June 30, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
As famous theatre stories go, the one about the night Shirley MacLaine (as understudy for Carol Haney) went on with a moment’s notice in The Pajama Game is pretty much up at the top of the list. Although there have been certain particulars added over time — after all, it happened sixty-six years ago last night — the underlying facts are 100% true. Having written this column a few years ago, I thought that a few new interesting tidbits I discovered since made sense to rewrite and repost.
Of course it carries with it a scene as old as when films first began to talk and sing — the understudy who goes on in a pinch and becomes a star overnight. This one goes like this: At age nineteen, MacLaine made her Broadway debut in the chorus of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet, a rare misfire by those famous hit-makers who were more used to their shows sticking around for a thousand or two thousand performances, like South Pacific and Oklahoma! had done. Me and Juliet was nothing to sneeze at, as it provided a year’s run on Broadway for MacLaine and company. But before that year was out, MacLaine left Juliet when she got herself cast in the new musical, The Pajama Game, celebrating her twentieth birthday while the show was out of town during its Boston engagement. After its hit opening night on May 13, 1954, Pajama Game would go on for 2 1/2 years on Broadway and clock in over a thousand performances. However, after only a month of shows, MacLaine was already tiring of being in the chorus. She had no lines to speak and though cast as understudy to Carol Haney in the show-stopping role of Gladys (the character who gets to sing and dance “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway”), Haney had the well-known reputation as someone who rarely (if ever) missed a performance.
So it was on June 29, 1954, that MacLaine had hustled herself another understudy gig in a different show just up the street from the St. James Theatre where Pajama Game was playing: Cole Porter’s Can-Can at the Shubert. MacLaine felt she had a better chance of going on for the newly discovered Tony Award winner, Gwen Verdon, than she ever did for Haney, and accepted the job on the spot.
What happened next — on the exact night she was ready to turn in her notice for Pajama Game — is described by the actress herself in her 2008 autobiography Sage-ing While Age-ing: “When I arrived at the St James, across the stage door stood Jerry Robbins, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, etc. ‘Haney is out,’ they said. ‘You’re on.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing … the producers gave me the understudy job, but I never had a rehearsal. I had thought Carol would go on with a broken neck. But Carol had sprained her ankle, so …”
Sidebar: The Pajama Game marked a series of firsts for those three particular guys waiting at the stage door. It was Prince’s first time out as a producer. He followed up immediately with another show from the same team, Damn Yankees, and in quick succession became Broadway’s leading producer of musicals with hits over a fourteen-year-span like West Side Story, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret (which he also directed). Robbins, already the established choreographer of his day, got his first directing credit with Pajama Game (albeit a co-credit with the venerable George Abbott), and for Fosse, it was his first time listed in a Broadway Playbill as a choreographer.
MacLaine adds a further development (or embellishment) about this night in Rick McKay’s documentary Broadway: the Golden Age: “I had my notice in my pocket, ready to turn it in. The subway got stuck in Times Square, so I was twenty minutes late for my own half-hour call … and when I got to the theatre it was ten minutes before the curtain was going up! … So I stuffed my notice back in real quick and I didn’t know what key I sang in, I never had a rehearsal.”
As the legend goes, the Academy Award winning film producer Hal Wallis was at the show that night. He loved what he saw and signed the unknown to a five-year Hollywood contract, resulting in her starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s next picture, The Trouble With Harry. That part of the legend is true. It’s also true that the offer from Hitchcock came only after the great man himself was in the audience on ANOTHER night when Haney was out and MacLaine was on. Hitchcock then had to do some fancy wrangling in order to borrow MacLaine from Wallis, who with his ironclad contract, exclusively owned loan-out rights for her services. If you find these tall-tales hard to believe, all these stories are in MacLaine’s own words from interviews she’s given over the course of her now sixty-seven year career.
Within the first five years of her screen debut, MacLaine made eleven films, two of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and two of which garnered her Best Actress nominations. She would receive five overall in that category, finally winning the golden statuette in 1984 for Terms of Endearment, nearly thirty years after making her film debut. In her acceptance speech that night, which came more three hours into evening, she said, “I’m going to cry because this show has been as long as my career.”
It certainly has been an incredible career, but one that was the film world’s gain and the theatre’s loss. After The Pajama Game, except for her nightclub act, MacLaine never appeared in another legitimate musical on stage.
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.