February 16, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
For the most far-out out of town engagement of a show, could anything ever top the Yukon? But believe it or not, a musical entitled Foxy, starring no less of a comedic genius than Bert Lahr, did just that, trudging 3,000 miles away from the lights of Broadway. This was in 1964 before it headed for the now defunct Ziegfeld Theatre, where it opened on this date fifty-three years ago. Based on Ben Johnson’s centuries-old Volpone. I, for one, am very sorry I missed it. And that’s not just because I would love to have seen a show at the Ziegfeld. *
The reason for this historic first was that Foxy set its story took in the Yukon during the gold rush of 1898. Robert Whitehead, a renowned producer in his day (and someone who should have known better) had the no-so-brilliant notion that the show should debut in one of the most remote parts of the country … for what? The publicity value? Who would care? Certainly not the Dawson City denizens who had to be scraped up to attend and barely filled the theatre.
Naturally the show got good notices for its star, the by-then-already-legendary Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion of The Wizard of Oz) as well as his co-star, the very talented Larry Blyden. But there was a whole lot of fixing to be done and in the course of the following year, Foxy switched producers once, then twice; the last one being no ordinary mortal. This was David Merrick — the most prolific and notorious producer of the post-WWII era in the American theatre. Though famous for titles like Gypsy, Carnival, Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street, he also imported French, German and British plays such as Becket, Luther and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
In the twenty years between 1954 and 1974, Merrick produced 42 shows. And if all weren’t hits (they weren’t), even the flops are shows you may have heard of. There has never been, and perhaps never will be, a showman better at getting the names of his shows out there. He was responsible for some of the most bizarre and hilarious publicity stunts ever. Probably best reserved for its own column another time.
The team behind Foxy included lyrics by Johnny Mercer, one of the great songwriters of the American Popular Songbook and the score was by Robert E. Dolan, a film composer of the 40s, before he turned to producing films. Two of the infamous blacklisted Hollywood Ten screenwriters, Ian McLellan Hunter and Ring Lardner Jr. wrote the book using, as their source material, Ben Johnson’s Volpone, which has retained its darkly comedic bent from its first performance in 1606, and has remained a staple of rep companies around the world ever since. Its starring role has attracted an international stable of actors, the most familiar being British stalwarts Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield and most recently Michael Gambon, as well as American counterparts George C. Scott, Robert Preston and Jackie Gleason, who all played a 1970s version of Volpone in Larry Gelbart’s play, Sly Fox, which smartly set the action in the California gold rush of the late 1890s.
Funnily enough, Sly Fox was directed by Arthur Penn, who was one of the directors who originally passed on Foxy, because he didn’t think resetting Volpone during the Gold Rush would work. But for whatever reason, a dozen years later, Penn suddenly found the gold rush setting appropriate for Sly Fox. Maybe he saw Foxy and liked it? It’s possible.
The story that Ben Johnson first came up with, and which Gelbart and others have expanded on for centuries, has always remained the same: a con man pretends he’s very wealthy and very sick in order to ensnare genuinely wealthy (and equally corrupt) individuals into his trap. He makes them court him in the belief he is their greatest friend and that they will be the beneficiaries of all he owns after his death, making them ripe for a fleecing. My friend, writer Jon Maas (who just happened to have worked at one time as an assistant to David Merrick, though many years after Foxy) has always eyed the unseen potential in this musical. He has been working for a number of years on sprucing it up to see if it can get a new lease on life. He seemed the perfect person to ask to expand upon its backstory:
“When it opened in Dawson City it was at a new theatre. They often played to virtually empty houses, with only Indians in the audience, so it was hard to gauge the audience reaction. After Dawson City, half the score, all the cast save Blyden and Lahr and choreographer Matt Mattox were axed … According to conductor Don Pippin, the show was still a total riot and Lahr had one moment that caused the audience to laugh for five full minutes. After the opening night reviews (which were generally pretty darn good), Merrick sold the show back to Billy Rose, who promptly disappeared, going on his honeymoon and Merrick got stuck with a show he didn’t care about — especially with Hello, Dolly!, having just opened. He convinced RCA to cancel the recording and the authors threatened to sue (but didn’t).”
Foxy only ran two months, though it managed a Tony Award win for Best Actor in a Musical to Bert Lahr. But sadly, no Original Cast Album was produced, even though many other ’60s shows (with shorter runs and with lesser stars to boast in their cast) had their scores preserved for posterity. Who knows? Maybe via Jon Maas’s diligence and talent, we’ll see it (and hear it) again some day.
* A previous version of this column was first published July 7, 2016.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/