By Peter Filichia —
She wrote a play called Happy Birthday, so why shouldn’t we wish her one?
Granted, Anita Loos, born April 26, 1888, is no longer with us. For that matter, Happy Birthday isn’t, either. But it was obviously a good enough comedy for Rodgers and Hammerstein. In their producing career, they were only impressed enough with three plays to bring them to Broadway – and Happy Birthday was one of them. The 1946 hit ran 563 performances — just as many as The Glass Menagerie.
But Loos is more famous for creating an iconic heroine who eventually wended her way into musical theater history.
She is, of course, Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
We’ll soon have a chance to see both at Encores! in the concert presentation from May 9-13. Until then (and after, for that matter) we have the 1949 original cast album that captured Carol Channing in her first starring role.
Gold-digger Lorelei Lee – no, make that diamond-digger – first appeared in the early ‘20s in a series of stories for Harper’s Bazaar. Loos didn’t know that she had given birth to a genuine franchise. The tales were published in book form in 1925. A year later, Loos turned them into a hit Broadway play. In 1928, that play became a silent film. On both, Loos had a little (but reportedly not a lot of) help from her famously domineering husband John Emerson. Funny, isn’t it, that the creator of free spirit Lorelei Lee could be dominated by a real-life spouse?
Two decades later, Loos co-wrote the book with Joseph (My Sister Eileen) Fields for the musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Jule Styne’s score and Leo Robin’s lyrics greatly helped it to become the tenth longest-running book musical in Broadway history.
All right, now it’s one hundredth and tenth place, but the score still sizzles. If you only know it from the 1953 film, you don’t know much of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Only three songs were retained, while two more were added by other writers. Part of the reason much of the score was dropped is that it sounds quintessentially ‘20s, while the film was set in “Time: Now” 1953.
The film opens with “A Little Girl from Little Rock” which morphed from a Carol Channing solo to a Marilyn Monroe-Jane Russell duet. The lyrics were cleaned up for the movie; Lorelei (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) note that “men are the same everywhere” in the same place where Channing more shrewdly observes that “the one you call your daddy ain’t your pa.” Plenty of other film lyrics were laundered, too, so the cast album gives you what was really on Lorelei’s mind.
Soon after, Lorelei and Dorothy prepare to sail for Europe. In the film, both Monroe and Russell sing “Bye Bye Baby” — although Dorothy doesn’t have a steady beau to whom she sings it. Lorelei does, however: one Gus Esmond, Junior. He’s intoxicated with her, although Gus Esmond, Senior certainly isn’t.
Some of Monroe’s singing was dubbed by (who else?) Marni Nixon. But on the cast album there’s the real voice of Jack McCauley who pleasantly delivers the first lines of the verse: “I’ll be in my room alone / Ev’ry post meridian” – to which Lorelei answers, “And I’ll be with my diary / And that book by Mister Gideon.”
That “book by Mister Gideon” is better known as The Bible.
How clever of Robin to uniquely establish Lorelei’s naiveté or stupidity (your choice) in not knowing what the Gideon Bible was. Her unfamiliarity with it also suggests why she may be amoral. (Not immoral: there is a difference).
That’s why Lorelei blatantly insists that “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Channing starts off the verse with such a basso profundo that you’ll swear that a man is singing. But soon she sounds utterly female when she all-too-aptly observes, ”Time rolls on and youth is gone and you can’t straighten up when you bend.” But Robin, by making that observation, was also setting the table for a clever rhyme: “But stiff back or stiff knees you stand straight at Tiff’ny’s.”
So what else do we get on the cast album? There’s the musical’s opening song that celebrates everyone’s breaking free from Prohibition; at sea, far from the U.S. shore, drinking can no longer be monitored. Robin’s title contains a good pun: “It’s High Time” doesn’t only mean that it’s time to get high on liquor; it also conveys that something will finally happen that’s been much anticipated.
In the song, when the chorus urges to “give the devil his due-ooh-ooh-ooh,” you’ll wonder who created this terrific vocal arrangement (and the others that display delicious close harmony). The answer is the ever-impressive Hugh Martin – composer of Make a Wish and such standards as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
We’d hate Lorelei if she simply cheated on Gus. What she does instead is become paranoid and truly infers that he’s cheating on her. Well, she’ll show him! What can we do but laugh, because she really believes it?
When she meets Sir Francis Beekman who tells her “It’s Delightful Down in Chile,” not much time elapses before Lorelei is thinking about “chinchilly.” She’s also taken by magnate Josephus Gage, who’s into physical fitness. “I’m A’Tingle, I’m A’Glow,” he sings to a march that you’ll find is an excellent choice for working out.
Josephus is George S. Irving, the future Tony-winner for Irene. He’s not the only Tony-winner on hand: Channing, of course, would win for Hello, Dolly! But look (and listen) closely and you’ll find that one of the three members of the floor show (“Mamie Is Mimi”) is Charles “Honi” Coles. He had to wait the longest for his award: almost a third of a century for his Mr. Magix in My One and Only.
Meanwhile, Dorothy is having her own adventures with Henry Spofford. No, she’s not robbing the cradle, although those who know the film might infer that; the movie reconfigured Henry as a precocious child. Here he’s a fully grown adult who can waltz (“Just a Kiss Apart”) as he was taught as a Main Line Philadelphian.
His rarefied background makes Dorothy nervous, as she expresses in “You Say You Care,” via excellent Robin lyrics: “I’d get you in Dutch with the Pennsylvania Dutch,” she sings, not to mention that “The Quakers would quake.”
Eventually, Lorelei, Dorothy, and friends sing how “Homesick” they feel by citing many icons of the jazz age. Listen carefully after they crave for “A show like Sally”: orchestrator Don Walker throws in a few notes of “Look for the Silver Lining,” the hit song from that musical.
Later, you may assume that they’re all yearning for a great cook in a New York restaurant when they wistfully mention “Fritzi’s chef.” No. They’re referencing Fritzi Scheff (1879-1954), an opera and musical comedy star who originated the role of Fifi in Mlle. Modiste and headed no fewer than five revivals.
Throughout, Jule Styne’s music sparkles. It starts with one of his patented and memorable “Jule Styne overtures.” (No one else on Broadway has ever been as closely associated with the overture as he.) His melodies feel right. “Keeping Cool with Coolidge” isn’t just quintessentially ‘20s because of the lyric; Styne wrote a genuine Charleston here.
In closing, none of us can really refute Lorelei’s all-too-regrettably true observation: “Men grow cold as girls grow old.” But her next line certainly does not refer to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: “And we all lose our charms in the end.” You can’t prove that from the musical’s original cast album.