Susan Johnson, who gained a stellar reputation as a quintessential Broadway belter in the 1950s despite the fact that most of the shows she appeared in were flops, died in Sacramento, California on February 24. She had been suffering from emphysema for some years, and her age at the time of her death was 75.
Born in Columbus, Ohio as Marilyn Jeanne Johnson, she attended Ohio State University and began her Broadway career in the chorus of the original production of Brigadoon, eventually taking over as Meg Brockie; she recreated that role in a 1950 City Center revival and in a 1957 Columbia studio cast recording, co-starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, which has yet to be issued on compact disc.
Johnson's one successful Broadway show was Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, in which she co-starred with Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan, Art Lund, and Shorty Long. She played Cleo in the musical and got to sing its biggest hit, "Big D," as a duet with Long. The long list of short-lived Broadway tuners in which Johnson appeared includes Buttrio Square, Oh, Captain! (for which she received a Tony Award nomination), Whoop-Up, and Donnybrook!. Johnson also was one of the stars of The Carefree Heart, a 1957 Wright and Forrest musical that closed on the road before even reaching Broadway.
Asked for a comment on Johnson's death, Broadway and TV star Beatrice Arthur -- a friend -- told TheaterMania, "I don't know what to say; she was so sick for so long that I think it's almost a blessing. She was an extraordinary performer with one of the great voices ever heard on a stage. We became friends and it was sort of a mutual admiration society. She was something special."
Last year, Harbinger Records issued a CD of previously unreleased live recordings by Johnson. The accompanying CD booklet contains a comprehensive interview with Johnson conducted by TheaterMania's Peter Filichia, the full text of which is reprinted below with kind permission of Harbinger president Ken Bloom.
"I'm shocked when people remember who I am," says Susan Johnson from her daughter's home in Las Vegas. But there are many of us who may be shocked that Susan Johnson is shocked. For while she hasn't appeared on the Broadway stage since the summer of '61, many of us have happy memories of the brassy gal who was part of the original cast of seven Broadway misses and one lone Broadway hit.
Susan Johnson was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1927 and started performing at an early age. "My parents had me on the radio when I was three," she says. "I'd be at home rehearsing, but I'd be looking out the back door and seeing the other kids play and wonder why I wasn't out there." Talent, that's why. When her singing teacher brought Johnson and nine other 17-year-olds to audition in New York in 1945, she was one of two who were deemed to have promise. So two years later, she moved to Manhattan. "On June 22, 1947," she remembers. "I know, because I was 19 and was about to be 20 on July 6 -- and on that very day I got a job in the chorus of Radio City and was able to rent an apartment at 50 Central Park West, where Ezio Pinza lived. I could hear him vocalizing all the time."
One day in 1948, a Radio City castmate wanted to audition for Brigadoon and Johnson took the walk down Sixth Avenue with him to the Ziegfeld Theatre. She wound up auditioning just for fun, and -- doesn't this sound like a scene in a bad musical movie biography? -- she got the show and he didn't. It would be an important building block in her getting the role of Meg in Lehman Engel's Columbia recording of Brigadoon some years later.
Her first role in a brand new show was hardly of Brigadoonian proportions. It was the now notorious Buttrio Square -- "pronounced Boot-ree-oh," she instructs. The musical by rank newcomers had such trouble getting to town that the cast had to forsake their salaries to get to Broadway -- a fact that still rankles Johnson a bit. "In the show, I was a girl who was somehow in the Italian army," she recalls, "and I sang a song called 'Get Me Out.'" Soon, she was indeed out -- of a job, when the show ended its seven-performance run. (Said critic Walter Kerr, "During the overture, you hoped it would be good. During the first number, you hoped it would be good. After that, you just hoped it would be over.")
Johnson paid the rent by appearing in nightclub revues and doing backers' auditions. The latter category included a musical version of the 1935 classic film Carnival in Flanders which was put together by some Hollywood powers (Book: Preston Sturges. Music: James Van Heusen. Lyrics: Johnny Burke.) It would reach Broadway in 1953, with a cast that included John Raitt, Joe E. Brown, Dolores Gray -- and Johnson. "I was understudy to Dolores," she says, "but I never went on." Truth to tell, Gray only went on six times in the role before the show closed (enough times, though, for the diva to win a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical). Even more incredibly, the score did yield one standard, "Here's That Rainy Day." "But, says Johnson, "that song was actually part of a five-minute sequence." And off she goes on the telephone, singing to me the words and music that she still remembers from a half-century ago.
Good times were coming for Johnson, though, starting on the day when Frank Loesser asked her to be part of Project Three. "That wasn't the actual name of the show," she says, "but it was Frank's third Broadway project, after Where's Charley? and Guys and Dolls. It would become The Most Happy Fella (in 1956). I was asked to play a waitress named Cleo who was a combination of Shirley Booth, Eve Arden, and Patsy Kelly. The day we started, I had a terrible cold and went to get cough medicine but Frank grabbed my hand, stopped me and had me learn 'I Don't Know Nothin' About You' -- not as a ballad, but as a lickety-split song, which I would have to do in the show." Which she did, portraying Cleo and introducing one of the show's hits, "Big D." She enjoyed replicating that for the cast album but is still disappointed that when waxing her first song, "Ooh, My Feet," the powers-that-be at Columbia wouldn't allow her to say "Son of a bitch." (To be frank, Johnson did lace all of these stories with a profane word or two.)
Johnson would stay with The Most Happy Fella for most of the run, but not all -- for in 1957, when Robert Wright and George Forrest sought her as the leading lady for their new musical version of Molière's The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Johnson said yes. Alas, The Carefree Heart was not a carefree experience but a heart-wrenching failure that never made it to New York. "It was supposed to star Cyril Ritchard," says Johnson, "but we wound up with Jack Carter. They are not," she stresses, "the same thing. I sang the title song and played a nurse. When we closed, Robert Weede, the star of The Most Happy Fella wanted me back, but they couldn't work it out for me to return."
In 1958, she heard there was a musical version of The Captain's Paradise in the works -- "but I couldn't land an audition for it. Luckily, the stage manager was a friend and he had them see me. The director was José Ferrer and I knew he was interested in me -- especially when he asked to see my apartment," she stresses in a suddenly low voice. "Anyway, he did cast me in the show even though there was no role for me."
The authors -- bookwriters Ferrer and Al Morgan, and songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans -- sure found her one, and Johnson became Mae, the owner of a Parisian nightclub in Oh, Captain! "Livingston and Evans pulled 'Give It All You Got' out of their trunk," Johnson says, "but they wrote 'The Morning Music of Montmartre' for me and I'm grateful. I loved singing that beautiful song, even if it was for only 192 performances." By the summer of 1958, Johnson would be unemployed -- but, again, not for long. By fall, she was in rehearsal for Whoop-Up, a musical about a high-livin', bronco-bustin' Native American. Once again, Johnson played the owner of a nightclub, although "Glenda's Place" was a much more modest Montana watering hole than the Parisian boite she tended in Oh, Captain!
"That poor show," Johnson now reminisces. "I did try to give the character some strength, especially in a song called 'Men,' where I said that the more I got to know men, the more I liked dogs." The show endured a seven-week run, leaving the way for Johnson's final Broadway appearance in 1961, in Donnybrook!, where -- surprise! -- she owned a pub, though this time an Irish one. For Donnybrook! was the musical version of The Quiet Man, a rare good film from Republic Pictures about an Irish-American boxer who's killed a man in the ring, leaves America in favor of Ireland where he hopes to never fight again -- but finds he must. Johnny Burke, the Carnival in Flanders lyricist, worked on this one, but this time wrote the entire delicious score. Johnson got one great solo where she was backed by a chorus, and participated in a spectacular duet, too.
The former was "Sad Was the Day," in which she semi-mourned her late husband. (Stephen Sondheim put it on the list of songs he'd wished he'd written.) The latter was "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny," the showstopper she shared with Eddie Foy, Jr. Genuine admirers of Oh, Captain! and Whoop-Up are hard to find (though substantially easier than locating those who'd go to bat for Buttrio Square, Carnival in Flanders, or Carefree Heart), but few musical theater enthusiasts aren't enthusiastic about Donnybrook!'s songs. Still, 68 performances was all the show could muster.
Top billing one day, next day she's touring in stock, in the title roles in Annie Get Your Gun and The Unsinkable Molly Brown and what should have been the title role in Gypsy if Rose had only gotten her due. But Johnson's life was to go through an unfortunate change while she was doing La Mome Pistache in Can-Can in Hingham, Massachusetts in the summer of 1963.
"Sheree North, playing the Gwen Verdon role, was considered the star," Johnson recalls, "so she got the use of the company car. They offered me a motor scooter, and I took it because I knew how to use it from driving Abbe Lane around on stage in one in Oh, Captain!" But Johnson was involved in a road accident ("Not my fault," she says) and was unconscious for two weeks. Worse, she was virtually deaf when she awoke. "I'd fractured my skull in two places, had to wear a neck brace, and had to use a cane because I had no equilibrium," she reports. "It took me a year and a half to feel right again."
By then, she was thinking less about performing and more about marriage and children. In 1964, she wed Chet Kehn, once a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and, a year later when she was 38, had a daughter whom she named Corianne Frances. "Had she been a boy," says Johnson, "I would have named him Johnburke Kehn, after Johnny. As it is, his middle name was Francis, so that's where Corianne's middle name came from. Because I had missed a lot of my childhood by performing, I wanted her to have her own childhood. So I was a full-time mother, and I'm glad I was. Now I like to come back about once every two years and do a song or two -- like when I did 'Who's That Woman?' in a concert version of Follies in Los Angeles."
But there is another aspect to Susan Johnson's career and that includes her many TV appearances on a local New York television show called American Musical Theatre, which was shown on Sunday afternoons in the early '60s. On it, she and other singers would perform the best of Broadway. Some of her cuts are included on this [Harbinger] disc. So while Susan Johnson did make a few original cast albums, here's her first soundtrack album, if we don't count her appearance as one of the singing nuns in Sister Act. And if Johnson was angered by the censorship in The Most Happy Fella cast album recording, imagine how she felt on American Musical Theatre when the guardians of TV morals had her simply stop singing in "Always True to You in My Fashion" to avoid the "full of Schlitz" reference.
Because these recordings come from live television, they're not always perfect. Such is the case with "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny." Not that Johnson makes a mistake, but composer-lyricist Johnny Burke, sitting in for Eddie Foy, does, fluffing his own words a couple of times. But who wouldn't be nervous as hell performing with the likes of Susan Johnson?
By doing such songs as "It's a Lovely Day Today," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," "If I Were a Bell," "Somebody, Somewhere," "I Love Paris," and the aforementioned "Always True to You in My Fashion," Susan Johnson reminds us of how wonderful she must have been as Annie Oakley and La Mome Pistache, or would have been as Mrs. Sally Adams, Sarah Brown, Rosabella, and Lois Lane. Now we'll never know, but I would bet much more than one penny on the way we'd feel: Terrific.
[To access Marc Miller's review of Harbinger Records' Susan Johnson CD, click here.] Harbinger president Ken Bloom tells TheaterMania that enough unreleased Johnson material exists to make up "another half a CD," and he plans to release those recordings some time in the future.]