The First Hit Broadway Musical from a Movie
By Peter Filichia —
These days, we often hear people complain that too many Broadway musicals are made from motion pictures. Actually, the start of that trend can be traced backed to 1953, when musical versions of Nothing Sacred and Carnival in Flanders debuted.
The former, renamed Hazel Flagg, was not a hit, but it did spawn a nice cast album full of sparkling Jule Styne melodies. The latter, however, was such a bomb that Walter Kerr was still smarting from it two-and-a-half years later. In his My Fair Lady review on March 16, 1956, Kerr stated that after hearing the first five terrific songs of the Lerner-Loewe show that he was greatly optimistic about its prospects. Then came “The Rain in Spain,” which prompted Kerr to write, “After that, you couldn’t have stopped My Fair Lady if you’d invited the authors of Buttrio Square, Hit the Trail and Carnival in Flanders to work over the second act.”
So what was the first Hollywood film to morph into a successful stage musical? Ninotchka: the 1939 movie about a female Soviet emissary who comes to Paris and is seduced by the city – and Count Leon D’Algout.
Fifty-seven years ago this week (on Feb. 24, 1955, the same day that Steve Jobs was born) the musical of Ninotchka, renamed Silk Stockings, opened. The reviews were mostly terrific, starting with New York Times’ critic Brooks Atkinson’s proclamation that, “Everything about Silk Stockings represents the best goods in the American musical theater emporium.” It would run 478 performances – long enough to then rank as one of Broadway’s 50 longest-running musicals. What’s more, its original cast album — the first long-playing Broadway recording to get one of those open-up, double-fold covers — has been in print almost ever since.
Success didn’t come easily, although it looked inevitable when Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, producers of four straight hits – Where’s Charley?, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can and The Boy Friend – optioned the property. They signed no less than Cole Porter (of their Can-Can) to do the score and George S. Kaufman (of their Guys and Dolls) to write the book and direct. So far, so great.
All right, Kaufman brought on Leueen MacGrath, his new wife, to co-write the book with him. That made some nervous, for MacGrath was an actress who had turned to writing. Her two Broadway plays had averaged fourteen performances.
But the couple’s ideas of how to change some of the plot seemed sound: originally, Ninotchka came face to face with a deposed Russian Grand Duchess, who was worried about losing Leon to Ninotchka – even when the Communist was dressing as a peasant. Once she sported a drop-dead gown, the Duchess said, “I assume this is what the factory workers wear?” Ninotchka said, “Yes, before it would have been embarrassing for people of my sort to wear low-cut dresses. The lashes of the Cossacks on our backs weren’t very becoming.”
Silk Stockings instead became the story of Steve Canfield, an American agent, in Paris with his client Peggy Dayton (read: Esther Williams) who’s made so many pictures in pools that she’s hitting her head to get water out of her ears. The Soviet Union’s greatest contemporary composer, Peter Ilyitch Boroff, will do the score, but Moscow is worried that the musician will succumb to Paris and its charms. So they send three Russian agents to tail him, but the trio winds up seduced by the City of Light.
Now Moscow takes no chances, and sends its most incorruptible agent who is – surprise! – a woman named Nina Yoschenko. Canfield is smitten with her, but she doesn’t care for him or Western ways. Slowly, however, she comes to love him, Paris — and silk stockings.
Screen legend Don (“Alexander Graham Bell”) Ameche would play Canfield, and German film star Hildegarde Knef would portray the woman that Steve would come to affectionately nickname Ninotchka. Feuer and Martin, however, worried that “Knef” would seem “too German” a name in post-war America; they suggested that she rename herself “Neff” and the actress agreed, albeit reluctantly.
Feuer and Martin would have bigger worries. They approved only half of the twenty-six songs that Porter wrote. The esteemed composer-lyricist of Kiss Me, Kate even wound up asking Noel Coward for help on one lyric (“Siberia”), and took orchestrator Don Walker’s musical suggestions for the eleven o’clock number, “The Red Blues,” in which all the Soviets embrace American music. (Walker was smart to choose a Dixieland arrangement for much of the song; after all, what style of music suggests more fun than Dixieland?)
The producers did the unthinkable when they fired not only MacGrath but also Kaufman, a veteran of seventy-two Broadway productions. They brought in Abe Burrows, who had re-written Guys and Dolls, to rework the book and re-stage the show. A tryout that was supposed to start in Philadelphia and culminate in Boston added Detroit to the mix.
The role of Peggy Dayton seemed cursed. Yvonne Adair was cast, but became ill. Her understudy Sherry O’Neil took over, but her understudy, Gretchen Wyler, would eventually open the show – and got raves.
Cole Porter’s score is amazing work, considering that he was in constant pain and increasingly aware that he was coming ever closer to having a leg amputated. One song, “All of You,” became a standard (“I love the look of you, the lure of you; I’d love to make a tour of you”). There’s much charm in “Paris Loves Lovers,” Steve’s first attempt to show Ninotchka a finer life, and her eventual rebuttal, “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All.”
By the way, Porter in that song mentioned that a Soviet scientist had “observed the behavior of forty turtles over a period of three months.” If one reads The Gift Horse, Hildegarde Knef’s memoir, one must wonder if the line about the turtle cropped up after a certain incident.
While Knef was in rehearsals, she was given a turtle as a gift. She eventually felt bad that the animal had to be cooped up in her hotel room, so one day she decided to be late for rehearsal and find the precise right spot in Central Park where Mr. Turtle could live happily ever after. That took some time, and when she arrived at rehearsals hours late – without ever having notified anyone of her whereabouts – everyone was red-hot with fury. Once she told them what she’d been doing, however, everyone’s fury then reached white-hot proportions.
And while Noel Coward helped with “Siberia,” there’s little doubt that Porter wrote one certain lyric. The song has Soviet emissaries, fearful of Moscow’s wrath, looking at the bright side of their impending fate.” One advantage of living in that frozen wasteland, they sing, is that “You can bet your Christmases will be white” – yet another Porter reference to his pal Irving Berlin. In Anything Goes, one of Porter’s “You’re the Top” lyrics offered as a standard of top-notch excellence, “You’re a Berlin ballad.” In Out of This World, he cited Berlin’s then-current hit, Call Me Madam in “They Couldn’t Compare to You.”
Porter was always known for his ribaldry, and that didn’t please the Hays Code police when Silk Stockings was filmed in 1957. The bluenoses blue-penciled some of “Stereophonic Sound,” Peggy’s assessment of moviedom’s latest innovation. A joke about “Marilyn’s behind” was dropped, and a line about a “bosom five feet wide” became a “mouth that’s five feet wide.” More amazing was a bowdlerization of “If Ava Gardner played Godiva riding on a mare, the people wouldn’t pay a cent to see her in the bare.” Now it concluded with “They wouldn’t even care.” You can only hear the original “naughty” lyrics on the original cast album.
Truth to tell, Silk Stockings was the right show at the right time. Pitting the American way of life vs. the Communist view was perfect for 1955 – in the middle of the Cold War, and less than a year removed from the McCarthy hearings that did their best (and worst) to ferret out “Communists.” This musical had a message that all Americans wanted to hear: our way of life was better.
Women always hated when their genuine silk stockings ran, but many were happy that Broadway’s Silk Stockings ran.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.