By Peter Filichia
“Regardless of what I have done, seen, and enjoyed, I think of myself as a dancer. It is the essence of my work ethic, my values, and my balance in life.”
If you didn’t read the subject line that told you this article would center on Shirley MacLaine, you probably wouldn’t guess that she was the person quoted. After all, few of MacLaine’s award-winning performances – including the Oscar, Emmy and no fewer than seven Golden Globes – have involved dancing.
But the powers-that-be who decide each year who’ll get the Rolex Dance Award at the annual Career Transition For Dancers have chosen MacLaine as the recipient for the 30th Anniversary Pearl Jubilee: A Star-Studded Retrospective. Michael Douglas, Cynthia Gregory, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Catherine Zeta-Jones will also be on hand to celebrate her achievements.
A dancer is how Shirley MacLean Beaty started out. “The doctor told mother that I had weak ankles, although I don’t know how they know that about a child who’s six months old,” MacLaine says, still sounding dubious. “So at three, mother enrolled me in ballet class. It didn’t take me long to feel good about myself when I was on the dance floor and at the barre.”
Although her parents had named her after Shirley Temple, MacLaine says “absolutely not” to the suggestion that the moppet star was any kind of long-distance mentor. “Although I do think I was as cute as she was,” MacLaine says unapologetically.
Fast forward to 1949, when MacLaine was fifteen. “I lied about my age and said I was eighteen to get into Oklahoma! — and they believed me.”
This was not a national company that visited Philly, Boston or Baltimo’, but an unglamorous tour on the “subway circuit” that instead opted for Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“My father insisted on meeting Rodgers and Hammerstein so they could assure him that they’d take care of me. They did, although I still had to exist on corn flakes and milk, which, to tell the truth, is still part of my diet.”
MacLaine feels she was a good dancer even then, but believes that something else entirely got her the job: “My long legs,” she states. “They were considered quite beautiful, and in those days when there were separate dancing and singing choruses, those long legs went a long way in getting me jobs.”
Her Broadway debut came courtesy of Rodgers and Hammerstein, as their newest show, Me and Juliet, followed their South Pacific into the Majestic on May 28, 1953.
“I think they remembered me,” she says, before amending the statement with “Or, to put it more aptly, they remembered my long legs.”
So given that Rodgers and Hammerstein had had four hits in five tries – and that already legendary “Mister” George Abbott was directing this one — did she think the show would be a smash? “All I cared about was that I had a job right then and there,” she says. “I did think the material was good.” And with that, she starts to sing a little of the show’s big hit, “No Other Love.”
Although Joan McCracken was the show’s third-billed lead, MacLaine has more memories of the star’s then-husband. “In the back of the theater during our rehearsals, there was this creature who was hunched over and always wearing a hat. He’d had a bit of a Hollywood career, but now he wanted to learn this Broadway thing. It was the beginning of Bob Fosse’s haunting my life.”
MacLaine is grateful for the musical — “because I’m still friends with Georgia Reed,” she says, referring to the dancer for whom Me and Juliet was her penultimate show. (Ankles Aweigh was Reed’s last one. After that four-alarm horror, who wouldn’t quit the business?)
“Also in the cast was Shirley Jones,” says MacLaine. “So when she was chosen to do the film of Oklahoma! I said to her, ‘Shirley! Tell Rodgers and Hammerstein that I’d make a terrific Ado Annie!’ I actually think she did,” MacLaine says, offering no rancor to Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame for “stealing” the role from her.
Fame and fortune weren’t that far away, anyway – which brings us to Mister Abbott’s next show: The Pajama Game. “Though I’d already worked for him, I still had to audition,” she says. “I have to say that no matter what anyone says about (co-director) Jerome Robbins, he was always nice to me.”
She recalls the New Haven opening when “Steam Heat” stopped the show. “And yet right after,” she says, “they talked of cutting it because it wasn’t really necessary to the story.”
Indeed, “Steam Heat” was a trunk song that Richard Adler had written — without Jerry Ross – on a day when he was freezing in his cold-water flat. It was the type of apartment in which he’d never again have to live after The Pajama Game opened.
Says MacLaine, “Some people were saying that Oklahoma! had this terrific number that had to go because it just didn’t fit the story” – (I’m guessing that she means “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”) – “so they were worried about this one. I’m very glad they kept it in.”
The creators made the right decision there, but MacLaine admits to making a bad one herself. “During our rehearsal period the producers were still looking for money,” she says. “They came up to all of us and asked if we’d want to put thirty dollars into the show. I told them I didn’t know anything about the business side of show business and said no.”
At that point in time, the money would have come in handy; MacLaine would have got her thirty dollars back after a mere fourteen weeks and would have collected plenty for quite some time.
But of course The Pajama Game paid off for MacLaine in a far more substantial way.
Many understudies still dream that one morning they’ll get up early and pull a Shirley MacLaine by that night – meaning to go on for a performer and Get Noticed. In MacLaine’s case, Carol Haney, who’d eventually win a Tony for portraying the all-business Gladys, was out one night. “I’d never had a rehearsal before I went on,” MacLaine says. “They’d only assigned me the role a week and a half earlier. I did it on June 13, 1954, about a month after we’d opened. I still remember seeing everyone in the wings watching to see how I was doing. Some of them were even on someone else’s shoulders so they could see me. They were a great group of people. After my mother died and I was going through her attic, I found that nice big piece of paper that the dancers had all signed wishing me good luck.”
Legend has it that movie producer Hal Wallis was in the audience, ran backstage as soon as the performance ended, told MacLaine that she was terrific and soon signed her to a long-term contract. MacLaine knows that’s how the story goes, but is quick to correct it.
“Carol was out in September for a couple of performances, so I went on again – and Alfred Hitchcock was in the audience,” she says. He thought I’d be good for his next picture, The Trouble with Harry.”
(Hmmm, Hitchcock had already brought more than a half-dozen plays to the screen, including Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, and, most recently, Dial “M” for Murder; was he considering The Pajama Game as his next property? If so, Sid might not have got away from Hinesy’s errant knife- throwing.)
After that, Wallis did produce the first film musical MacLaine did – Artists and Models in 1955 – but seven more movies had to pass before she got another musical — Can-Can in 1960. Whatever the film’s merits, MacLaine showed herself to be a triple threat, which had to be one reason why Billy Wilder signed her to do Irma La Douce, the musical that had won the triple crown as a hit in Paris, London and New York.
(Indeed, the week of Dec. 5, 1960, only eight long-playing records in the entire country – including rock, pop, jazz, Christian and Hawaiian — sold more copies than the cast album of Irma La Douce.)
But of the score’s fifteen songs, Wilder semi-retained “Dis-Donc” and dumped the rest. “I was absolutely disappointed that Billy didn’t keep it as a musical,” says MacLaine. “I thought at the time, ‘What’s he afraid of? Music?’ As time went on, I realized that he knew what he didn’t know how to do. I’m glad, though, that he kept so much of the score as background music.”
MacLaine’s never seen Promises, Promises, based on The Apartment, which yielded her the second of her six Oscar nominations. “I regret that I didn’t get to see it a few years ago when Kristin Chenoweth did it,” she says, “for I think she’s just terrific.” (Let’s all chip in and send her the revival cast album.)
She also remembers that day in the late ‘60s when went to see Lew Wasserman, then the MCA mogul whose company controlled Universal Pictures. “He said to me, ‘Well, Mac’ – he always called me ‘Mac’ – what do you want to do next?’ And I said ‘Sweet Charity, with Bob Fosse directing.’ He made a face and said ‘Fosse directing! He’s just a choreographer!’ And I said, ‘No, he’s not.’”
Granted, the 1969 film wound up being collateral damage during the musical-movie bloodbath of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s when Hollywood made few good screen tuners. That said, Fosse’s take on Sweet Charity and his cinematic ideas hold up very well now. “And though one critic said there were so many close-ups of my face and that some of them made my face look like one on Mount Rushmore,” MacLaine recalls, “I’m very proud that I’m the one who brought Bob Fosse to Hollywood.”
MacLaine shares a distinction with Barbra Streisand, for both of them got Stephen Sondheim to rewrite one of his classic songs. In Streisand’s case, it was “Send in the Clowns”; in MacLaine’s it was Sondheim’s ultimate show-business survivor anthem “I’m Still Here” which MacLaine would sing in the film version of Postcards from the Edge.
To quote a Sondheim lyric from Merrily We Roll Along, how did it happen? “I called him up and asked if he’d do special lyrics for me,” MacLaine says in a no-big-deal voice. “He did, and he referenced my interest in transcendental meditation by writing ‘Am I here?’ which I thought was very funny.”
Her voice suddenly gets a bit reflective. “There have been times when I wish that people didn’t know so much about me,” she rues, before admitting “But I’ve never been one to filter myself, have I?”
Career Transition for Dancers’ 30th Anniversary Pearl Jubilee: A Star-Studded Retrospective takes place on Monday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. at City Center.
The 30th Anniversary Chairs include Janice Becker, Craig Dix, Michele Herbert, Ann Van Ness, Anka K. Palitz, Michele Riggi. Outstanding Contributions to the World of Dance Awards will also go to Andrew Faas-Faas Foundation, Misty Widelitz and Irene and Fred Shen and Misty Widelitz. Rolex Watch U.S.A., Inc. itself will receive the thirtieth anniversary Pearl Jubilee Award. Sponsors include Dance Magazine and Pointe, Andrew Faas and The Faas Foundation, Michele & Lawrence Herbert, Irene & Fred Shen, The Sono and Victor Elmaleh Foundation and The Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation. Gianni Russo is the offical wine sponsor.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.