The Best Phone Call of 2013
How often does your phone ring anymore? We all seem to communicate differently now. Go away for a week’s vacation, and you’ll probably come back to fewer than a half-dozen messages on your answering machine. But, oh, look at those hundreds of e-mails!
And yet, some people still use the phone, and I’m glad they do. For otherwise, I wouldn’t have been rung up by Miles Kreuger a few weeks ago.
It turned out to be the best phone call I got in 2013 – and the longest. When I told the Los Angeles resident that I just HAD to go to bed — because it was well after 2 a.m. my time to his more modest 11 p.m. Pacific Standard Time – my phone revealed that we’d been on for 151 minutes and fifty-two seconds.
Kreuger, as you may well know, is a musical theatre historian extraordinaire. His liner notes have graced such albums as Allegro; his 1977 book Show Boat: The History of a Classic American Musical is mandatory reading and set the tone and the bar for many such one-show centric books to come. And if there’s any doubt of his devotion to this art form, he’s president of The Institute of the American Musical.
The reason for the call was that he’d just discovered my July 16 column on the revue Seven Come Eleven. “Actually, I recorded that when I was with Columbia Records in 1961,” he said. “I didn’t get credit for producing it, however. My name is nowhere on the record.”
How thrilled he was when I told him that his name does indeed appear in the CD booklet. I do believe that Masterworks Broadway is soon to make another sale.
“I saw the show and loved it,” he said “You hear an audience on the recording, but that wasn’t the audience at the actual theater The Upstairs at the Downstairs, a place for which Julius Monk was the front man and not, as many assumed, the owner. What I did was go into a recording studio, turn the place into a nightclub and invite an audience to see and react to the show there. It was quite a party.”
It was the only one Seven Come Eleven had, for there was no launch party because the recording was never launched by Columbia. “I think it had something to do with the financial failure of Kean,” said Kreuger. “Whatever it was, we had a few records that did exist, and Monk’s employer bought them all and sold them at the club.”
That was just the first of many stories I heard during this lovely chat that centered on his January-November, 1961 stint at Columbia. During that year, Kreuger noticed that a significant anniversary was coming up for Pins and Needles, which had opened in 1937. This show – the longest-running musical at the time at 1,108 performances – was produced before the advent of the original cast album era. Thus, with no recording available, Kreuger thought that a studio cast album would be a good way to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary.
He also suggested to its composer-lyricist Harold Rome a singer he’d been seeing on The Tonight Show named Barbra Streisand.
“And Harold said, ‘I never watch The Tonight Show; I’m always too busy painting.’”
(Indeed, Rome even released an album called Gallery whose gatefold cover was replete with reproductions of his paintings.)
Rome initially didn’t go for the idea, for he said that Pins and Needles’ original charm was that it was performed by amateurs – the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. But after a few days, he decided that a studio recording of Pins and Needles would be a good idea.
At the time, however, he was busy preparing his new musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. “Marilyn Cooper was all set to play Miss Marmelstein, the harried secretary, but then Arthur Laurents bumped her up to the romantic lead,” recalled Kreuger. “Laurents had also seen Streisand in a club and recommended her. Rome threw up his hands and said, ‘Everywhere I go I hear the name Barbra Streisand!’
“Of course, Streisand got the part in Wholesale,” Kreuger said, “and when the time finally came for the Pins and Needles album, Rome wouldn’t have done it without her.”
And how did Kreuger even know about Pins and Needles? It was just about to celebrate its first anniversary when Kreuger saw his first Broadway musical – “on Wednesday, October 19, 1938 at the 51st Street Theater, later known as the Warners’ Hollywood and later still as the Mark Hellinger,” he said, avoiding telling me what the glorious theater later became. “The show was called Knights of Song and it was a musical biography of Gilbert and Sullivan and used many of their songs.”
(And we thought jukebox musicals were a rather recent phenomenon.)
Kreuger immediately became an inveterate theatergoer, and after he was graduated from Bard College in 1954, he went looking for a job in theater – and found one in producer Herman Levin’s office – “between 49th and 50th Street above Chock Full o’ Nuts,” he said.
(I was waiting for a joke of how a theatrical office was chock full o’ nuts, too, but it never came.)
“I had a job sorting 8x10s,” he said, “and one day Alan Jay Lerner came in because Levin was producing his My Fair Lady. Soon after I met Moss Hart, who liked me because I immediately told him I loved Light up the Sky, his 1948 play. Soon I was reading lines for the show along with him, Levin, Lerner and Bud Widney, Alan’s right-hand man. And soon after that, they really considered me to play Freddy Eynsford–Hill. I even got to sing the song when it had six additional lines of lyrics before ‘And, oh, the towering feeling.’ But (composer) Fritz Loewe preferred John Michael King because he had a stronger voice than mine. He said, ‘You’ve given me a leading man who can’t sing; give me one who can.’”
When Kreuger got to Columbia Records in 1961, one of his jobs was to attend backers’ auditions of musicals in hopes of finding the next My Fair Lady that he could recommend to his boss Goddard Lieberson. “These auditions ranged from musicals by Jule Styne all the way to the little lady on Jerome Avenue who wrote a show,” he said. “I have to admit that I told Goddard to secure the rights for A Family Affair, John Kander’s first show before he met Fred Ebb, and Goddard didn’t, which was good, because it was a failure. But I told him to back We Take the Town, a musical about Pancho Villa starring Robert Preston that I thought sounded horrible until I got to the audition. After I saw Matt Dubey, the lyricist, singing, dancing and acting material that I thought was wonderful, I wrote to Goddard, ‘May I voice one hearty and enthusiastic aye?’
“Goddard heeded my advice, and the show closed out of town.”
And how does Kreuger know that he wrote, “May I voice one hearty and enthusiastic aye!?” He still has a copy of every report he submitted that year. The one he read to me that was most astonishing? The report on Ambassador, a musical of the Henry James novel by composer Don Gohman and lyricist Hal Hackady. Kreuger told Lieberson to pass, which his boss did – and that’s one reason why the show took ten more years to get to Broadway (and one week to get off).
Kreuger did have more of a relationship with one substantial hit. “I wrote the liner notes to the original cast album of Fiddler on the Roof, too, although you won’t find my name mentioned on the jacket,” he said. “Worse, though, is that much of what I wrote was cut. In those days, cast albums came out quickly after the show’s opening, so much of the jacket had to be in place in advance. So before all the rave reviews, George Marek, the record’s producer, didn’t know that Fiddler would turn out to be what it became, and he was afraid it would be ‘too Jewish.’ So notice on your album that the plot synopsis of the show doesn’t mention Chava’s marriage to a Gentile. At all! Nowhere! (Fiddler’s composer) Jerry Bock later told me that (its lyricist) Sheldon Harnick was so upset by this that he insisted that their next show go to a different label – and that’s how The Apple Tree wound up on Columbia.”
Before I begged off for sleep, I asked Kreuger a question that I’d recently been asked from a reader. What was the first Columbia cast album recorded in stereo? Kreuger immediately said, “Bells Are Ringing, although Candide was recorded in stereo just a week later. However, because the former was a hit, it got released in stereo while Candide, which closed early, didn’t at the time.”
We only have his word for it, but I certainly believe it.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.