SOME OTHER NEW FACES By Peter Filichia
Don’t be ashamed.
We all have misconceptions when we’re just getting interested in theater.
Didn’t you once assume that every Broadway theater was literally ON Broadway?
And when you were just starting to look through original cast albums be it in stores or on the Internet, when you ran into either NEW FACES OF 1952 or NEW FACES OF 1956, you assumed that a NEW FACES was produced each and every year.
No. Although Leonard Sillman started mounting the revues featuring neophytes in 1934, he was only able to bring seven editions of NEW FACES to Broadway in the next thirty-four years.
Nevertheless, Sillman could brag of giving head starts to Oscar-winners (Maggie Smith; Henry Fonda), Tony-winners (Madeline Kahn, Bill McKutcheon, Marian Mercer) and at least one Emmy-winner: Imogene Coca, whom we know from her fun-filled turn in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.
But what if Sillman had been able to mount a NEW FACES revue each and every season? Who might have made significant debuts in those would-be revues?
Sillman died in 1982, so we obviously couldn’t expect him to have discovered such stars-to-be as LaChanze, who made us care so much for Ti Moune in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND; Kristin Chenoweth, who, despite being thrust into a passel of marathon dancers in STEEL PIER, stood apart from the pack; and Alan Cumming, who redefined the role of the Emcee in CABARET and spurred its 1998 revival into enjoying more than twice the run of the original production.
Had Sillman survived into this new century, he could have chosen Ethan Slater, who instead brought SpongeBob SquarePants to life; Caitlin Kinnunen, who showed such sensitivity and yet backbone as the young lesbian in THE PROM; Barrett Doss, who had to put up with so much from Phil Connors before he straightened out after many a GROUNDHOG DAY; and Robert Fairchild, who sang “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” in his first Broadway assignment, but whose performance proved his achievement had nothing to do with luck at all.
While Sillman was still very much alive, had he been able to raise the dough to mount NEW FACES OF 1971, he might have cast Roger Rathburn. However, the young actor had to be happy that he instead played the juvenile lead in NO, NO, NANETTE. The production became the longest-running revival in Broadway history.
Or we should say revisal, for the 1925 book was heavily rewritten? Even here, though, Rathburn’s Tom was scandalized by Susan Watson’s Nanette. She was serious when she told him that she’d abandon her convent-like ways and become a good-time girl. His response is on the album: “Then you can go,” he says, making us expect a four-letter word that’s often employed before “yourself.” And while Tom DOES use a four-letter word, it’s a noun and not a verb, for the whole line is “Then you can go fly a kite!”
NEW FACES OF 1973 could have featured D’Jamin Bartlett, who instead made a big impression with “The Miller’s Son” in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. She wasn’t originally cast, but take it from one who attended the show’s very first performance in its Boston tryout, the actress singing the song could not sell it and only made it sound dreary and irrelevant. Bartlett, as you can hear from the cast album, turned it into a genuine eleven o’clock number that garnered significant applause.
Had Sillman produced a NEW FACES OF 1947, he might have hired David Wayne. Instead, Wayne was cast in FINIAN’S RAINBOW where he won the very first Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony for playing a leprechaun who admitted that “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near).”
If Sillman had rustled up the money for a NEW FACES OF 1960, he might have signed Robert Goulet before CAMELOT snatched him up. That, however, would have deprived Goulet from introducing what became his signature song: “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
And speaking of Wayne and Goulet, in THE HAPPY TIME they performed with Michael Rupert, who could have been one of the NEW FACES OF 1968. But in the third-ever Kander-Ebb musical, Rupert, Goulet and Wayne enjoyed themselves in the showstopper “A Certain Girl.”
NEW FACES OF 1968 was one that Sillman actually got on. Not only was it a quick failure, but to add injury to the critics’ insults, the spine of the cast album spelled his name as STILLMAN.
Still, it’s remembered for introducing Robert Klein and the aforementioned Madeline Kahn. The latter would impress in TWO BY TWO and later in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, at least when she felt like doing it. (Kahn notoriously pulled back and walked through more than one performance. Luckily, she was up for performing on the day the cast album was recorded.)
Maybe the 1968 edition would have turned out differently if Sillman had cast Russ Thacker. The young actor instead occupied himself with YOUR OWN THING. There his rendition of “I’m on My Way to the Top” shows as much confidence as exuberance.
The female New Face of 1968 that Sillman didn’t catch was no less than Bernadette Peters. Yes, DAMES AT SEA that year made theater fans learn her name.
Moving back to NEW FACES OF 1956, did Sillman audition Susan Johnson? Instead, she would shine in THE MOST HAPPY FELLA.
Most of the time, the first person we meet in a musical turns out to be the lead. Not here. Although Johnson participated in four of the musical’s first five songs, she then took to her dressing room until eighteen more had been sung. And yet, Johnson is still remembered for joining the oxymoronically named Shorty Long in “Big D,” just one of the many second-act showstoppers that Frank Loesser wrote in his career.
Now: would NEW FACES OF 1962 have done better if Barbra Streisand had opened it in February instead of making her Broadway debut in I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE a month later?
Actually, Streisand’s breakout song in WHOLESALE – “Miss Marmelstein” – could have been accommodated in NEW FACES OF 1962. It doesn’t really require a book set-up; we immediately recognize (or even identify with) a harried, overworked, underpaid, underappreciated and unmarried worker.
For that matter, Harold Rome, who wrote WHOLESALE, started out in revues beginning with PINS AND NEEDLES in 1937. It has its own Miss Marmelstein-ish song – “Nobody Makes a Pass at Me” – which Streisand herself recorded on the terrific twenty-fifth anniversary studio cast album.
Yes, that happened in 1962, too. Had that year seen a stage revival of PINS AND NEEDLES and Streisand had been cast in that instead of WHOLESALE, she would have been a just-as-impressive New Face of 1962. But if Leonard Sillman had spent a night or two that year watching Streisand on stage and/or listening to her at home, he must have wondered why she was, to quote a Michael Stewart lyric, “Someone Wonderful I Missed.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.