IRENE AND OTHER CINDERELLAS By Peter Filichia
Although it closed 100 years ago this week, its logo is on the front cover of a brand-new book.
Dan Dietz’ THE COMPLETE BOOK OF 1910s BROADWAY MUSICALS details 312 book shows from that decade. Thus, any one of them could have been pictured on its cover: HOP O’ MY THUMB, THE MELTING OF MOLLY, FLO-FLO or even HIS HONOR, THE BARBER.
But of course the honor had to go to IRENE, once the longest-running musical that Broadway had even seen. From its opening on Nov. 18, 1919 to its closing on June 18, 1921, it racked up a sweet 670 performances.
Doesn’t sound that impressive, does it? In the century that’s followed IRENE’s closing, EVERY existing Broadway theater has had at least one show that’s run longer (aside from the American Airlines, which houses limited runs). In fact, twenty of Broadway’s forty-one theaters have had productions that have run more than THREE times as long as 670.
Ah, but IRENE, the sixty-seventh opening of a season that saw 157 other productions debut, had ninety other shows with which it had to compete for a theatergoer’s business.
If you know IRENE’s 1973 revival cast album with Debbie Reynolds (and, my, you should; it’s terrific), you’ll find little resemblance to the IRENE detailed in Dietz’s book. Of its original thirteen songs, only four were retained for the revival.
A look at the list of songs in that revival may make you say “Oh, sure: ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.’ Judy Garland sang that in ZIEGFELD GIRL in 1941.”
(And it wasn’t the first time that Garland sang about a rainbow.)
No. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” originated in a 1918 musical called OH, LOOK! But its songwriters, composer Harry Tierney (who borrowed a few notes from Chopin) and lyricist Joseph McCarthy, would debut IRENE a year-and-a-half later, so it was added to the revival.
So were many other songs by many ‘70s writers. The standout is the opening “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue” that Reynolds, playing Irene O’Dare, a poor girl from Ninth Ave., does with great brio.
The most famous song that came from the original IRENE is “Alice Blue Gown.” Here Irene dreams about her ideal dress to which female workaday theatergoers could relate.
Those who know the revival know that Irene tuned pianos for a living. Dietz tells us that the original production had her “work for a firm that produces, among other things, porch cushions.”
(Not as interesting, is it?)
No matter what her occupation, a complaint from a tony Long Island customer sent both Irene 1919 and 1973 to the mansion to fix the problem. There she shared love-at-first-sight with Donald Marshall, who finds that this piano tuner has the music that makes him dance. But how can a girl from the wrong side of Manhattan need I finish this sentence?
Donald has an answer. He’ll get his pal Madame Lucy, the famous dress designer, to make Irene one of his models. What’s more, Donald will see to it that her friends Helen and Jane get jobs, too. They’re thrilled, but Irene isn’t the type of young woman who likes deception – especially when Donald tries to pass her off as a countess. In another of the original score’s holdovers, everyone else is happy that “We’re Getting Away with It.”
Aside from “The Last Part of Any Party” – retooled as “The Last Part of Ev’ry Party” that showed everyone sad to see a nice night end – the only other song from the original is hardly a surprise.
It is, after all, called “Irene.”
Donald’s love for the lass leads to a rollicking song that’s a precursor to those “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame”-like extravaganzas where everyone celebrates the title character.
Some musical theater savants say that “The Family Tree” was part of the original score. Dietz cautions that “it wasn’t included in the original program.” Perhaps it was added during the run. Whatever the case, be glad that the delightful ditty is on the revival cast album. In it, Donald’s mother, an oh-so-proper dowager, reveals her lofty values and benign shallowness.
But how many lyrics in “The Family Tree” are McCarthy’s originals and how many came from 1973 score-doctor Charles Gaynor? Even Dietz can’t say.
What he does state, however, is that “IRENE set the template for the Cinderella musical.” Dietz admits that “there had been Cinderella musicals before, but IRENE institutionalized the genre as a Broadway fixture and dozens upon dozens of similarly themed musicals followed, including two hits in 1956: MY FAIR LADY and BELLS ARE RINGING.”
Certainly the latter fills the requirements. A mere switchboard operator gets the famous playwright that she’d been loving from afar. She rationalizes that NOT even knowing what he looks like is an asset, which comes through loud and clear in one of Broadway’s most felicitous first-numbers-for-a-star: “It’s a Perfect Relationship.” And if you doubt that bookwriter-lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green didn’t have Cinderella on their minds, then why did they name their character Ella?
MY FAIR LADY isn’t quite as Cinderella-ish, for Eliza doesn’t necessarily get her man; that she has become a beautiful and acculturated woman who can join high society is more than enough. Yes, she does state in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” – in Cockney dialect – that “someone’s ‘ead resting on my knee, warm and tender as ‘e can be who takes good care of me” is a goal, but she mentions such a man only after listing a room, a chair, chocolate and ‘eat. Is Eliza naming the ingredients in order of importance to her or is she saving the best for last?
Lerner wrote as an afterword in the printed text that “Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and –
Shaw and Heaven forgive me! – I am not certain he is right.”
If Eliza chooses either or neither, the important thing is that she certainly is a far better off and fairer lady than she once was. Eliza doesn’t need the advice that Smitty wants Rosemary to take in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING: “Cinderella, don’t give up the prince!”
As it turned out, the two performers who played those Cinderellas duked it out for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony. Casual theatergoers may be surprised that Judy Holliday’s Ella beat out Julie Andrews’ Eliza, given that FAIR LADY was the bigger hit and wound up running nearly three times as long. Nevertheless, Holliday did.
Of course Andrews got to play another Cinderella role only a year and two weeks after she’d opened MY FAIR LADY. This time, thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only TV musical, she played the actual Cinderella who did a bit of rationalizing herself –
that despite her horrid stepmother’s treatment, she could imagine traveling here and there while sitting “In My Own Little Corner.”
(If you’ve ever heard that Richard Rodgers was famous for writing the “wrong” note – meaning the note that unexpectedly went into a very different direction from where you anticipated – this song offers the best example. Hear Andrews sing it when she reaches the second “own” in the song’s first line.)
There are plenty of other Cinderellas mentioned in Dietz’s 603-page, coffee-table-sized tome. But the most fun is chuckling over the way Broadway musicals used to be marketed (THE PLEASURE SEEKERS was “An entirely new jumble of jollification” while ROLY-POLY was “A more or less digestible dramatic dessert.”
Songs had such titles as “Tell Me the French Word for ‘Squeeze Me,’” “I Want to Look Like Lillian Russell” and “Mr. Patrick Henry Must Have Been a Married Man.” (In case you don’t know his famous quotation, hearing it may make some sense: “Give me liberty or give me death!”)
With such entertainments on the boards, no wonder that IRENE set the long-run record.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.