By Peter Filichia —
This week, let’s celebrate what would have been the 96th birthday of the Broadway musical’s quintessential leading man: Alfred Drake, who was born on Oct. 7, 1914.
When Robert Viagas wrote his book I’m the Greatest Star
– subtitled Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today — he chose twenty men, and made Drake one of his choices. Why not? Drake routinely got raves from critics, but the sweetest notice might well have come from Richard Watts in the New York Post. On that December night in 1953 after he’d seen Drake’s new musical, he decided “He’s at his best in Kismet, which is saying a lot.”
Yes. After all, Drake had previously appeared in Babes in Arms, Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate. Musical theater authorities always cite what a landmark song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” was – but let’s not forget who strolled out on that almost bare St. James stage to sing it. The show’s authors, no less than Rodgers and Hammerstein, eight years later when writing The King and I, wanted Drake to play their monarch. He at least obliged when Yul Brynner went on vacation.
Babes and Oklahoma! pre-dated the Tonys®, and Drake’s 1946 short-lived stint in Beggar’s Holiday – Duke Ellington’s take on The Beggar’s Opera in which Drake played Macheath – yielded neither a trophy nor a cast album. Ditto for his appearance in a 1947 revival of The Cradle Will Rock. He was back in the recording studio and a guest at the Tonys®, however, for Kiss Me, Kate in 1948-1949.
But he lost to Ray Bolger in Where’s Charley?
Bolger must have been amazingly good to have bested Drake. Granted Bolger had to portray two roles: Undergrad Charley Wykeham as well as his aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez. But Drake had to play two parts, too – Fred Graham, the power behind this new production of The Taming of the Shrew; and Petruchio, its butch leading man. Drake had three terrific but distinctly different songs: a staunch expository one (“I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua”), an intoxicating beguine (“Were Thine That Special Face”) and even a tarantella (“Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”) In the last-named, Drake astonishes in the middle of this high-comedy song in the low-comic way he sings the word “Alice.” Listen for it.
The Tony® finally came in 1954 via Kismet. Here Drake played probably the only musical theater leading character whose name we never really know. Bookwriters Charles Lederer and Luther Davis and songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest actually called him “The Public Poet, later called Hajj.” In this “musical Arabian Night” The Poet goes to a bazaar, happens to park himself in the place where the beggar Hajj usually sits, and is soon mistaken by thugs for him. They take him to their leader and suddenly The Poet must talk his way out of deep trouble.
You’d expect a poet to be excellent with language and Drake showed that this one certainly is. In song and story, he’s always fast-talking, bargaining, cajoling and charming his way through many a difficulty. Drake made the audience care about this underdog whose smarts prove he deserves a better fate — which, indeed, is what the Turkish word “kismet” means in English.
Kismet doesn’t have an easily singable score, for Wright and Forrest based some of their score on themes by classical composer Alexander Borodin. The Poet must also be a sexual presence, for he’ll soon be romancing Lalume, the Wazir’s “wife of wives.” That was no problem for the dashing Drake.
He played another womanizer, the 19th century actor Edmund Kean, in 1961. Wright and Forrest penned the score, this time not adapting anyone’s music, but writing the score from scratch. It was splendidly recorded by Columbia Records and given one of its most ornate-looking albums. Drake had his last true burst of vocal glory here, delivering bolt-of-lightning ballads (“Sweet Danger”), romantic ditties (“To Look upon My Love”) and comedy songs (“Civilized People”). Finally, Drake also gave a highbrow version of “Rose’s Turn” in “Apology,” in which he avoided admitting guilt by simply citing Shakespearean lines that fit the situation.
That was the brainchild of librettist Peter Stone. Kean would be his first of 11 musicals to reach Broadway (including 1776, one of the best). But Stone once told me that Alfred Drake was one reason why he wanted to do the show.
“In the late ‘50s, my agent Robert Lantz asked me if I’d like to write the book for Kean. I was interested because I had seen Jean Paul Sartre’s play in 1953 when I was living in Paris. But I was really interested when he said that Alfred Drake would play Kean. I had admired him in Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet, so even though musicals had not occurred to me as something to write, I was taken with the idea that I’d be working with the dramatic-singer-actor of the age. So I said yes.” Thus we must give Drake credit for getting one of the best bookwriters into the business. And in 1990 Stone reiterated these feelings when he gave Drake his Honorary Tony®.
Chita Rivera, Drake’s co-star in Zenda, a 1963 Vernon Duke-Martin Charnin musical that opened in California and closed there, reveals a little-known fact about him. “As I went to the first day of rehearsals,” she says, “I was so excited at the thought of meeting the great Alfred Drake, whom I’d seen be so sexy and dashing in so many shows. And when I came into the room, I was astonished to see that Alfred was actually a very short man. He never seemed it on stage, and that,” she says with a decisive finger-point, “is what you call stage presence.”
He had it. But he had even more. Yes, many leading men have won Best Musical Tonys®. Even more have starred in smash hits that are still remembered decades after they’ve been produced. But how many have also translated an Italian musical into English?
Drake did. In 1964 showman Alexander H. Cohen decided to bring Rome’s big success Rugantino to the (fondly remembered) Mark Hellinger Theatre. Cohen opted to keep the show in Italian but would offer an innovation that has now become commonplace in opera: supratitles. Now who knew Italian and understood the needs of a musical?
Alfred Drake, who was born Alfred Capurro.
Drake’s last Broadway musical appearance was in the 1973 stage adaptation of the 1958 film Gigi. He took on the unenviable task of replacing the iconic Maurice Chevalier as the ever-youthful Honore. He got a nice new song, “Paris Is Paris Again” and was an important component in one of Lerner’s last great lyrics, “The Contract.” But he also conquered “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.” In the last-named, he got some new and delicious double and single entendres that Lerner couldn’t have written in the more restrictive ‘50s.
But Drake could have been the only person to star in two shows that held the title of Broadway’s longest-running musical. The first was Oklahoma! , which he did, but the other was Cats, which he didn’t. Max Weitzenhoffer, a producer of Song and Dance and The Will Rogers Follies among plenty of others, says that when Cameron Mackintosh was readying Cats, he wanted Drake for Old Deuteronomy. “Alfred turned it down,” Weitzenhoffer says. “He didn’t want to spend intermission with people from the audience crawling all over him.”
It’s oft been said that people well-versed in musical theater do well by Shakespeare because of the musicality of his language. Drake proved that by playing Claudius in the landmark 1964 production of Hamlet that starred Richard Burton (which was recorded on four records by Columbia).
His final Broadway appearance in 1975 was in another non-musical, although a play as elaborate as a big musical: Thornton Wilder’s
The Skin of Our Teeth. Here he played Mr. Antrobus, the husband and father who always manages to survive. And although Drake made only two films (Tars and Spars in 1946 and Trading Places in 1983) and died on July 25, 1992, he does survive thanks to his splendid work on original cast albums.
In 2006 I went to Coral Springs, Florida to see The Kid from Brooklyn, an early version of Danny and Sylvia, the show that’s now in its second year off-Broadway. The audience was full of seniors who’d been theatergoers and entertainment followers for many decades. When the script mentioned Jerome Robbins, the theatergoers cooed with recognition. Later, when Imogene Coca was cited, they added some additional kvelling. That happened even when Jules Munshin was mentioned. But for what name did they reserve their greatest response, “oohs” that were filled with both remembrance and respect? Alfred Drake.
Peter Filichia 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 has just been released.