Ever since moving to New York, I’ve more often than not
sauntered into Times Square on New Year’s Eve to watch
the fabled ball drop.
So this past Monday night, while en route to my destination, I
passed by the locale where the 1962 TV special JULIE AND
CAROL AT CARNEGIE HALL was taped.
(That’s Julie as in Ms. Andrews and Carol as in Ms. Burnett.)
Its funniest sequence parodied THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Hear
it on the album made of the Carnegie Hall special or as a
bonus track on the most recent CD release of the esteemed
Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Mike Nichols and Ken Welch reworked the von Trapps into
“The Swiss Pratt Family Singers.” (“Pratt,” not so
incidentally, was a vaudeville euphemism for one’s gluteus
Andrews portrayed Mama Pratt who brought in her brood of
nineteen lads. They identified themselves with such Swiss-
centric names as Hans, Johann and Friedrich. After all the
boys had entered, Burnett – the family’s only girl – marched
on and proclaimed in a most bored voice “I’m Cynthia.”
Then came a marvelous and tuneful spoof of “My Favorite
Things” repurposed as “The Things We Like Best.” (Pigs feet
and cheese, in fact.) It was followed by an equally fetching
send-up of “Do-Re-Mi” called “Ding-Dong, Yum Yum Yum” which included one of Richard Rodgers’ trademark “wrong” (meaning unexpected) notes. An homage to Robert Russell Bennett’s fluttery orchestration was included, too.
Little did Andrews know that a mere 593 days after taping
this that she’d be cast as the actual Maria von Trapp in the
film version of the musical that had inspired the sketch.
But note: THE SOUND OF MUSIC hadn’t yet become a movie
when this sequence was aired on national television. New
York had seen it for two-and-a-half years and there’d been
only a couple of road companies. So why were Nichols and
Welch confident that the nation would know what they were
Because THE SOUND OF MUSIC’s original cast album had
spent sixteen weeks as the Number One best-selling album
in the country. Not just in the “Shows and Soundtracks”
section, mind you: Number One above EVERY other album
on sale, from Presley to Puccini, for all those weeks.
I continued my journey to Times Square, sauntering down
Seventh Avenue. At Fifty-Third, I could see from afar the
Broadway Theatre where GYPSY premiered in 1959.
That brought to mind the famous story of when composer
Jule Styne saw one of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for “Small
World” – “I’m a woman with children” – and groused that
“No woman could ever sing that song” in any cover version.
I wonder if Styne came to this realization after what
happened with his previous hit BELLS ARE RINGING. There
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, for “The Party’s Over,” wrote the lines “It seemed to be right just being with him” and the almost-as-gender-specific “Take off your make-up.”
“The Party’s Over” had the chance to be the score’s most
recordable song (unless the felicitous and gender-neutral
“Just in Time” was). So when male recording artists passed
on the “The Party’s Over,” was that when Styne decided
“This’ll never happen to me again!”?
Passing by the now-dormant Palace, I thought how the
theater was pretty dormant until Gwen Verdon’s SWEET
CHARITY re-opened it in 1966. There had been some
concerts, but it hadn’t hosted a true legitimate theatrical
attraction since Sarah Bernhardt did her one-woman show
there in 1913.
Verdon found the role so strenuous that on matinee days
she would occasionally drop “Where Am I Going?” One
Wednesday, a theatergoer who knew the score from the
(excellent) original cast album was furious to find that
Verdon had omitted it. She later wrote Verdon to complain.
Verdon then calculated that the song was seventeen percent
of the show’s musical numbers. Given that orchestra seats
went for $7.50 on Wednesday matinees, Verdon sent the
woman her personal check for forty-three cents.
Did the woman ever cash it? If I’d been she, I’d have framed
it and hung it in a prominent place in my home.
And in case you’re wondering what forty-three cents would
be worth today, my inflation calculator says $3.35.
However, many of today’s musicals charge $159 for most
orchestra seats on Wednesday matinees. Thus today’s Gwen Verdon (as if there could be one) would be sending a check
When I reached 44th Street, I took a good look at what was
once called “Hit Street.” Actually, considering what’s playing
there now, it pretty much still deserves the appellation.
There’s the Majestic where, believe it or not, there was a
time when THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA wasn’t playing
In 1956, Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas were starring in
HAPPY HUNTING. At show’s end, they loudly proclaimed
their eternal love and reveled in the fact that they belonged
to a “Mutual Admiration Society.”
In reality, the two couldn’t stand each other.
I once asked Lamas’ son Lorenzo about HAPPY HUNTING’s
most notorious and much-related incident: “You know,” I
said, not knowing if he did, “where your father, after he and
Merman shared their most dramatic kiss, dramatically wiped
it off with his sleeve and -”
“ – That happened once!” Young Lamas interrupted without
a second’s hesitation. His speed certainly confirmed that
he’d indeed heard the story before. Now he was intent on
doing damage control for his daddy. What a devoted son!
Across the street is the St. James, where HELLO, DOLLY!
once became the longest-running musical in Broadway
history (Seventeen musicals have since surpassed it.
I started thinking about “So Long, Dearie” on the original
cast album. Carol Channing sang that she was now “going to
learn to dance and drink and smoke a cigarette.” Given that
she had taught dancing in a lovely first-act production
number, why did she state in Act Two that she planned to
Jerry Herman, the show’s composer-lyricist (or someone
else) eventually realized this. As a result, Mary Martin,
Pearl Bailey and Bette Midler on the subsequent albums can
be heard singing “I’m gonna learn to hoochy-kooch.”
Seeing the Broadhurst across from the St. James made me
think of the strangest tie in Tony Awards history. In the
1992-93 race for Best Score, neither THE WHO’S TOMMY (at
the St. James) nor KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (at the
Broadhurst) could manage to secure that one extra vote that
would have resulted in an uncontested win.
Whoever would have expected that John Kander, Fred Ebb
and Pete Townshend would be standing on the same stage
receiving the same award?
Frankly, I was rooting for KISS because it was an original
score while TOMMY was a second-hand score from a
quarter-century earlier. I was also disappointed that no one
connected with the show thought to ask Townshend to write
a song for Young Tommy before he became, as the
songwriter put it, “deaf, dumb and blind.”
The show needed to start with the kid singing a cheery up-
tempo charm song that would make us smile, laugh and fall
in love with him. Then we’d have felt even more devastation
after he was shocked into his catatonia. CABARET opened at the Broadhurst, too, but just before ticket demand sent it to the larger Imperial, the 1966-67 Tony nominating committee was set to meet. Producer Hal Prince deemed that Joel Grey be nominated in the Best Featured Actor category so that he’d be a shoo-in for the Tony — which he was (and deservedly so).
The role was, after all, large enough to be considered a lead,
as was proved when Alan Cumming won his Tony as Best
Actor in a Musical thirty-one years later. (To be fair,
Cumming’s radical interpretation had quite a bit to do with it,
However, Lenya had less stage time than Grey with less to
sing. So why didn’t Prince insist that she be in the mix for
Best Featured Actress in a Musical? Both, in fact, were billed
below the title.
Did Prince feel that Lenya, by then a Living Legend, didn’t
belong in the “lesser” category? Perhaps, but Lenya would
have easily emerged victorious over Peg Murray, who did
win Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her Fraulein Kost.
Murray must have been thrilled that she wasn’t competing
with Lenya; she spoke a mere twenty-eight times and soloed
a grand total of thirteen measures when beginning
“Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” And that was the extent of her
By the way, my spell check changed “Lotte Lenya” to “Little
Kenya.” As you can see, I caught the error in time. But that
absurdity is as good a way as any to end this column. As the
1966-67 would-be Best Featured Actress in a Musical can
still be heard singing on CABARET’S original cast album,
“Happy New Year, my dear” – which is precisely what I
thought as the ball dropped.