The lights dimmed to black and then a tiny spotlight picked up the small man walking forward to the lip of the stage. He got a burst of applause from the crowd at the Shubert Theatre in Boston for he was, after all, the noted singer-dancer-impressionist (to mention just a few of his skills) Sammy Davis, Jr. We were more than honored to have him in our town trying out his new musical of Golden Boy in July, 1964. That it had a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who'd had a smash with Bye Bye Birdie and had written a good score for All-American, added to the excitement. That esteemed playwright Clifford Odets had adapted the book of the musical from his own 1937 play--just before he died--added much more.
But it was Davis who created the real buzz. He had a different point-of-view from his fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop: He did Broadway, but they never did. While two Broadway appearances in eight years may not sound like so much, each was at a time in his career when he could have made much more money pursuing other entertainment venues. But Sammy Davis, Jr. had respect for the legitimate stage and the Broadway musical.
His first show, Mr. Wonderful, was an unexceptional tuner about a talented young entertainer who, unsurprisingly, finds love and success. The story was so spent by Act Two that Davis just did his nightclub act to finish the show. But Mr. Wonderful did yield a wonderful standard, "Too Close for Comfort," with music by up-and-comer Jerry Bock (who would soon meet and work with his greatest collaborator, Sheldon Harnick). The show ran nine months despite dullish reviews and Davis used "Too Close for Comfort" as a signature song for the rest of his career.
Golden Boy had much loftier ambitions. Odets certainly was going to add some punch to his three-decades-old drama. It had originally been the tale of Joe Bonaparte, a young Italian violinist turned boxer, who fell in love with his manager's girlfriend, Lorna Moon. However, producer Hillard Elkins had the brainstorm of making the boxer black, thereby greatly upping the stakes in the relationship.
But Sammy Davis, Jr. as a boxer? Listen, I think even I could have taken him on his best day, and I can't tell you how many playground beatings I endured in my youth. This Joe Bonaparte--well, Joe Wellington, as he was renamed--would be in the flyweight division. Still, I remember my excitement as I approached the Shubert, where the three-sheets showed a logo of a traffic signal pole with the middle light, the yellow one, lit. I suppose this was to represent "caution," which many characters in the show would urge Joe and Lorna to take. At any rate, the logo would soon be replaced, as would much of Golden Boy.
When that spotlight came up on Davis, he sang his mournful want song: "Beer and whiskey, whiskey and beer, Makes your head start achin', make your eyes unclear. Makes you waste your money, turns you blind and dumb. Gimme some." Those familiar with the original Broadway cast album may be surprised to hear this description for, on the disc, it's the fourth song and it's an up-tempo duet. But though the number was repositioned and rethought, at least it remained; song number two in Boston didn't. It was called "The Manly Art," in which the boxing promoters and trainers enticed Joe into abandoning fiddle playing for fighting.
That was followed by three keepers: "Night Song," Joe's aria of dissatisfaction; "Everything's Great," in which Lorna and Tom, the fight manager, acknowledge that everything isn't; and "Lorna's Here," her assurance to Tom that she won't leave him. (When Golden Boy opened nearly three months later in New York at the Majestic, the last-named song occurred somewhat later in the show.) The next two numbers would eventually be dropped: "Playground Songs," in which Joe and Lorna traded musical nursery rhymes in a park, and "There's a Party Goin' On," in which Joe yearned for the uptown life. Davis obviously had high hopes for the latter because he recorded it on one of his Reprise record albums. Now, all these years later, Strouse has retained the melody and Adams has rewritten the lyric for their musical version of An American Tragedy, still awaiting a production.
The show-stopping "Don't Forget 127th Street" came next, as Joe's boyhood pals urged him to remember his humble roots. It was followed by two more songs that didn't survive Boston: "He's Getting Good," in which previous skeptics came to appreciate what Joe has been achieving in the ring, and "Yes, I Can," in which Davis showed his increasing confidence just before breaking his hand at the end of Act One. The latter is another song that Davis would wax on an album, and for good reason: It was also the title of the autobiography that he had recently penned with an as-told-to writer, so Strouse and Adams obliged him with a song commemorating the event. (Golden Boy aficionados may point to a section of "This Is the Life" that includes a "Yes, I Can" sequence. Indeed, but that's neither the song heard in Boston nor the one that Davis recorded; it's an entirely different piece.)
Act Two began with a replication of the old Madison Square Garden--the one that sat on the west side of 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets--as Joe and his pals sang "Under the Marquee." That was dropped, too, but the next three songs remained as they were: "Golden Boy," Lorna's lament of love for Joe; "This Is the Life," wherein a rival boxing manager tries to entice Joe to work with him; and "Colorful," a cleverly written song in which Joe celebrates his blackness. Still, it wasn't long before we reached another song that would be discarded: "Poppa," in which Joe tried to plead his case to his father, who preferred him to play the violin and tuck it right under his chin instead of enduring the inevitable fists that would land there. And while "I Want to Be with You"--Joe and Lorna's aria of love--would stay, what followed it would not: "There Comes a Time," in which Joe sang about letting Tom know that he loved Lorna and she loved him. When that time comes, though, Lorna denies it all. Joe wins the fight and unintentionally kills his opponent in the ring, then takes off in his new car, drives much too fast, and kills himself. The show ended at the funeral, where we heard Joe's voice sing "Gimme Some" once again.
Eighteen songs, eight of which were dropped and two repositioned for Broadway. What's astonishing is that Boston was not the first stop on the tryout tour; Philadelphia was, so there probably were many songs added and subtracted there, too. (Strouse once told me he estimates that he and Adams wrote 50 songs for the show. It seems that Davis was terribly demanding.) After Boston came Detroit, as well as a new bookwriter (William Gibson, famous for The Miracle Worker) and a new director (Davis insisted that Peter Coe, who did Oliver!, be replaced, and Arthur Penn came in). By the time the musical arrived in New York and opened on October 20, 1964, it was a markedly different show, as Encores! audiences will discover this weekend: They'll encounter plenty of songs we didn't hear in Boston and an important plot difference, as well.
Though Golden Boy turned out to be a modest hit rather than a masterpiece, plenty of musical theater enthusiasts I've met over the years have proclaimed it Strouse and Adams' best score. By the way, 14 years later, the team wrote a show called A Broadway Musical--a backstager whose plot concerned the production of a Broadway musical about the sports world with a megalomaniacal black star. It was about baseball rather than boxing; the show that was being produced was called Sneakers. But if the character of the black entertainer was a slam at the star of Golden Boy, he got his revenge: A Broadway Musical lasted 568 fewer performances than the 569 that Sammy Davis, Jr.'s show amassed.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]