May 29, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

No, not that one … another one. Let me explain:

Last week I wrote about the 1958 play with music, Say, Darling,* which featured the breakout performance of the twenty-six year-old Robert Morse as Ted Snow, a very boyish theatre producer, very much based on the young Harold Prince (who with The Pajama Game had shot to fame as a twenty-five year-old wunderkind). Say, Darling was Morse’s second Broadway show, and the one that made critics stand up and take notice. As but one example, here’s what Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Times:

“The determined satirists introduce us to a glossy young nincompoop who wears white shoes, paws everybody in the chummiest possible manner, flickers his indolent eyelids as he drops knowing phrases like ‘I don’t like that kind of negative thinking,’ and generally behaves himself like a land-crab on roller-skates. They call this fellow a producer, and they encourage a brilliantly comic young actor named Robert Morse to shiver his jello shoulders, flip his feet out in front of him as though he had just kicked them off, and look as though he had recently eaten a very distressing blintz every time anybody is rude to him.”

No could write a love letter to an actor better than Kerr.

1958 turned out to be a banner year for Morse, with his feature film debut that summer in The Matchmaker, in which he re-created the role of Barnaby Tucker from the play’s original Broadway production. The movie premiered while he was still on Broadway in Say, Darling, not long after he had received a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Play. Though he lost to Charles Ruggles for The Pleasure of His Company, he had the pleasure of the company of a sterling group of fellow nominees: playwright and director Marc Connelly (in a rare acting role in Tall Story); George Grizzard (The Disenchanted); Walter Matthau (Once More, with Feeling!) and George C. Scott (Comes a Day).

Robert Morse as “The Boy Producer,” Ted Snow in “Say, Darling” (1958).

Morse did take home a Theatre World Award for Say, Darling, which have been handed out every year since the 1944–45 season, in recognition of the debut performances by actors and actresses in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. Even back then, the fudging that continues today with what constitutes a debut was in evidence, due to Morse’s official Broadway bow having already occurred three years earlier in the aforementioned Matchmaker. Among the notables who shared in the honors with Morse for the 1957–58 season, were such “newbies” as Anne Bancroft (Two for the Seesaw), Colleen Dewhurst (Children of Darkness), Carol Lawrence (West Side Story) and as Richard III in Central Park, George C. Scott (yes, he was having a good year).

While researching Say, Darling, I found a story attributed to Jule Styne, posted on the MasterworksBroadway. com website. When I shared it with Robert Morse in a telephone conversation from his home in Los Angeles, he had a lot to say about it. Here’s the story (followed by his response):

Jule Styne: “Looking back at Say, Darling, I think mostly about Robert Morse. The day he came in to audition for the part of Ted Snow, the eager young producer, I was in the rehearsal hall and watched him. Abe Burrows, who was also directing, turned him down flat. Bobby looked ratty and seedy, and was. The man was absolutely broke; didn’t even have sufficient food money. But I felt he was so right for the part that I stopped him on the way out and said, ‘Come with me.’ I took him over to Brooks Brothers, bought him a new suit, a shirt, tie, and overcoat, and had him return the next day. Burrows hired him on the spot and be damned if Abe didn’t say he’d never seen Morse before. Anyhow, he was sensational in the part, and I put his name over the title; raised his salary from $350 a week to $750.”

Robert Morse: “That story is total bullshit. Jule Styne took me to Brooks Brothers? No way. How could I have been broke? No money for food? Come on! I had just finished shooting The Matchmaker! Whatever I got paid, believe me, it went a long way in those days. I was well-dressed enough at the audition. I wore a nice sweater, you know? It was a lovely time in my life. I wasn’t ‘ratty and seedy.’ My audition went fine and I left (Jule didn’t stop me on the way out and take me shopping. Never happened). But I did receive a call from my agent afterwards, and was told they thought I might be a little too young-looking for the part. So I was to go to Abe Burrows’ apartment the next day to meet with him one-on-one, which I did. And we talked, and at some point in our conversation, he asked me to put on a pair of glasses, hoping it might make me look a little older. It was silly, but if it helped, fine. Before I left his beautiful apartment, he told me the part was mine.”

“As for Jule changing my billing, that’s true. I mean, not to blow my own horn, but I deserved it. I was wonderful in that part. I remember that Abe Burrows used to say to the cast, ‘Leave Bobby alone. Just watch him. If you think he’s doing too much, he’s not.’ One of my favorites among the cast was Horace McMahon, who played the press agent. There was one bit I did that he loved in particular. Just before the moment, he would often tap me with a rolled up newspaper he was holding, and under his breath say to me, ‘Go get ’em, Bobby.’ Oh, I had the best time in that show. The best.”

With Styne apparently having made up much of this story, I thought I should dig up an ad for Say, Darling to find out if there was an iota of truth in his contention that he saw to it that Morse’s name was elevated to above the title billing. From the New York Times in late 1958, here’s what I found:

No, not above the title, as Styne described, but below it, in a box with a new “co-starring” credit. I do love that for the purposes of the ad, the role is labeled as that of “The Boy Producer.” You’ve got to wonder if any of this made Hal Prince a bit peevish, or did he just chalk it up to the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

“Say, Darling” with Johnny Desmond, Horace McMahon, Vivian Blaine and Robert Morse (1958).

Say, Darling managed to hold on with a run of more than 300 performances, despite mixed reviews. When its leading actor David Wayne had to leave for a time, they brought in another star to replace him (Eddie Albert, as you can see from the ad above), and even incurred the cost of moving to a different theatre late in its run, from the ANTA (now the August Wilson) to the Martin Beck (now the Al Hirschfeld). People must have been lured to the show by substantial word of mouth, superseding what the critics wrote about it, something that can still happen today (the just-opened Summer grossed nearly $1.2 million last week and got some of the worst reviews imaginable).

Since it opened in 1958, Say, Darling has rarely been done, save for a limited Off-Broadway run in 1996, bringing it back more as a curiosity piece than anything else. But if someone announced tomorrow that it were to be done somewhere in a full-scale production, I would jump in a car and go.

And yes, I would ask Mr. Morse to come with me. ☺️

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. 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.

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Ron Fassler

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