Wednesday, September 18, 2013


The problem with the history of the musical is: there's too much of it. Boiling it down to a single volume, the historian has to juggle all the forms from the minstrel show to the jukebox musical; throughline the development of comic opera through operetta to the musical play; assess the scores; parse the librettos; observe the stars; isolate the key inventions. This is not to mention the fun bits, as when Trevor Nunn forced Patti LuPone, in the London Les Mis, to play not only Fantine but a smelter in a crowd scene--"not even knowing," she confides in her autobiography, "what a smelter was." ("Smelter": noun denoting a performer who screams at audience members who take photographs during show time.)

With all that to cover, one has little room left for the fun flops. The prestige flops of course take pride of position--Candide, for example, though it's hard to call a show with a bestselling album and countless revivals a failure. It's the flops that vanished that don't really "place" in a one-volume chronicle. I just finished writing one of these one-volume histories of the musical, and even with 322 pages of relatively small print and tight letting I found little space for the fun flops. I had other assignments, really: trying to give the reader a vivid idea of what The Black Crook was like, finding new things to say about Show Boat, considering the role of free will in Sondheim's shows. By the time I got to Wicked, Women On the Verge Of a Nervous Breakdown, and Bonnie & Clyde, I had used up all my allotted space. So there was no room for Goldilocks.

All right, I slipped it in somehow, but if you blink you'll miss it. So I'm doing it here. When Charles Dillingham's personal theatre, the Globe, reopened, in 1958 as the Lunt-Fontanne, its first tenant was The Visit (with the eponymous pair). But its second was Goldilocks, set in the early silent-film era, when Fort Lee, New Jersey, was the location capital of the world. As originally set up, Goldilocks was to feature a Novelty Star, Barry Sullivan, as a movie director scheming to make a D. W. Griffith-like spectacle. Opposite him was Elaine Stritch, presumably to achieve career breakout as a musical-comedy lady forced to work in one of Sullivan's shorts just when she had planned to get out of show biz to marry socialite Russell Nype. Sparks would fly between Sullivan and Stritch, but romance would bloom as well, leaving Nype to pair off with ingénue Pat Stanley as the indispensable Second Couple.

Indispensable, that is, in a  conventional musical comedy, which Goldilocks was. The Novelty Star, who materializes as a song-and-dance personality after little or no such experience, was already a feature of the fifties musical, after Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Barry Sullivan had achieved second-division renown in movies and television because he was very tall, good-looking in an odd way, and vaguely menacing, which seemed to suit the character opposite Stritch, a cinema visionary but a conniving scoundrel. The character demanded an actor with strength and a bit of the rough about him, not at all the usual musical-comedy leading man. I imagine they tried Robert Alda first, because he fit the bill and, as everyone knew from Guys and Dolls, he could sing. Barry Sullivan possibly couldn't, because he left the show during the tryout, replaced by Don Ameche, who was a bit light for the man's hard edge but, in the end, quite wonderful. Still, this was typical musical-comedy casting, even if Ameche had done most of his singing in Hollywood. And in its plot structure  and constant toggling between full-size sets and smaller sets, Goldilocks was like many another show of its time.

Yet it had its eccentricities. For one thing, Leroy (pronounced Le-roy) Anderson was known for not theatre scores but a form that has now died out, the piano novelty piece. Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys" might be its most famous title just for the piquant picture it paints--and of course the thematic visual is a key feature of the piano novelty: each one was a little tone poem. Anderson's titles clearly suggest a subject: "Sleigh Ride," "The Phantom Regiment," "The Syncopated Clock." And we should note that these piano solos were even more popular when orchestrated. It happens that Anderson was a lifelong admirer of the musical and eager to compose one himself. He got his chance on the aforementioned Wonderful Town, but something went wrong, and I've never found a satisfying--or, at any rate, complete--explanation. The prevailing version holds that Rosalind Russell didn't like the songs Anderson had written with lyricist Arnold B. Horwitt (a revue specialist, though he did write the lyrics to Plain and Fancy, one of the better book shows of the day), so Betty Comden and Adolph Green were called in and they brought Leonard Bernstein along. But what exactly was Russell's complaint? And was any of Anderson's music recycled in Goldilocks? All the songs, including the cut ones, are copyrighted in Goldilocks' 1958, not in Wonderful Town's 1953. Was nothing to be salvaged?

In any case, Goldilocks' score is wonderful, not only tuneful but keenly characterized in all four leads; it would make a dandy Encores! concert. A few of the songs (and the dance music, though it's credited to Laurence Rosenthal) have the sound of Anderson's novelties, especially "The Pussy Foot," a New Dance Sensation with a ragtimey chromatic riff so snazzy that it was used to open the show's overture. And here's an oddity: the book and lyrics were the work of Walter and Jean Kerr (and Joan Ford, whoever she was). Yes, that Walter Kerr. The storyline was the show's least original element, though there was one very funny goof on the one-reel western, as Ameche directs a recalcitrant Stritch, who constantly erupts in sarcasm. Her cabin is under attack by Indians, and she must wire for help on the telegraph gizmo. Yet she hesitates:
                    AMECHE: What are you waiting for?
                    STRITCH: I'm trying to keep it under ten words.

The show's choreographer was Agnes de Mille, which already put the production on the must-see list, and the set designer was Peter Larkin, who seemed to fit one spectacular visual into every big show he worked on. No Time For Sergeants featured a sequence set aboard an airplane in flight, followed by a scene in the sky showing the parachuting of Andy Griffith and Roddy McDowall (sharing a chute), and The Rink took place in a big, dark arena that, at the show's climax, magically rose up into the flies. Goldilocks' special effect was the final set, something like the Babylon we see in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, an astonishing pile of brick and feathers. Larkin is known to Broadway legend for his own private I Hate Jerome Robbins story: preparing Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Robbins needed to get permission from the original designers of the anthologized shows in order to use their sets and costumes. When Robbins called Larkin, the latter said, "I've been waiting thirty-five years to tell you to fuck yourself."

All told, Goldilocks was a generic show put on by individualists, and Elaine Stritch was perhaps the most individual of all. As my readers must know, she is renowned for her tart, blunt, unapologetic persona, which we sense is not a portrayal but a reality emanating from her real-life central nervous system. Stritch was an original, to be sure--just the sort to play Melba in the 1952 Pal Joey revival. You may recall Melba as the journalist who interviews Joey while making it clear she doesn't believe a word he says, topping off her scene with the mock-strip number "Zip." And of course Stritch was perfect as Company's Joanne, another one who not only sees right through phonies and idiots but lets them know it. A kind of mean-girl sophisticate, Stritch was something new in the line of musical-comedy heroines, who are expected to maintain at least a touch of sweetness. Give Stritch Albee or give her death: I saw her Martha in the matinee cast of the first Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? production, and she was terrific. But musical comedy plays by different rules than Albee does.

Yet the Kerrs' book (Joan Ford collaborated on the lyrics only) wrote Stritch's role for that tough Stritch persona. Bickering sweethearts was a musical-comedy cliché, but Stritch's war with Ameche's character anticipated her acerbic Company lines:

                     STRITCH: (trying to get rid of him during their first scene) Take your
                     horrible hat and get out of here!

and, when he tells her that she really likes him and doesn't know it:

                     STRITCH: After that stuff begins to wear off, how do you feel--depressed,

till, finally:

                     STRITCH: You represent what I've been surrounded by all my life. You
                     are a common, on-the-make, hustler.

The score, too, was bent to Stritch's independence and power. When Goldilocks began its tryout, her establishing song was "Guess Who," in a backstage scene with the chorus girls of the musical we got a glimpse of when the curtain went up:

                       When Cupid's little dart went off,
                       Guess whose heart went off
                       On a spree.

But that didn't sound like Stritch, even if she was goofing on the tone of the lyrics. The number that replaced it, "Give the Little Lady (a great big hand)," emphasized Stritch as a standalone figure, singing of her coming marriage while possibly not belonging to it. Yes, the lyrics are positive:

                        So, you take the gay time,
                        For me, it's gonna be P. T. A. time.

but the music, marked Vivo (animated), suggests not a woman in love but a woman on a rampage, too spirited for anything as tidy as wedlock.

Some might say that Ethel Merman really introduced this independent and at times abrasive strain into the musical--and Stritch understudied Merman's role in Call Me Madam and played it on the post-Broadway tour. But Merman could project vulnerability; the Cole Porter torch song was one of her genres. Goldilocks gave Stritch a torcher, "I Never Know When (To Say When)," and she sang it well. Of course: Stritch sang everything well. But one never quite believed the moment, because it failed to match the rest of the role. The standalone heroine is so unusual that she needs an unusual amount of support from the show's structure, as she gets in, say, Marie Christine or Wicked. Then, too, the unconventional romantic lead doesn't belong in a conventional show, with the cultural and emotional limitations it presents. It would be refreshing to discuss this in a one-volume history of the musical, but there isn't room. Such topics are niche evocations, more suitable for books of their own.