Funny thing about the three George Abbott musicals that the York Theatre's "Musicals in Mufti" series is currently doing. Last week's Jumbo, from 1935, and next week's New Girl in Town, from 1957, aren't as dated as this week's entry: How Now, Dow Jones, which opened on December 7, 1967.
How Now, Dow Jones has become a genuine period piece. You'll know from the first words of the opening number ("A-B-C") how much things have changed since 1967: "The market is a ticker, a slender piece of tape." The New York Stock Exchange gave up ticker tape many moons ago -- also making How Now's witty and dynamic logo (a Medusa head topped not by a mass of snakes but by a snarl of ticker tape) obsolete.
The second section of "A-B-C" mentions Johnson, meaning Lyndon Baines, then President (though he would announce the end of his administration a couple of months before producer David Merrick announced that How Now would shutter on June 15, 1968 after only 220 performances). The third section of the song mentions LSD, and lyricist Carolyn Leigh wasn't talking about the character who originally played Hitler in the movie of The Producers, which hadn't opened yet. In the late '60s, there was a lot of talk about the hallucinogenic Lysergic Acid Diethylamide -- and some people might have assumed that the creators of How Now, Dow Jones had taken the stuff, considering the plot that they conceived for the show. As follows:
Kate is the radio announcer who tells investors each afternoon what the closing Dow Jones industrial average is. She's looking forward to the day when she can say that it hit 1,000, for that's when her boyfriend Herbert says he'll marry her. (By the way: I've heard plenty of musical theater enthusiasts say lately that How Now, Dow Jones may actually not be dated, for if the stock market continues the way it's been going, the Dow will indeed hit 1,000 once more.)
Kate sees the Dow sinking, becomes discouraged that Herbert will ever marry her, and winds up having a one-nighter with an unsuccessful broker named Charlie Matson. Even that name is a kind of period piece; no writer would choose it now because it's much too close to Charles Manson but, in 1967, we wouldn't know about him for two more years. Anyway, this being a musical comedy of the '60s, that one night is enough for Kate to get pregnant. (By this time, most women were on the pill -- but not in musicals.)
Now, Kate "has to" get married but she can't find Charlie, so she uses her job to proclaim to the world that the Dow has indeed hit 1,000 so Herbert will marry her. The lie sets off a buying flurry and then the truth causes a selling panic. Herbert certainly isn't going to marry Kate now. If only she could find Charlie! (Think it'll happen? Once again, this is musical comedy of the '60s.) Meanwhile, worrying about Charlie are a group of widows to whom he's trying to sell stocks. But they are much more interested in matchmaking than making money. When they hear that he's unattached -- and that he has little confidence in himself -- they forge ahead with the show's big production number, which begins: "Will everyone here kindly step to the rear and let a winner lead the way?"
In the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, there is a secondary couple intended to provide out-and-out laughs. Cynthia, who conducts Wall Street tours, is desperately smitten with tycoon Mr. Wingate; but, in a case of something that almost never happened in musical comedy of the '60s, he is far older than she. Sure, money is a factor in her interest, but the writing (and, certainly, Brenda Vaccaro's marvelous portrayal of Cynthia) shows that she genuinely lusts for the guy, too. What's more, he was played by a guy who was no looker: Hiram Sherman, whose real-life nickname was actually "Chubby." William Goldman, in The Season, writes that How Now stayed around for months because the title promised a funny evening and "men tend to be interested in the stock market." Yes, but men also probably liked seeing a young lovely craving an aging, overweight man -- someone who looked remarkably like them. Lord knows how many propositions they made at their offices the next morning, in those years before "the suits" had to fear sexual harassment suits.
While Cynthia wants marriage, she'll settle for being kept, but the joke is that Wingate is too busy to ever visit her in the apartment he's financing. When one executive tells him that he looks marvelous, he explains why: "Hard work, regular hours, and 200,000 shares of IBM." And here's where How Now tells the truth: Men are more interested in their careers than in love. "I don't think I'm living in sin," Cynthia rues; but finally, after Kate starts her Wall Street panic, Wingate shows up at the nest for some love. "He's Here," Cynthia sings joyously, "my long-awaited Lancelot ... I'm trembling in my pants a lot." (This was the second time in six weeks that these words were rhymed on Broadway: Bob Merrill paired them in Henry, Sweet Henry, too.) But wouldn't you know that after months of hoping that Wingate will show for a little slap-and-tickle, Cynthia can't go through with it now that he's here? That's '60s musical comedy for you!
"With a plot like this, are you surprised there was a little trouble out of town?" asks Goldman in The Season. And that's where George Abbott came in -- literally, after Arthur Penn was fired as director. (Penn had to be mollified by the fact that his latest movie was turning out to be a big hit: Bonnie and Clyde, with a background score by Charles Strouse, whose musical Golden Boy Penn had come in to save when Peter Coe was canned out of town. There he replaced; here, he was replaced. That's show business.)
I saw How Now twice at the Colonial Theatre in Boston during its pre-Broadway tryout, first on November 4 (exactly 35 years ago today) and then on November 14 (exactly five years before the Dow Jones average actually hit 1,000). On my second visit, I found that the production numbers had an extra zing and zip in them; years later, I learned that up-and-coming choreographer Michael Bennett, brought in to help but uncredited, was the reason why.
RCA Victor gave the show its all, not only waxing the cast album but also getting three of its recording artists to do its songs: John Gary, who had a marvelous falsetto and breath control (because, he claimed, he'd been a scuba diver), did "Where You Are" -- a song between Charlie and Kate that would be dropped and replaced with "Touch and Go." Ethel Ennis did "Walk Away." And Marilyn Maye, who had waxed two other Broadway tub-thumpers -- the hit "Cabaret" and the semi-hit "Sherry" -- came up with the third jewel of her triple crown by recording "Step to the Rear." To this day, it's the best-known song from the show, albeit thanks to a car commercial that went: "Lincoln Mercury leads the way."
Even the promotion of the show's songs, Michael Bennett, and George Abbott could only do so much. Having Vaccaro, a then-unknown Tony Roberts, and a still virtually unknown Marlyn Mason as the leads didn't generate much excitement. So when How Now opened at the Lunt-Fontanne, its fate was sealed once Clive Barnes -- then the powerful critic for the New York Times -- wittily damned it as "How to try at business without really succeeding." Merrick understandably did not use that quote but opted instead for Walter Winchell's "How Now Dow Wow." The musical lasted long enough to warrant a summer stock tour the following year (which I caught in Cohasset, Massachusetts). There, Dow Jones starred Dean Jones, who had just signed his contract to play Bobby in Company the following spring -- a role he'd wind up playing for fewer performances than he played Charlie.
All right, Max Shulman's book for How Nowisn't terribly good and doesn't have much of a second act. (Ah, the original musical comedy, one of the toughest nuts to crack!) But I'll go to bat for the score, with music by Elmer Bernstein, last represented on Broadway in The Full Monty -- not by the show, mind you, but in the show, for composer-lyricist David Yazbek quoted Bernstein's butch melody from The Magnificent Seven in his song "Man." Bernstein is well regarded as a composer of background music for films -- The Man with the Golden Arm and To Kill a Mockingbird are his, for example -- but he came up with a jaunty set of show tunes for How Now and some pretty ballads, too.
And attention must be paid to any score that features Carolyn Leigh lyrics. Interesting, isn't it, that the most earthy of musical theater lyricists should be a woman? Leigh had demonstratedn her distinctively colloquial voice in Wildcat ("Don't pass the plate, bub, don't pass the cup") and Little Me ("You ain't no Eagle Scout"), as well as in her movie songs ("If you don't like the assortment, deal me out"). In How Now, she continued the tradition with such lines as "Run and hock the baby," "Watch your bloomers, Mabel," "Time you got off the ropes, kid," and "Like the mustard sells that ham on rye." But Leigh could be plaintive, too: "The clocks don't stop when they ought to stop. They tick relentlessly on."
While I don't predict a ticker tape parade for the show when it returns this weekend, I do forecast that we'll hear a lot of warm and affectionate laughter in response to its period references to Rudi Gernreich, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dragnet, Harold Pinter, Korvettes, Northeast Airlines, and not Chase but Chase Manhattan. New York is called "Fun City," the female sex symbols are Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigida, and Twiggy, and Jean-Paul Belmondo is the male stunner. If you need any other evidence that How Now's vocabulary is antiquated, how about this: "Gay" is used to mean "bright" and "glowing."
TV commercials of yore are also cited -- e.g., "Only your hairdresser knows for sure" and the one for a bank wherein a lion was seen walking through the Wall Street area. (How Now actually put an actor in a lion suit and had him saunter across the stage. While the York Theatre does glorified staged readings -- and Mufti does mean "in ordinary clothes" -- I hope we get a lion suit out of them.) But the most eerie period reference is the one where Wingate tells a senator to watch his step while investigating Wall Street practices because "The first thing you know, some young Kennedy succeeds you." Interesting that Leigh felt free enough to write this line fewer than four years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; she obviously felt that, with his brothers Robert and Teddy on the scene, there were enough Kennedys left to make the joke. Alas, on June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated -- nine days before How Now, Dow Jones closed. It's the most telling example of how How Now is so How Then.
How Now, Dow Jones plays November 8-10 at the York Theatre Company, which makes its home in the Theatre at Saint Peter's, 54th Street & Lexington Avenue. Performances are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30pm. An audience discussion follows each matinee. Single tickets are $30; call 212-239-6200 or visit www.yorktheatre.org for information.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]