For part three of the saga of On the 20th Century, we begin with the Varietyreview dated February 20, 1978 which stated (rather unfairly) that “It’s ominous when an audience leaves a musical whistling the scenery.” This was due to the remarkable achievement of Robin Wagner’s scenic design, one of the most ingenious ever to inform a Broadway musical (and oh, how it fit so beautifully on the St. James stage). In extraordinarily clever ways, Wagner and director Harold Prince were able to feature the train from different perspectives, as if it were a film. Blasts from fire extinguishers had audiences laughing out loud during the overture, willing to suspend their disbelief this was a real train on stage. During a farcical chase scene in Act Two, where the entire company is running after tiny Imogene Coca, things culminated with both her AND the train heading straight for us, thrilling and hilarious at the same time.
“Comden, Green, Coleman and Prince and their dazzling crew have brought back the comedy in musical comedy,” raved the New York Times. This and other juicy quotes were used in the large ads that attempted to convey On the 20th Century as “a blockbuster of a new musical,” just like Rex Reed said it was. But with a top ticket price of $22.50, word of mouth was essential to its success. Broadway shows, especially musicals, can’t lose money every week and expect to pay off their investors. The fact is, many manage to run a year and never do (20th Century would become one of them).
A more substantive issue which caused worries for the producers was that Madeline Kahn, who had been having trouble with the vocal demands of the score and staying consistent in her portrayal of Lily Garland, started missing performances. Fortunately, Judy Kaye had been with the company since the first day of rehearsals cast as Lily’s maid, Agnes. More importantly, Kaye was given the coveted understudy assignment, available during rehearsals to stand in for Kahn while numbers were being staged, allowing for the star to rest and be put into songs after the heavy lifting was completed. Kaye’s familiarity in the part came in handy when, about two week’s after the show had opened, she went on with a minute’s notice.
My friend Alan Gomberg shared with me an interview he conducted with Kaye from a few years back about the circumstances surrounding her first performance as Lily:
Judy Kaye: “Well, I had rehearsed a bit, and I’d certainly thought about it a lot. I had no time to be nervous. I didn’t know I was going on until I walked in the door of the theatre. My watch was screwed up and I was actually five minutes late. The entire cast was standing there waiting for me, saying ‘You’re going on.’ I was whisked upstairs, the costumes were thrown on me, Imogene Coca had to give me a set of eyelashes because the character I was playing, the maid, didn’t wear eyelashes. I had done one smart thing. I had thought, ‘If I ever have to go on, I want a comfortable pair of shoes,’ so I’d bought a pair of shoes, sort of all-purpose pumps that I could wear, and I went on. And it was absolutely all instinct and all of the thought that I had given it.”
In a story that shows his protective nature, John Cullum is on record as stating that after Judy Kaye went on, Kahn asked how Kaye did. He said, “She knows the lines.”
A week later, Kahn was out again. The next day she asked the same question and Cullum told her, “She knows the blocking”.
Sometime later she was out yet again. Once again, the next day Kahn put the question to Cullum who replied, “If I were you, I would NEVER miss another performance.”
Nine weeks after the 20th Century had opened, Prince had had enough, and Kahn was out, and Kaye was in (spelled wrong in the New York Times announcement below). A $100,000 cash settlement was issued to Kahn; not a fortune today, but nothing to sneeze at. And most definitely a hearty sum in 1978.
Let it be said that I defy anyone to listen to the original cast recording, superbly produced by composer Cy Coleman, and tell me that Madeline Kahn isn’t incredibly good as Lily Garland. It’s one of those rare times when the thrill of a live stage performance is captured, sounding as if Kahn is performing her numbers on a stage, and not in a recording studio.
When I interviewed Prince in 2013, he told me “Had Judy Kaye done it opening night, the show would’ve run three years.” We’ll never know about that, but it is something to think about. With “A Star is Born” notices, it could have made all the difference (Kaye would go on to win a pair of Tony Awards in a long Broadway career that is still going strong). That said, there definitely were “Star is Born” comparisons made over Kevin Kline’s inventive comic performance as Bruce Granit, Lily’s ill-suited suitor. Playing handsome and dumb with an agility that had him literally bouncing off the walls, Kline took home the first of his eventual three Tony Awards for his performance. In fact, without a song to sing, Prince made sure that Coleman, Comden and Green created something specifically for Kline to perform, which is how “Mine” (written in rehearsal), wound up as a duet between him and Cullum, outdoing each other in ego-driven eccentricity. A dozen years later, Coleman would crib from Prince’s staging of the number for a different sort of duet in his City of Angels; an identical comedic situation where neither knows the other is directly next door.
When it closed in March of 1979, Kaye and Coca took 20th Century on tour with Rock Hudson assuming the role of Oscar. Nowhere near the voice needed for the songs he was assigned; he talked his way through some and warbled as best he could through the rest (“The Legacy,” Oscar’s final solo in the show, was eliminated). If you ever wondered how Hudson sounded singing “I Rise Again,” this one’s for you:
I Rise Again/Machiavelian Mind/Imelda
Stream I Rise Again/Machiavelian Mind/Imelda by Ron Fassler on desktop and mobile. Play over 265 million tracks for…
It took almost forty years for a full-scale New York revival of On the 20th Century when the Roundabout produced it at their American Airlines Theatre in the winter of 2015. Sadly, it was a winter in which a severe sinus infection took down Peter Gallagher during previews. Winningly cast as Oscar Jaffe, he was out for two weeks, with opening night postponed, until his vocal capabilities could return. Kristin Chenoweth, who on paper would seem to have made the perfect Lily Garland, sang the score with her usual adroitness and comedy chops, but something was missing. Scott Ellis’s direction looked pretty, sleek and energetic, but it needed some special fire for it to take off the way the original did. It was almost as if there wasn’t enough coal to keep the train running efficiently.
However, I feel particularly fortunate to have seen two 20th Centuries that were very special. One was in Los Angeles in 2003 for the Reprise! series, based on City Center’s Encores!, of semi-staged musicals done for brief runs. With a cast led by the estimable Bob Gunton and Carolee Carmello (with a hilarious Mimi Hines along for the ride), it was a stellar production. Then, in 2005, in a one-night only performance at the New Amsterdam Theatre, the Actor’s Fund produced a fundraiser that raised the roof on New York’s oldest musical playhouse. Starring Douglas Sills, the late Marin Mazzie, and Joanne Worley (who stopped the show with “Repent”), the evening was perhaps most memorable for how lovingly the audience took to the show as well as the performers. It was as if it was being reclaimed for its brilliance (which I think it was).
Here is a link to seeing Mazzie in her glory in a role she was destined to play, and happily did (also featuring Christopher Sieber, Brooks Ashmanskas and Brad Oscar):
And since Judy Kaye did indeed bloom, here’s evidence of that flowering by way of her performing with the original cast of On the 20th Century at the 1978 Tony Awards (catch the high notes she hits just before the end of the number). Due to the rules of the Tony committee that year, even though Kaye had played the show six weeks to Kahn’s nine, she was deemed ineligible for Best Actress (the nomination went to Kahn).
To bring this story somewhat full circle, Kahn indeed saw Kaye by second-acting the show one night. “She snuck in,” Kaye told Sirius Satellite Radio’s Seth Rudetsky, “and came back afterward with a bottle of champagne and we went out and it was very good. She was sweet.”
Oh, and the Tony went to Liza Minnelli for The Act.
And 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, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.