SEVENTEEN WITHOUT THE SEVENTY-SIX By Peter Filichia
Remember the film 18 AGAIN, in which George Burns’ character goes on a youthful journey?
It starts on Jack Watson’s birthday: his 81st, as we see from the foot-high numbers on his commemorative cake. The screenwriters made sure that a straight up-and-down “pole” was its number “1,” for that way, when Jack walked around the cake, the number became “18” – for “8” is one of those numbers that looks the same backward or forward.
It doesn’t work for the number 17, for the number “7” just won’t cooperate. And in case you’re wondering why I’m making this point (and who could blame you if you are?), this occurred to me when I realized that the 1951 Broadway musical named for the number 17 (but spelled SEVENTEEN) is celebrating its 71st anniversary next week.
To say that most of the country was once aware of the title SEVENTEEN isn’t an exaggeration. In 1915, Booth Tarkington provided Metropolitan Magazine with some short stories about adolescent Willie Baxter, growing up in Indiana during the first decade of the 20th century.
Willie became infatuated with Lola Pratt, the new girl in town. Long before the Lola played by Gwen Verdon in DAMN YANKEES proclaimed, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” Lola Pratt in SEVENTEEN believed that she could get what she aimed. Given that we’re talking about much simpler times and a much younger female, Lola Pratt is hardly a sexpot; she instead speaks in baby talk, assuming that it will endear her to boys.
(In fact, it does.)
The stories went over so well that Tarkington included and expanded them into a 1916 novel. Not even the cumbersome subtitle “A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family Especially William” could scare off readers, who literally made it the number one best-selling book of the year. In addition, F. Scott Fitzgerald called it “the funniest book I’ve ever read.”
That same year, SEVENTEEN without the 13-word subtitle became a silent film starring Jack Pickford as Willie. He was the younger brother of film superstar Mary Pickford and a future husband of Broadway superstar Marilyn Miller – not that that anyone would describe the marriage as super or starry-eyed.
SEVENTEEN then became a 1918 Broadway play that lasted 225 performances – a run that in those days was long enough to yield a handsome profit. Future Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon – the first Dolly Levi in THE MATCHMAKER – portrayed Lola, who shows Willie that puppy love can be as tough as dog-eat-dog.
With such name recognition and acclaim from the stories, a novel, a film and a play, could a musical version of SEVENTEEN have been far behind? You’re saying, “Yes, for 1951 is nearly a third of a century after 1918.”
No, in 1926, the first musical version of SEVENTEEN – called HELLO, LOLA – opened. Its book and lyrics were by Dorothy Donnelly, whose most recent book and lyrics were for what would become the third-longest running musical in Broadway history: THE STUDENT PRINCE.
Alas, HELLO, LOLA – in which Willie sang “My Baby Talk Lady” – lasted six weeks. That didn’t discourage Orson Welles, of all people, from thinking that SEVENTEEN still had something to offer his radio audiences. He put it on his Mercury Theatre on the Air on Oct. 16, 1938 – a mere two weeks before his infamous “War of the World” broadcast that panicked a nation.
A 1940 film followed and, 11 years later, what today would be called SEVENTEEN: THE MUSICAL opened at the Broadhurst.
There’s an irony in the fact that an entertainer who had recently become known as “Mr. Television” would be the lead producer of a Broadway musical. But there was Milton Berle, who was then entrancing audiences from Maine to Mexico, top-billed above two other men when three producers could get a show to Broadway.
They opened SEVENTEEN on June 21, the official start to summer – apt for a musical that sports one song called “Summertime Is Summertime” and another dubbed “Things Are Gonna Hum This Summer.” Yes, but they’re gonna get hot, too, as the local teenage girls are furious that Lola Pratt has become the object of many lads’ affection. They fume in a most felicitous lyric: “She’s taken our boys, ‘nd she oughta be pois’nd!”
As A CLASS ACT taught us, musicals should have a charm song, and SEVENTEEN has a beauty. After Willie asks his family’s hired hand at what age he married, the lad is astonished to hear that the answer is “Seventeen.” That makes him ruminate that “I Could Get Married Today.”
Willie starts it; the handyman takes over, and both lead it to a delightful finish. Once again, we find that there’s gold in those original cast albums that haven’t received much attention.
Responsible for this second musical version of SEVENTEEN was Sally Benson. She’d had such a success by writing about her family’s adventures on 5135 Kensington Street in Missouri’s largest city that she, like Tarkington, added a few more tales and got a book out of it: MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. The classic 1944 film wouldn’t reach Broadway for decades – and Benson was long gone by the time that landed at the Gershwin – but she did have a blue-chip Broadway hit with JUNIOR MISS in 1941. When it closed, guess what position it had achieved in the list of Broadway’s longest-running plays.
Why, seventeenth, of course.
Benson also wrote the screenplay for ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, a film you know that Oscar Hammerstein watched more than once.
SEVENTEEN’s score was provided by composer Walter Kent and lyricist Kim Gannon. Their most famous composition was “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which they indeed were in 1951, for SEVENTEEN closed at the Broadhurst two days after Thanksgiving. Perhaps the show’s amassing only 182 performances was the reason that they never again attempted Broadway.
Their star was Kenneth Nelson. Nine years later after portraying Willie, he’d portray another boy when he originated Matt in THE FANTASTICKS. Eight years after that, Nelson would play yet another boy (in a manner of speaking): Michael in THE BOYS IN THE BAND.
The actress playing Lola didn’t have as formidable a career, and yet, in Ann Crowley’s five Broadway appearances, SEVENTEEN was the only one not written by a Tony-winner: OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL came before; PAINT YOUR WAGON (from Lerner and Loewe) and MUSIC IS (from Richard Adler) came after.
And then there was Helen Wood, who played Emmie, another girl who hated that her beau also took a marked interest in Lola. She would eventually change her name to Dolly Sharp.
If you can’t place the name, that might speak well of you. She said the most notorious line of all in the infamous epic DEEP THROAT when she filmed it in late ‘71.
No matter how much you turn that number around, you won’t get her back to SEVENTEEN.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.