October 7, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Once, when pressed to answer what performance Stephen Sondheim had seen in the musical theatre that could be termed his favorite, he answered “Alfred Drake in Kismet.” Of course, for all of us born after the late nineteen-fifties (or mid-sixties when he starred in a revival of it at Lincoln Center), we can only imagine what it was like to have seen this actor on stage as Haj, the wily poet of ancient Baghdad.

Alfred Drake as Haj in “Kismet” with Doretta Morrow as Marcina (1953.)

Though there were two excellent recordings made of both times Drake played the part in 1953 and 1965, it’s all we have to remember him by (in addition to his singing “The Olive Tree” at the 1971 Tony Awards broadcast). The film went to MGM star Howard Keel, who also played Fred Graham in Kiss Me Kate, another Broadway role created by Drake. I’m sure that Drake would have liked to have appeared in a few movies, but the truth is — no one ever asked him. For whatever reasons, he remained a man of the theatre throughout the four decades he graced the stage. And it had to have come as some consolation that for a considerable period of time he was the highest paid leading man in Broadway history.

As a youngster — and as the more mature and better recognized — Alfred Drake

Alfred Caputo was born on this day October 7, 1914 to Italian immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn. He was singing at an early age and was a member of the Our Lady of Good Counsel Church choir, then later the Glee Club at Brooklyn College, which he attended. His Broadway debut was in 1935 (at age twenty-one), when he performed in repertory in the ensemble of five Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. From there it was on to the chorus of White Horse Inn, a musical I’ve always been fascinated with due to its cast of one hundred and forty-six (which brings up a million questions, one of which is where did they all dress?).

It was the next show from which Drake emerged out of the chorus and that allowed people to take notice. It was Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms and, as its title suggests, overflowed with young talent.

Ray Heatherton, Mitzi Green and Alfred Drake in “Babes and Arms” (1935).

Over the next few years Drake appeared in a trio of musical revues, then a big fad on Broadway, with titles like One For the Money (and its sequel Two For the Show), as well as in some dramas. He even landed the leading role of Orlando in a Broadway revival of As You Like It, which began his love affair with Shakespeare and classical theatre (he would go on to play opposite Katharine Hepburn in Much Ado About Nothing in Stratford, Connecticut, and was Claudius to Richard Burton’s Hamlet, in the John Gielgud-directed 1964 Broadway production).

Then in 1943, the curtain rose on the opening night of the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and his new partner Oscar Hammerstein, which found a woman, quietly seated on stage churning butter. Then a cowboy off-stage started singing “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” and by the time Alfred Drake moseyed out and sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” his rich baritone filling the St. James Theatre, things were never the same for him — or the American musical theatre. Oklahoma! not only broke new ground, it broke nearly every record set previously set on Broadway for attendance, box office dollars, and the length of the run of any musical.

Drake in Jud Fry’s “Lonely Room” (with Howard Da Silva) in “Oklahoma!” (1943).

In 1948, Drake became a star of the first magnitude in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. Introducing songs such as “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?,” “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” and “Were Thine That Special Face,” he brought a star power that the role of Curly didn’t quite require. And though he lost the film role to Keel, there is a 90-minute kinescope from a 1958 televised Kiss Me, Kate, that gives some idea of what he was like in the role. And for an added bonus, he plays opposite his original leading lady Patricia Morison. Here’s a piece of “Where Is the Life” from that TV version:

During the years of his greatest fame, Drake took advantage of his name value and authored original plays and musical librettos, as well as translated foreign plays for the stage. He also directed a handful of Broadway productions. Then in 1961, he returned to musicals with Kean, a fictionalized version of the life of the great British actor Edmund Kean, and those who saw it in its short run claimed that Drake gave one of his finest performances. It had a rocky out of town run, made more difficult by vocal issues he was having at the time. Many believe that, if he been healthy enough, the creative team might have had the proper time to pull it off. Nevertheless, its cast album survives so that Drake’s dulcet tones were forever captured singing a few very good songs from the score by Robert Wright and George Forrest (of Kismet).

Drake as “Kean” with Joan Weldon (1961).

I missed seeing his final appearance in a musical when he took on Maurice Chevalier’s role in the first stage adaptation of the film Gigi in 1973. I did, however, see him perform live on stage but once. It was at the 1972 Tony Awards that I attended at age fifteen, and from the last row of the cavernous Broadway Theatre, I watched and heard him as he kicked the evening off singing “Another Openin’, Another Show.” Fifteen years later, at another Tony Awards, viewing from my home on television I was looking forward to a speech from him that night, as it had been announced in advance that he was to receive a special Tony for “excellence in the theatre.” But when the moment came, the seventy-five year old Drake was reduced to being introduced from his seat where he stood and waved. I was livid, as we should have heard what he had to say, given that his one previous Tony had been for Kismet, which was long before the awards aired on national television. But leave it to YouTube (again), where I was able to find the speech Drake gave off-camera, prior to the telecast. You can skip past Peter Stone’s intro and go straight to the 4:30 mark for Drake’s heartfelt thank you:

And thank you, Alfred Drake for a career well spent in the theatre. Contrary to the fear mentioned in his speech, he did not waste his life. Not by a long shot.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.