“THE WORST MUSICAL I’VE SEEN UP TO DATE”
December 27, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Forty-nine ago today (seriously, how could that be?), I headed home to Great Neck on the 5:00 train, having just seen a matinee for what was my 42nd Broadway show. When I got to my house, I headed straight for my bedroom, sat down at my desk and wrote my review, as was my standard routine by that time.
I was twelve years old.
Since March of that year, I had begun my weekly trips into Manhattan to see a Broadway show. I would eventually file 200 of these during this period from 1969 to 1973, which I cover in my book Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway. It was an extraordinary time — and as it will forever bear repeating — could be had at an affordable price.
The show was Jimmy, subtitled in the Playbill: “A Musical Play of the Life and Good Times of Jimmy Walker.” Who was Jimmy Walker? I’ll get to that in a bit, in the meantime, here’s my 50 year old review in its entirety:
It’s safe to assume I was pretty angry when I wrote this, i.e. Frank Gorshin “practicing to be revolting.” In hindsight, I was also unnecessarily unfair to Anita Gillette and Julie Wilson, two wonderful actress-singers who deserved better treatment. And as Anita is now a friend of long standing, I apologize for this nearly half-century old critique. ❤️
As to Jimmy Walker, he was the Mayor of New York City from 1926–1932, elected twice, but forced to resign midway through his second term, due to his being totally corrupt. Wildly popular, he flauntingly broke Prohibition laws; openly carried on an affair with his mistress (shades of later New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani), and had a propensity for clothing bordering on the irresponsible (his valet was said to have packed 43 suits for a European visit in 1927). Somehow his taste for the finer things in life, actually endeared him to an electorate that suffered the effects of the Great Depression, with the stock market crashing on his watch. Go figure.
By the time of Jimmy, this so-called lovable rogue was already the subject of a 1957 film titled Beau James, which starred the relentlessly cheerful Bob Hope. And perhaps due to the success of 1959’s Fiorello!, a somewhat fictionalized version of the life of another former New York City Mayor, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the creators of Jimmy hoped lightning would strike twice. It didn’t. Think of the 1920s and its free-wheeling days of Prohibition on stage, along with flappers, speakeasies and bathtub gin. Seems like a great fun, right? It wasn’t. Clive Barnes in the New York Times wrote that it was “a musical with only three flaws — the book, the music and the lyrics.”
For one thing, Fiorello! was the work of a team of professionals with solidly successful backgrounds, including producer Harold Prince and co-book writer and director George Abbott. And even if this was only the second musical for the newbie songwriting team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (whose first Broadway musical The Body Beautiful closed in two months), they would prove to be the real deal, as 1963’s She Loves Me and 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof so ably demonstrated. Jimmy was the work of novices, since the book writer, Melville Shavelson, though a veteran Hollywood screenwriter who had co-written Beau James, had never previously written for the theatre, and the composers were a husband-wife team that could only muster a one-sentence bio in the Playbill of their prior accomplishments: “Bill and Patti Jacob have written for: Diahann Carroll, Eydie Gorme, Florence Henderson, Steve Lawrence, Barbara McNair, Bobby Rydell, Frank Sinatra and Dusty Springfield.”
Of course, Jimmy was always dependent upon who played the title role in order for it to achieve any level of success. I vividly recall all these years later reading Earl Wilson’s Broadway gossip column in the New York Post when it seemed like there was always a mention, prior to Jimmy’s arrival at the Winter Garden Theatre, of who was turning it down. Everyone from Robert Preston to Jack Cassidy to Darren McGavin were some of the names I remember. Common sense, as well as a good nose to sniff out a stinker, surely led them all to pass. Eventually Frank Gorshin was cast, who was at the time a well-known impressionist (whose dueling Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster was an outstanding routine), and whose star had risen in recent years due to his notoriety as the Riddler on the cult-ABC series Batman. But a charmer, he was not. He always had a kind of oily presence, and his singing was not exactly of the crooning variety. You can hear for yourself, as he is in eleven of the eighteen tracks on the Original Cast Recording.
As for the score, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve listened to it many, many times over the years. I can’t explain why, but it makes me nostalgic for a certain kind of musical that I saw over and over again during my four years of sitting through dozens of Broadway flops. In no particular order they included Cry For Us All, Minnie’s Boys, Coco and Two By Two, among others; all with poor books, but scores that featured something redeemable, either by way of a smart lyric or two, one standout song, or the kind of orchestrations that still make my heart sing.
Jimmy was also a first-time production for the recently retired Hollywood movie mogul Jack L. Warner, one of the true innovators of the motion picture industry, who along with his siblings, was the first among equals at Warner Brothers. However, he was completely out of his depth producing a Broadway musical, even though according to his lengthy Playbill bio, he “produced more than 5,000 motion pictures.” Not a shy man, my favorite line in this bio is the statement that “One would need fifty Playbills to tell in depth of his life and times.” That and “During rehearsals of Jimmy, Jack L. Warner delayed production meetings for two days so that he could dine at the White House with President Nixon.”
And yes, while writing this column, I listened to the Original Cast Recording of Jimmy in its entirety. You can too. It’s available on iTunes.
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. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.