December 26, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
No, this isn’t an article about The Sound of Music. It’s about a wonderful musical called Do Re Mi, which opened on this date (the day after Christmas), in 1960 at the St. James Theatre, a collaboration of composer Jule Styne, lyricists Betty Comden & Adolph Green and author/director Garson Kanin. The show was based on a 1955 novella by Kanin, which explains why Comden & Green didn’t write the book for it; something they often did when taking on a lyric writing gig. Beyond this starry group, Phil Silvers — the “Top Banana” himself — signed on for the lead. One of the most beloved musical theatre stars, Silvers was hot off his four-year television run (1955–59) as the inimitable Sgt. Bilko. And by casting opposite him the hilarious Nancy Walker, Do Re Mi had a better than average shot at being the season’s big musical. But in spite of very good reviews and a year’s run, business was never good enough to make up for its budgeted cost of $479, 738, an amount that by 1960 had become increasingly high for profit-minded producers of the day. And in its two leads, an abrasive husband and wife constantly fighting (until the final curtain, that is), the average businessman-theatregoer might have felt more bruised than he bargained for after two-and-a-half hours of insults, especially when he was used to watching Ralph and Alice Kramden on his home TV set doing the same thing for free. Coming off better, were the team in the secondary love story played by John Reardon and Nancy Dussault, who introduced a song that became a standard: “Make Someone Happy.”
Kanin’s novella was well received when it was published: another genre in which this jack-of-all-trades excelled. Kanin had begun his career as a jazz musician, then actor, then a Broadway director—whose first effort he helmed at age twenty-four. By twenty-six he was directing feature films, and by thirty-four, he authored and directed one of the longest running plays in Broadway history, Born Yesterday, which made a star of Judy Holiday. How Do Re Mi came about, in Kanin’s own words, went like this:
“I read an article in Variety which told the story of how certain little gangs of organized mugs were moving into the record business, and that suggested something interesting to me and I began to explore it. Eventually I wrote a very, very long story that was published in the Atlantic Monthly as a cover story, and from that it was picked up by a publishing company who wanted to do it as a hard over book with illustrations by Al Hirschfeld. And that sold really, really well and it was around for awhile. Then someone bought the film rights, but never actually made a film of it. Then it came to the attention of Jule Styne, who came to me and said, ‘Why don’t we do this as a musical?’”
Do Re Mi told the story of Hubie Cram (Silvers), a “schemer and a dreamer” (as his long-suffering wife sings about him), a perpetual loser, always in search of “an angle.” Believing his way to that ever-elusive pot of gold lies in the jukebox trade, Hubie isn’t far off. At its height, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into those machines. That, along with the accidental discovery of a female singer to exploit and promote — a waitress with a glorious voice — makes the success that has always eluded him finally in reach.
A colorful cast of characters boasting names like Brains Berman, Skin Demopoulos and Fatso O’Rear (I’m not kidding), were straight out of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls. And in Silvers, you had an actor who knew how to play a con man better than almost anyone, which made for some delightful numbers, bringing out the best of the Tin Pan Alley tradition in which Styne was trained, in addition to clever word play from Comden and Green.
It also had the pedigree of a brilliant set by Boris Aronson (did he ever design any other kind?), which was set within the frame of a giant jukebox. In one scene in a nightclub, the tables had drawn figures instead of actors, and for one number (“Fireworks”), black light was utilized to give the effect of shooting stars and Roman candles bursting in the background.
The original cast recording is a lot of fun to listen to, as is one from a 1999 Encores! presentation that starred Nathan Lane and Randy Graff, who were perfect casting. And for Encores!, just as the 1960 version had done, a host of character actors give it their all in supporting roles. As Brains Berman, first created by David Burns, Lewis J. Stadlen is hilarious, as is Lee Wilkof as Fatso. And in Brian Stokes Mitchell and Heather Headley, a trip to musical theatre heaven is all but guaranteed.
Do Re Mi lost all five of its Tony nominations. The originality of that season’s Bye Bye Birdie was strong competition and Silvers’ charisma was a tough match against Richard Burton in Camelot, who took home Best Actor in a Musical. Nancy Dussault lost the Featured Actress Tony to Tammy Grimes for playing the title character in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a holdover of the antiquated ruling that if an actor’s name wasn’t above the marquee, they were relegated to the featured category, regardless of the size of the role. If not for that, you might think Dussault would have been the beneficiary… but the same dumb rule applied to Chita Rivera, who was nominated for Bye Bye Birdie!
As mentioned before, Do Re Mi introduced “Make Someone Happy,” which has been recorded over the last six decades by (among others), Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Perry Como, Aretha Franklin, Judy Garland, the Supremes, Doris Day, Audra McDonald — and even Jimmy Durante. At Barbara Cook’s memorial at Lincoln Center last week, it was the song Kelli O’Hara chose to sing as a tribute to her friend and mentor. Of all the renditions out there, I’ll leave you with this special one by thirteen-year-old Stevie Wonder, recorded in 1963:
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.