Hand me a biography of Lucille Ball and I'll immediately zip to the very back pages of the book. Why? Because I'm interested in the index, specifically the entries under "W," most specifically the entries under Wildcat. After I read whatever pages are dedicated to that 1960 musical, I'll return to the index to look for Too Many Girls, hoping not just to get information on the movie that Ball made with her soon-to-be-hubby Desi Arnaz but to also find a mention of his appearance in the 1939 Rodgers and Hart stage musical.
That's me -- always looking at indices of non-fiction books, hoping to find italics that refer to a Broadway property. It happened today as I passed our bookcase at the Newark Star-Ledger, the newspaper for which I review New Jersey theater. Our book critic leaves tomes he's finished (or has chosen not to read) and I delve into anything that might have a show business reference or two.
Such as Act Natural: How to Speak to Any Audience, by Ken Howard. Could this be our Ken Howard from 1776, Seesaw, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Indeed it is, and the actor (along with co-author Edward Tivnan) is out to help people conquer their number one fear: getting up in front of a crowd. I'm sure it's a worthwhile tome for that reason, but there I was in the index, looking for italics. No 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but there was Seesaw, 80-82, so I flipped to those pages and saw that original star Lainie Kazan sang "a terrific song called 'Big Fat Heart' in which she confides to the audience what a softie she is." But "the zaftig beauty of the talented actress encased in a dancer's leotard gave the song an unintentional double meaning." Howard then goes on to say that he thought the song could work (it does sound good on Lost in Boston III) but that Neil Simon, the book's uncredited doctor, suggested to Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields that they write a song about Gittel's tendency to screw up a relationship. So we got "Nobody Does It Like Me" in its place, and we apparently have Neil Simon to thank for that.
Back to the index, where I found that 1776 was covered on pages 68-70. Here, Howard mentions how he got the part of Thomas Jefferson. Seems that director Peter Hunt, who staged the show, had cast Howard as the lead in How to Succeed (could he possibly mean Finch?!) in Williamstown the previous summer and liked him so much that he insisted on having him in his new Broadway musical. The problem: Howard was already in Promises, Promises, which had opened to rave reviews and was destined to run for years. But he was only Fran Kubelik's brother in that show: He walked on in Act II, punched Jerry Orbach in the nose, took Jill O'Hara offstage, and that was it. Should he gamble on 1776 and its bigger role, even with its no-name talents and bleak possibilities? Howard did, and, as things (miraculously) turned out, he wasn't sorry.
Howard's comments on the scene where Jefferson sits down to write the Declaration are especially interesting: "According to the original stage directions, Jefferson starts writing and crumpling the paper, writing and crumpling, more and more in frustration. What I did was look at the blank parchment, think, write half a line, stop, crumple it up, and throw it on the floor. I then looked at the new piece of parchment, thought, wrote a couple of words, stopped, crumpled that up, and threw it away. Then a third time, I looked at the new parchment, thought, and crumpled it up and tossed it without having written a word. It produced a big, big laugh from the audience. My mother loved that moment because she explained, 'That was you.'" (Who knew that Howard -- not Peter Stone or Peter Hunt -- was responsible for that delicious moment, which is now firmly ensconced in the stage directions?)
Then I picked up Susan Fales-Hill's Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful. The mother in question is Josephine Premice, who has recently been in our consciousness because she appeared in both the 1954 and 1968 versions of House of Flowers. I didn't find much about that show in the book's index; but on page 267, Fales-Hill mentions that, at Premice's memorial service, Roscoe Lee Browne told how the lady noticed that star Pearl Bailey had taken Diahann Carroll's "Don't Like Goodbyes" during rehearsals because the kid was doing such a good job with it and Bailey would not allow herself to be upstaged. So, whenever Premice rehearsed "Two Ladies in de Shade of the Banana Tree," she did it in such a perfunctory manner that it became known among the company as "that boring banana number" -- until opening night, that is, when Premice went full throttle and stopped the show. Two days later, Bailey insisted that the number be given to three chorus girls in order to mute its impact. That's what made Premice quit the musical.
Next came a book called The Eight Human Talents, the title of which started me wondering what the Eight Human Talents could be. Singing Sondheim? Dancing Fosse? Performing Chekhov? Directing Pinter? Writing a Good Libretto? Doing Sets? Lighting? Costumes? The book was actually by an author solely identified as Gurmukh. The back inside flap of the dust jacket calls her "a pioneer in yoga and the mind-body connection," so I quickly assumed that the Eight Talents I came up with wouldn't be hers. But a look at the index showed me that she believed them to be Acceptance, Creativity, Commitment, Compassion, Truth, Intuition, Boundlessness, and Radiance -- which, in fact, are all prerequisites of Singing Sondheim, Dancing Fosse, Performing Chekhov, Directing Pinter, Writing a Good Libretto, Doing Sets, Lighting, and Costumes.
Caught a glimpse at a book called Government's Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Security by Paul C. Light. I went to the index, just to see how much light Light would shed on the National Endowment for the Arts. Well, it was none at all -- though you and I know that the government's setting up the agency was certainly one of its greatest achievements. What a slap in the face to the endowment, as if it hasn't had to endure so many already!
Equally deficient was Simon Garfield, who wrote a 222-page book called Mauve about the invention of that color by one William Perkin in 1856. I immediately turned to the index to find out what pages would be devoted to Dame Edna, who's made mauve famous. But there was nothing there. Maybe under Everage? No. Well, then maybe under Barry Humphries? No. I ask you: How seriously can we take a book about mauve that doesn't mention our favorite dame?
Speaking of Dame Edna, you've probably heard that she's being considered for the Harvey Fierstein role in the upcoming London production of Hairspray. If it happens, it won't be this performer's first appearance in a musical, for Barry Humphries originated the role of the Undertaker in the original 1960 London production of Oliver! When the Dame was starting her Royal Tour, I had a nice sit-down with her and finally asked: "Dame Edna, have you ever given a thought to playing the great musical theater roles. Mame? Dolly?" She started to answer, unaware that she was interrupting me, but I plowed on: "The undertaker in Oliver?" That's when she stopped what she was about to say, gave me a stony look, and said in a very icy voice, "The undertaker in Oliver! is not a great role."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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