"In 50 years or so, it's gonna change, you know." That's what Roxie and Velma tell us in the song "Nowadays" in Kander & Ebb's Chicago. Well, let's look back to when "nowadays" meant the 1953-54 season.
Due to eligibility cutoff dates at the time, two shows that opened during what we would now consider the '53-'54 season won Tony Awards as Best Musical a year apart. The '53-54 top prize went to Kismet, which opened on December 3, 1953 at the Ziegfeld Theatre; The Pajama Game, which premiered May 13, 1954 at the St. James, won the ultimate honor in '54-55. Joan Diener, the original Lalume, and her husband, Kismet director Albert Marre, graciously shared some reminiscences for this article; so did the leading man of The Pajama Game, the legendary John Raitt.
Among the women who graced the Broadway stage that season were Katharine Cornell, Uta Hagen, Shirley Booth, Ina Claire, Eva LeGallienne, Judith Anderson, and Julie Harris. The season started with a production of Oklahoma! at City Center; it was the first stop of a tour with Florence Henderson as Laurey and Barbara Cook as Ado Annie. Three other Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals -- South Pacific, The King and I, Me and Juliet -- were then playing on Broadway and all would close by season's end. Other holdovers included Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Wonderful Town, Dial M for Murder, The Seven-Year Itch, and Picnic.
To benefit City Center, José Ferrer revived four of his successes: Cyrano de Bergerac (with Arlene Dahl as Roxane), The Shrike, Richard III (with Vincent Price and Maureen Stapleton prominent in a large cast), and Charley's Aunt. Four days after winning an Oscar as a princess in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn won a Tony for playing a water sprite in Ondine, directed by Alfred Lunt (who received a Tony) and featuring Marian Seldes and Mel Ferrer (Hepburn's husband).
Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten co-starred in Sabrina Fair. (The play's title was shortened to Sabrina when Billy Wilder filmed it with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.) Charles Laughton directed Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, starring Henry Fonda, John Hodiak, and Lloyd Nolan; when the property was filmed as The Caine Mutiny, José Ferrer, Van Johnson, and Humphrey Bogart had the corresponding roles.
The Golden Apple, the first musical ever to transfer from Off-Broadway, was through-sung. A highlight of the score was "Lazy Afternoon," introduced by Kaye Ballard. The show had opened at the Phoenix on 12th Street at Second Avenue, where some stellar names appeared during the season: Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in Madam, Will You Walk, Robert Ryan as Coriolanus, and Montgomery Clift in The Sea Gull.
Deborah Kerr and John Kerr (no relation) were the leads in both the original Broadway production and the subsequent movie version of Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy. Directed by Elia Kazan, the play had a popular curtain line: "Years from now, when you talk about this -- and you will -- be kind." John Patrick's The Teahouse of the August Moon proved a huge hit, winning a Tony and a Pulitzer; David Wayne won a Tony as the Japanese houseboy Sakini but lost the role in the movie version to Marlon Brando.
Norman Krasna's Kind Sir co-starred Mary Martin and Charles Boyer as an actress and a diplomat. (The property was later filmed as Indiscreet, starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant.) King of Hearts, a comedy by Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooke, had Jackie Cooper, Cloris Leachman, and Donald Cook in the leads; Bob Hope, Eva Marie Saint, and George Sanders would play their roles in the movie version, titled That Certain Feeling.
Cyril Ritchard directed the season's only revue, John Murray Anderson's Almanac, which featured four Broadway newcomers -- Hermione Gingold, Billy DeWolfe, Harry Belafonte (who won a Tony for his efforts), and Polly Bergen -- as well as Orson Bean and Carleton Carpenter. The ensemble included Larry Kert, Tina Louise, Monique Van Vooren, and Kay Medford. Among the show's writers: Jean Kerr, Cy Coleman, Sheldon Harnick, Bart Howard, Richard Adler, and Jerry Ross.
James Dean played opposite Geraldine Page and Louis Jourdan in The Immoralist. Appearing in one-person shows were Anna Russell, Ethel Waters, Ruth Draper, and Victor Borge. Jeanmaire had the title role in The Girl in Pink Tights, Sigmund Romberg's last musical, which marked the Broadway debuts of two young dancers: the Hines brothers, Maurice and Gregory.
Alfred Drake, Doretta Morrow, Richard Kiley, and Joan Diener were the leads in Kismet, for which Robert Wright and George ("Chet") Forrest wrote a score based on themes by Alexander Borodin. Drake won a Tony for his performance. "Everybody connected with the show stayed friendly," says director Albert Marre. Concurs Diener, "It's a terrible cliché about being a family, but it did feel like that."
Diener looks quite youthful as the three of us chat in the Marres' East Side townhouse. ("Nobody has ever touched her face," claims her husband.) The couple has been married since 1956. According to Marre, "It was Alfred Drake's agent, Robert Lantz, who asked, 'Albie, would you like to do a musical?' At the time, Carol Channing wanted me to direct her in a tour of Pygmalion because she was trying to get the role of Eliza Doolittle in a new Lerner and Loewe musical. Lantz asked me to go to Philadelphia to meet Ed Lester [co-producer of Kismet]."
Marre met with Lester, accepted the assignment, and traveled to the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, where the musical was scheduled to open. "Alfred and Doretta had been signed," he recalls. "Sets were being built and there were elaborate costumes. Jack Cole was doing the dances. There were five rehearsal rooms. A quarter of a million had been invested; money meant nothing. When I asked to read the book, I was told that it wasn't completely written yet [by co-producer Charles Lederer and Luther Davis]. I said, 'You're all mad!'"
Movie actress Arleen Whelan was up for the role of Lalume -- "a hopeless idea," declares Marre. Among several others, Lisa Kirk auditioned for the part. "Then an agent said, 'There's a girl at Metro named Joan Diener who wants to get out of there. [Diener had made tests for MGM but no films.] She's somebody you should see."
Diener arrived for her audition straight from a beauty parlor, hair in rollers, with two dogs in tow. "I sang an aria from Carmen," she recalls. "Albie said, 'Oh, my dear, that's not what we want. These are more popular songs -- in a lower key.' So I sang 'From This Moment On.'" ("And belted the place apart," Marre interjects.) Soon, Diener was cast as Lalume. "I made my hair very silver and tried to look 10 years older," she relates, "because I was barely out of school."
At one point, a dispute over who should be in charge developed between Lederer and Lester. According to Marre, Lederer said that he'd get the $180,000 needed to bring the show east and take over the production; he called his aunt, Marian Davies, who asked, "When will you pick up the check?"
Continues Marre, "Dick Kiley got into the show at the last minute, in Philadelphia. I knew him from way back; I knew he could act and sing." However, the role required a tenor and so, notes Marre, "Dick left the show early [after the New York opening]." In 1965, Kiley, Diener, and Marre would have another great success with Man of La Mancha; Diener's most recent Broadway appearance was reprising the role of Aldonza in a 1992 production. Might she work again? "I hope so," she says. "If there was something that excited me, I'd love to do a good acting role or some singing."
Kismet opened on Broadway during a newspaper strike, Marre recalls. "Charlie Lederer went to Steve Allen, who had the [Tonight Show], and asked how much it would cost to buy the first 30 minutes. Then, on opening night, Helen Hayes, Orson Welles, and one celebrity after another [all friends of Lederer's] came on to sell the musical. The next day, there was a line around the block." When the newspapers did return, not all of Kismet's reviews were favorable, but by then the show was a success. Diener, Drake, and Morrow made their London debuts in the musical, and Diener again played Lalume there in 1978. "The movie version was a wild mess," states Marre. "Vincente Minnelli [who directed] had no notion of what was going on."
John Raitt, Janis Paige, and Eddie Foy, Jr. were the leads in The Pajama Game. The Richard Adler-Jerry Ross musical co-starred a Tony-winning Carol Haney, who caused a sensation in the "Steam Heat" number that she performed with Buzz Miller and Peter Gennaro. The first show choreographed by Bob Fosse, The Pajama Game was directed by George Abbott and Jerome Robbins.
Earlier in the season, Raitt had appeared in the short-lived Carnival in Flanders -- and he says that he was almost the leading man in The Golden Apple as well. "They played the score for me," he tells me over the phone from his Pacific Palisades home. "I said, 'You'll have to change keys, it's too low.' They wouldn't do that, so I couldn't do the show."
After auditioning for The Pajama Game, Raitt found out "that George Abbott didn't like the way I read. They tried a number of people, including Van Johnson and Darren McGavin. One Saturday, I got a call from my agent: 'They're desperate. They want to see you at the Winter Garden, following the matinee of Wonderful Town.' The first time, I'd auditioned with the third assistant stage manager; we did the kitchen scene. This time, they gave me a beautiful gal to play opposite. I was signed -- but not to a run-of-the-play contract. They still didn't have confidence in me. That worked in my favor: In New Haven, when I did get a run-of-the-play contract, I got a little more money."
Raitt remembers that George Abbott "didn't like Charlotte Rae, who was playing the boss's secretary, but he loved Carol Haney. Carol was so great! Janis Paige said, 'I think I'm going to be second fiddle as far as the critics are concerned. Maybe I should get out of the show.' Eddie Foy and I took her to dinner. Eddie said, 'Look, we've got our names above the title and audiences love to find a new talent. We're going to cry all the way to the bank.' So we convinced her to stay." But Rae left the production.
During the first week on Broadway, Haney became ill and understudy Shirley MacLaine subbed. As every Broadway gypsy knows, producer Hal Wallis happened to be in the audience and signed MacLaine for the movies. Raitt recalls the night: "Shirley was about 15 minutes late. They told her, 'You're on!' I never saw anybody so scared, but as good as she was, she worked her way through it. By the end of the week, she wasn't as good. As they say, 'You can get one performance out of somebody. It's the one after that, and the one after that...'"
Raitt acknowledges that Frank Loesser wrote two of Pajama Game's songs -- but not "Hey There," as some have alleged. According to Raitt, "He wrote 'There Once Was a Man' and 'A New Town Is a Blue Town,' which has intervals like 'My Time of Day' from Guys and Dolls. After Loesser died, my wife asked Jo Sullivan [Loesser's widow] to confirm that, and she did."
Needless to say, Raitt is happy to have done the Pajama Game movie. "That was really a fluke," he says. "Jack Warner had said to George Abbott, 'If I can get somebody to carry the box office, you can use the original people.' He got Doris Day -- and we got to play our roles. The film was shot twenty-two days under schedule because we all knew our parts."
The 86-year-old Raitt still performs occasionally at special events and in concert with his daughter Bonnie. He has fond memories of Eddie Foy, Jr., with whom he shared a St. James dressing room. "What a character!" Raitt exclaims in reference to Foy. "I'd worked with him in 1942, in Rosalie at the Hollywood Bowl. Sometimes, George Abbott would come into our dressing room, take a look at Eddie, laugh, and leave.
"In 2001," Raitt concludes, "Janis Paige and I went to Reprise! to see The Pajama Game. At the end, she whispered, 'They can't do it the way we did it, John.'"
Photo gallery loading...
Arabian nights: Alfred Drake and Joan Diener in Kismet (Photo courtesy of Albert Marre)
Two of a kind: Deborah Kerr and John Kerr in Tea and Sympathy (PhotoFest)
Joan Diener in an early publicity portrait
The Pajama Game is the game they’re in: John Raitt, Eddie Foy, Jr. and cast in the original production (PhotoFest)
There once was a man who loved a woman: Janis Paige and John Raitt in The Pajama Game (PhotoFest)