By Peter Filichia —
Admit it: when you became interested in musical theater and ran into albums for New Faces of 1952 and New Faces of 1956, you automatically assumed that there was a New Faces on Broadway each and every year.
No. All in all, there were only seven New Faces, starting with New Faces of 1934. One of the sweet sixteen new faces in that show belonged to Leonard Sillman, who produced the effort, and would sponsor all the others.
Another new face of 1934 was Imogene Coca, a Fifties TV star and an important component to the success of On the Twentieth Century in 1978. By the way, Coca was also in New Faces of 1936. Guess being a New Facer wasn’t like being a virgin; you could be one more than once.
There was a New Faces of 1943, too, and then came the most successful one: New Faces of 1952, which opened fifty-nine years ago on May 16, 1952. It became the longest-running of the bunch at three hundred and sixty-five performances, was the first to get recorded — and even got filmed.
The revue opened by having one Ronny Graham come out and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, this has certainly been a season for experiment in theater. The Fourposter got the number of actors down to two. Emlyn Williams cut that in half. Cornelia Otis Skinner held the whole thing at par. I have only to leave this stage in order to break fresh ground.”
Yes, small casts were anomalies then. But just this season on Broadway alone we had three one-person shows (Ghetto Klown; Colin Quinn: Long Story Short and Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony) and one two-person show (A Life in the Theatre). New Faces knew.
That’s not the only way in which New Faces of 1952 was prescient. Fifty-eight years before The Addams Family opened on Broadway last year, New Faces of 1952 was referencing artist Charles Addams and his atypical outlook on life in “Love Is a Simple Thing.” June Carroll co-wrote the song and appeared as the Addams character, too.
After Graham’s soliloquy came the new New Faces theme that he co-wrote; it would be used for each of the subsequent three New Faces revues. “We’ve never seen you before,” the cast sang. “You’ve never seen us before.”
No, but we’d see plenty from the Class of ’52 as the years went on. Here’s Robert Clary, later of Hogan’s Heroes, singing of his good fortune in “Lucky Pierre” and his less good fortune in “I’m in Love with Miss Logan.” For the latter, he’s a schoolboy desperately in love with his teacher. He’s devastated when he finds that she has a beau around her own age.
Alice Ghostley, one of Broadway’s Miss Hannigans in Annie, is heard singing “Boston Beguine” for which famed lyricist Sheldon (Fiddler on the Roof) Harnick also wrote the melody. It’s about a woman who proved that sex could occur even in that most (supposedly) staid of American cities.
I once asked Harnick about his calling Boston “Land of the free, home of the brave, home of the Red Sox” – asking if he were doing ironic wordplay here, given that Boston then also had a baseball team called the Braves. He said that’s exactly what he had in mind. Ironically enough, two weeks before New Faces of 1952 closed on March 28, 1953, the Braves made that lyric obsolete by moving from Boston to Milwaukee.
Ghostley would win a Tony in 1965 for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. She’d be the only Tony-winner to emerge from this cast, but Carol Lawrence would later get a nomination for her Maria in West Side Story and Eartha Kitt would get two, for Timbuktu and The Wild Party.
Along with June Carroll, Ghostley is heard in “Time for Tea,” in which two elderly sisters each of whom remained single ruminate on what might have been. This is one of those comparative rarities: a song that was recorded in the studio along with all the other cuts, but one that didn’t make the original LP. Now, happily, it’s been restored to its rightful place in the show and on the album.
Kitt may have just been starting out when she joined New Faces, but one can see that her Kitt-en like persona was already in place. She was a performer who seemed right at home with French, as is witnessed by “Bal Petit Bal.” Her inscrutable façade was also represented in a song in which she judged everything as “Monotonous.”
Paul Lynde was a new face of 1952, too, eight years before he had his breakthrough role as Mr. McAfee in Bye Bye Birdie. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear him in Michael Brown’s rousing “Lizzie Borden.” This is a lighthearted look at the Fall River lass’s possible parricide and matricide. That the trial is held at a hoe-down may seem ludicrous — until one remembers that that plot twist isn’t terribly unlike what happens in Oklahoma! Here the townspeople proclaim, “No, you can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts.” The reason? “Massachusetts is a far cry from New York.”
The most fun comes in “Three for the Road,” songs that were supposedly written for the revue, but were dropped during the tryout. No, the joke is that they’re purposely lousy songs that were written as spoofs. Robert Clary sings that life is “Raining Memories,” now that his love has left him. It’s a terrific parody of all those melodramatic woe-is-me songs. It’s followed by a song that begins “Waltzing in Venice with you isn’t so easy to do.” No, not with all those canals: “If you take one more step than you oughter / You will be doing the waltz under water.” Finally, there’s “Take off the Mask,” in which a young man at a Renaissance ball (Graham) asks the woman with whom he’s dancing (Ghostley) to do just that. There’s a deft lyric when he asks, “Won’t you lose your aplomb, ‘n’ take off the domin-o?” Once the woman takes off her mask, we’re in “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” territory.
New Faces of 1952 also came out with a song that became a supper-club standard: “Guess Who I Saw Today (My Dear)?” In it, a wife retains her cool while she confronts her husband about his having an affair. Granted, she has only the most circumstantial evidence, but wives can be the first to know, too.
There were three more New Faces. New Faces of 1956 got recorded and is still available. On it you can hear Jane Connell sing about “April in Fairbanks,” as the title goes: “there’s nothing more appealing; you find your blood congealing … Sub-zero weather will turn your skin to leather. Your jaws will lock together.” Not quite “April in Paris,” is it?
But the most fun of the 1956 edition is hearing a woman proclaim, “Hello, I’m Maggie Smith” in that voice we’ve all known for decades. And then, only after we hear it, we realize that she’s introducing herself because no one at the time knew this New Face. They certainly would in fewer than 14 years, when Smith won the Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
New Faces of 1962 died a quick death, and no album was made. All that really remains of it is a shot of it advertised on the Alvin Theatre marquee in the original film of The Manchurian Candidate. Then came New Faces of 1968, which added the final indignity; on the LP, Leonard Sillman’s name on the spine was misspelled as Leonard Stillman. Needless to say, this wasn’t a record produced by any company that Masterworks Broadway now represents.
Now that you’ve read this, you’ll have no problem coming up with the punch line for one of Broadway’s worst jokes. Question: What Broadway producer had the most plastic surgery? Answer: Leonard Sillman. He had seven new faces.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.