I was at the Colonial in Boston for the opening night in January 1967 to see this musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. George Sanders, whom everyone still remembered as Addison De Witt, the acerbic critic in All About Eve, would portray the acerbic radio commentator Sheridan "Sherry" Whiteside, who apparently breaks his leg during a trip to a small Ohio town and must stay put. Elizabeth Allen, whom Boston had seen two years earlier (albeit at the Shubert) as the lead in Do I Hear a Waltz? would be Maggie Cutler, his secretary, who would find in that Ohio town her prince Bert Jefferson -- who'd be played by Jon Cypher, better known then as Prince Christopher Rupert Wendemere Vladimir Karl Alexander Francois Reginald Lancelot Herman (Herman?!) to Julie Andrews's Cinderella in 1958. And as Lorraine Sheldon, the seductive actress whom Sherry brings to town to quash Maggie's romance, the show offered the one and certainly only Dolores Gray, who'd never originated a role in a money-making musical but still managed to win a Tony Award for a show that closed in less than a week: the 1953 bomb Carnival in Flanders.
When producers Lee Guber, Shelly Gross and Frank Ford (better known for producing musicals in summer stock tents) first announced the project, it was called Dinner with Sherry. But two-thirds of the title was excised before the show reached Boston, around the time that a song called "Sherry!" was reaching the airwaves courtesy of a pop singer named Marilyn Maye. She'd just had a hit with "Cabaret" -- and she wasn't the only one on Sherry!'s staff to claim that distinction. Choreographer Ron Field had just had a hit with Cabaret, too -- though of course, he worked on the show and Maye merely recorded the title song.
Directing Sherry! -- "an intoxicating musical," said the little tag line under the title -- was Morton Da Costa, who in 1955 had staged Plain and Fancy (a hit), followed by No Time for Sergeants (a bigger hit) and then Auntie Mame (an even bigger hit) and The Music Man (the biggest hit of them all). But then came the awful Saratoga and a success d'estime drama, The Wall. And then came Hot Spot, the 1963 musical from which Da Costa was canned. Now nearly a decade had passed since the director had tasted success. Would he do so with Sherry!?
I modestly took my place in Row H, dead center in the orchestra of the Colonial. There was no overture, a rarity in those days. Instead, we got a mock Pathe newsreel that showed Sheridan Whiteside having various and sundry important meetings with celebrities and included a mention that he was traveling to Ohio. The film stopped, the screen lifted, and there was a plane from which George Sanders got off most hesitantly, looking as if he were desperately afraid he was going to fall.
Whiteside eventually falls, of course, but Sanders would certainly fall metaphorically in this musical. He looked terribly old, awfully tired, and made what can charitably be described as perfunctory stabs at his opening number, "Why Does the Whole Damn World Adore Me?" and "Crockfield," a radio broadcast about a convalescent home for convicts. But even if Sanders had been in the prime of his life, was Addison De Witt a natural for Whiteside? The former has dry wit, while the latter's is juicy. Sanders seemed bored, and perhaps he was: Five years later, he committed suicide and left a note that said, "I'm leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough."
Book writer-lyricist James Lipton and composer Laurence Rosenthal had opened up the play to show "Maggie's Date," where Ron Field had decided that she and Bert would go roller-skating. Hence, a roller-skating ballet in the wide-open space -- so wide-open, in fact, that I couldn't help noticing that the cyclorama behind them had a big, L-shaped tear that had been sewn back up but still showed its scar. (Things had apparently been difficult during the load-in.) I can still remember Allen roller-skating and then (purposely) going too fast and sailing off into the wings, but the only other thing I recall is that the number wasn't impressive. (Allen's next song, "Maybe It's Time for Me," was, though.)
Maggie returned to Sherry and told him that she was in love, prompting him to sing "How Can You Kiss Those Good Times Goodbye?" It's not that the song was bad -- it was a rather good one, in fact -- but there was something unmusical in having Whiteside earthbound in his wheelchair. Lord knows that in Little Me, Bob Fosse had Sid Caesar's Mr. Pinchley in a wheelchair, but there he had Belle Schlumpfert pushing him around as a chorus gleefully trotted across the stage with them. A problem with musicalizing The Man Who Came to Dinner is that you have a guy in a wheelchair for a perilously long time, which means that the actors have to look down on him as they sing and he has to look up at them. Musicals have to sing but they also have to move -- and Whiteside, hemmed in by the show's plot, couldn't. At least, not for a long while.
Given that Sanders was in that chair, I don't recall how he got to the upper level of the house, but he did. And then he sang "With This Ring," wherein he rang Lorraine Sheldon and demanded that she come to town to vamp Bert while he was downstairs giving a very different kind of ring to Maggie. That's when Dolores Gray sauntered on.
I'll try to put this as nicely as possible, for I've been overweight since about Day Six of my life, so I shouldn't talk. But I have to say that Gray's svelte days were long behind her. I can still see her love handles pouring over her belt as she sang, "Sherry!" What I did notice, though, was that the song had many more lyrics than Maye sang, and they were terrific. (You may already know this from the Unsung Musicals album that Bruce Kimmel released some years ago, where Christine Baranski and Jonathan Freeman deliciously did the song. We can only hope that Nathan Lane and Carol Burnett do as well on the new Angel release.)
Still, Sherry! was not striking me as a hit; and that may be why I have no memory of the rest of the first act, save that it ended with penguins coming in. They weren't actually penguins but actors in penguin suits. The problem is that they didn't look like penguins but like actors in penguin suits.
What do I remember from Act II? Gray's big number, "Putty in Your Hands?" No, I only remember that she reprised it before she was stuffed into the sarcophagus. I recollect seeing Sanders standing and singing "Marry the Girl Myself" but he didn't look much more animated than he had when he'd been seated. And I still can see the entrance of Eddie Lawrence, who'd suffered a good deal at the Shubert in Boston two seasons earlier -- not as an actor but as the bookwriter-lyricist for Kelly, the most notorious flop of the '60s until Breakfast at Tiffany's eclipsed it only a month before Sherry! went into rehearsal. (BaT had played Boston's Shubert under the title Holly Golightly.)
Speaking of that show, I wasn't surprised when Kevin Kelly in the next day's Boston Globe blithely described Sherry! as "so awful that it makes Holly Golightly look like a nostalgic work of art, and no, I'm not kidding." But give Sherry's creative team credit: They didn't sit still but, rather, parted company with Sanders, Da Costa, and Field. Then they brought in Clive Revill to do the job of the first-named and Joe Layton to assume the tasks of the last two. From everyone I talked to who saw Sherry! in New York, it was greatly improved and certainly deserved a cast album. Now, thanks to Lipton's connections as the host of Inside the Actors Studio, he not only got the aforementioned Lane and Burnett but Bernadette Peters, Tommy Tune, and Mike Myers, too. Robert Sher, the record's producer, contributed Phyllis Newman, Tom Wopat, and Lillias White. That's quite a cast, and I'm betting that the two CD Sherry! will be the highlight album of 2004.
Now, you'll excuse me as I go off to talk with Lipton to see if his memory of Sherry! in Boston jibes with mine. We'll see what he has to say on Wednesday.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]