By Peter Filichia
God love these legendary Oscar-winning actresses who felt they hadn’t run the entire entertainment gauntlet until they’d done a Broadway musical.
Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh and Shelley Winters all tried their luck singin’ and dancin’ long after they’d won their gold statuettes. And so did Bette Davis, the 1935 Oscar-winner for Dangerous and the 1938 victor for Jezebel, when she signed on to do the 1952 revue Two’s Company.
You may assume with Davis on board that it was a kind of revue like Beyond the Fringe – almost all talking and no singing — for you can’t imagine Bette Davis warbling out show tunes. Ah, but remember that by 1952, audiences had heard Davis sing in such films as Hollywood Canteen (“They’re Either Too Young or Too Old”), The Cabin in the Cotton (“Willie the Weeper”), Kid Galahad (“The Moon Is in Tears Tonight”) and even in the solemn Dark Victory (“Oh, Give Me Time for Tenderness”).
That may not have made Davis a true singer, but a dozen years after Two’s Company closed (after a mere 90 performances), Davis recorded a single called “Single” which was a specific rebuttal to Richard Burton’s recording of “A Married Man” (from the currently-running Baker Street). Although he’d extolled the virtues of being a husband, Davis told the joys of not being a wife.
Still, there’s a reason that there’s a song called “Bette Davis Eyes” but none called “Bette Davis Voice.” Truth to tell, on this recording Davis sounds like a female impersonator doing Davis. But her opening song, “Just Turn Me Loose on Broadway” makes for a great song to play late at a party when everyone’s various degrees of inebriated.
The song also brings to mind a ditty from the 1977 Kander and Ebb musical The Act: “Little Do They Know” in which the chorus boys groused about being in a show with The Big Female Star. “Without us in support,” they sang, “how lousy she might be.” They also noted that after they’d danced up a tsunami, they got far less applause than The Big Female Star got from merely making a grand gesture.
Well, Fred Ebb’s gone now, so we’ll never know if he had Bette Davis and “Just Turn Me Loose on Broadway” in mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been thinking of both when he sat down to write. After Davis sings the verse and the A-B-A-C refrain, she must maneuver a dance break which not-so-coincidentally comes at a far more leisurely tempo. The chorus boys are heard doing the heavy lyric-lifting followed by Davis’ yelling out the occasional “Hey!” reminiscent of the “Heys!” that Phil Silvers exclaims in the film of A Funny Thing Happened when he’s pretending to be an acrobat and hopes his enthusiasm will mask that he’s actually doing nothing.
After Davis dances a bit, she announces “It’s tricky,” but the tempo would suggest it isn’t. She also takes a few seconds to loudly catch her breath and comes out with a few gasps in rhythm in lieu of four quarter notes. They’re there for comic effect, as if to spoof that she’s working hard, but I’ll bet choreographer Jerome Robbins built them into the song because she very much needed them.
Davis lets her hair down in “Purple Rose,” a spoof of The Grand Ole Opry and such stars as Minnie Pearl. Some of the country star’s fans might exclaim “What a beast to ruin such a Pearl!” but it was all in good fun — although the recording doesn’t allow us to see Davis’ blacked-out teeth enhancing her down home look.
We do have a sense of what Davis looked like in “Roll Along, Sadie,” for when Al Hirschfeld went to the drawing board to caricature the show, Davis as Sadie Thompson was the moment he chose to illustrate.
You’re pardoned if you don’t know who Sadie Thompson is, but 1952 audiences certainly were familiar with this fictional prostitute. She’d first appeared in 1920 in a W. Somerset Maugham short story called “Rain,” which led to a 1922 Broadway play, a 1928 silent with Gloria Swanson, a 1932 talkie with Joan Crawford and even a 1944 sixty-performance musical failure called Sadie Thompson.
It had music by Vernon Duke – just as Two’s Company did. Hadn’t Duke endured enough rain with this property? It was supposed to be the smash-hit of 1944, what with recent Oklahoma! and Carousel director Rouben Mamoulian staging it and – more to the point — no less than Ethel Merman starring. However, Merman left the show during rehearsals, and a woman who inspired a character in Merman’s most famous musical – Gypsy – took over: former Baby, former Dainty June Havoc. What had been a sure thing was a two-month flop, so you’d think that Duke would have had enough of Sadie Thompson. But maybe spoofing it was the best way to work it out of his system.
“Music by Vernon Duke, Lyrics by Ogden Nash,” Two’s Company’s window cards bragged, and that was mostly true. Sammy Cahn had originally signed to write lyrics, but he got a Hollywood gig and left town. Two of his songs remained even through the tumultuous Detroit-Philadelphia-Boston tryouts: “It Just Occurred to Me,” a nice ditty about the joys of spring and the Spanish-tinged “Esther,” in which the future Horace Vandergelder (David Burns) romanced the future Tessie Tura (Maria Karnilova).
One nice thing when you’re writing a revue: if you have a song that you wrote long ago, never used it or found it cut from a previous production, well, here’s a new home for it. After all, you don’t have to be terribly character-specific for a revue. So Two’s Company had two songs from another Duke failure, Sweet Bye and Bye, which played sixty fewer Broadway performances than Sadie Thompson.
Yes, this musical opened in New Haven on Oct. 10, 1946 and called it a life on Nov. 5, 1946 in Philadelphia. But Duke and Nash believed in the songs “Round About” and “Just Like a Man” and recycled them here. Actually, because “Just Like a Man” deals with the dreariness of being dumped, Davis and her what-a-dump delivery were fine for it. If her voice sounded a little distressed, well, she was a dame in distress.
Revues were also famous for taking good material from wherever and from whomever they could find it. So newcomer Sheldon Harnick, who would become most famous for writing a musical with “roof” in its title, here provided the entire home in “A Man’s House.” It dealt with an individual who’d commissioned a Frank Lloyd Wright-like architect who was intent on making the new home blend into the surroundings. Only trouble is, it blends in so nicely that now the owner can’t find the damn thing.
Singing it was Hiram Sherman, who won that season’s Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. The prize could have gone to the much-acclaimed Cab Calloway, Jack Cassidy, Paul Lynde or Ronny Graham – all of whom appeared in shows that ran at least three times longer than Two’s Company — so Sherman must have been very good in this musical.
For my money, Two’s Company is worth having for its opening number. It’s one of the best you’ve ever heard, a show song in the classic tradition. Try “The Theatre Is a Lady” and see if you don’t agree – wholeheartedly.
Once upon a time, Two’s Company was one rare recording. Only three years after it was released in February, 1953, it was taken out of print. Throughout the ‘60s, most collectors sought in vain to find LOC-1009, the catalogue number that RCA Victor had assigned to the long-playing record.
Then one of the strangest events happened in the history of original cast albums. In 1975, Two’s Company was re-released by the Australian arm of RCA Victor. It didn’t use the show’s logo that had been seen on the original, but a picture of Davis that was so out-of-focus it had to have been taken by the cinematographer who shot Lucille Ball in Mame. Bisecting the star’s head and waist was a yellow banner with orange lettering that said “Bette Davis with the original Broadway cast sing hits from Two’s Company.” Most curiously, this was released as LOC-1009, but if the powers-that-be had really been on the ball, they would have pasted on the vinyl a black label with that famous dog “Nipper” listening to a gramophone and not the orange label which RCA didn’t start using until the late ‘60s.
Yes, the Sepia label in London re-released Two’s Company on CD in 2002 after the fifty-year copyright had expired in England, but that recording was simply transferred from an existing LP and adapted the logo. Now we have Two’s Company not only with its original logo but also cleaned up and remastered, so the sound is much better. Is Davis? You decide.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.