Silk Stockings – Original Broadway Cast 1955
In this new project, the musicalization of Ninotchka, Cole Porter was delighted to be working with librettists George Kaufman and Leueen McGrath because he admired Kaufman as a wit and Miss McGrath (Mrs. Kaufman) as an actress. In addition, from the moment the project was mentioned, a musical scheme for the show had popped into his mind. “The music,” he said, “should be done in blacks and whites so that it will be perfectly obvious to everyone which are the Russians and which are the Americans.”
When he completed the majority of the songs, he arranged for persons involved in the production to hear them. Ernest Martin was astonished to see that as the world-famed composer approached the piano, he was as timorous as an amateur. Martin had noticed this at the Can-Can audition, but had assumed that it was caused by the fact that Cole’s previous show had been a disaster. Not so. “As he played the Silk Stockings songs,” Martin said, “he was perspiring like a neophyte.”
Cy Feuer was taken by Cole’s great knowledge on a wide range of subjects, his exquisite taste, his enormous curiousity and his creative genius-all existing beside a wide streak of literalness. During conferences in which numbers were discussed, Feuer suggested a song for the three Soviet agents who were returning to Russia after having tasted the pleasures of Paris and having failed to lure the corrupted composer back home. Feuer thought there was a comedy number in their horror at being sent to “dreary Si-beer-ia.”
Cole objected. “Oh, Cy, you’re quite wrong about Siberia,” he said, “When I spent a week at the Grand Duke’s castle in Siberia it was truly beautiful.”
In New York, rehearsals for Silk Stockings were called on October 18, 1954. The Kaufman-McGrath script satirized Hollywood, Russia and various American and Russian attitudes. The story concerns the romantic involvement of an icy, defeminized Russian political agent (Hildegarde Neff) sent to Paris to watch over an impetuous musical composer, who is engaged, who is engaged in writing an “Ode to a Tractor” for a Hollywood-type musical. The agent herself becomes entangled romantically with a flashy Hollywood actor’s agent (Don Ameche), who is there to look out for the interests of his heart-of-brass, movie-star client (Yvonne Adair).
Cole was pleased with the cast, but somewhat disappointed that Michael Kidd, who had done the Can-Can dances, refused to do this one because he felt relations between the two atomic powers were too strained to stand kidding. Eugene Loring would be eventually signed to choreograph.
To Cole, Kidd’s refusal typified the difficulty of doing a Broadway show. (The political situation simply did not concern Cole even if it meant life or death.) First choices were too often unavailable. Then, too, pressures were now much greater. Feuer and Martin were “afraid of no one in making their demands”- as he had good reason to know. Before he had finished his work, six numbers had been dropped and six new ones added. “If Ever We Get out of Jail,” for instance, had been transformed into “As on Through the Seasons We Sail.”
Snags continually developed. There was grumbling over George Kaufman’s directional methods. The plan to have Miss Neff talk-sing her songs in the Dietrich manner was not as effective as expected, especially for “Without Love,” the number Cole considered the best in the show.
Yvonne Adair was plagued by illness. Suffering from shingles, she was hospitalized during rehearsals and there was concern that she would not be on hand for the Philadelphia opening. She wasn’t. Her understudy, Sherry O’Neil, went on in her place. There were rumors that Yvonne would never return. To play safe, Ernie Martin wired Gretchen Wyler, a chorus girl who was trying to establish herself in films, offering her the chance to understudy the understudy. She took it.
The show opened to tumultuous praise. Philadelphia critics, one of whom attributed the lyrics to Kaufman and Miss McGrath, agreed that it was a “sure hit.” Feuer and Martin, who had had four Broadway smashes and were determined to achieve another no matter what the cost, were not at all sanguine. Audience response varied, they felt, and since the show was doing sellout business, they extended the engagement for a week.
Sherry O’Neil went on again, and then Yvonne Adair recovered sufficiently to return. Meanwhile, relations between the Kaufmans and the producers were deteriorating. Abe Burrows was brought in to make a few suggestions and, eventually, to rewrite the libretto. Kaufman relinquished his directional reins to Cy Feuer and stopped speaking to the producers and to Cole, but not to Abe Burrows.
Instead of coming to New York, the production moved to Boston for four weeks. There it drew mixed notices and underwent further doctoring. The emphasis was changed from comedy-romance to laughs at any cost.
For reasons best known to themselves, Cole said, the producers decided to throw out every set, gown and prop that possessed any beauty.
Business continued at $49,00 and $50,000 a week. Still dissatisfied with the show, Feuer and Martin booked it into Detroit for three weeks. Cole’s response was that if they kept it out of town much longer everyone would have forgotten what silk was and the title would have to be changed to Nylon Stockings.
Still more changes were made, but none of the actresses who had played the film star had got the expected laughs. “Josephine,” intended as a raucous parody of the striptease, was turning out to be a protracted yawn. Nor were the other songs satisfactory.
Burrows changed the star from a dancer to a swimmer and gave her a piece of business – punding the water out of her stopped-up eat-that countless television and nightclub comics have since appropriated.
At that point Cole asked me to gather swimming terms and books, hoping that there might be a song in them. There wasn’t. After another false start, he decided that film techniques might serve as the basis for a low-comedy number. From various newspaper advertisements and trade papers, I culled color processes and screen techniques which seemed only slightly promising to me. Overnight, however, he turned out the ingenious “Stereophonic Sound.” (For most of the other songs, the same research went on. Mrs. Smith supplied fabric names for “Satin and Silk.” For “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All,” a researcher was sent to the Museum of Natural History.”)
On February 3, Miss Adair’s throat trouble forced her out of the show for the second time. This time, Gretchen Wyler, who had not yet shed her baby fat, stepped into the role. Then and there, the cliché that has served as the plat for thousands of Grade-B Films and slick fiction stories was reenacted. The 156-pound, unprepossessing little chorus girl stepped into a featured role and stopped the show cold with a number that had been marked for oblivion. Lines that had never evoked a snicker brought roars. Miss Wyler not only made a name for herself, but literally saved the show.
On February 24, 1955, Silk Stockings opened at the Imperial Theatre in New York where it became Cole’s twentieth Broadway hit. For him, the show earned far better reviews than he had become accustomed to expect. “Paris Loves Lovers,” “Without Love,” “As on Through the Seasons We Sail,” “Stereophonic Sound,” “Silk Stockings” and “All of You” were singled out by more than one critic. Even critic Richard Watts was pleased. After years of lamenting that Cole was not up to his usual standard, Watts announced: “The music sounds fine right now, and Mr. Porter’s work is famous and remarkable for improving with familiarity….” The dean of Broadway theater critics, Brooks Atkinson, in The New York Times proclaimed: “We can all afford to relax now. Everything about Silk Stockings, which opened at the Imperial last evening, represents the best goods in the American musical comedy emporium. This is one of Gotham’s most memorable shows on a level with Guys and Dolls.”
Peter Ilyich Boroff, a leading Soviet composer, is detained in Paris by Hollywood agent Steve Canfield, who wants to use his “Ode to a Tractor” for a picture starring Janice Dayton. The Soviets send a trio of agents, Brankoff, Ivanov, and Bibinski, to Paris to bring Boroff back. At their hotel the agents and the staff express amused dismay at the plight of the composer who is torn between going home and staying in Paris – Too Bad.
Canfield, who now has Boroff as a client, fabricates a French father for him so he can claim he is a French rather than a Russian citizen. Meanwhile, in Russia, Markovitch has been appointed the new Commissar of Art. His attractive ballerina girl friend wants him to make her prima ballerina at the Opera in place of his own wife. When the Soviets learn of the failure of their agents to bring Boroff home, they order Markovitch to dispatch Comrade Yaschenko to Paris to get not only the composer but also the three agents who have been seduced by Parisian life. Yaschenko, who turns out to be Nina “Ninotchka” Yaschenko, arrives in Paris and meets Canfield, who sings to her of the many virtues of the City of Lights – Paris Loves Lovers.
Janice Dayton makes a grand entrance into the hotel lobby and tells the assembled reporters that she is going to make her first serious non-swimming picture. It will be an adaptation of War and Peace. Writing, casting and direction are less important than the latest technological developments – Stereophonic Sound.
Ninotchka tries to persuade Canfield that sex is extrachemical in origin – It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All.” But Canfield, who disagrees, wins her over to his point of view – “All of You.”
Janice makes a play for Boroff in a boutique in order to convince him to let her use his music for her film – Satin and Silk. And by the end of Act I, Ninotchka, although full of guilt, has been won over by Paris and Canfield – Without Love.
The three Russians conclude that Ninotchka plans to marry the American and that they will have to bring Boroff back themselves. If they succeed, they assure themselves their leader Bibinski will be honored – Hail Bibinski.
After admitting to Ninotchka that the story about Boroff’s French father is a hoax, Canfield proposes marriage to her. She accepts, and together they sing “As On Through the Seasons We Sail.”
Janice transforms “Ode to a Tractor” into a jazzy song about Napoleon and Josephine. The previously passive Boroff is infuriated and he, Ninotchka, and the three agents decide to go back to Russia after all. As the others depart, the agents conclude that they have no choice – the alternative is “Siberia.”
The despondent Canfield sings of his love for the departed Ninotchka, for whom he had just bought 365 pairs of “Silk Stockings.”
Back in Moscow, Ninotchka is named superintendent of a building – an apartment house she sets up as a place for Soviet artists to have more freedom of expression. Having decided that the transformation of “Ode to a Tractor” into “Josephine” is not so bad after all, Boroff is now fascinated by Western popular music. He arranges a jam session at which they all sing and play “The Red Blues.”
Unexpectedly, Canfield turns up – as does Commissar Markovitch. The fast-talking Hollywood agent convinces Markovitch that there is big money to be made in America (less a 20% agent’s fee) if he writes his story, “I Was A Commissar Under Bulganin.” Canfield is reunited with Ninotchka and they all escape to the West. The Russians are full of high hopes that they will become “Wall Street Billionaires.” Finale – Reprise of “Too Bad.”
Peter Ilyich Boroff: Philip Sterling Hotel Doorman: Walter Kelvin Hotel Manager: Stanley Simmonds Flower Girl: Geraldine Delaney Ivanov: Henry Lascoe Brankov: Leon Belasco Bibinski: David Opatoshu Steve Canfield: Don Ameche First Commissar: Edward Becker Guards: Lee Barry, Dick Humphrey Vera: Julie Newmar Commissar Markovitch: George Tobias Choreographer : Kenneth Chertok Ninotchka: Hildegarde Neff Reporters: Edward Becker, Tony Gardell, Arthur Rubin Janice Dayton: Gretchen Wyler Pierre Bouchard: Marcel Hillaire Chief Commissar: Forrest Green Minister: Tony Gardell President of Politburo: Walter Kelvin Saleslady: Ludie Claire M. Fabour: Paul Best Bookstall Man: Louis Polacek French Comrades: Win Mayo, Arthur Ulisse Movie Director: Paul Best Assistant Director: Lee Barry Sonia: Devra Kline Grisha: Forrest Green Anna: Alexandra Moss Musicians: Maurice Kogan, Leon Merian, Mervin Gold Guard: Edward Becker Dancers: Estelle Aza, Barbara Bostock, Verna Cain, Geraldine Delaney, Devra Kline, Pat McBride, Carol Risser, Carol Stevens, Onna White, Martin Allen, Tommy Andrew, George Foster, Bruce Hoy, John Ray