Li’l Abner – Original Broadway Cast Recording 1956
In 1954, librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner was seeking a new project, and landed on one that was an unlikely match for his talents. In 1935, Al Capp had introduced in the New York Daily Mirror his comic strip Li’l Abner, depicting the denizens of Dogpatch, USA – in particular the brawny if dim bachelor, Abner Yokum, and Daisy Mae, the pulchritudinous young woman in constant pursuit of him – and fashioning the outlandish adventures of his hillbilly characters into satiric commentary on contemporary society. By the mid-’50s, Capp’s cartoon was running in 1,200 newspapers, and in 1940, Li’l Abner had hit the screen in the form of a low-budget picture. Lerner asked Burton Lane, who had composed the music for another satiric fantasy, Finian’s Rainbow, to join him for a musical Li’l Abner, with Herman Levin producing. But the idea was soon abandoned, with Lerner and Levin turning to another project that would arrive on Broadway the same year that a Li’l Abner musical actually happened. The property was picked up by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, since the early ’40s a Hollywood team that wrote, produced, and directed (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, White Christmas, The Court Jester). Panama and Frank would make their Broadway debut with Li’l Abner, fashioning a libretto from Capp’s characters and co-producing with Michael Kidd. Kidd was by this time one of the most successful and gifted choreographers on Broadway (Finian’s Rainbow, Love Life, Guys and Dolls, Can-Can) and in film (Where’s Charley?, The Bandwagon, Guys And Dolls). A Danny Kaye screen vehicle called Knock on Wood had already put him together with Panama and Frank. Among Kidd’s greatest triumphs was his choreography for the 1954 screen musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which had featured songs by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer. Although de Paul had contributed to the short-lived 1955 Broadway revue Almost Crazy, he was primarily a film composer. Mercer was established as one of the country’s best popular lyricists, with Broadway credits including St. Louis Woman, Texas, Lil’ Darlin’, and music and lyrics for Top Banana. Kidd brought the team of de Paul and Mercer to Broadway with Li’l Abner, and for the first time, Kidd took full charge, handling both direction and choreography. Even though the show had a choice score and a solid, funny book that took satiric jabs at nuclear testing, big business, conformity, and political right-wingers, it would be Kidd’s staging that elevated the production to the level of first class, golden age musical comedy fare. Dick Shawn appeared to be set for the title role until Peter Palmer, a twenty-four-year-old, football-playing soldier with a big voice, was spotted singing on The Ed Sullivan Show. In his Broadway debut, Palmer would prove indispensable to the production. His Daisy Mae was much better known: Edith (later Edie) Adams had been in a hit Broadway musical (Wonderful Town) and had appeared extensively on TV and in clubs. Adams naturally got first billing, but would later admit that she was never entirely happy with the opportunities her role provided. Rotund comic belter Stubby Kaye, who had worked with Kidd in the Broadway and film version of Guys and Dolls, was a natural for Marryin’ Sam and for a showstopper to rival his “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in the earlier show. Charlotte Rae was just right for Mammy Yokum, even though her singing voice was wasted. Later celebrated as Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, Tina Louise was Appassionata Von Climax, and the lavishly-proportioned Julie Newmar (who had been in the Seven Brides film) was the ideal Stupefyin’ Jones. With a company also including pigs, dogs, chickens, and geese, Li’l Abner played try-out runs in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia before opening on November 15, 1956 at the St. James Theatre, which had in recent seasons played host to such glories as Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Pajama Game. The local reviews were mixed but good enough; everyone raved over Kidd’s work, especially his wildly inventive “Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet,” in which the ladies of Dogpatch get their annual opportunity to ensnare their men of choice. John Chapman in the Daily News called the show “a top-flight American musical, ranking with Guys And Dolls,” while Walter Winchell put things his own way: “Li’l Abner‘s New Name: Big Hit Abner . . . The best girlesque show in town . . . All the gals look like Betty Grable, Betty Hutton, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. Blonde, Brunette, Busty Boy-Bait.” Li’l Abner was a hit, lasting 693 performances at a time when most successful shows were only expected to run a couple of seasons. When it came time for the Tony Awards®, Li’l Abner faced fierce competition from The Most Happy Fella, Bells Are Ringing, and especially from My Fair Lady, the show that Lerner and Levin had chosen to occupy themselves with instead of a Dogpatch musical. In fact, Li’l Abner was not even nominated for Best Musical, with Fair Lady, Happy Fella, and Bells joined in the category by a short-lived piece that would eventually come to be celebrated, Candide. Still, Kidd took the prize for choreography, and Adams won in the featured musical actress category. A post-Broadway tour began in Las Vegas, with Palmer and Kaye among those continuing. In 1959, Paramount filmed the show, retaining a great many members of the stage cast, including Palmer, Kaye, Newmar, Howard St. John, and Joe E. Marks, with Rae’s stage replacement, Billie Hayes, seen as Mammy Yokum, and Valerie Harper visible as one of the local wives. With Dee Dee Wood (who had danced in and assisted Kidd on the stage version) recreating Kidd’s choreography, Frank directing, Panama producing, and most of the songs retained, the film ranks as one of the stagiest, most authentic documents of a Broadway musical. Because of the nature of Capp’s satire, the musical had little if any life abroad; it was without the London production such a Broadway hit almost invariably enjoyed at the time. But it soon became a major item in stock, schools, and community theatres, and saw many regional revivals (football great Joe Namath took the title role at the St. Louis Municipal Opera). A Broadway revival to star Tony Curtis in St. John’s role of General Bullmoose was announced but didn’t happen. But the show was seen again in New York, as a 1998 entry in the acclaimed, very popular City Center “Encores!” series of musicals in concert, with Burke Moses, Alice Ripley, a cross-gendered Lea DeLaria as Marryin’ Sam, and, most remarkably, Newmar, still stupefyin’ in her original role. There would be other notable musicals based on comic strips, including You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Annie, and It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman. But Li’l Abner stands as a fine example of the crowd-pleasing, expert shows of its era, with pros in charge of the composition, staging, and design, the result combining wit with charm, sentiment with low-brow hijinks. Mercer contributed some of the sharper theatre lyrics of the decade, and it’s to be regretted that de Paul never did another Broadway show. From the terrific opening number on, this is a model ’50s musical comedy score, with show-stoppers (Kaye’s “Jubilation T. Cornpone”), lovely romantic items (“Namely You”), delightful charm material (“If I Had My Druthers”, “I’m Past My Prime”), and pointed satiric numbers (“The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands”). The Li’l Abner cast album was issued on CD in 1990, then promptly withdrawn; that disc became a much sought-after item among collectors. But the recording is far too wonderful not to be widely available and enjoyed, and the situation has now been rectified in lavish fashion. That’s because this new CD Abner includes a substantial amount of bonus material. Previously unheard are a rehearsal tape of the “Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet”, the song “What’s Good for General Bullmoose”, and an expanded version of the finale. The overture and “Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet” are heard in binaural stereo. “There’s Room Enough for Us”, added to the score after the opening, has been taken from the film soundtrack. Also included are two songs that were cut from the show: “It’s a Nuisance Having You Around”, sung here by Rosemary Clooney, and “The Way to a Man’s Heart”, performed by Percy Faith and his orchestra.
– Ken Mandelbaum
Lonesome Polecat: Anthony Mordante Hairless Joe: Chad Block Romeo Scragg: Marc Breaux Clem Scragg: James Hurst Alf Scragg: Anthony Saverino Moonbeam McSwine: Carmen Alvarez Marryin’ Sam: Stubby Kaye Earthquake McGoon: Bern Hoffman Daisy Mae: Edith Adams Pappy Yokum: Joe E. Marks Mammy Yokum: Charlotte Rae Li’l Abner: Peter Palmer Cronies: Marc Breaux, Ralph Linn, Jack Matthew, Robert McClure, George Reeder Mayor Dawgmeat: Oran Osburn Senator Jack S. Phogbound: Ted Thurston Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale: Stanley Simmonds Government Man: Richard Maitland Available Jones: William Lanteau Stupefyin’ Jones: Julie Newmar Colonel: George Reeder Radio Commentators: James Hurst, Robert McClure, Jack Matthew President: Lanier Davis General Bullmoose: Howard St. John Secretaries: Lanier Davis, Robert McClure, Jack Matthew, George Reeder Appassionata Von Climax: Tina Louise Evil Eye Fleagle: Al Nesor Dr. Smithborn: George Reeder Dr. Krogmeyer: Ralph Linn Dr. Schleifitz: Marc Breaux State Department Man: Lanier Davis Wives: Carmen Alvarez, Pat Creighton, Lillian D’Honeau, Bonnie Evans, Hope Holiday, Deedee Wood Butler: James J. Jefferies Colonel: Lanier Davis