By Peter Filichia —
If all had gone according to plan, I would have written and posted this column — marking a sixty-second anniversary — last Tuesday.
Don’t blame me: I’m not the one who postponed the opening of Miss Liberty from July 4, 1949 to July 15, 1949. What a shame, too, that a musical about the Statue of Liberty couldn’t have opened on Independence Day; that would have made for some good media coverage.
Actually, Miss Liberty had plenty of advance hoopla, thanks to one of the best pedigrees a musical could have. The score was by legendary composer-lyricist Irving Berlin, who’d just had his longest-running hit: Annie Get Your Gun. Bookwriter Robert E. Sherwood was a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, whose most recent project – The Best Years of Our Lives – had won an Academy Award® as Best Picture. Moss Hart, the director, had staged two of the longest-running comedies of the ‘40s (Dear Ruth and Junior Miss) as well as his own landmark musical (Lady in the Dark) and drama (Winged Victory).
Sherwood’s film had dealt with returning World War II veterans. They, in fact, were responsible for inspiring him to write Miss Liberty. For when Sherwood was sailing back to America after the close of the European theater of World War II, he found that 15,000 soldiers were his shipmates. The way they cheered when they first spotted the Statue of Liberty made him very interested in the landmark.
His research yielded a surprising fact: when Frederic Bartholdi’s statue arrived as a gift from France in 1886, it was in pieces that had been packed in crates. The French had provided the statue, but nothing else. In other words, “Pedestal not included.”
Sherwood later discovered that Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher of the New York World, helped raise the money that literally got the statue off the ground. And while Sherwood saw some dramatic possibilities for the story, he somehow felt that it would be best told in a musical – although he had never written one.
When you’ve created such hits as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Idiot’s Delight and The Petrified Forest, you get to rub elbows with the best writers. So he called Berlin, who once sat around the famed Algonquin Round Table with him, and gave him his idea: one of Pulitzer’s rivals would send a reporter, one Horace Miller, to France to find the woman whom Bartholdi used as a model; the writer would fall in love with her – one Monique DuPont — and forget Maisie Doll, the girl he’d left back in New York.
Berlin was intrigued – then a bit discouraged by what he learned through his research: the actual model was Mrs. Bartholdi. Not so bad, you say; there’s something nice about a husband and wife teaming up and working together.
No. This Mrs. Bartholdi was the sculptor’s mother. That may not be a bad plot to spur a Greek tragedy, but it wasn’t fodder for a 1949 musical comedy.
Sherwood pooh-poohed Berlin’s findings, mostly because he needed his concocted story for romance. A bit later he came up with one of the most endearingly goofy ideas ever put forth in a musical: Horace comes into Bartholdi’s studio, sees a woman standing on a chair with her right arm raised high and holding a cloth that could pass for the fire on Liberty’s torch. Horace assumes that he’s found his model, but actually, this woman was a maid who was on the chair so she could better dust around the top of the window pane.
Writing an original musical is much tougher than writing an adaptation (which itself is murderously hard). But it was par for Berlin’s course. Virtually all the musicals for which Berlin provided complete scores – from Watch Your Step in 1914 through Mr. President in 1962 – were originals. True, Louisiana Purchase, his 1940 hit, was “based on a story by B.G. DeSylva,” but that merely meant that DeSylva had the idea for the show before he approached Berlin; he hadn’t written it as a story, let alone had it published. So Berlin, unlike his contemporaries, didn’t go searching for properties to adapt; none of his other musicals say, “based on” a novel, play, poem, film or comic strip.
Philadelphia critics and audiences loved Miss Liberty, but Hart didn’t agree with them. He extended the tryout by a week, and there went the 4th of July opening. The eleven day delay inconvenienced and infuriated the thousands of theatergoers who’d bought tickets for those first performances in advance. They were the most anxious to hear the new score by the Annie Get Your Gun songsmith, who’d provided that show with more hit songs than any musical that had ever come before.
When Annie Get Your Gun finished its 1,147-performance run in February, 1949, only one book musical had ever run longer: Oklahoma! When Miss Liberty closed after 308 performances in April, 1950, one hundred and thirty-one musicals had run longer.
Had Miss Liberty opened first, it might have been more successful. Following a smash is an inordinately difficult thing to do: Camelot/My Fair Lady; Ballroom/A Chorus Line; Chu Chem/Man of La Mancha. Right now, the Hairspray creators are seeing their Catch Me If You Can suffer for the same super-high expectations.
But most of the dozen songs on the original cast album of Miss Liberty are delightful. One, granted, came from a previous project: “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” had been earmarked for the 1948 film Easter Parade, but dropped by director Charles Walters. Berlin’s faith in it was rewarded by its becoming the show’s biggest hit.
Berlin’s ideas for songs are solid, from tourist traps (“Only for Americans”) to American parochialism (“A Little Fish in a Big Pond”). In those days, every songwriter worth his salt wrote a song about Paris, and Berlin takes the opportunity here in “Paris Wakes Up and Smiles.” And if “Homework” seems to be sung by a woman who needs her consciousness raised (“Instead of an office,” she sings, “I wanna work home”), remember it comes from a 1949 show that takes place more than sixty years earlier.
If “Just One Way to Say ‘I Love You’” seems to be an obvious declaration of amour, Berlin demonstrated that he could be subtle, too, in “You Can Have Him.” Here both Maisie and Monique show that they both loved Horace, although neither one uses the word. At the moment, both have broken hearts.
On one song, Berlin did have a lyricist as collaborator: Emma Lazarus. She’d been dead for more than six decades, but unlike the Biblical Lazarus, she did not rise from the dead to work on Miss Liberty. Berlin simply took her most famous poem “The New Colossus” – the one that starts “Give me your tired, your poor” and is emblazoned on The Statue of Liberty – and set it to music. He had hopes that it would become as popular as his “God Bless America,” but it never caught on. It’s a pretty tune, but Lazarus’ words “wretched refuse” aren’t inherently musical.
The show starred Eddie Albert, a musical comedy man long before he became known as Oliver on Green Acres. (He’d been in The Boys from Syracuse and would later take over in The Music Man.) Playing Monique was Allyn McLerie. (Not Allyn Ann. She added her middle name later – doing just the opposite of the former Audra Ann McDonald, who dropped her middle name as time went on.) Maisie was played by Mary McCarty, who’d later portray Stella in Follies and Matron Mama Morton in Chicago.Both make attractive sounding Liberty belles. So let’s take an old-fashioned walk through time and meet them and Miss Liberty.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.