I first discovered the property through its heavenly 1964 movie version. How I loved watching Tippy Walker as Val and Merrie Spaeth as Gil (full name: Marian Gilbert), two schoolgirls who get a big crush on avant-garde pianist Henry Orient and decide to follow him everywhere. They soon catch Orient trying to seduce a woman who constantly worries that her husband will find out about them. When Val's mother discovers how the girls are spending their time, she's furious with her daughter, and grounds her. But Val manages to get out, and she and Gil continue to follow Orient around -- only to find that his new amour is Val's mother. Val is so devastated that she displaces her hostility on Gil and breaks the friendship. But the kids' bond is too strong to be totally ruined, and though some time must pass, Val and Gil are seen enjoying each other once again as the end titles play.
After seeing the film for the first time (I'd revisit it often during its first-run stint), I immediately went to the heavenly bookstore in Harvard Square that stayed open late and bought the novel The World of Henry Orient, by Nora Johnson (who admitted it was somewhat autobiographical in that she had had a crush on pianist Peter Duchin when she was a lass). It turned out to be a terrific read but a very different experience from the movie. The author's daddy, Nunnally Johnson -- who was a co-writer of such films as The Grapes of Wrath Tobacco Road, and Roxie Hart -- had joined her on the screenplay, so I suspect that it was he who added Henry's hopeless pursuit of a married woman and the girls' fouling up his every move. In the novel, Orient barely appears and has no romantic/sexual passion.
When I heard in early 1967 that Bob Merrill was adapting the property into a musical, I was thrilled. Granted, Merrill's last set of music and lyrics, for Breakfast at Tiffany's, had been profoundly disappointing, but all of his work before that had been sterling: New Girl in Town, Take Me Along, Carnival, and the lyrics for Funny Girl. He'd be back, I was sure. And if you take a look at page 173 of William Goldman's The Season, his landmark study of the 1967-68 Broadway semester, you'd think that the show did all right, indeed -- for Goldman called Henry, Sweet Henry "one of the most successful musicals of the year."
The thing is, he was being sarcastic. Merrill and bookwriter Nunnally (without Nora) Johnson saw their show open on October 23, 1967 at the Palace, and close there on December 31 after only 80 performances. Its entire $400,000 investment was lost. But the season was so murderously bad for musicals that most of the 13 other tuners that opened lost even more money, so Goldman anointed Henry, Sweet Henry the winner by default.
Henry was the very first new musical that would be reviewed by the brand new theater critic of The New York Times, Clive Barnes. Young 'uns who now read Barnes in the Post probably think he's not a very harsh critic; but they should be apprised that when Barnes was at the Times from 1967-77, he was a tough marker. What's more, he wasn't then much of a fan of conventional Broadway musicals, of which Henry was decidedly one. Barnes was interested in rock and roll coming into the Broadway musical theater, so six days after he panned Henry, he raved about Hair. Granted, the world was a-changing in the late '60s, and Barnes decided that the musical needed a wake-up call. The World of Henry Orient wasn't even early '60s at heart, what with its very '40s or, at the latest, '50s approach to schoolgirls' crushes and obsessions. Merrill's music had an innocence about it; one of his lyrics held onto the notion that teenagers in the post-Beatles era still lusted for Charles Boyer, who played the old man in the film version of Barefoot in the Park that same year. No! In 1967, girls were wild for Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, or even the suddenly cute Dustin Hoffman, who appeared in The Graduate. Though that film was also a story in which a daughter and mother are interested in the same guy, The Graduate's was far more frank. So while Henry, Sweet Henry had to settle for being "one of the most successful musicals of the year" on the aforementioned technicality, The Graduate legitimately became one of the most successful movies of its era.
Really, could any teenage girl get excited over the 59-year-old Don Ameche? Over 20 years later, Ameche would be the darling of the day (to quote another 1967-68 musical) in his Oscar-winning role as a lovable old geezer in Cocoon. But when he played the title role in Henry, Sweet Henry, his matinee idol days were gone; that's why he was the producers' umpteenth choice. So the show might play better this weekend with the cute Mark Nelson in the part. What's more, we're in an era where a number of recent Broadway musicals (Avenue Q, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Beauty and the Beast among them) have a sound similar to Henry. (Seems that rock and traditional show music are now living a peaceful coexistence, don't you think?) Secondly, considering the wayward ways of the average teenager of today -- i.e., the barbarians who aren't interested in Broadway -- there may be something charming in the retro way that Henry, Sweet Henry presents teens.
But will we see the show as it was when it played the Palace? Here's the rub: In my notes for the cast album CD, I included this paragraph: "A pre-production demo of Merrill's score shows that out of seven songs, he only retained 'I Wonder How It Is to Dance with a Boy' and the title tune. Dropped before or during rehearsals, or out-of-town, were 'My Kind of Person,' which the two girls sang after they discovered how much they like each other; 'You Might Just Get to Like Me,' Henry's romantic pitch to any woman who came his way. For Val: "Somebody, Someplace," replaced by 'Here I Am" but borrowing the previous title as a lyric; and two which pretty much covered the same territory, 'Dearest Darling' and 'The One Love of My Life.'"
When Mufti director Gordon Greenberg and Suzanne Merrill -- the widow of the composer-lyricist -- read that, they inferred that I had a tape of these songs. Indeed I did, and they asked to borrow it. "Maybe there's something in here that we'd like to use," Greenberg said, and Mrs. Merrill nodded enthusiastically. So of course I had to let them have it, even though there's a part of me that would like to see Henry, Sweet Henry just the way it was for 80 performances in 1967.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]