Poole's first Broadway job was dancing in the 1960 revival of Finian's Rainbow, which lasted only two weeks because an actors' strike shut down Broadway. Later that year, when he auditioned for Tenderloin, he was thought to look too young; but Cecil Beaton, the show's set and costume designer, said that Poole would look older if he grew a moustache. Choreographer Joe Layton hired Poole on that condition, as well as another; he would later ask Poole for (and got) sex. As for Tenderloin, Poole believed that "the show had wonderful possibilities that were never realized because of poor direction" -- a slam that has often been made against George Abbott for his work on this musical.
Poole then joined the cast of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. One night, during "Belly up to the Bar, Boys," he lost a contact lens. Tammy Grimes almost stepped on it, but he found it just in time and popped it into his mouth for safekeeping. After that, he again worked with Layton as a dancer and dance captain in No Strings. Among his claims: The 1962 musical was the first in which every person had a body microphone, and composer/lyricist Richard Rodgers took all of 10 minutes to write "La La La." Not everything went smoothly; Rodgers and Layton disagreed on a reprise of "Maine." Wrote Poole, "I guess Mr. Rodgers thought 'Maine' could become another popular state song like 'Oklahoma!' It didn't happen." What did happen was that Poole appeared in drag during the show's closing performance -- although he was careful to get Rodgers' permission in advance. Isn't it surprising that Rodgers said yes, considering what a homophobe we've heard him to be?
In 1963, Poole assisted Layton on Noël Coward's The Girl Who Came to Supper. He claims that he took notes with one hand while Coward held his other. But the way he staged the song "How Do You Do, Middle Age?" made Coward's ardor immediately fade, and Poole was almost fired. In 1965, Richard Rodgers wanted Joe Layton to direct Do I Hear a Waltz? but Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim preferred John Dexter. When Dexter was selected, Poole was a compromise choice for choreographer. "My initial reaction to Stephen," he wrote, "was quite sensual." He also wrote that Dexter "was blatant about his homosexuality. That didn't bother me, of course. As a matter of fact, it's the only thing I liked about him. Dexter prevented me from even listening to creative discussions. He was a nasty, insensitive man." To prove this point, Poole added that Dexter -- in front of the entire company -- said to star Elizabeth Allen, "Fuck you, you pig." My!
It's interesting to read that Gwen Verdon was being considered to replace Allen, especially since this was a show that was originally intended to have little dancing. As it turned out, Herbert Ross was brought in as the new director and choreographer, though he didn't take official credit. Poole offered to stay on as associate choreographer, and he did. Later that same year, Ross offered him a job as a dancer in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but Poole felt that he'd already moved on and was now an official choreographer. He joined the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and was told that he'd have to give the organization a portion of his Waltz royalties. When Poole said he was paid a flat fee, they said he was entitled to more. The issue went to court, which sure didn't please Rodgers, even though he won the case. "After that, work became hard to find," Poole wrote.
So he assisted Layton on George M. in 1968. Do you think that's Joel Grey you hear tapping on the cast album? Nope, it's Poole. He reported that a 10-minute ballet lasted all of one performance in Detroit. One night, he peeked at cast member Bernadette Peters's notebook. "Bernadette had maybe 30 lines of dialogue in the whole show, so she had written things down to help her [with her character]," he wrote. "She'd made up an entire scene where George [M. Cohan] comes into her room late one night and sits on her bed. He talks about his ambition and his love for his family. It continued, expanding her every moment in the show to help her overcome the brevity of her scenes. She'd done this on her own, and her hard work paid off. She was terrific. I knew that with her talent, brains, ambition, and her mother's help, she would become a star."
Next, Poole assisted Layton on 1969's Dear World. He admitted that when he met Angela Lansbury, he was "gushing all over her like an idiot fan," but she calmly told him, "Well, Wakefield, get over it. Now, call me Angela and let's get to work." They did -- but they couldn't make the show a hit. Poole conceded that Michael Stewart called him "truly crazed, the most certifiable person he knew" when they worked on George M. But if he did have that reputation, it didn't discourage Layton from hiring him yet again for Bring Back Birdie in 1981. Poole wrote that the show was "disastrous. I can't remember one pleasant thing about it other than getting to know Chita [Rivera], who'll do anything for you." (Is any one of us surprised to hear that?)
By the way, in his book, Poole tells how Hal Prince had made a decision on a Follies logo before he saw Byrd's now-legendary design. When Poole suggested that he look at what Byrd had done, Prince took the time to do so -- and, of course, chose it instead. When all is said and done, this may have been Wakefield Poole's greatest contribution to the American musical theater.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]