George Abbott
George Abbott
If you're going to honor George Abbott by doing three of his musicals -- as Jim Morgan of the York Theatre Company is planning for his Musicals in Mufti series -- then you really should start with the first musical Abbott directed. Well, co-directed, really; for even though Abbott had started directing in 1926 and, in nine years, staged such straight-play smashes as Broadway, Chicago, Coquette, Twentieth Century, and Three Men on a Horse, he'd never directed a musical as the 1934-35 season ended. Still, when Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart returned from Hollywood to write a new Broadway show called On Your Toes, they asked Abbott to direct. That isn't, however, the musical that the York will do this coming weekend. Instead, Jumbo will be on view.

You see, On Your Toes got stalled for a year when a producer backed out, just as Billy Rose asked Rodgers and Hart to write a circus musical. Rose and his wife, Fanny Brice, had been in Europe, where they had enjoyed many a circus. Rose had the idea of merging a Broadway musical with a circus and, even before he made one artistic decision, he booked the Hippodrome on 43rd and Sixth to house the artists, aerialists and animals. It had been built in 1902 specifically for spectaculars but had been shuttered for five years when Rose got the idea of putting a circus musical in there. Because it had a conventional left-center-right seating arrangement, Rose first had to remove the seats and stage and replace them with bleachers and a circus arena.

Rodgers and Hart signed on and suggested that Rose use Abbott, but the short showman was short-sighted about Abbott's abilities and only agreed to have Abbott co-direct. When Rose suggested John Murray Anderson as the other stager, Rodgers and Hart agreed, for he'd directed their Dearest Enemy a decade earlier with felicitous results. Abbott was mollified when told that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who'd done Twentieth Century with him, would write the book. According to Rodgers's autobiography Musical Stages, Anderson wound up supervising the circus sequences while Abbott did the book scenes.

And there certainly was enough work for two directors. They hired 21 principals (including one Jimmy Durante), 32 singers, 17 aerialists, 16 dancers, nine showgirls, and 31 circus acts -- including my personal favorite, A. Robins and His Bananas. There were dozens of animals, too, including the centerpiece, an elephant whom little Billy Rose named Big Rosie (though, of course, she was Jumbo in the show). All of this cost a fortune: Rose put up $35,000 in seed money and coerced multi-millionaire John Hay "Jock" Whitney to put up the then-astonishing sum of $280,000.

The Hippodrome
The Hippodrome
Not too many shows in those days started rehearsing in June, but that was just one more way in which Jumbo was atypical. On the Hippodrome door was a sign that read, "Sh-h-h-h! Jumbo is rehearsing!" Alas, that rehearsal period was longer than anyone expected: The planned Labor Day opening was postponed six times. Leading lady Ella Logan, who in 1947 would make her name in Finian's Rainbow, was fired during rehearsals (which anticipated her being canned from Kelly years later. The delays meant that Rose needed an additional $60,000, which he got from a bunch of tycoons including Bernard Baruch. He would have needed more if he hadn't convinced Actors' Equity that this wasn't really a musical, but a circus; in those days, circus performers didn't get paid for rehearsing. Rose said, "I'll be a dirty word if I open Jumbo before it's ready."

Rose foreshadowed the disgusting $480 tickets that Broadway Inner Circle now sells with an even more costly offer, though it did have a good deal more panache: He'd allow anyone to see the show in total solitude for $10,000. No one did -- perhaps because word got out that if you dropped by the Hippodrome, you could waltz right in and see a rehearsal without anyone bothering you. You might even see catch the part of the show where conductor Paul Whiteman rode in on a horse. (And we thought Urinetown had a novel way of bringing on its conductor!)

On November 15, 1935, Rose took out an affidavit with the state of New York that Jumbo would definitely open on November 16. (What a showman, huh? Ben Hecht said that Rose "found invisibility painful.") On opening night, tickets were nine times the normal size and some of them cost an astonishing $25 -- a level that musicals wouldn't reach again for 42 years -- though others went for $5.50 and $2.20. All 4,500 seats sold, but that kind of success wouldn't last for long, though, even though reviews were excellent. Jumbo ran five months (one fewer than it rehearsed) and closed on April 18, 1936 after 233 performances. It paid back about half its investment and was the final attraction at the Hippodrome, which was razed and replaced with a parking garage that adopted its name. Rose tried a Texas tour but it wound up losing an additional $30,000. Then Jumbo disappeared.

Much of the score didn't -- songs like "Little Girl Blue," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," and "My Romance." "The Circus Is on Parade" and "Over and Over Again" ain't chopped elephant, either. As Stanley Green writes in Ring Bells! Sing Songs!, his superb history of musicals of the 1930s, "Rodgers and Hart's musical efforts for Jumbo won top honors of the year, even though Cole Porter's Jubilee and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess had their champions (and their detractors)." The R&H show would have had yet another hit if Hart had set lyrics to a certain melody that Rodgers had given him, but he wouldn't do so for another year when he wrote "There's a Small Hotel" which wound up in the finally produced On Your Toes.

Excised songs from Jumbo that I assume we'll hear at Mufti include "Laugh," which top banana Durante did with A. Robins and his bananas; "The Song of the Roustabouts," which opened Act II; "Women," in which Durante mused about the opposite sex; "Memories of Madison Square Garden," wherein such personalities as P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb were replicated; "Diavolo," a look at the circus daredevil; and the inevitable "Circus Wedding."

Poster for the film versionof Jumbo
Poster for the film version
of Jumbo
What's the plot of Jumbo? Don't assume that, at the York, you'll see the same story that was used for the 1962 movie version. That had a screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, who'd go on to write many horror novels -- though nothing as horrific as his work on Billy Rose's Jumbo, as the film was ceremoniously called. In Sheldon's version, Jumbo is beloved by bareback rider Kitty Wonder (Doris Day) and her "Pop" (Jimmy Durante). "He's like a son to me," says Durante. "You can even see the resemblance," he adds as he matches his schnozzola with the pachyderm's. The elephant wins by a nose.

But Pop loves gambling just as much as Jumbo, and he's been losing jumbo amounts of the gate receipts. Bill collectors are pounding on the tent and the high-wire walker is threatening to walk. Kitty must do some fancy talkin' to postpone the inevitable, but a few bats of her blue eyes at least mollify the creditors for one more night. Game kid that she is, she always forgives Pop everything. So does Lou (Martha Raye), whose character let us see that Sidney Sheldon sure knew Guys and Dolls. Lou complains to Pop that today is the 14th anniversary of their engagement and says she wants to get married; she isn't getting any younger, and a person can develop a mold.

Meanwhile, drifter Sam Rawlins (Stephen Boyd, once Messala in Ben-Hur) shows up looking for a job. Of course, given the circus's financial hardships, Kitty can't hire him. But that night, when the high-wire walker is announced, he doesn't show up right away. Finally he does, in an elaborate mask -- because he's really Sam, who's auditioning for the just-vacated job. It later turns out that Sam is the son of a rival circus owner who has sent him as a spy. What bothers Sam (as if you didn't know) is that he's falling in love with Kitty. Just before he's planning to tell her he's really Noble's son, she finds out, which is what makes her "Little Girl Blue."

Perhaps the only lines retained from the original musical come at the ever-famous moment when Durante is trying to sneak out of town with Jumbo. "Hey, where are you goin' with that elephant?" he's asked by someone in authority, to which Durante innocently replies, "What elephant?" The irony is that, when this line is said at Musicals in Mufti, it will ring true, for there certainly won't be any elephant on the small York stage. "But," says Jim Morgan, "I just love the idea that we're taking a show that had 200 beings in it and are now doing with a cast of 10" -- including the talented Michael McGrath in the Durante role, under Jay Binder's direction and John Mulcahy's baton.

And what is the plot of the original Jumbo? Gerald Bordman, in his American Musical Theatre, sheds some light: "Two circus proprietors, Matthew Mulligan and John A. Considine, have long been at loggerheads. They are not made any happier when Matt Jr. falls in love with Considine's daughter, Mickey. Considine's drinking problem grows worse and he faces bankruptcy until his press agent, Claudius B. Bowers (Durante), burns down Considine's house, allowing him to collect the insurance. In the end, the lovers succeed in bringing the rival fathers together."

Why a George Abbott festival at Mufti? Explains Morgan, "Because I know Joy Abbott, his widow, from when George Abbott directed Frankie -- a musical version of Frankenstein -- for us in 1989. Last May, we started talking about George's shows when I ran into her after seeing The Pajama Game at Encores! Yes," he added with a grin, "I do go to Encores!"

The York's Jumbo runs November 1-3 in the Theatre at Saint Peter's, 54th Street & Lexington Avenue. It will be followed by How Now, Dow Jones (November 8-10) and New Girl in Town (November 15-17). Performances for all are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2:30pm and 7:30pm. An audience discussion follows each matinee. Single tickets are $30 but there's a $75 three-show package available. And those who'd like to see the upcoming winter Muftis -- The Grass Harp, A Family Affair, and Pacific 1860 -- as well as the company's full production of Porterphiles, a collection of rarely-if-ever heard Cole Porter material, can buy all seven shows for $150. Call 212-935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org for information.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]