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Steve Lawrence’s death on March 7 reminded me of the time when many Broadway observers assumed that producer Joseph Cates had lost his mind.

In 1963, Cates was about to produce a musical version of Budd Schulberg’s classic 1941 novel WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? It would again center on Sammy Glick, a young man who’d make shady deals, blame others, betray lovers, and cause a friend to commit suicide.

Or, how to succeed in Hollywood by really lying.

What’s more, Cates was counting on a score by a rank Broadway musical theater rookie. True, Ervin Drake had had some success as a songwriter (with songs few remember now), but he’d never done an entire score. What he had done, 17 years earlier, was co-write a 35-performance Broadway comedy.

Not the greatest of recommendations.

After Cates had booked the notorious 54th Street Theatre, Broadway savants thought him even crazier. Some months earlier, THE STUDENT GYPSY had just been one of the house’s many flops. Not its biggest, though: Walter Kerr said of one infamous 1958 effort, “Nor will I say that PORTOFINO is the worst musical ever produced, because I’ve only been seeing musicals since 1919.”

Ethan Mordden once referred to the house as “a funeral home.”

But the strangest move of all, said those Broadway know-it-alls, was that Cates was signing Steve Lawrence to play Sammy Glick.

Sure, Lawrence had been known for seven solid years since his debut on the TV show hosted by then-popular Steve Allen. Since then, he’d had a pretty good pop recording career, with a soft-rock rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Party Doll” that had reached Number Five (to Holly’s Number One).

In 1962, though, Lawrence had reached Number One via “Go Away, Little Girl,” in which he wanted to do the right thing when approached by an interested but too-young lass.

“That’s one reason I wanted Steve,” Cates once told me. “He seemed like a nice kid, so theatergoers could rationalize that he was just pretending to be mean. That would allow them to still like him.

“And,” he added, “Lawrence was well-known as the charming husband of Eydie Gormé, which would help everyone realize that he was ‘just’ acting as the crooked Sammy.”

But could Lawrence play the script that Budd and Stuart Schulberg wrote? Sample dialogue: “What kind of sissy word is ‘fair’? Whatever’s good for Sammy Glick is right; whatever is bad is immoral, unethical and unconstitutional and, in other words, stinks.”

Would Lawrence stink when having to state that?

Drake certainly helped by giving his crooner some likeable songs. First and foremost was “A Room without Windows,” which, from the title, you might infer is what Sammy sang after being placed (by popular demand) in a padded cell.

No, he was romancing screenwriter Kit Sargent (Sally Ann Howes) in this swingin’ sixties tune that was covered by many artists. As late as 1998, Jack McFarland sang it on the WILL & GRACEpilot.

Additional credit where it’s due, Drake gave the song a Sondheim-worthy rhyme:

“If they said, ‘Friend, how would you like to spend

The long hereafter?’

I’d tell ‘em what we’re after.”

The song happened long after Sammy had started out as a newspaper copy boy. Theater critic Al Manhaim (Robert Alda – the original Sky Masterson and Alan’s daddy) soon became a Glick-tim when Sammy told the editor that Al had made a mistake. Sammy’s squealing got him two free tickets to a play which he sold for $5 in order to get “A New Pair of Shoes,” which Lawrence sang with jubilation.

Drake helped here, too, in making the song a waltz. Three-quarter time often softens a situation. (Case in point: “A Little Priest.”)

As Al sarcastically sang “You Help Me (like a burglar helps Fort Knox),” Sammy played the innocent – for the first few minutes. Then Lawrence had to show Sammy’s tough side, when he railed against his tormentor. Listen and hear how secure Lawrence was in delivering his bitter tirade.

Drake was then smart to drain the acid by writing Lawrence a comedy song that he’d followed with a tender ballad.

“Welcome to the land of milk and Sammy,” said Glick, who ostensibly coached Al and Kit on screenwriting in “Lights! Camera! Platitude!” Sammy believed that one cliché could serve any genre: comedy, drama, musical or horror movie. His one-size-fits-all approach reiterated that he was a product-provider and not an artist.

(Unless you consider him a rip-off artist and another kind of artist described in two syllables, the first of which is bull.)

As for Sammy’s ballad, Lawrence beautifully sang “My Hometown.” He conveyed a warmth that made theatergoers forget that he wasn’t showing love for a human being, but for a place where he could be rich and famous and therefore happy, too.

After the premiere of his first big film hit, Sammy sang “I Feel Humble,” in the phony manner that megalomaniacs often adopt. Lawrence gave it such zest that Cates’ belief that audiences would like him despite the character was proved here.

What better way to get ahead than by marrying the studio boss’s daughter? But had Sammy met his match with Laurette Harrington, whom the Schulbergs described as “that cute little black spider” who “makes trouble faster than her old man makes money”?

So, what would it be: Sammy’s taming of the shrew or Laurette’s taming of the shrewd? After the wedding reception, when Sammy went to her room, he didn’t find her changing into her going-away outfit. She was instead going away from him by cavorting with the studio’s newest star as her wedding dress lay on the floor.

What would a serious post-1959 musical be without concluding with a “Rose’s Turn”? How ferocious Lawrence was in meeting the challenge by having Sammy admit that “Some Days Everything Goes Wrong” before vowing that he’d bounce back.

Lawrence, on the other hand, wasn’t remotely defeated, but emerged triumphant.

Howard Taubman, New York Times: Lawrence “puts over a song expertly and exuding blue-eyed charm.”

Norman Nadel, World-Telegram & Sun: “He looks better snarling than ordinary men do smiling.”

Richard Watts, Jr., Post: “Vigorous and courageously realistic.”

John Chapman, News: “He acts his thankless role admirably and vigorously.”

John McClain, Journal-American: “For a nightclub performer, he has exceptional gifts.”

Walter Kerr in the Herald-Tribune was the most enthusiastic, calling Lawrence “ferocious, agile, plausible, deft with a dance-step and deft with the knife – in every conceivable way, first-rate.”

Lawrence received a Best Actor in a Musical Tony nomination. Bert Lahr won for FOXY, a quick flop. Many probably assumed that the legendary Lahr would never play Broadway again, (which he didn’t), so it was now or never to acknowledge him.

As fine as Drake’s score is, Lawrence’s star-power is what made WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? run for 540 performances. No other production in the 37-year history of the 54th Street Theatre had ever run longer; none ever will, for the house was razed in 1970.

But we can still hear Steve Lawrence hitting a home run in WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.