June 7, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

I belong to a group on Facebook called “Vintage New York Stage,” that posts items daily that seek to bring back the Broadway of old in story and photo. Today, an article appeared from the New York Times of exactly 68 years ago — June 7, 1949 — featuring a run-down of what was being prepped for the upcoming fall season. But first, why not check out these classic titles listed in the ABC’s, all still in their premier productions: A Streetcar Named Desire, Anne of the Thousand Days, Born Yesterday, Death of a Salesman, Detective Story, High Button Shoes, Kiss Me, Kate, Mister Roberts, South Pacific, The Madwoman of Chaillot and Where’s Charley? Yes, you could see Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison, the original stars of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at a top ticket price of $5. The cheap seats? $1.20.

The prices are a bit hard to read, but magnifying them would reveal that it would only have cost $2.40 for the top ticket price of Howdy, Mr. Ice of 1950! And may I say, I would have gone if only for the exclamation point alone! Well, that and it’s claim (in CAPS, no less) to be AMERICA’S ONLY ICE THEATRE. No, why I really would have wanted to see Mr. Ice was to get a glimpse inside of the Century Theatre. Located across the street from the Radio City Music Hall on Sixth Avenue, it was the more “intimate” of the two with a mere 3,500 seats, as opposed to the Music Hall’s 6,000. Completed in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, it never had an easy time of it, and by the time of Howdy, Mr. Ice of 1950!, it had been producing ice shows exclusively for ten years. Demolished in 1954, it bares the distinction today of being the only building among the original architecture of the Rockefeller Center complex to have been destroyed.

The Center Theatre (1934)

But I digress. The Times article from June 7th also had this item below that caught my eye:

Ethel Merman as Miss Adelaide? Though she had to “down the offer” (a misprint), this casting begs the question of whether this bull-in-a-china-shop of an actress could ever have allowed herself to be under the thumb of Nathan Detroit for a single minute, let alone fourteen years. She would have eaten him for breakfast, right? By 1949, Merman had been on the New York stage for just shy of twenty years, and having appeared in ten Broadway musicals, almost all of them hits, she was not only a star, but a commodity. When you went to see Ethel Merman you knew exactly what you were getting. And after her debut in a supporting role in Girl Crazy, where she stopped the show with the Gershwins “I Got Rhythm,” she was forever after “the lead.” Always the lead.

Which is what makes this offer for Merman to be in Guys and Dolls such a head scratcher, as it doesn’t really have a leading role. The quartet of Adelaide & Nathan and Sky & Sarah are of equal stage time and proportion to the story. Someone of Merman’s very specific skill set (loud, brassy and in-your-face) could easily have thrown off the balance of the show. Wouldn’t she (and her audience) have demanded more from her? As it would turn out, composer Frank Loesser only managed five songs (one of them a duet) for his original Adelaide, Vivian Blaine. That was half the number Merman performed in her previous musical, 1946’s Annie Get Your Gun. Also, Miss Adelaide needs to have a vulnerable and demure quality, which does not bring the Merm immediately to mind. That said, she was a one-of-a-kind performer who always delivered, so she might have pulled it off.

Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide, surrounded by the Hot Box Girls, in “Guys and Dolls” (1950).

​And who was Robert Carson in this article, stated as having “finished the framework of the book” for Guys and Dolls? Research indicates he was a Hollywood screenwriter who had to bow out when the demands of writing the screen adaptation of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Harvey took precedent. It was then the producers of Guys and Dolls, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, next turned to another Hollywood writer, Jo Swerling, who had (among many others) credits on such great films as Pride of the Yankees, Lifeboat and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Though Swerling received credit for the authorship of Guys and Dolls, it has always been shared alongside the legendary Abe Burrows, who never made it a secret of his claim to not using one line of Swerling’s dialogue. Subsequently, the griping and sniping over the true ownership of what is easily considered one of the best books ever written for any musical has been debated forever and a day by the families of these two gentlemen for more than half-a-century. It is a fact that it was Swerling (along with Loesser) who first set upon structuring the two sets of lovers that form the basis of Guys and Dolls from Damon Runyon’s dozens of short stories. The reason that Swerling was let go had to do with the trouble he had delivering on the promise of the humor in the Runyon stories. Swerling was translating too much of Runyon verbatim without adding his own comic spin on the material. And this is when Burrows, then one of the biggest names in radio, was brought in.

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows

Burrows first hit it big in 1941 when he co-created (with Ed Gardner) Duffy’s Tavern, one of the most popular radio shows of all time. “The people on that show were New York mugs, nice mugs, sweet mugs, and like Runyon’s mugs they all talked like ladies and gentlemen,” Burrows said. “And that’s how we treated the characters in Guys and Dolls.” It should be noted that the director of Guys and Dolls was the eminent George S. Kaufman, not only the man who staged such diverse fare as the original productions of The Front Page and Of Mice and Men, but also one of the most respected playwrights of his day. He worked diligently with Burrows off of the Runyon stories, and what they had of Swerling’s adaptation, which was never more than just the first act. But make no mistake about it: the book was all Burrows.

When Swerling received the final draft of the show prior to the start of its out of town run in Philadelphia, he made it clear he was unhappy to find his name was missing as the book writer. Exercising his contractual right to authorship, nothing could be done to prevent him from getting a co-writing credit, which is why every production of the show forever lists “Book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling.” When the smash hit revival starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Peter Gallagher and Josie De Guzman, opened in 1992, the brouhaha came back in full fury. The reviews all spoke of Burrows wonderful book, as it had been acknowledged for decades that he was its author, which made Jo Swerling Jr. angry as hell. In a letter he wrote to the New York Times, he reiterated his belief that his father was responsible for the core achievement of the show and didn’t fancy the likes of Frank Rich in his review for the Times writing that the “book was written by Abe Burrows from an abandoned first draft by the screenwriter Jo Swerling.”

This in turn had Feuer and Martin (still alive at the time) write their own rebuttal to Swerling Jr.’s charges. It made for some fun back and forth of charges and recriminations, but it mainly had the opposite effect, further cementing Burrows as the one and only author of Guys and Dolls.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book



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.