during May 1947, and didn’t hurt for business. The decision was made by Darryl F. Zanuck, then Twentieth Century Fox’s head honcho, who wasn’t concerned that May was about as far away from the previous and upcoming Christmases as one could get.
Producers and studios that believe their films have a chance for Oscars often open them days before the calendar year ends to keep minds fresh for their consideration. Although MIRACLE opened seven months earlier, it miraculously got Oscars in three categories – two for writing.
So Willson started adapting. As he explained in HERE’S LOVE’s souvenir program, he wanted to change the thrust of writers who “create plays that do not entertain audiences. And the audiences stay home.”
After this opinion was reprinted in The New York Herald Tribune, Stephen Sondheim took time out from penning the score to his most maverick ANYONE CAN WHISTLE to write a Letter to the Editor.
Sondheim’s response is more vitriolic than one might have expected.
McHugh condenses it to twelve sentences, but the tone can be gleaned from its concluding ones: “Look at statistics, Mr. Willson: freshness is even commercial. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is bringing back the audiences that THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN drove out.”
This is even more biting when one considers that THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN’S score was written by Meredith Willson.
One wonders if Willson felt justified when ANYONE CAN WHISTLE opened and closed during HERE’S LOVE’s time on Broadway. It could only manage nine performances (or, to put it another way, it achieved less than one thirty-seventh of HERE’S LOVE’s run).
Besides, McHugh points out that by musicalizing MIRACLE, Willson was dealing with a story that involved “divorce, gambling, faith and commercialism” – a combination that wasn’t traditionally seen in musicals of the day. “In that sense,” McHugh writes, Willson “was attuned to the changes in society and must have realized that the show could not simply rely on nostalgia.”
The show’s title was originally THE WONDERFUL PLAN because Willson had written a song by that name for THE MUSIC MAN, where it was cut. He then put it into MOLLY BROWN, where it was also cut. Willson must have really loved it to give it yet another chance.
(Either that, or this native from The Hawkeye State was, as one of his previous songs was titled, “Iowa Stubborn.” You know that Midwestern value of “Waste not, want not.”)
Alas, “The Wonderful Plan” wasn’t a case of “third time’s the charm” but “three strikes and you’re out.” It never made the finished musical, and lost its standing as the title tune after Willson had considered calling the show WOULDN’T IT BE WONDERFUL IF and LOVE, LOVE, LOVE before he landed on HERE’S LOVE.
Its delightful title tune stresses that rivals at least should put aside their differences during the holiday season. Thus, CBS should show love to NBC just as Dallas should to Fort Worth.
However, Willson wasn’t inclined to dispense any affection to the man who was then Cuba’s prime minister. “The devil to Fidel (Castro),” he wrote.
For Doris, Shirley (the future Maggie Flynn) Jones and Michelle (BRAVO GIOVANNI) Lee were considered before the role went to Janis Paige. She was almost reunited with her PAJAMA GAME co-star Eddie Foy, Jr., who was a Kris Kringle contender along with George Rose, later a Tony-winner for MY FAIR LADY.
Craig Stevens, then best known as the title character in the TV series Peter Gunn, landed the part of Fred. You’d think that his wife would be at least considered to co-star as Doris, given that she later proved she had musical theater ability when eight years later this Alexis Smith starred in FOLLIES. But there’s no mention of whether or not this was either a consideration or a possibility.
Also considered for Fred is another surprising name: Jason Robards. Notice there’s no name of a musical in parentheses between his first and last name. And yet, for the record, Robards WAS to star in a 1967 musical called SOFTLY, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Martin Charnin. It never happened, so Charnin later reused the title on one of SOFTLY’s songs to create a new lyric.
It was “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”
As for the original cast album of HERE’S LOVE, years ago when I got the long-playing record, I found that the sound on the first band was all too weak and distant. I assumed that my stylus – the fancy name for needle – had been worn down to nothing. I drove to a record store, bought a new needle, came home, inserted it, played the record – and still the sound was weak and distant.
The reason? HERE’S LOVE starts with The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which gave record producer Goddard Lieberson a novel idea. He had the parade sound as if it were some streets away; it would steadily become increasingly loud as it made its way to where you were “standing.” Only then did the album play at full force.
(Oh, well. I probably needed a new needle, anyway, from all those dozens of times I had listened to WEST SIDE STORY.)
So however you listen to HERE’S LOVE, don’t assume from that first cut that there’s something amiss with your equipment.
Until next Tuesday, here’s love!
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.