Before LES MIZ, There Was LES POUPEES DE PARIS By Peter Filichia
There’s not much left at Flushing Meadows to remind us of the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
Oh, there’s the Unisphere, of course, and the New York Hall of Science. But the State Pavilion hasn’t held up well and the Heliport is now a banquet facility.
Starting this week, however, we have another reminder of New York’s third World’s Fair: the soundtrack of the stage show Les Poupees de Paris. Even if you didn’t take French in high school, you probably know that that translates to The Dolls of Paris.
The score is by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer James Van Heusen, who together had already won four Oscars and one Emmy. Now you can hear the show that played both years of the Fair, thanks to a recording that had been out of print for more than a half-century.
Did you wince three sentences ago when I called a recording of a stage show a “soundtrack?” I know, I know; I rival Sweeney Todd’s fury when people don’t understand that a movie has a track of sound, and so any recording taken from a film is a soundtrack while stage shows have cast albums.
This case is different. Les Poupees de Paris was indeed a stage show, but one that had a pre-recorded track of sound. You really couldn’t expect the on-stage performers to do their own singing or deliver dialogue, because the cast was entirely made up of Sid and Marty Krofft’s puppets.
(Know their names? Gen X’ers might, for the Kroffts gave them the 1974 TV show Land of the Lost. Those belonging to Gen Z might be equally well acquainted with its 2009 remake. And let’s not forget the Kroffts’ other household-name property H.R. Pufnstuf.)
Giving voice to the Kroffts’ Poupees – heard but not seen — was quite the cast. It included three recipients of Tonys (Edie Adams, Pearl Bailey and Phil Silvers), four possessors of Oscars (Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Loretta Young), six winners of Emmys (Milton Berle, Liberace as well as Adams, Bailey, Kelly and Young) and three who’d received Grammys (Dean Martin as well as Crosby and Sinatra).
Oh, and there’s Jayne Mansfield, too. She and Liberace share one of the most delightful cuts on the album: “It’s a Living.” Cahn’s lyric takes its inspiration from Liberace’s famous response to the poisonous reviews that music critics gave his work at the piano: “I cried all the way to the bank.” During the song’s instrumental section, Mansfield asks Liberace how much he annually pays in taxes. “It depends on how much they need,” he says guilelessly.
Getting Liberace to participate couldn’t have been all that difficult, for Sid Krofft in his early puppeteering days used to open for the flamboyant pianist. By the early ‘60s, he and his younger brother envisioned a show based on the cabarets seen in Paris which they’d morph into “a slightly risqué adult-oriented puppet show.”
They first brought Les Poupees de Paris to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair where it scored so mightily that they decided to brave the New York World’s Fair two years later and created a 700-seat theater on the 650-acre grounds. In between there was a tour, and when all was said and sung, the Kroffts claimed that nine million people saw Les Poupees de Paris.
In an era when the average Broadway musical was coming in for less than $500,000, Les Poupees de Paris cost $1 million. Now it’s not that wood for puppets was so expensive, but the Krofft Theater’s stage also offered a swimming pool, waterfall, fountains and an ice rink. Also running into money was getting all those celebrities to sing to a twenty-three piece orchestra. As a result, you’ll be treated to an overture that starts with trumpets that lead to pizzicato strings, tuba and harp.
You wouldn’t expect that you’d already be familiar with a song from Les Poupees des Paris, but you will be if you know Barbra Streisand’s fourth album. (It was called People for obvious reasons.) Yes, “Love Is a Bore” – the type of angry reaction to a shattered affair that Streisand ripped through so well in those days – was indeed written for Les Poupees. Here it’s sung by another singer who knew how to play cantankerous: Pearl Bailey.
Bailey also offers the disc’s biggest surprise. We all know Fred Ebb’s 1977 claim about New York: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Hear we learn that thirteen years earlier Cahn had made an almost identical claim about Paris: “You can make it anywhere at all if you can make it here.” Bailey sings it in a you-better-believe-it voice.
Gene Kelly – who many feel reached his apotheosis in an Oscar-winning film set in Paris – sings “Don’t Say Paris, Say Paree.” A lyricist would prefer that; there are many more rhymes for an “e” sound than an “iss.” But Cahn didn’t take the easy way out in his opening lyric. He actually gave the names of those who worked on the show behind the scenes. How nice to hear people who seldom get the credit they deserve prominently named.
Virtually all composers recycle, and Van Heusen was no different; one of his verses you’ll recognize as one used in the verse for “My Kind of Town.” He also provided an Elvis Presley parody which at the end uses rock’s favorite exit strategy: the fade-out. But by and large, Van Heusen wrote music in the classic Broadway tradition. A case can be made that this score is more successful than the two Cahn-Van Heusen musicals they’d give Broadway in the next two years: Skyscraper and Walking Happy.
Les Poupees de Paris was not without controversy. Puppeteer Alan Cook recalls a to-do over his main attraction “The Opera Singer,” as you’ll hear voiced by Edie Adams. Considering that the puppet was called Mme. Jenkins-Foster, we can easily infer that she was modeled after not-so-hot diva Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), who inspired both a Broadway play (Souvenir) and a London comedy (Glorious!) in 2005. A Meryl Streep movie about her is on the way, too.
Cook reports the trouble began because “Jenkins-Foster” had a “heaving bosom” in which each of her breasts “independently moved on alternating notes. It got the biggest laugh of the show,” he insists.
But while the show was playing at Six Flags over Texas, evangelist Billy Graham spurred a write-in movement to stop the bosom’s movement. Says Cook, “Graham’s minions wrote to protect the public from such evil.” The campaign was successful, and Cook was instructed and forbidden from moving the breasts during the song. After this injunction Cook says, “The act got ZERO response unless I ‘accidentally’ moved them ever-so-slightly.”
Wonder why the religious right didn’t object to Jayne Mansfield’s telling Liberace about the first time she had sex? It’s right there on the recording. Now doesn’t that spark your curiosity about Les Poupees de Paris?
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.