By Peter Filichia —
How many musicals that played only seven months on Broadway ever see two major Manhattan revivals and a snazzy concert version?
But as of this week, Little Me, which originally played 257 performances, can boast of its fourth major showcase in New York. On Wednesday and going through the weekend, it will inaugurate the 2014 Encores! season.
Frankly, considering the original reviews for Little Me, the musical should have had a considerably longer run. Most of the notices on Nov. 18, 1962 were raves, ranging from “A happy holiday of a show” (Kerr, Herald Tribune) to “If the press agents for Little Me are looking for a quote from me, they can help themselves to any of the following: ‘Smash musical,’ ‘Sumptuous success,’ or maybe just ‘Hail Caesar!’” (McClain, Journal American). True, Howard Taubman of the all-important Times was as lukewarm as a can of Coke on a supermarket shelf. “In a non-vintage year,” he said, “ordinary wine will have to do.” But usually when a show got five out of six and had a star of the magnitude of Sid Caesar, it ran and ran and ran. Getting a dozen Tony nominations made for good press, too.
It undoubtedly would have succeeded if Caesar had not developed various chemical dependencies. As the run continued, those who saw him complained that “phoning it in” would be too generous a term for his lack-luster efforts. His 1983 autobiography Where Have I Been? could have described those performances.
This was a substantial problem, because Little Me was conceived as a star-driven vehicle. Although Patrick Dennis’ 1961 faux-memoir centered on a fictitious, faded, B-minus-movie “star” Belle Poitrine, bookwriter Neil Simon, in between writing Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park, decided to center on the seven men in her life and that his old TV boss from Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957) should play them.
Let us count the roles: Noble Eggleston, the town’s sought-after dashing young man; Mr. Pinchley, a latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge; Val du Val, a Maurice Chevalier-like haw-haw-haw French entertainer; Fred Poitrine, the near-sighted doughboy whom Belle married before he headed off to war; Otto Schnitzler, a von-Stroheim-like German film director; Prince Cherney, a big fish of a monarch in a small pond of a country; and Noble Eggleston, Jr., who, needless to say, greatly resembled his father.
As a result, with a virtually in absentia Caesar, the show didn’t have one black hole, but seven. Word-of-mouth caught up with it and Little Me closed, losing $165,000 on a $354,000 investment.
Luckily, the original cast album was recorded eight days after the New York opening, and Caesar was in good voice and ready to show that his Broadway show of shows was an exemplary one. Composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh not only put him in six excellent songs (only Schnitzler didn’t sing; even Noble, Jr. was there for the finale), but they also accommodated one of his little habits; Caesar liked to clear his throat as often as he could, so they wrote “and clear his throat” in Val Du Val’s production number, “Le Grand Boom Boom.”
All right, Caesar didn’t do much in “Deep Down Inside,” in which Belle (Virginia Martin of How to Succeed fame) gets Pinchley to straighten out quicker than Scrooge did with Tony Tim. She’s the star here, although her fellow citizens of Drifters’ Row, whom landlord Pinchley has treated abominably, add able support.
Leigh was a terrific lyricist, one of the best, especially for coming up with earthy phrases. And yet, in the song, one of her all-time best rhymes wasn’t quite right for the character. Young Belle tells the miser that “No man is a true pariah, deep down inside” before later adding that “No man is a true Uriah Heep down inside.” When Leigh thought of that, she must have danced in joy for a good twenty minutes.
Leigh wasn’t referencing the hard rock group Uriah Heep; Mick Box, Phil Lanzon, Bernie Shaw, Russell Gilbrook and Trevor Bolder wouldn’t get together until the ‘60s were nearly ended. Instead, Leigh was citing a character from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. There Uriah Heep was one of literature’s most famous miserable men.
Ah, but would the virtually illiterate Belle have read David Copperfield? Yes, Belle was born in 1900, a time when people knew the classics far more than people do today (well, there were fewer of them), but Belle’s upbringing was a culturally deprived one. For that matter, would she know the word “pariah”?
So Leigh might well have abruptly finished her dance of joy when she realized that both “Uriah” and “pariah” were beyond Belle’s ken. To lose such a clever couplet would have indeed been heartbreaking, and one must wonder if Leigh received admiration or brickbats from Coleman, Simon and/or co-directors Cy Feuer and Bob Fosse. Did she have to argue long and hard for it to be retained?
The lyric stayed in place for the 1982 revival (in which James Coco and Victor Garber shared Caesar’s roles) but was dropped for the 1998 Martin Short revival. Of course, the famously contentious Leigh, who died in 1983, wasn’t around to fight for it.
“Famously contentious?” you ask. Has anyone else during a pre-Broadway tryout brought a policeman into the theater to arrest the producer/director for changing work? That’s exactly what Leigh did in Philadelphia to Feuer.
At least during the rest of the show, Leigh provided many gems that sounded right for Belle: “The irregardless truth … You’re damn well right, the truth.” By the time Belle reached maturity and duetted with her younger self, we could believe that they’d learned enough French to sing, “When it comes to parlez-vous, who could parlez-vous a few?”
Those with a working knowledge of French have noticed by now that the name Patrick Dennis gave to his “heroine” translates to – well, let’s be delicate here and say it means what Dorothy Fields in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn called a woman’s “points of interest.”
Oh, wait. Is that actually cruder?
Perhaps, but Leigh would have danced for joy for thirty minutes in her apartment if she’d thought of it. Of all of Broadway’s lyricists, she was among the most earthy. “Stack me up with all three Gabors,” Older Belle sang, before snarling “I’d reduce them to cut-rate stores.”
But Neil Simon did make the musical Belle much sweeter. When Noble demanded that this deprived young woman acquire “wealth, culture and social position,” we could see she would do it out of love for him. Dennis’ Belle was more calculating, promiscuous and – to be frank – stupid. (Not that that kept her from a career in Hollywood.)
Were two of Little Me’s songs recycled? Some say that in the late ‘50s when Coleman and Leigh were invited to audition for Gypsy, they wrote “Dimples” for Baby June and “Be a Performer” as one of Rose’s rallying cries to her newsboys, farmboys or Toreadorables. Even if those two were retreads, Coleman and Leigh certainly came up with a winning score here.
Two songs reached some popularity. “I’ve Got Your Number” had George Musgrove, one of Belle’s admirers, claim that he sees right through her. It was performed by Swen Swenson, of whom Norman Nadel, critic of the World Telegram & Sun said, “The ovation he earned Saturday isn’t likely to be matched this season.” The cut on the original cast album shows some of the reason why. (Swenson’s dancing was responsible, too.)
The other hit was “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” in which Belle vows to escape Drifters’ Row. And thereby hangs a tale.
After Little Me opened in London two years and one day after the Broadway opening – i.e., Nov. 18, 1964 – I saw in Variety that the list of songs included “Overture,” “The Truth,” “At the Very Top of the Hill” –
What? That was the “On the Other Side of the Tracks” spot. They couldn’t have dropped it, could they?
Then I put two-and-two together; obviously, the expression “on the other side of the tracks” didn’t mean anything in England. Their expression for the same concept must have been “at the very top of the hill.”
Fine — but when the London cast album came out some months later, there was “On the Other Side of the Tracks.” Did I just imagine reading “At the Very Top of the Hill”?
It was one of the first questions I asked Coleman when I met him in 1989. Yes, Leigh changed it for idiomatic purposes, but neither she nor he liked the new lyric very much, so they reverted back to the old lyric by the time of the recording, and hoped that the Brits would catch their meaning. They probably did, for Little Me ran 334 performances over there.
Now at Encores! Christian Borle should be sensational in the Caesar roles. Ditto Rachel York as young Belle, Judy Kaye as her older self; Harriet Harris as her mother, David Garrison and Lewis J. Stadlen as Belle’s mentors who urge her to “Be a Performer.” But if the run at Encores! isn’t long enough for you to see it — or if you won’t be in the neighborhood – the original cast album of Little Me will make a big impression.