July 21, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
A day late and a dollar short, but I didn’t want to miss out entirely on the anniversary of the death of Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, who died on July 20, 1923, assassinated in an ambush by a half-dozen riflemen that also took out his bodyguards, secretary and a chauffeur. It was a few years after a decade-long war had ended, but payback for the atrocities Villa was responsible for during that time was not forgotten (or forgiven), apparently. Villa, whose real name was José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, was born in Durango to a sharecropper father and, while still a teenager, gained a sordid reputation as a bandit and a killer. Such skills allowed him to rise through the ranks of the Mexican army, of which he was a major player in the revolution that raged between 1910 and 1920. Wildly charismatic, Villa gave interviews to any journalist with a pad and pencil (or a camera), and even starred in his own movies. Although when Hollywood decided it was time to tell his story, Wallace Beery, the midwestern son of a Kansas policeman, was cast.
That this 1934 film, a highly fictionalized telling of Villa’s exploits, would become the subject of one of the unlikeliest projects for a Broadway musical has always been a subject of fascination for me. We Take the Town (as it was jubilantly titled) tried out in New Haven and Philadelphia and then died aborning, never making its opening night scheduled for April 5, 1962 at the Broadway Theatre. While forging my early theatre career in New York as an actor, if I met anyone in an audition or rehearsal room who ever saw this musical, I would ask them for any thoughts or remembrances. This was due entirely to its starring my favorite actor, Robert Preston.
This quintessential WASP playing a Mexican always boggled my mind, and I’m not the only one. Nathan Lane, when introducing a song from the show at a concert, wondered aloud, “Robert Preston as Pancho Villa! Can you imagine that accent?” But all I ever heard from any who saw Preston in this role said he was magnificent. In fact, Preston himself stated more than once that “I left the best performance of my life in Philadelphia.”
Harold Prince saw it and, when I asked him about it, said that Preston was “spectacular.” John Cullum, who was in the cast, told me “Bob Preston never really recovered from the show not coming to New York … he really was incredible in it. I pointed out he was hitting a particular note and I didn’t know how he was doing it. He stopped me cold and said, ‘I don’t know either — and let’s not talk about it!’”
The problems with We Take the Town were many, but the main one was a director ill-suited to working in the theatre. Alex Segal, a well-regarded television director, unfortunately had little to no experience staging a play, let alone a musical. Odd as this may sound, but for someone used to thinking about the big picture, Segal supposedly devoted too much time to small scenes as if getting his actors ready for their close-ups. This wasted valuable time and left him constantly behind. His solution to that was to cut songs and dances until the whole thing was a shambles, and its team of composer, lyricist and book writer were at war with him. Other directors (like Prince) came to the try out cities to look at it, but no one wanted to take on a show careening out of control like this. When the final set of reviews came in from the Philadelphia critics it was described as “ a cumbersome and confused show, almost anti-musical in form, which rambles along interminably … ponderously produced … with a leaden script.”
Once it was decided not to bring the show to Broadway, Columbia Records, the show’s chief financial backer, backed out of recording it. Fair enough, as few to any musicals which close out of town are ever that fortunate. But Barbra Streisand took a liking to one of the songs and recorded “How Does the Wine Taste?” on her Grammy nominated fourth album, “People.” And out of nowhere, Stephen Sondheim, in a 2000 New York Times interview listed “Songs I Wish I’d Written (At Least in Part)” and included “Silverware,” which sports some very clever lyric writing. For the record, the songs for We Take the Town were by Matt Dubey and Harold Karr, and Dubey co-wrote the book with Felice Bauer.
Stuart Hodes, a dancer with numerous Broadway credits, was assistant to Donald Saddler, the choreographer of We Take the Town, and thankfully jotted down his memories of the experience. He wrote: “Alex Segal, a video and movie director used to working quickly and leaving scenes on the cutting room floor, slashed fifteen minutes the first day, fifteen more the next, opening a great gaping hole he was unable to patch — the Titanic after the iceberg. After one long night of fruitless discussion, I heard him mumble, “And I thought, what could be so hard about directing a Broadway musical?”
As for Preston, the disappointment was profound. This was going to be his return to Broadway in a musical for the first time since he triumphed as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man five years earlier. His next musical, Ben Franklin in Paris, lasted about six months, and following that, he created the role of Henry II in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, which closed after three months. His discouragement was so great, he initially turned down a new two-character musical, I Do! I Do!, based on the Tony Award winning play, The Fourposter. Even with the temptation of playing opposite old friend Mary Martin, it took more than a dozen attempts to get Preston to say yes. Thankfully, he finally did, resulting in not only his second Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical, but also providing me with my first time experience of seeing a Broadway show.
If you care to read more about that particular night (and what came out of it), check out my book Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.