Saw Hobson's Choice at the Atlantic. Brian Murray mugged a little too much as Henry Horatio Hobson, a British boot purveyor of the 1880's, but Martha Plimpton and David Aaron Baker were terrific as his daughter Maggie and his employee Will. Since they're the ones that the play's really about, David Warren's Choice turned out to be choice.

Harold Brighouse's 1915 comedy is one of my favorites because it says what few other plays about the sexes do: If a man and woman work together, each providing what the other lacks, they can have a wonderful relationship. Will is an excellent boot maker; Maggie has a head for business. But he has no ambition and she can't make boots. So, after her father says she's never going to get married because she's 30 (!), Maggie pulls Will the boot maker up by his bootstraps, turning him into formidable competition for her father, and a husband for her.

Of course, while watching, I did give a good deal of thought to Walking Happy, the 1966 musical version of the play that ran at the Lunt-Fontanne for 161 performances. I'm humiliated to admit this but, alas, I didn't catch even one of those performances. I did buy the Capitol original cast album the moment it was released, and found that it made no great impression. The music was by James Van Heusen and the lyrics by Sammy Cahn, who wrote dozens of wonderful songs for Frank Sinatra--"All the Way," "High Hopes," "Love and Marriage," "The Tender Trap," and even "Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong," which came from their musical Skyscraper, which came a year before Walking Happy. But Sinatra sure didn't record anything from Walking Happy. There wasn't anything in there truly suited to his needs, with the possible exception of the score's best song, "How D'Ya Talk to a Girl?" But, overall, the point, the score is woefully dull.

Still, I decided to give a few more listens to the album and to read the Samuel French edition of the script by Ketti Frings (she started writing the book) and Roger O. Hirson (he finished it). Would I now see Walking Happy as a lost gem? No, I now believe it's worse than I remembered. I knew something was wrong by page two, when Hobson tells his pub pals: "My two youngest girls are liabilities. But I'll hang onto my oldest girl, Maggie. She's an asset. She's my cook, housekeeper, stock clerk, bookkeeper, and salesman." Why wasn't this a song? As we shall see, Cahn and Van Heusen--Hollywood songwriters, really, who could pen a great tune to play over a movie's credits-- weren't good at dramatizing. A shame, for their Hobson was the able George Rose, who should have got the song. Instead, they and the book writers created the character of Beenstock, a temperance advocate; this fellow comes into the pub and gets the first song, in which he urges the drinkers to "Think of Something Else." Cahn and Van Heusen should have thought of something else.

This becomes more of a problem in the second scene, set in the boot shop, for we find that Hobson's two other daughters are interested in Beenstock's two sons, Freddie and Albert. This primes us for a show about girls who want to marry guys whose father would never approve of their father. But that's not what the show is about at all, so why stress this? Maggie does get her moment, though, to sing "Where Was I?" in which she wonders why she didn't land a hubby when she was younger. Not a bad idea to have her pensive; it softens her and makes us like her. Or it would, if it were a better song. But it's pretty bland. Five pages later, Maggie thinks about making her move, and the stage direction says, "Maggie paces the floor." Well, why not to music? Why doesn't this lead to a song wherein she decides to take action? Instead, it leads to four more pages of book (she tells her plan to a reluctant Will) before she sings a 10-line coda to end the scene. Not enough.

The next scene takes us below, where Will works. (They could have used a Sunset Boulevard-like mechanism, no?) Here, he tells his buddy Tubby what happened and asks, "How D'Ya Talk to a Girl?" Tubby's answer: "Ya just listen." Not just a fetching tune and lyric, but one that's quite rhythmic, thanks to all the shoemakers putting hammers to nails. At that point, I'll bet, theatergoers got a little hopeful that the musical might right itself. But no! The stage directions for Act One Scene Four say, "The pub. The scene opens with the mill hands doing a clog dance." Why? The best dances in musicals occur when people get excited, have something to dance about, and let their emotions soar. Why should we care about the anonymous people in the pub when we've ostensibly got Maggie and Will to root for? Why take our attention from them?

Sammy Cahn
Sammy Cahn
Eventually, we return to Maggie and Will. The latter sings "If I Be Your Best Chance," following the title phrase of that song with "then your chances, at best, be small." The wordplay is Cahn's, and it's a nifty turn of phrase...but it's not a quip of which the ignorant Will would be capable. I do like Cahn's having Will sing that, if Maggie is seeing him as "a prize," then she needs "some glasses for those big brown eyes"--because that shows he has the potential to be attracted to her. Yet, after he sings this song, why doesn't Maggie sing her perceptions? She's the force of nature. In most other scenes in the musical, whenever something is said antithetical to her beliefs or plans, she rebuts. Why not here? Actually, Will already has a girlfriend, one Ada Figgins. When this lady gets wind of what Maggie's planning, she shows up (with her mother, no less) to stake her claim. Again, lots of emotion; again, no song. And there should be a number for Maggie when she tells Ada and her mother that "Will's an artist. He has the feel of leather in his hands. He can shape it, cut it, and saw it better than any man." Doesn't that sound musical to you? Why not to Cahn and Van Heusen?

Will does rebel quietly to himself in "What Makes It Happens"--meaning love, which he doesn't feel for Maggie but hopes he'll find someday with someone. The song just isn't good enough musically or lyrically. Maggie then gets a song with her sisters; she urges them to "Use Your Noggin" in getting their men, but that's not where her or our energies should be concentrated. When she and Will approach a rich woman for financing and are turned down at first, there's a moderately interesting gambit in "You're Right, You're Right," as Maggie manages to persuade her by ostensibly agreeing with her. Still, the song is not as good as it could be. Neither is Maggie's "I'll Make a Man of the Man," which has the same sentiment that Grossman and Hackady would use in Goodtime Charley nine years later--only their song, "I Am Going to Love the Man You're Going to Be" says it better. Besides, Maggie expresses this idea too late in the show; "I'll Make a Man of the Man" should have been one of her first numbers.

Then comes the wildly inappropriate title song. Ethan Mordden in Open a New Window, his new book on '60s musicals, points out that "Jerry Herman's work informed many writers during this decade." That seems true of Cahn and Van Heusen, who wrote a would-be "Hello, Dolly!" number here. Actually, it's a trunk song, one they had originally penned for a Fred Astaire movie that never happened. The melody isn't quite right for 1880's England, and the song's a bore in any case. "I Don't Think I'm in Love," Will then proclaims, even as he and Maggie are making their way forward in business. Later he decides, "It Might As Well Be Her." Too bad that, in that second song, he didn't come to realize "It Must, It Must Be Her" because of all she's done for him. Much later, when the authors have him decide that he does love Maggie, he gets no song at all.

You know who do get their own song? "Four Devils," as they're called--new characters who represent the delirium tremens that Hobson experiences as he continues on his alcoholic road. George Rose gets all of six words here. Why doesn't the number center around him? Let's hear what he thinks about Maggie and Will's success without him. The show's final scene begins at Maggie and Will's wedding reception, where Freddie says "To the bride" and Albert follows it with "To the bridegroom." Words, words, words, I'm so sick of words without music! Granted, this isn't the love match of the century; but when people toast a couple, there should be some attempt at celebrating. And celebration, as Jones and Schmidt will tell you, means music.

Let's be a fair to Cahn and Van Heusen, though. Ken Bloom's American Song suggests that they may have had better impulses than this finished script indicates, for Bloom lists 14 additional songs that didn't make it to Broadway. Maybe they covered the precise plot points where I've groused about there being no songs. And perhaps if Mary Martin had played Maggie, as was the original intention, the songwriters would have stretched themselves to create better numbers for one of the first ladies of the American Musical Theater. But, as it turned out, Walking Happy is pretty lame and sad.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]