“MY ONE AND ONLY” — WHEN BRECHT MET “PAJAMA GAME”

May 1, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

When the “new Gershwin musical” My One and Only started rehearsals with great fanfare in the late winter of 1983, it was helmed by Peter Sellars, then a twenty-five-year-old avant-garde director set to make his Broadway debut. The show’s star (and “muscle”) was Tommy Tune, returning to performing on Broadway for the first time in ten years, since winning the Tony Award for his performance in Seesaw. Between 1973 and 1983, Tune had become a star director and choreographer, whose recent triumph was the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit musical Nine. So, it really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that Sellars, a novice to commercial theatre, and Tune, someone who really knew what it takes to sell a musical, almost immediately locked horns. An experimentalist like Sellars was oil and water to someone with Tune’s sense of razzmatazz, and their battles were arduous. Things finally came to a head five days before the first public previews were to begin in Boston, resulting in Sellars being fired. Later, he would describe the experience as “a struggle between the forces of Brecht and the forces of The Pajama Game.’’

That rough and tumble beginning led to more rough tumbles to come. Tune (already the co-choreographer with Thommie Walsh), took over the staging chores, and big names like Mike Nichols, Michael Bennett, Peter Stone and Tony Walton came in to help. Costs rose, too. The budget blew up to $4.1 million (from its initial $2.8), though by the time it opened on this date, May 1, 1983, My One and Only was greeted with good reviews, many heaping praise upon Tune’s co-star Twiggy, the famed international model, with whom Tune had co-starred in the 1971 Ken Russell film The Boy Friend. The show would run for 767 performances (a little under two years) and was by all measures a success. But the bruising’s it endured prior to Broadway, might best be described by paraphrasing the slogan once used to sell Timex watches: “It took a licking and kept on ticking.”

Photo with Tommy Tune and Twiggy used in ads for “My One and Only” (1983).

My One and Only was intended to be a reworking of the Gershwins’ 1927 musical Funny Face that had starred Fred and Adele Astaire. The creative team was in agreement that the book could never work in 1983, so it was thrown out, and Timothy S. Mayer, a frequent collaborator of Sellars, was hired to come up with something new. Mayer was himself a director, as well as a playwright and rock lyricist, and at first, all involved were enthused by his outside-the-box thinking. According to a New York Times article published while the show was in rehearsals, its plot now entailed “rum-running in Cuba, a flight to Morocco and a case of amnesia,” all of which was hoped to “comment satirically on such notions as the rise of the corporation, the colonialization of the Third World and the oppression of women.”

Good luck with all that.

“I should have known the first day of rehearsal,” Tune later said. “I started choreographing my entrance, and he [Sellars] didn’t want me to dance; he wanted me to walk on, play a long scene and sing a song. I thought the whole point was to dance to these Gershwin tunes. And if a show is to dance, it must be presented in the first minute of the show where the ground rules for the evening are presented.”

Peter Sellars — in his days as a youthful wunderkind.

Tune was right to be concerned, but the show had bigger problems than that. When Sellars was let go during tech rehearsals, so was its musical director and scenic designer, whose ultra-modern scenery would be questioned by critics, one of whom called it “kindergarden-Cubist.’’ Broadway veteran Tony Walton was recruited to help out, though declining to put his name on it. Later he was given a co-credit when the show proved successful enough to warrant a national tour.

Director Mike Nichols and librettist Peter Stone went to Boston to see if they could help. The New York Times reported that Nichols in only a few days, “cut one character, two songs, almost the entire book, and an hour’s worth of running time.” But if the show was to survive after Boston, it had to delay the New York opening, and go back into rehearsal — hopefully with an all-new book. Peter Stone, who was then the most in-demand play doctor on Broadway, was willing to surgically rework what Mayer had done, but Nichols was in the middle of editing the movie Silkwood and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) take over My One and Only’s direction.

Twiggy and Tommy Tune (photo by Kenn Duncan).

What happened next was truly weird. As Michael Riedel wrote in his 2016 book Razzle Dazzle, Tommy Tune and Michael Bennett, who had once been good friends and collaborators, had recently had a falling out over the previous season’s Tony Awards, when their respective shows Nine and Dreamgirls were in head-to-head in competition. Bennett lost both Best Director and Best Musical to his former protege, and he didn’t like it one bit. Having only recently reconciled, it was now an overly-friendly Michael Bennett who greeted Tune at the rehearsal studios that he himself owned, according to Riedel’s reporting: “When Tune entered 890 Broadway with a few friends from the show, Bennett took them by the hand and pulled them into the men’s room. He closed the door and said, ‘Here’s what’s happening. I’m coming in to help you. I’m going to save your show.’

Tune recalled, ‘We didn’t ask him. And he was as high as a skunk. But most of us wouldn’t be where we were in show business without him, and he’s telling us ‘Don’t worry. I’ll save you. I’ll pull this off for you.’”

Riedel goes on to state that “Bennett was working around the clock, keeping the cast in the theatre until 2:00 a.m. drilling them in new and vulgar dance routines. He was running on booze and drugs. He stood on stage, a vodka bottle in one hand, a bowl of cocaine in the other.”

It took an intervention to end the madness, and it came from Mike Nichols who, according to Tune, pulled him aside and said, “Bennett is not doing good work. He may not be doing it consciously, but subconsciously he is ruining your show.” Tune refused to be the one to tell Bennett his services were no longer needed, so one of the show’s legion of producers did. Tune then threw out all of Bennett’s “improvements,” and with Peter Stone’s aid, managed to make a story cohesive enough so that audiences would be able to follow.

Including the title tune, only three other Funny Face numbers wound up in My One and Only. The Gershwin catalog was ransacked for theatre and movie songs like “Soon,” “Sweet and Low-Down,” “Strike up the Band,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” among others. Most were familiar enough to make audiences relax and enjoy what was overall a workmanlike musical, but it contained enough crafty touches amidst the silliness that gave it some class. A song late in the show “Kickin’ the Clouds Away” was used to kick off the 1983 Tony Awards and was successful in selling tickets to summer tourists in search of a lark (and who couldn’t get into that season’s biggest hit — Cats!)

After My One and Only’s Boston run, and prior to going back into rehearsals, a true hatchet job of journalism hit newsstands. Kevin Kelly, a theatre critic for the Boston Globe, had been invited to be a fly-on-the-wall by the producers to report informatively about the show’s creative process. Instead, Kelly got to watch a truly destructive rehearsal period that nearly brought the show down in flames. He wrote a gleefully nasty piece, published in New York Magazine, titled “Falling on Its Funny Face” (see what I mean?) Having to contend with that kind of bad publicity, two months before the show even opened, makes My One and Only’s eventual triumph nothing short of miraculous.

When the Tony Award nominations were announced two weeks later, My One and Only received nine of them, including three for Tommy Tune: director, actor and co-choreographer. Tune went on to win in the latter two categories, along with Charles “Honi” Coles, who took home Best Featured Actor, making up the “three and only” awards the show won (and on a funny note: Kevin Kelly was among the fourteen Tony nominators).

Which brings to mind a lyric right out of the Gershwin songbook: “Who’s got the last laugh now?”

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.