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Musical Theater's M.V.C.

Musical Theater’s M.V.C.

By Peter Filichia —

All right, it may not be the most significant anniversary in theatrical history. But for the record, 14 years ago this week – on April 16, 1997 — David Ives’s new play The Red Address opened at Second Stage Theatre.

In case you missed it (it only ran 38 performances) or forgot it, it’s the story of a macho guy whose business is in trouble. His understanding wife knows just what he needs when he’s feeling down: a trip to “The Red Address.” But actually, that’s a euphemism the couple uses for the red dress that the husband dons along with other female garb.

While I watched the play, I wondered if Ives conceived the husband as a fan of Broadway musicals. For isn’t The Red Dress Musical Theater’s M.V.C. (Most Valuable Costume)?

How important is it? Let’s put it this way: in the stage production of Hello, Dolly! Mrs. Levi comes down the staircase wearing a red dress. The show is a smash hit. In the movie version, Mrs. Levi instead wears a gold dress. The film is a titanic flop. Case closed!

Red is, after all, a color that invokes passion, which the best musicals have. That’s why the dress is the color of choice for Nancy in Oliver! – although a woman surnamed Brown was the first to play her. And when Georgia Brown sang “As Long as He Needs Me?” she certainly got all the red-blooded passion from that song.

Of course, given that Brown’s Nancy always spoke in a Cockney accent, one must wonder why she didn’t sing “As Long as ‘e Needs Me?” Was it felt that eliminating the “h” might hurt the song in getting cover versions? Lord knows that over the years, many other female singers have recorded this Lionel Bart standard, but few if any matched the emotion that Brown wrung out of the song on the original cast album. Listening to her reminds us that where musical theater is concerned, “It’s a Fine Life” – another song that Brown does to perfection.

In China, red — not white – is the color that a bride wears on her wedding day. That’s why Mei Li sports a red dress at the end of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Some may say I should have added a spoiler warning before that sentence; after all, I’m spilling the beans on how the show ends. But throughout the entire show, Mei Li’s marriage is never in doubt; the only question is which man she’ll marry: Wang Ta or Sammy Fong?

Wang Ta is her first choice; when she sings the haunting “I Am Going to Like It Here,” she really means “I Like Him Already.” As for Sammy, the man to whom she’s promised, he sings to her one of the most felicitous songs that was ever added during a tryout: “Don’t Marry Me.” Flower Drum Song isn’t as famous as “The Big Five” that R&H gave us – Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music – but when it closed after a 600-performance run, it was the 29th longest-running book musical of all time. Although the show is a sheer musical comedy that was out to do nothing but entertain, it does that wonderfully, especially on the original cast album.

There are more. The creators of Annie had to put the little girl in a red dress, because original cartoonist Harold Gray had put her in one long before the 1977 smash-hit musical reached Broadway. Phyllis Rogers Stone in Follies wears a red dress when she sings “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” In Bells Are Ringing, when Ella Peterson goes out for her big date with Jeffrey Moss (aka Plaza 0-4433), she wears “a dress that looks like something right out of Traviata.” Need I add that the color is fire-engine red?

P.S. She eventually gets the guy. What Judy Holliday also got was the best-opening- song-and-closing-number parlay in musical theater history. “It’s a Perfect Relationship” is an excellent piece of special material, and “I’m Goin’ Back” may still be the best 11 o’clock number ever written for a single individual.

In A Little Night Music, Desiree wears a red dress when she sings “Send in the Clowns.” Although Stephen Sondheim has written many wonderful songs (and I’ll wager that you believe that many of his others are better than that standard), it’s the one of his that’s been the most commercially successful. Now I can’t say that the red dress put it over the top (especially considering that the song became popular only after the show closed), but I’m sure it didn’t hurt its chances.

What about Cassie’s dress in A Chorus Line? Well, yes, it’s red, but not the same shade of red as the ones that Annie, Desiree, Ella, Mei Li, Nancy, and Phyllis wear. But notice that they’re starring parts, and Cassie, by her own admission, isn’t a star. Maybe the difference between a headliner and a chorus member can be likened to the difference between those ladies’ red dresses and Cassie’s carmine outfit.

Finally, take a look at the logo of La Cage aux Folles. I’m not sure if that’s a dress or just a bunch of boas that Zaza is wearing. But there’s no doubt that whatever it is, it’s all red. And tell me that lady isn’t a star?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at