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Remembering a Most Famous Date in Music

Remembering a Most Famous Date in Music

By Peter Filichia — Sunday, February 9, 1964. Now more than fifty years have passed, but most everyone who was then alive and beyond the age of reason remembers it well.

Up until then, when people spoke of “The British Invasion,” they’d meant that fourteen-mile ride that Paul Revere made on horseback from his home in Boston to Lexington, Massachusetts in 1775. “The British are coming!” he yelled, warning all who were in danger of arrest.

But after that Sunday, February 9, 1964, The British Invasion came to mean something else entirely, thanks to The Ed Sullivan Show. The variety program, then in its seventeenth year of dominating the weekend television landscape, brought us unforgettable talents from England. Let us pay tribute to them now on their golden anniversary of their appearance on that evening’s “Sullivan Show.”

There was Tessie O’Shea, who was then featured on Broadway in The Girl Who Came to Supper. It was Noel Coward’s musical version of Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince (if you know plays better than movies) and The Prince and the Showgirl (if you know movies better than plays).

The new Broadway musical starred Oscar- and Tony-winner José Ferrer as the prince and Florence Henderson, in her pre-Brady Bunch days, as the showgirl. And while they were certainly appreciated by the critics and audiences, O’Shea was the one who ran away with the notices. In fact, Walter Kerr wrote twelve paragraphs on the entire show and spent the first SIX on O’Shea alone.

She was onstage for only eleven minutes — the least stage time that any Tony-winner in that category had had in the fifteen years that the prize had been given. Yet Coward had written four songs in the English Music Hall style for a nice Cockney medley: “London Is a Little Bit of All Right,” “What Ho, Mrs. Brisket,” “Don’t Take Our Charlie for the Army,” and “Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown” all leading to a reprise of the first one.

When the time came to dispense Tonys, O’Shea won. Never had anyone in this category won the prize after so short a run: 112 performances.

But she didn’t perform her show-stopping sequence on this night’s The Ed Sullivan Show. Instead, she sang a medley of “I Got Rhythm,” “All of Me,” “The Tender Trap,” and her signature song, “Two-Ton Tessie from Tennessee” in her seven minutes, all while bedecked in a shimmering gown instead of her busker’s costume.

Why didn’t she promote her current show? The reason is simple: she’d already done an abridged version of her Cockney medley on the Dec. 22, 1963 broadcast. You can hear the entire sequence on the original cast album.

That brings us to the second important phase of The British Invasion on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964. Also appearing on the Sullivan Show was the entire cast of Oliver! the hit musical based, of course, on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Audiences got to hear two selections from Lionel Bart’s Tony-winning score. Georgia Brown sang the song that she’d originated as the doomed Nancy in the London production two-and-a-half years earlier and was now replicating on Broadway: “As Long as He Needs Me.” In the interim, it had become a hit song on both sides of the Atlantic; America had heard it sung by everyone from Shirley Bassey to Kate Smith – not to mention the pronoun-switching “As Long as SHE Needs Me” sung by everyone from Sergio Franchi to Sammy Davis, Jr. When members of both sexes record a song, you know it’s a winner. Still, here on Ed Sullivan, audiences were getting to hear the original and didn’t have to accept any substitutes.

Also on the bill was “I’d Do Anything,” in which Davy Jones put on the pseudo-elegance when pretending to romance Brown – all before tiny Ronnie Kroll as Oliver did the same with slightly bigger Joan Lombardo’s Bet.

Brown was the only one of the four to have been a member of the original cast. Kids grow, so Kroll and Lombardo had recently taken over from Bruce Prochnik and Alice Playten.

That, however, was not the reason why Jones was now in the role sung by Michael Goodman on the album. Oliver! is one of those rare cast albums that was recorded during the pre-Broadway tryout. (Another equally good one — The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd – is also a British show.) After they put it all “on wax,” as they liked to say, producer David Merrick returned to London to see the then-current cast of the still-running Oliver! – and decided that Jones and not Goodman would open the show on Broadway.

Sunday, February 9, 1964 and The Ed Sullivan Show is also significant to a male quartet. The foursome in question, of course, is The Plaids, named for their (ghastly) outfits.

As we learned in the 1990 revue Forever Plaid, “On February 9, 1964, a semi-professional harmony group from eastern Pennsylvania was on its way to its first big gig at the Airport Hilton Cocktail Bar. While driving in their cherry-red 1954 Mercury convertible they were rehearsing their finale, ‘Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing’ and were just getting to their favorite E-flat diminished seventh chord when they were slammed broadside by a school bus filled with eager Catholic teens from Our Lady of Harrisburg.”

As grisly as that scenario is, the four lads have now somehow returned very much alive. As one of them explains, “You see, it’s because of all the astro-technical stuff, like the stars being in conjunction with the positions of the planets and the sounds of our voices, combined with the expanding holes in the ozone layer make it possible for us to do the show.”

Sound flimsy? Hey, if Pam of that Dallas TV series could dream the entire 1985-86 season resulting in Bobby’s still being alive, The Plaids can return, too.

Millions of theatergoers have seen them in the last quarter-century, as Forever Plaid became one of the most-produced shows of ‘90s. Rumor has it that a new production will wend its way to Broadway next season.

Until then, you can hear the original cast album on which Stan Chandler (Jinx), David Engel (Smudge), Jason Graae (Sparky) and Guy Stroman (Frankie) replicate the sound of The Four Aces (“Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Heart and Soul”), The Four Lads (“Moments to Remember,” “No, Not Much”) and The Crew Cuts (“Crazy ‘bout Ya’ Baby”).

The piece de resistance, however, is the Plaids’ recap of an average Ed Sullivan Show in a mere two minutes and fifty-seven seconds. After a rendition “Lady of Spain,” a ‘30s hit that was oft-done by many a Sullivan guest, The Plaids treat us to Kirsten Flagstad’s Brunhilde, the cast of The Sound of Music, then-popular comedian Jose Jiminez, ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy, comedian Senor Wences, The Singing Nun, Judy Garland and of course the otherwise indescribable Topo Gigio.

Speaking of The Ed Sullivan Show, that actual Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964 broadcast did offer one more song from a Broadway musical. A group of four young British singers warbled “Till There Was You” from The Music Man. It was, as Sullivan himself was fond of saying, “a really big show” — especially for Broadway.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.