Imagine my surprise when I saw the first episode of Will & Grace, in which Jack McFarland broke out in song -- and that song was "A Room Without Windows" from What Makes Sammy Run? Granted, if you peruse a copy of David Sheward's It's a Hit -- a book about Broadway's longest-running shows -- you'll find the 1964 musical in there, for it amassed 540 performances in the days when that was an impressive run. What Makes Sammy Run? also had a blue-chip title, thanks to Budd Schulberg's 1941 classic novel, and a Tony-nominated performance from the then-well known entertainer Steve Lawrence.
Still, What Makes Sammy Run? has been largely forgotten since it closed on June 12, 1965. More than a third of a century would pass before its Columbia cast album was released on CD, and then in limited release via Lawrence's son -- who, alas, issued it in monaural and on the cheap. Even the theater where the show played is history: The notorious 54th Street, home to Kwamina and The Student Gypsy, was razed in 1970. (In Who Killed Teddy Bear?, the 1965 movie that Sammy's producer Joseph Cates directed, you can see both the theater and the musical's front-of--house displays.)
One reason the show has been ignored is that its title character, Sammy Glick, is far more anti-hero than hero. As Brooks Atkinson asked rhetorically in his famous review of Pal Joey, "Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" Lord knows what Atkinson would have said about Sammy, who makes shady deals, blames others, betrays lovers, and causes a friend to commit suicide -- all to get to the top in Hollywood.
Too bad, for Ervin Drake's score is pretty impressive. No surprise: Drake's name is on at least three standards, one each from the '40s ("Tico-Tico"), '50s ("I Believe"), and '60s ("It Was a Very Good Year"). And Jack McFarland wasn't the only one to sing "A Room Without Windows," a swingin' '60s tune that was also recorded by dozens of artists. "You Help Me" is an admirable quodlibet and "Maybe Some Other Time" is one of the most beautiful show songs of the '60s -- and a few other decades, too. "The Friendliest Thing" is a song that Cole Porter would have been proud to have written in his prime. "Lights, Camera, Platitude" is a funny spoof of various movie genres that Lawrence performed with co-stars Sally Ann Howes and Robert (Alan's father) Alda, both of whom played screenwriters. Howes also had two worthy soprano spots, while Lawrence had a pretty and sincere song in his paean to Hollywood, "My Hometown," and a snarlingly effective 11 o'clock number, "Some Days, Everything Goes Wrong."
During the show's Philadelphia tryout, some days, everything went wrong for What Makes Sammy Run? Producer Joe Cates was unhappy. (Maybe his five-month-old daughter Phoebe was keeping him up nights). He decided that director Arthur Storch had to go and that Abe Burrows had to come in and direct. Burrows had just had a smash with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which also had an anti-hero in J. Pierrepont Finch. But Finch wasn't as unlikeable as Sammy Glick, so Burrows endeavored to tenderize the show.
Drake has since said -- speaking for himself and for co-librettists Budd and (his brother) Stuart Schulberg -- "We were deprived of staging a tougher show by Cates, who felt it would not appeal to the audience of that time. Both the script and the songs were softened, and Steve Lawrence's Sammy was played fetchingly. The audiences loved him, but we felt the novel had been betrayed."
Though What Makes Sammy Run? was originally to open in late January 1964, it was delayed. As chance had it, another show was having terrible trouble in Philadelphia: Funny Girl, the producers of which decided it couldn't be ready for its already announced February 27, 1964 opening date. So What Makes Sammy Run? took that date instead.
The reviews weren't bad, but it was the star power of Lawrence that mainly sold the show -- and unsold it. He started missing performances, which helped (to quote a Drake lyric from the show) like a burglar helps Fort Knox. Lawrence also took a week's vacation four-and-a-half months into the run (and you thought that early vacation practice began with David Shiner!) His replacement was pop star Paul Anka. I can still see the back page ad in Variety that Anka bought the week after he did his stint. The full-page picture showed all three stars taking their curtain calls -- except that Howes and Alda were still bowed at the waist, their faces unseen, while Anka was standing upright and grinning away.
Anka didn't want to stay with the show, and no one with sufficient star power could be found to take over for Lawrence. So the producers just let Lawrence be, even when he started ad-libbing and then missed the entire Christmas week of performances.
In 1966, What Makes Sammy Run? was playing the Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills, California, with Frank Gorshin in the lead. Fourteen-year-old Robert Armin attended because he was a Gorshin fan but came away loving the show, too. He then read Schulberg's original novel and liked it even more. Years later, when he read the musical's script (published by Random House), he noticed flaws that he hadn't noticed when he was a kid.
In February 2000, Armin saw Sally Ann Howes in a theater lobby and was reminded of What Makes Sammy Run?, so he re-read the musical. As he says, "Sammy doesn't appeal to me in the normal sense of that word, nor is he supposed to. Schulberg created Sammy as a warning of what some people would do to reach Hollywood success. That was in the musical -- but so were too many different ideas for one script. Because huge ballets were popular back then, [the show] had two of them in the midst of How to Succeed-like comedy and farcical musical elements à la Comden and Green."
Armin contacted Drake, who liked his observations. Drake suggested that Budd Schulberg join them in a meeting. (Stuart Schulberg had died several years before.) The more Armin spoke, the more responsive the men were. "I wanted to get rid of the ballets and Hollywood shtick," Armin relates. "I told them that Rosalie Goldbaum and Billie Rand [both in the novel] should be in the musical." Rosalie was the girlfriend Sammy had in New York but left behind, and Billie was an actress-slash-sometime prostitute whom he met. The pitiable Rosalie saw none of Sammy's ugly qualities, while Billie saw them all.
Drake provided Armin with some songs that didn't make it to 54th Street. "Two-Cent Encyclopedia" -- a derisive term for a newspaper -- originally had Sammy running around the paper's office as a copy boy. "Doubles for Sammy would be used to show the chaos," says Armin, "but [choreographer] Matt Mattox couldn't make it work, so it was dropped." Armin feels it's a significant moment because it also introduces us to Al Manheim (Alda's character), a veteran newspaperman who is both fascinated and repulsed by Sammy.
"Don't Bite the Hand That Feeds You," about the need to play ball with your bosses, was originally written for Sammy to sing to Al -- "but the Schulbergs' mother hated it and asked that it not be used," says Armin. Now that she's gone to her final reward, Armin repositioned the number so that Sammy can sing it to a young writer whose script he's stolen. "You Can Trust Me," Sammy's sexual pitch to Kit Sargent (the Sally Ann Howes character), has become "I Can Trust Him" -- Rosalie's statement of her faith in Sammy. "Bachelor Gal" was a defiant anthem that Drake had intended for Kit, but it was outside of Howes's vocal range, so Drake wrote "A Tender Spot" for her instead. When Howes left the show and was replaced by Bernice Massi, who could sing "Bachelor Gal," it was put back. Armin has put it back, too, but has also retained the melody of "A Tender Spot," for which Drake has written new lyrics. The only song from the original production that's no longer present is "I Feel Humble," Sammy's show of false modesty on the night when his new picture opens. In its place is a new Drake song, "The Mother of All the Blues."
Says Drake, "The revised show is tougher and closer to the novel that first appeared in 1941. The social climate has so changed over the years that audiences will take readily to the honesty of the new presentation." We'll see if that's true next week: What Makes Sammy Run? will have a concert reading on March 26, 27, and 28 at 8pm, and on March 29 at 2pm and 8pm, at the West End Theatre at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. It's happening because the school's Robert Spiotto called Drake out of the blue to ask if the show could be done there. When he heard that there was a new script, he was even more excited. So here it will premiere with Adam Rosante as Sammy, John Gabriel as Manheim, and Susan Bigelow as Kit. Tickets are $23 ($20 for seniors); phone 516-463-6644 for information and reservations.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]