January 23, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Today is the 60th anniversary of the opening night of an original musical titled The Body Beautiful, which unfortunately for its creative team, cast and producers, ran just 60 performances. Its music was by a twenty-nine-old composer from Queens named Jerry Bock. Its lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, a thirty-three-year-old who had come to New York City nearly ten years earlier from his native Chicago to try his luck in the theatre. It was the first of seven Broadway musicals the two would go on to write together over the next eleven years before their partnership was put on hold for more than thirty (for that involved story, see my book Up in the Cheap Seats). And when reviews for The Body Beautiful came in, with no one giving it a favorable review (the New York Times called it “second-rate”), there was no way Bock and Harnick could have envisioned (only a short time later), that their next show would win them the Tony for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Fiorello!). Or that in the successive years of 1963 and 1964, they would produce two of the most beloved and classic Broadway musicals: She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof.
With a book by Joseph Stein and Will Glickman, who had paired in 1955 for the hit Plain and Fancy, their new musical took place in the world of boxing; the story of a fighter, his manager and … a girl … because there’s always gotta be a girl. The boxer starts off nobly, but once he finds success, loses the best part of himself in the process (until he inevitably gets it back). Theatregoers were treated to a much-admired boxing ring, created by the husband-wife design team of William and Jean Eckart, that was described by the New York Journal American critic John McClain as “simply staggering.”
By 1958, both Bock and Harnick had already been represented on Broadway, mostly by lending their songwriting talents to revues, which were still popular in the day. Bock did have one very thin book musical to his credit titled Mr. Wonderful, a 1956 collaboration with Stein and Glickman (as well as George David Weiss and Larry Holofcener), that served mainly as a way to bring Sammy Davis Jr.’s one-of-a-kind nightclub act to Broadway. Due to that specificity, it’s rarely (if ever) been seen again, though it did produce one genuine hit song: “Too Close for Comfort.”
How Bock and Harnick came together for The Body Beautiful, had to do mainly with a music publisher they shared. Tommy Valando was not only someone very good at his job, but he also possessed a knack for matchmaking (he was the guy who wisely put John Kander and Fred Ebb together). Of their working relationship, Harnick wittily quipped: “It was love at first write.” Bock was no less enthusiastic, recalling that “Sheldon and I had great simpatico, mutual respect, and the first blush of collaboration was marvelously exciting.”
Because of my profound affection for Bock and Harnick, I have always been curious about The Body Beautiful, especially since it’s one of the very few musicals of the 1950s that had no original cast recording. Many years ago, an album was put out on the Blue Pear label, which once specialized in live recordings of musicals purloined via recordings made on reel-to-reel tapes lifted off theatre sound systems. Finally in 2008, a studio cast recording was made that came out of a 2007 “Musicals in Mufti,” Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company’s low-cost productions of forgotten shows. I own both recordings and it’s clear that some of what made Bock and Harnick so special shines through .
The boxer in The Body Beautiful was played by Steve Forrest, an actor with rugged good looks, whose fights for leading roles in films landed him with a poor win-lose record (and it had to have hurt that a lot of great parts went to his brother, Dana Andrews). Of pleasant voice, it’s a shame that this was Forrest’s one and only Broadway musical. The same goes for Jack Warden as the show’s comedic lead, who never did another musical either. He more than holds his own in what little he’s given to sing, and critics gave him his customary high praise. One of the best character actors in the business, Warden was ubiquitous in the 1950s by way of his work in live television drama and in films such as The Bachelor Party and Twelve Angry Men. And as the fighter’s love interest, Mindy Carson was cast in what was her Broadway debut. A pop recording artist, she scored a hit five years earlier when “Wake the Town and Tell the People” reached #13 on the charts (What? — you never heard of it?).
One of the main reasons the show failed was that the material was too thin. Harnick felt that “It had a lot of good things in it, but it was hollow at the core.” And it is interesting to note, the team never worked on anything like it again. None of their subsequent work was set in the present as The Body Beautiful was. For all their future shows, they eschewed original stories, preferring to adapt from short stories or novels. It really didn’t surprise any of the creators when the show had a quick demise, as the signs were clear early on that it wasn’t going to take flight. It’s co-author, Joseph Stein, who lived to ninety-eight (and lived well), was someone who always projected a never-say-die spirit. He was fond of saying that “[The Body Beautiful] closed during a week where we had a terrible snowstorm that crippled the city … the show ran six weeks, but it it weren’t for that snowstorm, it could have run seven!”
So what if the first show in which Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick partnered yielded little fruit? Their personal orchard of shows has continued to harvest their work for more than half a century … with no end to new productions in sight.
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.