STEVEN SUSKIN’S TERRIFIC TIME MACHINE By Peter Filichia
“Drugs?? The Beatles??”
So why does Steven Suskin, in his memoir OFFSTAGE OBSERVATIONS, give a pair of question marks after each of those entries? Wouldn’t one suffice?
It’s Suskin’s way of stressing that he had no idea why his Baby Boomer contemporaries would relish certain substances and songs such as “Sun King” when they could be paying attention to Broadway.
Suskin’s drug was theater. And while everyone else was listening to The Beatles sing “She Loves You,” he was listening to the original cast album of SHE LOVES ME.
His devotion started early. How many eight-year-olds can say that they saw the original production of IRMA LA DOUCE? To this day, he still wonders why Grandma took him and his slightly older brother to a musical about a prostitute.
Then came that horrible night when he missed the uber-ornate original production of CAMELOT because chicken pox had reared its evil bumps. After he’d recovered, his father offered a worthy consolation prize: OLIVER! Dad figured that his son would embrace a musical that offered so many boys of a similar age.
No, Little Stevie had already heard the great cast album of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, and that’s what he had to see. You’ll find yourself nodding in agreement at Suskin’s description of “Coffee Break” as “an ominous cha-cha.”
Along the way, Suskin knew that he absolutely had to get a job on Broadway – any job at all. That’s just what he got.
Candy-seller at intermission.
At first, watching PROMISES, PROMISES each night was great fun, but he of course eventually tired of it – almost. Every chance he got, he watched “Turkey Lurkey Time.”
(If you don’t know this Bacharach-David confection, you can’t judge a song by its title. Give a listen and prepare to press “Repeat”
Once Suskin reached drinking age, he was promoted to Broadway bartender. Intermission at NO, NO, NANETTE, he says, was an “alcohol blockbuster.”
(Hmmm, can’t you think of many other musicals that would have been more likely to drive people to drink?)
Then came the chance to work for David Merrick, at the time Broadway’s premier producer. Suskin would do various low-level jobs, such as delivering a letter to the writer of what is still one of the longest-running plays in Broadway history. His mission, which he had to accept, was to deliver the news that Merrick was canning the man.
Back in the office, Suskin would overhear plenty of stories with enough juice to fill every bottle in Costco’s refrigerator cabinets. (Hence the book’s subtitle: “Inside Tales of the Not-So-Legitimate Theatre.”) Although Merrick’s HELLO, DOLLY! had closed by the time Suskin arrived at the producer’s door, the show was still fresh enough in office workers’ minds for him to hear many a salty story. The best tells what made Ethel Merman uncontrollably laugh just before her big entrance.
Suskin tells why Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, the HELLO, DOLLY! champions, bailed on writing another Merrick musical; after other writers had succeeded them, the result was a show that ran about a fifth as long.
Another story involves Kermit Bloomgarden, a rare producer who segued from hit dramas (DEATH OF A SALESMAN; THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) to hit musicals (THE MOST HAPPY FELLA; THE MUSIC MAN). While Bloomgarden was phoning from his office to land the rights to the British hit IRMA LA DOUCE, Merrick was already on a plane to London to seal the deal. Suskin reports that as a result, Merrick enjoyed saying that the title page of Playbill should have read “Kermit Bloomgarden resents (sic) the David Merrick production.”
Whenever we musical theater enthusiasts hear the name “Chotzi,” we know it can only mean Chotzi Foley, the original Electra – not the title character of that Sophocles play, of course, but Electra in GYPSY. There, Ms. Foley was one of three who told Louise the necessity of acquiring a gimmick.
Suskin not only reveals what Ms. Foley’s parents named her at birth, but he also tells how she wound up with this atypical moniker. (In fact, a Broadway legend made the suggestion.)
How entranced Suskin was when witnessing auditions for Merrick shows. Hal Linden, soon after he won the Best Actor in a Musical Tony for THE ROTHSCHILDS, gave what Suskin calls “possibly the best audition I’ve ever seen.”
Linden didn’t get as much as a callback. Suskin doesn’t have high praise for the actor who did land the role.
For a bus-and-truck tour of PROMISES, PROMISES, those auditioning included – are you ready for this? – Mr. Rogers. His experience turned out to be not unlike what Lisa Kirk experienced at the world premiere of ALLEGRO.
But Suskin doesn’t just rely on his Merrick days for stories. He tells how Jule Styne, the composer of GYPSY, BELLS ARE RINGING and plenty of other hits, loved to conduct – but when a certain individual wanted to take over at one performance, the composer quickly passed the baton. Well, what else could he do, considering who was requesting it?
Suskin relates why most everyone connected with THE PAJAMA GAME wanted to cut a certain song and why you can still enjoy it on two different Broadway cast albums. Most amusing is Suskin’s divulging the unlikely and most unexpected nickname bestowed on that hit’s co-producer: a just-starting-out Hal Prince.
You’ll learn that Allen Case eventually became a billed-over-the-title star of HALLELUJAH, BABY! but that he wasn’t management’s first choice. The producers were forced to look elsewhere when the performer they really wanted decided instead to spend his time writing a new musical. As much of a surprise hit as that turned out to be, more surprising still is discovering the name of the writer-actor who was wanted for HALLELUJAH, BABY! (What an unlikely choice!)
Suskin also includes little details that have undoubtedly escaped you: Robert Ryan, who played the title character of MR. PRESIDENT, sold his apartment in the Dakota to John Lennon. Before Cy Coleman delivered his dazzling music for BARNUM (including one of the most spirited second-act openers in “Come Follow the Band”), pop icon Harry Nilsson was the composer of choice. Find out, too, what sneaky thing producer Alexander H. Cohen tried to do with the show.
All these stories could be minimized as hearsay. Yet after Suskin moved on and moved up – IBDB lists seventeen credits that even include producer – what he can give us is substantial eyewitness testimony.
So as assistant to the general manager on SHENANDOAH, THE ONLY HOME I KNOW (as it was originally known), he knew that after one Oscar-winner and one future Oscar-winner refused the lead, producer Philip Rose felt that he had to settle on – and settle for – John Cullum. The future Best Actor in a Musical Tony-winner had the last laugh, for a pair of Broadway legends suddenly courted him for their new musical.
(See why Cullum was wise to stay put.)
There’s an irony that SHENANDOAH, a family musical about a family, might not have reached Broadway had there not been the threat of an obscenity trial. No, of course it had nothing to do with the musical that was clean as a never-used whistle, but you’ll see why one backer was hot to write a quarter-of-a-million-dollar check.
OFFSTAGE OBSERVATIONS has an occasional photograph, with one pièce de résistance: a photocopy of a 1961 letter that Stephen Sondheim sent Merrick to apologize for Jerome Robbins extricating himself from directing and choreographing THE ROMAN COMEDY. (Here’s betting that you can infer what the show was eventually renamed.)
And the best story of all? Suskin recounts how he accompanied a mother and her young son to Jones Beach to see Joe Namath in DAMN YANKEES. After the show, the eleven-year-old told the former New York Jet superstar what he thought of his performance. Even then, the lad was cannily euphemistic to the point where Namath had no idea he was being damned with no praise.
And who was this precocious know-it-all? Oh, only someone who has since, according to IMDb, amassed 134 acting credits. Yet that number doesn’t nearly represent the total of stories you’ll thoroughly enjoy in OFFSTAGE OBSERVATIONS.
Peter Filichia is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly, a columnist at www.broadwayselect.com and a commentator on www.broadwayradio.com.