JOSHUA ELLIS: CALL ON THIS PUBLICIST FOR THE GOOD STORIES By Peter Filichia
I’ve seen it five times and I’ll attend again.
I can’t get enough of Call My Publicist! – The Starry Education of a Broadway Press Agent, Joshua Ellis’ one-person show. From 1973 (when he was a union apprentice on Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room) to 1992 (when he was president of The Joshua Ellis Office and The Roundabout Director of Press and Marketing), he was one of the town’s top theatrical publicists.
Ellis represented more than six dozen Broadway shows and more than a score of off-Broadway ones. So snag a seat while you can for the already-pretty-sold-out Call My Publicist at United Solo Theatre Festival.
In the 90-minute show directed by Gretchen Cryer, Ellis won’t be able to tell all, or the evening would be longer than The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (which Ellis also represented). And because his show doesn’t encompass the “two-and-a-half recording sessions” he attended, let’s hear now what he has to say about them.
“The reason I say ‘two-and-a-half,’” Ellis says with a smile, “is because I was at the Shubert Theatre for Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, which was recorded live and not in a studio.
Of the March 11, 1973 event, Ellis says “It was one of my top five evenings in the theater.” This from a man who’s seen thousands upon thousands since his boyhood in suburban Philadelphia (including the original Anyone Can Whistle at the Forrest).
“That Sondheim concert was the one by which all others are judged,” he says. “The biggest surprise was Nancy Walker’s ‘I’m Still Here.’ Who expected that she’d be able to do that? It came out of nowhere.”
Ellis does concede “It’s hard to say if everyone felt that way, because the audience’s response was consistently extraordinary. When Ron Holgate introduced ‘Beautiful Girls’ and those beautiful girls – Nancy Walker, Angela Lansbury, Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold – came on –”
Instead of finishing the sentence, he lifts his hand high in the air and then lets it fall to his lap.
(But we know what he means.)
There was less magic associated with the original cast album of 42nd Street, for which Ellis was the press agent.
“To begin with,” he says, “David Merrick didn’t even want an album. He worried that it would seem like one old song after another, reinforcing that this was an ‘old’ musical – a ‘jukebox musical,’ although in 1980, we didn’t have that term yet.”
Ah! No wonder the recording session wasn’t scheduled until three months after the opening – an inordinately long time for a headline-grabbing smash-hit (which it had been since Merrick had taken to the stage after the opening night performance and announced that Gower Champion had died earlier that day).
True, part of the delay was that 42nd Street had not signed an advance contract with any label. “Thomas Z. Shepard,” says Ellis, referring to the legendary cast album producer who’d already won nine Grammys, “didn’t decide to record it until he saw a performance that just happened to be attended by The Islanders – a gay group. So when Jerry Orbach called ‘musical comedy the two greatest words in the English language,’ the sound from those men was like when Dolly comes down the staircase into the Harmonia Gardens.”
By then, Merrick had changed his mind “Someone – I don’t know who,” admits Ellis, “told him he should do the album as a tribute to his daughter, and that convinced him. So you’ll see on the album ‘For Marguerita Merrick, my lovely daughter, age 8; Christmas, 1980.’”
The kid was lucky not to attend the recording session, for the musical about the making of Pretty Lady was not a pretty experience.
“I was reminiscing about this with Jon Maas, Merrick’s assistant, the production coordinator on the album and the person who provided me with great pictures. We both remember the arguments between Merrick and Shepard about the opening number, ‘The Audition,’ which featured a lot of tapping. Merrick didn’t feel the tapping was loud enough and no matter how much they pushed up the volume, he wasn’t satisfied, while Tom was. The argument got so heated that Robert Summer the president of RCA Victor, was called in to negotiate. His compromise was to put the mikes at floor level.”
That seems simple enough. “And because after the overture we only heard a piano, the taps finally sounded fine to Merrick – at least until time came to record ‘We’re in the Money.’”
There Lee Roy Reams tapped on an enormous metal dime while a bevy of beauties backed him up, albeit on ten-cent pieces not crafted as large. “Then,” Ellis recalls, “it was ‘Is the tapping too soft or just right?’ all over again.’”
Merrick fully expected that each of his demands would be immediately and totally met. “David had put up all the money for the show, so he didn’t have to answer to investors,” Ellis notes. “Champion was dead, the songwriters weren’t around, so since the show’s opening, he’d become used to having full control. “
So when another argument came up, Merrick told everyone to go home. Ellis reports “Tom said ‘You are not working for David Merrick today; you are working for RCA Victor.’ When I talked to Lee Roy, he reminded me of what Carole Cook (who played Maggie Jones, one of the writers of Pretty Lady) said.”
(It was pretty much “And I am telling you, I am not going.”)
Matters went much more smoothly for the 1977 Yul Brynner revival cast album of The King and I – “even though,” says Ellis, “we had three perfectionists in the room, each of whom had reason to make this, to coin a phrase, something wonderful.”
They included Milton Rosenstock, the musical supervisor “who,” says Ellis, “knew how to raise the stakes when the stakes needed to be raised. Richard Rodgers was there, too, and was 100% involved. It would be the last recording session he would ever witness. As for Yul Brynner, he’d already done the original cast album and the soundtrack, but he knew this would probably be his last.”
Maybe that’s why Brynner was so exacting about his recording of “A Puzzlement.” Says Ellis, “His first take was terrific, but he wanted to do it again. He did, and was at least equally as good – but he wanted to do it again, so he did it a third time, and this one was actually better, really great: opening-night great. Richard Rodgers said ‘What you just did will live in history.’”
Then Brynner said he wanted to do it yet again.
“And,” says Ellis, voice rising with excitement, “if the third was opening-night great, the fourth one was a magnificent once-in-a-lifetime achievement. He didn’t do it to show off or to make us say ‘Oh, he can reach that note.’ He did it with the skill of a surgeon whose every move is perfection and we all knew it while we were hearing it, while it was happening, that this was greatness. But when he finished, we had to hold our applause and cheers, because if we reacted too soon, they might have wound up on the track. So we had to pause … pause … pause …until Tom said ‘That’s it’ – and then the whole cast and the musicians stood up and cheered. Rodgers looked at Brynner and said ‘You’re right.’”
The recording session was on Halloween, which was bittersweet for the “Siamese Children” who were denied going out and getting sweets. “So the next Halloween, Yul threw a party for them and everyone, including him and his Anne – Constance Towers – dressed up.”
Ellis shakes his head slowly. “There have been lots of stories about how difficult Yul Brynner was, or what a taskmaster he was. Everyone should know that he really loved his cast, and he proved it that night.”
Want more stories? Call My Publicist! – The Starry Education of a Broadway Press Agent plays on Thursday, September 14th at nine o’clock on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com or www.unitedsolo.org.
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.