With all the recent talk about a certain show celebrating a certain anniversary, I was reminded that it’s been forty-five years since I had the best theatrical doubleheader of my life.
Saturday afternoon, August 9, 1975: CHICAGO at the matinee, fewer than ten weeks after it had opened at the 46th Street Theatre.
That evening, A CHORUS LINE, sixteen days after it had opened shop at the Shubert.
At the time, my wife Lilli and I were living in a Boston suburb. Her mother in Baltimore was always aching to see her grandson, so we decided to drive our three-year-old to her on Friday, then return to New York on Saturday, and return on Sunday to fetch the child.
When we got to Baltimore, my mother-in-law cooed over the kid and then asked, “So what are you seeing in New York?”
“A CHORUS LINE,” I said with pride.
“Oh, I hear it’s wonderful!” she said with envy.
“Oh,” she said, “the one with Liza Minnelli.”
I tried to keep my smile from being too smug before gently correcting her. “No, Gwen Verdon.”
“No,” she said, “Liza Minnelli.”
My smile was now underlined with annoyance. “Margaret,” I said as calmly as possible, “I’m reasonably well-informed about these matters. It’s Gwen Verdon.”
“No,” she said, “Liza Minnelli.”
“MARGARET!” I screamed.
But then Margaret brought out that evening’s Baltimore Sun, which indeed said that Liza Minnelli would that night take over for Gwen Verdon, who’d fallen ill and would be out for some time. CHICAGO’s director-choreographer-co-librettist Bob Fosse had asked Minnelli to spell the star until she recovered.
How could Minnelli say no? Fosse had directed CABARET which had got Minnelli her Oscar, and LIZA WITH A “Z,” which got her, Fosse and Fred Ebb Emmys for Outstanding Single Program: Variety and Popular Music.
So, Minnelli started rehearsals on Tuesday and had her first performance on Friday. With only one show under her belt, how good could she be by the Saturday matinee?
Extraordinary, that’s how good. It’s still the best performance I’ve ever seen an actress give in a musical.
For one thing, the part was right for her. Think of Roxie’s “He LOVES me so” in “Funny Honey.” Can’t you imagine what an in-her-prime Minnelli did with the word “loves”?
A line in “Roxie” made theatergoers gasp which wouldn’t have happened if Verdon had said it: “None of us got enough love in our childhood – and that’s show biz, kid.” The crowd all too knowingly expressed its knowledge of Minnelli’s parents and background.
On the cast album, “I Am My Own Best Friend” is a duet between Verdon and Chita Rivera. Here it was a Minnelli solo.
Years later, I asked Rivera about this. “Oh,” she said “Liza just wanted to do it and I said ‘Let her have it.’” Rivera, known as one of the best sports in the business, didn’t have a shred of a hard feeling in her voice, and indicated it was no big deal.
Although Minnelli replaced Verdon, she didn’t displace her. In an effort to downplay the situation, Minnelli insisted that the marquee and programs wouldn’t sport her name. So many passing by might have had no knowledge of the new Roxie, but certainly the audience at that matinee did. I’ve rarely experienced such pre-show electricity.
And yet, I was chagrined after the announcement was made “Ladies and gentlemen, at this performance the role of Roxie Hart will NOT be performed by Gwen Verdon.” For the crowd gave a mock-disappointed “Awwwww!” that lasted right into the first syllable of the energized announcement: “But it will be performed by” – here the announcer’s voice got louder and stronger – “Miss Liza Minnelli!”
The place broke out in applause and cheers; Lord knows that Minnelli wound up earning them. But I wasn’t pleased that a great incapacitated four-time Tony-winning star should be shunted off with a who-needs-her reception.
I’d never get to see Verdon do CHICAGO. But on the original cast album, she sounds young and vibrant, as she will now and forever.
As for A CHORUS LINE, I had an experience with that musical that I’d never had before or since.
On July 26 – only a day after the show took up residence at the Shubert – I bought the cast album. A CHORUS LINE would displace CHICAGO, which had reigned for weeks on my turntable. The first side yielded such terrific Marvin Hamlisch music and Edward Kleban lyrics that I didn’t even bother to turn over the record (which is what we had to do in those days, young ‘uns, if we wanted to hear the entire score).
After that next listen, I still didn’t turn over the record. This held true for the third and fourth hearings. And then I decided I’d do something wildly different.
Knowing that I’d be seeing the show in fifteen days, I purposely wouldn’t play the second side, but would let the songs surprise me while at the Shubert.
Many times I’d seen a show already knowing the score inside out: MY FAIR LADY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, HELLO, DOLLY! Many other times I saw shows for which I wouldn’t know a single song, especially pre-Broadway tryouts in Boston: I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT, FLORA THE RED MENACE.
But now I’d go into the theater knowing every word and note for the first half and neither a line nor a note of the second half.
Actually, A CHORUS LINE still had some “first-side” surprises in store. There was a fetching song called “And …” that didn’t make the album. “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello, Love” was substantially longer than it was on the album.
And whoever did the editing of this song deserves a Grammy, for the result doesn’t sound at all choppy or incomplete; it seems to be precisely everything that Hamlisch and Kleban wrote.
If you care to hear this rendition, you’ll have to rustle up a copy of the original vinyl; the CD release expanded it, and the 2006 revival does it even more justice.
Another surprise was discovering that “Nothing,” the sensational song about Morales’ woes with drama teacher Mr. Karp, wasn’t a stand-alone as it was on the album but came in the middle of “Hello Twelve.” (No matter where auteur Michael Bennett would have put it, “Nothing” would still have been a highlight of the score.)
After “Hello, Twelve” ended – along with my knowledge – there was a part of me that wanted to stand up and say “Wait! I gotta go home and listen to the rest!” But the show must go on, so I kept mum and kept getting more and more excited.
“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” – perhaps musical theater’s first song about cosmetic surgery — was hilarious. “The Music and the Mirror” was dynamic, with the song, dancing and choreography making something, to quote from the show I’d seen earlier that day, “a whole lot greater than the sum of its parts.”
Granted, the first time “One” was sung, it sounded eerie – which is what Bennett wanted: a song still being learned and rehearsed. But when “One” became the finale, it perfectly replicated that razz-ma-tazz show sound for which Broadway is justifiably famous.
In between those came “What I Did for Love.” Word would later filter back to all of us that Kleban didn’t like this song. He and I would have to agree to disagree.
There was a surprise waiting me at home. On the LP “The Music and the Mirror” comes before “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” They’ve been reversed for the CDs, but why did record producer Goddard Lieberson switch them in the first place?
Lieberson may have felt that he didn’t want Side Two to start with something ribald. Besides, he liked to put what he felt was a strong song as a second side start, which is why “If Ever I Would Leave You” in CAMELOT started Side Two on the LP, even though “Before I Gaze at You Again” preceded it in the musical.
Weeks passed before I once again played the first side of A CHORUS LINE. Four-and-a-half decades have now passed, too, and I’ve yet to experience a theatrical doubleheader this magnificent. Wouldn’t it be something if seeing two musicals this wondrous on the same day is in my future?