By Peter Filichia —
Nice tribute to Jerry Herman at the Kennedy Center Awards last week. While the composer-lyricist sat in a box above the action, an all-star cast performed three songs from La Cage aux Folles and three from Hello, Dolly! There were also two from Mame and one each from Mack & Mabel and even Dear World.
But wait! Why not something from Milk and Honey, the 1961 music by which Herman made his Broadway debut? It ran 543 performances, which is more than twice as long Mack & Mabel, Dear World and The Grand Tour combined.
A logical Milk and Honey choice would have been its opening song, a nice swirling waltz called “Shalom.” In the show, it was sung by Phil Arkin (Robert Weede), an American businessman who was in Israel visiting his daughter Barbara and Israeli son-in-law David. It’s his song to welcome Ruth Stein (Mimi Benzell), an attractive American woman who’s traveling with a group of other widows out to visit the Holy Land (and, perhaps, to meet someone new).
In quasi-operetta fashion, Phil sings to Ruth and somehow Ruth immediately learns the words and sings them back to him. On the original cast album, co-orchestrator Hershy Kay added a good deal of unexpected excitement in “Shalom’s” ride-out – the last notes an orchestra plays as the singers conclude the song. Listen for it.
“Shalom” did get a bit of airplay in the early ‘60s. In the marvelous documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman, Charles Nelson Reilly tells of the life-changing moment Herman had when they were both in a supermarket and “Shalom” was Muzaked all over the store. So “Shalom” had to be at least a semi-hit, no?
Opera fans will note the names Robert Weede and Mimi Benzell, both of whom had had Metropolitan Opera experience. (He was in Aida and she in La Boheme long before those works became fodder for Broadway musicals.) Weede, of course, had already been on Broadway as the title character in The Most Happy Fella. There he played Tony Esposito, the middle-aged man who was smitten by a waitress and surreptitiously sent her a picture of his employee in order to entice her to visit and marry. The day she arrived, he was the victim of a car accident, so he spent much of the show in a wheelchair. Milk and Honey gave Weede the opportunity to stand up for himself and sing some very fine songs. “There’s No Reason in the World” was his demure plea to Ruth, who eventually made him feel “Like a Young Man” and urged her “Let’s Not Waste a Moment.” Any one of these three would have been a fine addition to the Kennedy Center Awards.
Benzell got one opportunity that a soprano rarely gets on Broadway. She was given a song that was allegro in tempo and just as full of life: “That Was Yesterday,” when Ruth decides that she feels differently about love and romance now that she’s met Phil. Her love and commitment was stated well in “As Simple As That.” They, too, should have been Kennedy Center contenders.
Alas, Milk and Honey would be the only original cast album Benzell would ever make. She never appeared again on Broadway, and fewer than eight years after the closing of Milk and Honey in 1963, she died of cancer. Who knows how many other wonderful roles she might have played? Certainly we can all imagine her doing “One More Kiss” in many a production of Follies.
Also in Milk and Honey was a performer who never expected to share the stage with a Metropolitan Opera divo and diva. How Second Avenue star Molly Picon got into the show stems from producer Gerard Oestreicher’s sending Herman and bookwriter Don Appell to Israel. “We were there to soak up the atmosphere,” Herman has said on many occasions. “Once we saw this group of little old lady tourists rummaging about, we knew that they had to be in our show.”
Picon played Clara Weiss, one of six widows who came to Israel primarily to find new mates. The diminutive Clara wore dark sunglasses, space shoes and a bolero hat – and was the most interested of all in landing a new husband. So when she saw how well the much more demure Ruth was faring with Phil, Picon said with her trademark shrug. “She wins the sweepstakes and she didn’t even buy a ticket.”
But, Clara sang to her equally lovelorn companions, “Chin Up, Ladies!” In this most spirited march, the widows were identified by locale, including “Mrs. Pearlman, Jersey City” – Herman’s nod to his own home town.
Herman, who decidedly wrote in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, acknowledged his heroes twice in one line, when Clara urged her compatriots to “climb ev’ry mountain to find your Mr. Snow.” (Note, too, the bass fiddle work provided by co-orchestrator Eddie Sauter, who was making his Broadway debut. It suggests that the women’s heartstrings all beat a little faster at the thought that “somewhere over the rainbow, there’s a man.”)
Happily enough, Clara eventually found a mate and had to ask her dead husband permission to re-marry in “Hymn to Hymie,” a most amusing musical soliloquy that Herman set to a tango. Of course Hymie said yes – just as Ephraim did 27 months later when another Herman heroine, Dolly Gallagher Levi, looked to heaven and asked the same question of her deceased hubby.
Milk and Honey is also the only original cast album on which you can hear Molly Picon. Her subsequent stage musicals, How to Be a Jewish Mother and Chu Chem (which she left in Philadelphia before it closed there) went unrecorded.
(A small surprise: when Picon left the cast, she was succeeded by Hermoine Gingold of Gigi fame. That such a woman would be looking for a liaison isn’t surprising, but she wasn’t quite in the Molly Picon mold.)
All right, perhaps Picon’s comedy songs weren’t right for the Kennedy Center Awards, but certainly Milk and Honey’s title song would have been. It was sung by Seven Brides for Seven Brothers favorite Tommy Rall, who, as David, showed his belief in Israel’s future in this stirring anthem. If Herman had been born in Israel, there’s an excellent chance that “Milk and Honey” would have become the country’s national anthem.
Milk and Honey’s original cast album is a treasure for another reason. As the original liner notes stated: “Note to Stereo Listeners: In this recording, the voices may appear to move back and forth between your speakers. This was deliberately done to duplicate stage action and heighten realism.”
Yes, stereo was A Really Big Deal in those days, so every pain was taken to replicate, as RCA Victor used to like to call it, “stereo action” for many of its cast albums. So get Milk and Honey not only to catch what the Kennedy Center Awards missed, but also to hear Robert Weede, Mimi Benzell, Molly Picon, Tommy Rall and the rest of the cast travel across Israel.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com