By Peter Filichia —
I hate to see a great cast album suffer because of a hurricane.
During the last two weeks of August, “Irene” became a dirty word in the northeast. But no one should take perverse revenge by neglecting the marvelous recording of the 1973 Irene.
The musical revisal featured Debbie Reynolds as well as one former Tony® winner (Patsy Kelly of No, No, Nanette). But two future Tony® winners were also in the cast: Janie Sell, who’d win the next year for Over Here! and George S. Irving, who’d win for this very show only 12 days after the March 13, 1973 opening . Irving’s win must have been a bitter pill for Billy DeWolfe, who originally had the role, but had to relinquish it when he fell ill.
Reynolds played Irene O’Dare, a young Irish-American immigrant piano-tuner. Irene was summoned to the Long Island manse of the oh-so-uppity Marshalls in order to fix their recalcitrant piano. While Mrs. Marshall (Ruth Warrick) treated Irene as a hired hand, her dapper bachelor son Donald (Monte Markham) was taken by the feisty and pretty miss.
The Marshalls were friendly with dress designer Madame Lucy, the nom de plume of Liam O’Dougherty (George S. Irving). He agreed to make Irene one of his models. But Irene’s fatal flaw was that she needed more stature, and pretended to be a contessa. That ruse angered Donald, who liked Irene just as she was. He eventually convinced her that being just plain Irene was worthy enough.
Feeling the same way was Irene’s mother Geraldine (Patsy Kelly), who, as it turns out, used to be romantically linked with Liam. Everything wound up happily, as it always does in a Cinderella story.
Cinderella variations have well-served Broadway musicals (think My Fair Lady and even Annie), but Irene was one of the first. The original version opened on November 18, 1919 and ran until June 18, 1921 – 670 or so performances later. Back then, that was enough to make Irene the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Now it’s gone from first place to 131st place.
Still, that’s not bad for a musical based on a play (Irene O’Dare) that had shuttered during its pre-Broadway tryout. Its author, James Montgomery, two years earlier had had a hit with the musical Going Up, which had starred Edith Day. Now that producer Carle Carlton was running around with Day, he suggested to Montgomery that a musical version of Irene O’Dare would be perfect for his girlfriend. And while many a Broadway musical doesn’t meet with Cinderella-like success, Irene is one example in which magic and good luck struck.
Irene had a short-lived April 1923 revival, but then it wouldn’t be seen on Broadway again for almost fifty years to the day. Reviving it was the brainchild of Harry Rigby, who had initiated the surprise smash revival of No, No Nanette (and saw it wrested away from him in decidedly unCinderella-like fashion).
Rigby wanted Reynolds as his star. As she wrote about him on the back of the original LP, “I think he may have been a little surprised at how readily I accepted his suggestion.”
Reynolds didn’t mention that she wouldn’t commit until Rigby had signed John Gielgud as director, or that Rigby had to promise her a percentage of the gross and net profits, too – a clause that was then seldom seen on Broadway contracts. There was one other caveat: Reynolds’ daughter would have to be in the chorus. This Carrie Fisher would become quite famous in four years when she would play Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars. (See if you can pick out her voice on the cast album.)
The 1973 Irene didn’t bear much relation to the 1919 original – and not just because Irene worked as an upholsterer in that one. The first-born Irene had a dozen songs by composer Harry Tierney and lyricist Joseph McCarthy, but only five of them made it into this revival.
One, of course, was the title song “Irene,” whose initial popularity was vital to the show’s original success. “You have no idea how often the band would play it at dances,” Elliott Norton, the eminent Boston theater critic once told me. “At Harvard, it was the song that the orchestra would play more than any other.”
Anyone can understand why a Harvard-based orchestra would choose it over “The Family Tree,” which mentioned Princeton and Yale as the nation’s best schools. This song has an operetta flavor, which makes it a perfect choice for the old-world Mrs. Marshall as she details her pedigree. And yet, the melody is pleasant enough to convince that the rich have music in their souls, however rarefied it may be.
Also retained: “We’re Getting Away with It,” a tarantella-cum-march in which Madame Lucy and Irene’s friends are astonished by their success, and “The Last Part of Ev’ry Party,” a nice sentimental song for the chorus.
That leaves one more. It’s the show’s most famous song: “Alice Blue Gown” referred to the color that Alice Roosevelt (Teddy’s daughter) had made famous during his 1901-1909 administrations.
Four other songs that McCarthy wrote without Tierney were included. One wasn’t familiar (“What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?”) while three were: “They Go Wild, Simply Wild over Me,” in which Madame Lucy bragged about his fame; “You Made Me Love You,” which provided Irene and Donald – as well as Liam and Geraldine – with musical chances to express their affection.
And then there was “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” which McCarthy had set to music that Harry Carroll lifted from Chopin. (Yes, that Chopin, who originally wrote it as his “Fantaisie-Impromptu” in 1834). Reynolds is especially wistful and introspective when singing the song that made its debut in the 1918 musical Oh, Look!
Still, that’s only nine songs, and more were needed. Charles Gaynor, who’d written for two Carol Channing revues, and Otis Clements were chosen to augment. They gave Irene a jaunty jig in “An Irish Girl” and her friends a chance to loosen up Donald in “The Great Lover Tango.” Gaynor alone wrote the sprightly “Mother, Angel, Darling,” which had Reynolds and Kelly cavort in a nice soft-shoe. It’s utterly charming.
But they couldn’t provide a good opening number. Sheldon Harnick tried, and so did the then-unknown Ed Kleban (who’d have a smash hit of his own in two years: A Chorus Line). Gielgud, nixed them all. (Kleban’s firing was later dramatized as the first-act closing of his bio-musical, A Class Act in 2001.)
Gielgud himself was later fired, after Reynolds got Gower Champion to agree to take over. Champion was increasingly impressed by Wally Harper, who’d provided the marvelous dance music for “The Rivera Rage.” (Fans of ragtime music won’t want to miss this one.)
So Champion asked Harper to provide an opening number, and with Reynolds’ friend Jack Lloyd doing the lyric, they came up with a dynamic one. For once Reynolds told the audience that “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue,” everyone was rooting for her to get the hell out of Hell’s Kitchen. Not only did Reynolds sing it in spirited fashion, but she also did magnificently on the long and lovely melisma that ended the song.
Irene ran a then-healthy 594 performances, but its success didn’t have much to do with its libretto. That may seem surprising, given that it was penned by two Broadway blue-chippers: Hugh Wheeler (who wrote the Tony-winning A Little Night Music in the same season), who gave way to Joseph (Fiddler on the Roof) Stein.
So Irene wasn’t a great show (although that’s what President Nixon said it was after he saw it during its Washington tryout). But Irene is one of those musicals that plays better on disc. That’s first and foremost because of Reynolds, who throws herself into her songs with — well, the force of a hurricane.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Most Valuable Players, 1960-2010 is available for pre-order through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.