December 5, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“Don’t musicalize works that don’t need music,” wrote Ken Mandelbaum in his wonderful 1991 book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. Dissecting what went wrong with dozens of Broadway shows (some of which closed out of town), this particular section of the book includes a number of musicals that had no business being written in the first place, particularly when you take the source material into consideration. Gone With the Wind? Harold Rome, the gifted composer/lyricist of Fanny and I Can Get It For You Wholesale was responsible for the score, but even expensive runs in three different countries and changing the title along the way to Scarlett couldn’t get the show to the promised land of Broadway. Some source material already “sings” by way of lyrical poetry already inherent in its texts (Our Town comes to mind … and it’s been musicalized twice). More often than not, adding music feels like forcing a square peg into a round hole. For every Pygmalion that has blossomed into a My Fair Lady, there has been a Doctor Zhivago that wilted and died (if you don’t recall, it played Broadway for a month in 2015).
Which brings me to Say Hello to Harvey, a musical version of Mary Chase’s Harvey, the charming 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning comedy that had a long run on Broadway between 1944–49. It’s about the whimsical drunkard Elwood P. Dowd and his friend, the 6' 2" rabbit that only he can see (on the off-chance you have never heard of it, it’s a lot better than it sounds). This attempt at musicalizing Harvey never made it out of Toronto, where it had its one and only production at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in September, 1981.
It was all the idea of the British composer Leslie Bricusse, known mainly for his collaborations with Anthony Newley on such 1960s musicals as Stop the World I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd. He has forty (!) play and film musicals on his resume, including the much-maligned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written with the even more maligned Frank Wildhorn. Turning eighty-seven next month, Bricusse has at least one more musical still in play; Sammy, a musical biography of Sammy Davis Jr., an entertainer he knew well, as Davis recorded a great many of Bricusse’s songs, such as “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” “Who Can I Turn To?,” “Feeling Good” and “The Candy Man.” Not to pour too much salt into a wound I may have already opened, but Bricusse may be responsible for what I personally consider the worst song ever written for a musical: “Paris Makes Me Horny” from the 1995 Broadway musical adaptation of the filmVictor/Victoria. Sample lyric:
“Paris is so sexy. Ridin’ in a taxi gives me apoplexy.”
With Say Hello to Harvey, Bricusse took on all chores — book, music and lyrics. In Not Since Carrie, Ken Mandelbaum writes “Harvey was one of those superbly constructed character farces which could only be weakened by adding songs.” And with Bricusse expanding the original 13-person cast to include “happy townspeople” (the first sign of what not to do when adapting a property like this), he didn’t score many points with an opening number titled “Smalltown, U.S.A.” It’s for reasons like this that Say Hello to Harvey had no reason for being … and yet it was a show I would love to have seen.
Why? Well, for one thing it starred Donald O’Connor, who at the time, was an excellent choice to play Elwood P. Dowd. Possessing natural Irish charm, he was fifty-six years old in 1981, and still a marvelous song and dance man. For the second thing, it had in the supporting role of Elwood’s sister Veta Louise Simmons, the British actress Patricia Routledge. From all reports of everyone who saw Say Hello to Harvey in Toronto, Routledge was sensational in the part. It’s not surprising, as she always received good reviews in everything she ever did (including the ill-fated Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Jule Styne and Yip Harburg’s under-appreciated Darling of the Day). For the latter, she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical in a show that only ran for a month. Not an easy feat to pull off.
And here’s where the third thing comes in why I would have liked to have seen the show: Damn that Leslie Bricusse! — but he wrote some infectious tunes. With no cast recording, you may wonder how I’ve heard any of Say Hello to Harvey. Well, it’s because I own a bootleg audio that was recorded through the Royal Alexandra Theatre’s sound system. And again, I reiterate that Bricusse’s lyrics are nothing to write home about (surprise), but the tunes have a bouncy Broadway sound that is very possibly forever gone from today’s musicals. It’s a nostalgic thing for me to listen to some of the score, especially as it’s a live recording, with the audience applause probably making it seem a lot better than it was in the theatre.
You can hear what I mean (or at least I hope you can), in the audio clip below. It’s the final moment of the show and easy to visualize: Elwood and Harvey are finally accepted by Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae, and everyone is now going home together: one big happy family (including Harvey) who, if you believe what Elwood says, is going to drive them home! As the orchestra blares the theme to the title song, I picture the red velvet curtain coming down (I think you’ll recognize the moment instantly, too). It’s those crashing chords that get me every time. They bring on a warmth that comes over me I really can’t explain, which is why I’m offering up the audio here:
How can you not love it when after Elwood says, “There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you,” that Harvey gets entrance applause? I mean, after all, he is invisible.
In 1981, when New York Magazine dedicated its Fall issue to upcoming events in the arts (as it still does), Say Hello to Harvey was listed as en route to Broadway, as you can see below:
That “theatre to be announced” was never announced because Say Hello to Harvey closed in Toronto at the end of its scheduled run. However, the musical written about in the paragraph directly above it managed to come to town after its Boston engagement and do quite well: Dreamgirls (although at this point, it was apparently a two-word title). And as for the musical mentioned under the photo of Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim … well, let’s just say it did better than Say Hello to Harvey in that particular fall of ’81 … but not by much .
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.