When TAKE ME ALONG recently marked its fifty-ninth
anniversary, Elliot J. Cohen went to Facebook and posted
pictures from the original Broadway production.
One of them had Jackie Gleason and Walter Pigeon strutting
their stuff while performing the nifty title song. They were
close to the edge of the stage, for right behind them was a
scrim. The colorfully illustrated curtain showed Centerville,
Connecticut’s town hall and its extensive lawn.
Behind that scrim were stagehands who were busily
engineering a set change – just as they were when The
Children Chorus did “The Royal Bangkok Academy” in THE
KING AND I and when Will and Ado Annie sang “All Er
Nothin’” in OKLAHOMA!
The practice of having performers speak or sing in front of a
scrim is called an “in-one.” That’s because directors call the
front part of the stage “one” while the space behind it is
“two” – and so-forth.
In-ones occurred quite a bit in the first two-thirds of the
20th century. They were designed to entertain audiences
who were asked to pay no attention to the men behind the
Today we’re used to techies dressed in black rushing onto a
stage between scenes and pushing furniture in and out.
Back then, though, there was a concerted effort to keep this
activity hidden as if it were a cardinal sin.
However, just because in-ones were excuses to kill time,
theatergoers often enjoyed them because they occasionally
yielded wonderful songs. No, they would never have been
written had they not been needed to cover set changes, but
that doesn’t negate their worth.
Although, to be frank, when Irving Berlin penned “There’s
No Business Like Show Business” for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,
he was just writing a song that he thought would be good
for the musical. He didn’t envision it as an in-one, but it did
turn out to be very handy for that purpose.
But “Mother, Angel, Darling” in IRENE was indeed needed to
get us from Mrs. O’Dare’s modest piano store to the elegant
Palais Royale. When I saw the show during its Washington
tryout, the dialogue leading up to the song itself was so
lengthy that I thought “Wow! This next set is really going to
be a beaut!” It turned out to be nice but not extraordinary. I
didn’t mind because the song turned out to be such a
(What WAS worth the wait, however, was “The Riviera
Rage” – one of those Dances-That-Everyone’s-Doing-Today
that has often cropped up in musical comedies. Peter
Gennaro choreographed to some snazzy Wally Harper dance
music which is still one of my favorite orchestral cuts.)
The Gunmen who sang “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in
KISS ME, KATE performed it, as the stage directions stated,
in front of “a safety asbestos curtain.”
(Now there’s an oxymoron for you –”safety” and “asbestos”
But KISS ME, KATE’s stagehands needed time to erect “a
splendid room in Baptista’s house.” Hence this eleven o’clock
number – atypically, a waltz. But Cole Porter knew how to
write one that worked wondrously well. Give The Bard some
credit, too, for loaning Porter the names of thirteen of his
plays – and even one of his poems.
And yet, in-ones aren’t always employed to enact a scene
change. “Elegance” in HELLO, DOLLY! was the first song
after the intermission, so the stagehands had had ample
time to do their work.
So why didn’t director-choreographer Gower Champion have
Cornelius, Barnaby, Irene and Minnie use the entire stage
for this tuneful cakewalk? Well, as nice as the pen-and-ink
scrim was, it finished a distant second to the wonders of the
Harmonia Gardens that stagehands had just assembled
behind it. Champion was smart enough to whet our
appetites for it. But that doesn’t negate the charms of
“Elegance,” which we’re glad to have – and on so many
MAME didn’t wait for the second act to employ an in-one.
The show began with Chicagoans Agnes Gooch (Jane
Connell) and Young Patrick Dennis (Tony-winner Frankie
Michaels) standing in front of a scrim that sported neon
representing New York City nightlife both celebratory and
salacious. No wonder that Agnes prayed that “St. Bridget”
would deliver them to Beekman Place. The black velvet
scrim was meant to contrast with the sleek, sophisticated duplex in which the fabulous Auntie Mame resided – which got a nice “Ooooh!” when revealed.
Not long after, MAME had a song begin in-one but had the
scrim raise midway through it. (As if stagehands aren’t taxed
enough, they had to work doubly quickly here.) “The Man in
the Moon” had Vera Charles (Tony-winner Bea Arthur) start
telling Mame (Tony-winner Angela Lansbury) in her
apartment about her upcoming starring role in this “terribly
modern operetta” (!). Halfway through, the scrim rose and
brought us to the Shubert Theatre in New Haven where the
show had its break-in – and where it broke Mame’s spirit.
(But only for a little while. You know our Mamie!)
In the case of “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” – written in
Boston for DAMN YANKEES – an in-one was a blessing in
disguise. When Gwen Verdon was to debut it, she didn’t feel
100% certain that she knew all the lyrics. So an assistant
stage manager stood behind the scrim ready to feed her any
words she couldn’t recall. As you can hear from the original
cast album, Verdon was all set by the day of the recording.
Performing an in-one can have its hazards. While ALLEGRO
was trying out in New Haven and Lisa Kirk was singing her
eleven o’clock number “The Gentleman is a Dope,” she took
one step forward too many and fell off the stage.
When Kirk got back up there in no time flat, she of course
got tumultuous applause. As a result, she decided to make a
thing of it and accidentally-on-purpose, as the expression
goes, fall off each night. Librettist-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein
was not amused at the next performance and commanded
her to never do it again.
She didn’t. Nevertheless, Kirk still got quite a hand after she
finished the number – ones of ALLEGRO’s most allegro-ish
An in-one song that didn’t land during the New Haven tryout
was MY FAIR LADY’s “On the Street Where You Live.” There
was serious talk of cutting what would become one of the
score’s biggest hits.
As librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner liked to tell it, he needed
a better verse to establish that the character singing it was
the same person – Freddy Eynsford-Hill – who’d been
entranced by Eliza at Ascot. But as Dominic McHugh notes in
LOVERLY, his magnificent book about the creation of this
mammoth hit, there had already been a verse in place that
had established Freddy as the singer. McHugh found the
original verse, thought it “insipid” and feels that that’s the
real reason why Lerner replaced it.
Good thing Lerner did. The stagehands needed the time to
get us from the outside of 27A Wimpole Street to inside.
So many who grew up in the long-playing record era forget
that FIDDLER ON THE ROOF contained an in-one, because
the song that covered it didn’t make the original cast album
the first time around. Luckily on September 27, 1964 when
the cast went into the studio, producer George R. Marek
recorded “The Rumor” which has a terrific joke as its last
line. Everyone from the CD era on has been able to savor it.
Sometimes authors wish they didn’t have to endure in-ones.
As much as Carolyn Leigh loved the song “What Takes My
Fancy” that she and Cy Coleman had written for WILDCAT,
she told me that she winced every time she heard it on the original cast album – “because,” she lamented, “I had the line ‘Don’t let this unravel your undies’ rhyme with ‘All cleaned up for company Sundees’ but Lucille Ball sang it as ‘Sun-DAYS,’ which killed the rhyme.”
Then she paused. “Of course, without Lucy, there would
have been no WILDCAT – not only because she wanted to
do it but also because she put up every dime.”
“And,” I reminded her, “Lucy’s ruining the rhyme doesn’t
ruin the terrific song.”
(I wasn’t just apple-polishing. “What Takes My Fancy” is
indeed rollicking fun.)
By the way, a musical on Broadway right now has given in-
ones a renaissance. KING KONG is loaded with them and not
primarily because of set changes. All those puppeteers who
manage Kong need plenty of time to get the Big Boy ready
for his next close-up.