IN THE HALL DURING WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH By Peter Filichia
To celebrate March as Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at The Women’s Hall of Fame.
The idea for the Hall came from a man: Robert Moses, who set the wheels in motion just before he helmed the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. In order to honor the “Twenty Outstanding Women of the Twentieth Century,” he enlisted Margaret Truman Daniel (the butt of many jokes in CALL ME MADAM) and four others to nominate a hundred distinguished women. Female magazine and newspaper editors were asked to choose ten living and ten deceased women from the list.
Since then, there have been more than 300 entries, some of whom we can celebrate this month through recordings.
Let’s start with Abigail Adams, whose relationship with husband John – our second president who resisted sitting down – has been well-documented as a most loving one. Sherman Edwards, composer-lyricist-conceiver of 1776, did a terrific job in musicalizing their sequences together. This happened only after he’d spent endless hours poring over their letters to make certain he’d get the correct tone for their duets.
Although Nobel Prize-winner Pearl Buck wouldn’t immediately come to mind when Broadway musicals are mentioned, she did co-write the libretto to one: CHRISTINE.
Legend has it that Charles Peck began adapting Hilda Werhner’s MY INDIAN FAMILY, then Buck took over, but he returned. As Sylvia Herscher, Jule Styne’s right-hand woman said about musicals, “It’s nice that everybody helps.”
The plot of this 1960 musical: Christine (Maureen O’Hara) plans to visit her daughter in India who, along with her Hindu husband, was expecting a baby. The sad surprise for Christine is when she arrives in Akbarabad, she learns that her daughter died in childbirth. The second surprise is that she and her son-in-law would fall in love.
Needless to say, this is a very different kind of musical which fans of operetta would be wise to examine.
Annie Oakley, to be frank, might not be as well remembered today if another woman – Dorothy Fields – had not said to her brother Herbert that she could see Ethel Merman as the famous female sharpshooter. “It was,” she liked to say, “the only time in my life that an idea came from God.”
She and Jerome Kern were to write the score, but he died unexpectedly. Irving Berlin was courted, and Ms. Fields stepped aside as lyricist so he could write his own for the musical that became ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.
Although Kern was a master composer, could we really have expected him to create melodies that could rival Berlin’s hit-studded score? He would have undoubtedly admired it, for when he was once asked about Berlin’s place in American music, he replied “Irving Berlin has no place in American music; Irving Berlin IS American music.”
Another member of The Women’s Hall of Fame helped Berlin on his next musical: MISS LIBERTY.
He took the last four-and-a-half lines of Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet THE GREAT COLOSSUS – the ones that begin with “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” – that had been etched onto the base of the Statue of Liberty. He had his musical conclude with the anthem.
The irony is that if the July 15, 1949 debut of his MISS LIBERTY had been delayed by an actual week, it would have opened precisely on the 100th anniversary Lazarus’ birth.
Berlin was both stunned and disappointed that the song didn’t reach the popularity and endurance that he’d expected. Let’s make it up to him – and her – by giving it another chance.
Without Edna Ferber we wouldn’t have The First Truly Great Musical: SHOW BOAT. But let’s not forget that she wrote another novel that became a musical: SARATOGA TRUNK, whose title was truncated to SARATOGA for Broadway in 1959. Can anyone really go wrong with a Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer score?
And without Eudora Welty, we wouldn’t have the musical version of her novella THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM. Albert Uhry, whose fame was to come through DRIVING MISS DAISY and THE LAST NIGHT AT BALLYHOO, provided the lyrics to Robert Waldman’s music. The result is one of the best Broadway/bluegrass scores.
The nineteenth century gave birth to three Barrymore children who became stars: Lionel was the first to win an Oscar, John was the most notorious, but Ethel had the most Broadway credits – more than four dozen – than both of her brothers combined. That may be why she and not they had a Broadway theater named for her.
(And of course only she was elected to The Women’s Hall of Fame without them.)
No, Ethel Barrymore never did a musical, so let’s celebrate her by listening to some of the musicals that have played her theater: PAL JOEY (with its original leading lady Vivienne Segal heading the 1951 studio cast album); NEW FACES OF ‘56 (with future Agnes Gooch Jane Connell singing the amusing “April in Fairbanks”); INNER CITY (the most underrated score of the ‘70s); THE LIFE (get a jump on it before Encores! gets to it) and PUTTING IT TOGETHER (although Julie Andrews, whom you’ll hear on the recording, didn’t take it to Broadway, but saw her good friend Carol Burnett succeed her).
The Ethel Barrymore Theatre was also the first home of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, by Women’s Hall of Famer Lorraine Hansberry. She wrote one of the most important plays of the twentieth century: white playgoers (and on Broadway in 1959, were there any other kind?) entered the theater thinking that they wouldn’t want anyone black living next door. When they left, the play had miraculously made many change their minds.
Without A RAISIN IN THE SUN, we wouldn’t have the 1974 Tony-winning musical RAISIN. A just-starting-out Joe Morton and Debbie Allen respectively played siblings Walter Lee and Beneatha Younger. Fans of the ‘70s sitcom GOOD TIMES may have noticed the end credits originally stated “Ralph Carter, courtesy of the Broadway musical RAISIN.” Indeed, he was Travis Younger for the first ten months of the run until GOOD TIMES promised him better times. All sing wonderfully on the cast album, but the star of the show was Virginia Capers, who won a Tony as Walter Lee and Beneatha’s mother Lena.
Lucille Ball’s television career is the reason she’s in The Women’s Hall of Fame, but we remember her from WILDCAT. Had eight weekly performances not exhausted her and precluded her from continuing with it, the 1960 musical would have run substantially longer than six months.
Few musicals that ran such a scant amount of time have original cast albums that have seldom been out-of-print, but WILDCAT, which recently entered its seventh decade, is one of the select few.
What fun to hear Ball deliver songs substantially better than she did when she was Lucy Ricardo. Ball, however, is not the only reason to listen to WILDCAT. Cy Coleman’s rollicking music (including “Hey, Look Me Over”) was enhanced by the always pungent lyrics of Carolyn Leigh, who should also be remembered during Women’s History Month.
(And let’s put her on the next ballot for The Women’s Hall of Fame.)
For all we know, future Hall members with Broadway connections may well include Lynn (RAGTIME) Ahrens, Cyndi (KINKY BOOTS) Lauper, Mary (ONCE UPON A MATTRESS) Rodgers, Jeanine (THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE) Tesori and THE SECRET GARDEN collaborators Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon.
The Hall might also welcome Ethel Merman, who should be mentioned this month for a second reason. When she was asked to incorporate some last-minute changes before CALL ME MADAM opened, she famously responded “Call me Miss Bird’s-Eye, but this show is frozen!” Thus she deserves to be mentioned in March, which is also National Frozen Food Month.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.