Irene, Debbie, Carrie and George By Peter Filichia
If you’re anything like me – and mind you, I’m not suggesting you should be – two weeks ago you may very well have played the 1973 revival cast album of Irene.
Those who did were undoubtedly paying tribute to three of its cast members who, in one unfortunate fell swoop, died in a three-day span: George S. Irving on Dec. 26th, Carrie Fisher on Dec. 27th and Debbie Reynolds on Dec. 28th.
You might not have even known that Fisher was in Irene, although the fact appeared in some obituaries. Fisher didn’t have much to do; she was merely one of the fourteen “Debutantes” who made up the female chorus. She also bore the burden of having everyone assume she got the job because her mother was the star.
Debbie Reynolds certainly was. Many suspect that Reynolds’ Unsinkable Molly Brown probably lost the 1964 Best Actress Oscar only by a whisker (to Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins), but many more believe that Glynis Johns, who won a Tony for her Desiree in A Little Night Music , beat Reynolds’ Irene by less than a wisp of a whisker.
Too bad, for Irene asked more of its leading lady than Night Music did. It was a star vehicle which Reynolds drove with the skill of Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt combined. In the show’s ten scenes, she sang in nine of them and danced in four numbers. That included “Stepping on Butterflies,” which didn’t make the cast album, probably because of the time constraints of “long-playing” records in those days.
No wonder that an exhausted Reynolds eventually dropped “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” although it was one of the production’s best-known songs. (Classical music buffs will tell you that it’s heavily based on Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu.) Luckily, Reynolds did agree to record it for the cast album.
Reynolds also had to endure many changes during the first tryout in Toronto. By Philadelphia, she demanded that Gower Champion replace John Gielgud as director.
“John Gielgud?!” you’re saying. “What’s an esteemed British Shakespearean expert doing staging a commercial musical in the first place?” Damn if anyone knows why lead producer Harry Rigby thought this a good idea. There’s even a joke about Gielgud’s staging Irene in A Class Act – the 2001 bio-musical about Edward Kleban, who’s most known as the lyricist for A Chorus Line. Irene was mentioned because Kleban was asked to go to Toronto and contribute a song or two to the score. He was fired, which made for a poignant Class Act Act One curtain. Ironically, Kleban died literally twenty-nine years to the day before Reynolds’s death.
Say what you will, though: Gielgud was a trouper. In Toronto, when Reynolds got laryngitis, he stood in the wings and read Irene’s dialogue and sang her songs while Reynolds’ lip-synched. That proved Reynolds was a trouper, too, for the average star would have simply called in sick.
All right, that night when she was booed for her “performance,” she found enough voice to break character and hoarsely tell the audience “I don’t have to be here. I could be at home with my seven maids.” That experience would have made many a star walk away and leave the show behind, but Reynolds was a way-above-average pro.
Well, spunk was always Reynolds’ strong suit, so she was ultra-correct for Irene O’Dare, who wasn’t just a piano tuner content to live a hellish existence in Hell’s Kitchen. When she was called out to Long Island to tune the ever-so-grand piano of the ever-so-much-grander Mrs. Emmeline Marshall, Irene was entranced by her surroundings and was surrounded by admiration for Mrs. Marshall’s son Donald, who, in the time-honored tradition of opposites-attract, admired her, too. You can imagine how much happiness that brought the dowager …
If the story sounds a little retro, it wasn’t when Irene first debuted in 1919. Back then its theme – an American upholsterer (which Irene was then) born to Irish immigrants dares to think she has a chance or is even on equal footing with a homegrown WASP — was one that was increasingly showing up in stories, for second-generation Americans were becoming a little more easily assimilated. Certainly Irene resonated with post-first-world-war audiences, given that its 675 performances were then enough — believe it or not — to make it the longest-running Broadway musical of all time.
(Now that figure is only good enough for 146th place.)
During the D.C. break-in (and I don’t mean Watergate), Joseph Stein came in to buttress Hugh Wheeler’s book. Similarly, Jack Lloyd and Wally Harper came in to write a new opener, although Charles Gaynor and Otis Clements had already enhanced the score that had been originally written by composer Harry Tierney and lyricist Joseph McCarthy.
Only five of their songs were retained: “The Family Tree,” which has the sound of operetta-meeting-Broadway; “The Last Party of Ev’ry Party,” a wistful look at an evening and event that went by too quickly; “We’re Getting Away with It,” the villains’ boast, “Irene,” the title song that celebrates our heroine and, of course, the ever-popular “Alice Blue Gown,” which a not-well-off Irene hopes someday to wear.
Lloyd and Harper came through with “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue,” in which Irene yearns to expand her worldview. Of the other new songs, “Mother Angel Darling,” penned by Gaynor alone, remains a terrific soft-shoe for Irene and her mother (the always delightfully sardonic Patsy Kelly).
As a result, this Irene wasn’t a true-(Alice)-blue revival but a revisal, although that term wasn’t yet in use. Virtually all revivals – with the obvious exceptions of Chicago and Cabaret – wind up staying on Broadway a shorter time than the original. Irene did, too – but not by much. It racked up 594 or 604 performances, depending on which book or website you believe. Whichever it was, the number was enough to then make it the second-longest running musical revival in all Broadway history. Only No, No, Nanette’s 1971 (originated and co-produced by the same Harry Rigby) had lasted longer. Reynolds stayed on Broadway for eleven months of it with Jane Powell, in her only Broadway appearance, taking over for her.
Musicals are famous for their sub-plots, and that’s where George S. Irving came in – but only after Billy De Wolfe, the fussiest character actor of ‘40s films, found that he was much too ill to make it past Toronto. De Wolfe would die less than a year after Irene’s Broadway debut – and forty-five days before Irving won a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for playing Madame Lucy.
Yes, Madame Lucy. This was what a would-be-fashion-designer chose as a nom de plume to plume himself off as an illustrious French couturier.
In real life, this “Madame Lucy” was wed to the original Madame Hortense in Zorba: Maria Karnilova (the first Tessie Tura in Gypsy, too). Eleven years before Irene, the spouses could commute to work together when they appeared in Bravo, Giovanni. In addition to that cast album and Irene, you can also hear Irving in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Two’s Company, Me and Juliet, Bells Are Ringing, Irma La Douce and The Happy Time, among several others.
So while we only have one cast album with Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, we have quite a few with George S. Irving, making for many a happy time. May they all rest in peace while the rest of us still enjoy Irene.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.