By Peter Filichia
A speak-singing leading man and a lilting soprano leading lady play characters who meet in London in the early 20th century. He’s the one with pedigree while she’s the parvenu. Comic relief stems from some songs that were written to sound like English music hall ditties. There’s a scene where the chorus members are looking fourth-wall and have their eyes glued to what they’re supposedly seeing. The producer is Herman Levin, who’s pleased to see that at least one of his performers gets a Tony Award, and that the whole enterprise is swathed in sumptuous Oliver Smith scenery.
My Fair Lady, right? Well, yes, but the descriptions also apply to The Girl Who Came to Supper, the 1963 musical that seemed to use the smash hit classic’s template in hopes of recreating its success.
It didn’t, and ran 4% as long as MFL. And while Girl couldn’t match the number of universally known Lerner and Loewe Lady songs, Noel Coward, soon after finishing his score, wrote to friends to say that “I really do believe that the music and the lyrics are among the best that I have ever done.”
This is certainly a score worth our time and attention, as those of us learned who attended the staged readings offered by Musicals Tonight! on Theatre Row earlier this month.
The Girl Who Came to Supper started out as Terence Rattigan’s play The Sleeping Prince in 1953 and had another title for its 1957 film version: The Prince and the Showgirl. In case you missed all of the above, the plot concerns the would-be romance between Grand Duke Charles (Jose Ferrer) and chorus girl Mary Morgan (Florence Henderson). He and his son Nicolas – the rightful heir to the throne, but as yet a teenager – are in London for the coronation of England’s new King George V, but Charles takes the opportunity to see that new American musical The Coconut Girl. Although the show has a chorus of “six lilies of the valley,” it’s Sally who catches his fancy. So he sends word that he’d like to have her come to his digs for a little repast. That spurs Mary to sing in delight “I’ve Been Invited to a Party” – not realizing that the “party” is for all of two people. It’s a swirling waltz in which she envisions that “the belle of the ball is me,” holding the final “is” for four seconds and trilling it before the final “me.”
Operetta? Sure. But quality work. What a shame that, aside from a quick Nellie Forbush a few years later, New York theater never saw the likes of Florence Henderson again. She certainly had the voice to thrill us in a way that Brady Bunch fans would never know.
Henderson got the chance to do the second-most talked about sequence in the show. She replicated the entire Coconut Girl in a mere eight minutes, playing all the lead and supporting roles before showcasing her chorus parts. Needless to say, such an idea alone promises a terrific tour-de-force and Henderson delivers.
So why isn’t it this first-most talked about sequence in the musical?
Tessie O’Shea, that’s why.
O’Shea, fondly known as “Two-Ton Tessie” (although her weight was probably only one-twentieth of that description), was a beloved British entertainer of long-standing by the time she made her Broadway debut in The Girl. When she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, four other British entertainers who happened to be on the show that night were desperate to meet her, for they’d seen her on the telly or had heard her on radio all their lives. Their names were John, Paul, George and Ringo.
In fact, if you’d sauntered by The Ed Sullivan Theater last Feb. 9, you would have seen O’Shea’s name on the marquee that was replicated to celebrate that broadcast’s fiftieth anniversary. Yes, the billing put Tessie O’Shea behind The Beatles and Georgia Brown, who, along with castmates, would perform selections from Oliver! But O’Shea was there, too, and seen by as many as seventy million people.
While Sullivan was famous for airing scenes from Broadway musicals on his Sunday show, O’Shea’s sequence from The Girl was not broadcast that night; her eleven-minute showstopper had already been a Sullivan highlight seven weeks earlier. O’Shea had gone over so well that Sullivan decided to bring her back to do a medley of pop tunes.
But in The Girl, she played Ada Cockle, a street entertainer who sang music hall songs to anyone who’d listen – and everyone included a strolling-by Prince Nicolas. The song titles alone were evocative: “London Is a Little Bit of All Right,” “What Ho, Mrs. Brisket,” “Don’t Take Our Charlie for the Army,” and “Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown.”
Nicolas wasn’t the only one impressed; Tony voters were, too.
Although O’Shea was onstage for all of eleven minutes, she won the prize as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. That’s all the more remarkable in that she’d had the least stage time of the four 1963-64 nominees, not to mention the least stage time of any Tony-winner in that category in the fifteen years that the prize had been given.
It’s a dazzling performance embracing two tons of special material, and we’re lucky that it was fully captured on the original cast album.
However, have you noticed the flaw? Prince Nicolas happened to be strolling by, saw Ada, listened, and then moved on. Alas, Ada had nothing to do with the story.
And that’s one reason that, despite a lovely score, The Girl didn’t stay around for thousands of suppers instead of just 112. Coward the sophisticate made an atypical choice for his bookwriter: Harry Kurnitz, who’d recently adapted a French play into A Shot in the Dark. Don’t judge it by its 1964 film version; that was a free-wheeling and far more farcical adaptation; in fact, Kurnitz’s play has no Inspector Clouseau. Still, the show’s title seemed more like Kurnitz’s idea than Coward’s, for it clearly referenced Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner. And the less-than-urbane book didn’t quite match Coward’s elegant score.
There was another problem. Virtually every musical that goes out of town experiences some chaos, but The Girl’s turmoil was unique. The show originally opened with Charles singing about the perils of being in charge of a country: “Long Live the King (If He Can)” included the lyric “My loving people cultivate an impulse to assassinate.”
The song did well in Boston and Toronto, but it had to be dropped in Philadelphia after the events of Nov. 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. While the Friday night performance was canceled, shows would resume the following afternoon, so Coward didn’t have much time to write an original song. Instead he remembered “Countess Mitzi,” his ditty from his 1938 London musical Operette, and while he was able to retain more than half the lyrics, he refashioned it as “My Family Tree.”
The best line comes when The Duke concedes that his family tree has always been “a little shady.” Jose Ferrer enjoyed rolling his “r’s” in this song in the best Noel Coward tradition.
In closing, let’s cite John McClain, the critic for the Journal American. Whose review stated “Not since My Fair Lady … have I been so moved by a musical.”
You want to know what was said in the place where I inserted three periods, don’t you?
Here’s the full quotation: “Not since My Fair Lady – and there is a slight affinity between the two – have I been so moved by a musical.”
Maybe when Franklin Shepherd says “I saw My Fair Lady” and concludes with a shrug “I sort of enjoyed it,” he really saw The Girl Who Came to Supper and confused the two.