As I mentioned some weeks ago, Roman Catholics have a tradition of making three wishes whenever they enter a new church, and I like to do the same when I enter a new theater. So that's what I did when I sauntered into The Little Shubert at 42nd Street and Dyer Avenue. This is certainly the most convenient Manhattan playhouse to those traveling from New Jersey, for as soon as they're out of the Lincoln Tunnel, they're there.
It's worth the trip. The place has been painted the color of burgundy wine -- a very good year of burgundy. There's a wire-mesh proscenium arch, and a very generous one it is. As you've undoubtedly heard, The Little Shubert has a Broadway-sized stage in an Off-Broadway-sized house. Tommy Tune, who has opened the venue with his all-too-familiar revue, asked from the stage: "Doesn't it smell like a new car?" Indeed, it does.
Tune reports that the three questions he's most asked are, "Is Tommy Tune your real name?" (yes) "What's your inseam? (he didn't divulge that) and "How old are you?" (63-going-on-64.). He doesn't look it. Although I know I'm not going to convince anyone that I'm sincere when I write this and that I'm really not trying to be bitchy, I have to say that Tune's facelift is one of the finest I've ever seen on an entertainer. My compliments to the chef: Tune's face used to have a tinge of Carol Channing in it, but now it has a bit of Mel Gibson.
Many of you may assume that one of my Little Shubert wishes was that Tune hadn't put a plant in the audience -- an erstwhile Broadway gypsy who's supposed to be one of his former students. Or that Tune would do a new musical, perhaps as star but especially as director-choreographer. (When he sang, "Who could ask for anything more?" I sure thought of a few possibilities.) But I know many of us are thinking these same things, so I'll let you wish for those when you enter the Little Shubert. Here are my three wishes:
1) I wish that the new recording of Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz's 1944 show Sadie Thompson, splendid as it is, could have been a tad more complete. Here's what I mean. As John Esche writes in his notes contained in the CD booklet, original star Ethel Merman "didn't want to sing the words Dietz put in Sadie's mouth. Someone (some sources say her current romantic interest) had written alternate lyrics which the star was insisting on." What Esche didn't mention was what Dietz stated in his 1974 memoir, Dancing in the Dark: He named one Robert Leavitt as the would-be lyricist and felt that the matter should be settled by an arbitrator. Merman wanted her own agent, Sammy Worblin, to settle the matter. Dietz, assuming he might not be treated fairly, gave Worblin his own lyrics in one envelope and Leavitt's in another -- but he switched the names. Worblin read both and expressed superiority for those in the Leavitt envelope, meaning Dietz's.
Alas, though Dietz won the battle, he ultimately lost the war: Merman still refused to sing his lyrics and Dietz finally had to ask her to leave the show. Replacing her was June Havoc, nee Baby (and later Dainty) June, whose mother Merman would play in Gypsy 15 years later. So wouldn't it have been something if Bruce Yeko's new disc contained all the songs for which Leavitt wrote lyrics, too? The liner notes could have explained the situation but not told us which lyrics were whose. That way, we could decide which we preferred and, once we did, we could pull apart the jewel box to find the authorship of each song printed under the piece of plastic where the CD sits.
2) I wish I'd treated Elaine Miracle a little better, and now I wish to make amends. In late November, I saw Miss Miracle in a woeful play called Member of the Tribe. The play was so boring, I was soon reading the program. According to Miracle's bio, "Elaine has spent most of her career trying to make theater better in Columbus, Ohio." I thought that was a terribly self-serving and self-important remark, and said so. But then I got an e-mail from Jess Hanks, who wrote: "I am an Equity actor in Columbus, Ohio who owes a great deal to Elaine Miracle and the work she has done to improve Equity working conditions in this city. Not only has she founded an Equity company here called Stage 5 Rep that has employed several local union actors over the last three years, but she has also worked in conjunction with the Chicago Equity office to lead local protest against non-union touring shows traveling to our city. We also have several local non-union companies that will now hire us under guest Equity contracts because of the work implemented by Mrs. Miracle. I spent several years working in NYC before moving to Columbus, Ohio.
"I must say, it's too bad that New York doesn't have more people like Elaine working for the needs of union performers. Your article was extremely short sighted in not pointing out how one person can make a huge theatrical difference in a city outside of New York. It's a shame you didn't have the time to meet with her. I have a feeling you would have become a fan." (Duly noted, Mr. Hanks, and my apologies to both you and Ms. Miracle. But I do think she should rewrite her bio to specifically reflect what she's accomplished; the way she put it sounds as if she thinks she's the sun and the moon of actresses.)
3) I wish I had the troubles that Mrs. Oliver Jordan has. In the flawed but still delightful revival of Dinner at Eight now on view at the Vivian Beaumont, Mrs. J. says of her invitees that, after dinner, "We'll go to the theater -- though there's nothing to see." I know that authors George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber were joking about the fact that there will always be people who feel there's "nothing to see" but, even so, modern-day theatergoers just have to roll their eyes at this all-too-feeble complaint.
Considering that Dinner at Eight originally opened on October 22, 1932 and closed on May 15, 1933, there were quite a few attractions during that time from which Mrs. Jordan could choose. Dangerous Corner, the fascinating J.B. Priestley play in which he shows how one little piece of information can change the lives of many people; S.N. Behrman's Biography; Sidney Howard's The Late Christopher Bean; and no less than the 14th Broadway revival of Alexandre Dumas' Camille (which led to that 1936 Garbo classic film). If Mrs. Jordan had acted fast, she could also have seen any of the 12 performances of The Threepenny Opera. (Did anyone come out of it saying, "Someday this show will run for six years in New York!") Other musicals playing at the time included Kern and Hammerstein's Music in the Air and the Gershwins' Pardon My English.
When one checks out the Best Plays annual, even the flops sound interesting, such as Ol' Man Satan ("an allegory in three acts and 37 scenes") and Two Strange Women ("Great-grandma Jenkins, who has taken no part in any conversation in 18 years, rises up and pushes Mrs. Martin through a door from which she falls into the river and is killed"). And then there was Liliom, the play that inspired Carousel, starring Joseph Schildkraut as the butch Billy Bigelow prototype. (But how butch could Schildkraut -- now best remembered as the original Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank -- have been, given that he played the Queen of Hearts in Eva Le Gallienne's Alice in Wonderland later that same season?)
Speaking of stars, Fred Astaire was in The Gay Divorce, George M. Cohan in his Pigeons and People, Jimmy Durante in Strike Me Pink, Ruth Gordon in Three-Cornered Moon, Beatrice Lillie in Walk a Little Faster, and no less that Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Noël Coward in Design for Living. You could have seen all three of Dorothy Gale's future Oz companions that season: Ray Bolger in the inaugural production at the brand-new Radio City Music Hall, Bert Lahr in George White's Music Hall Varieties, and Jack Haley in Take a Chance. (Oh -- Ethel Merman was in the last-named show, too.) Future Jed Clampett Buddy Ebsen, who was almost the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, was in Flying Colors. There was an appearance by Ruth Draper, the once-famous monologist. (If you've never heard her, you can do so now, thanks to the release of two stunning CD sets of her impeccable characterizations.) And while Mrs. Oliver Jordan wouldn't be expected to know of future stars: Twentieth Century had William (Fred Mertz) Frawley in a supporting role, Milton Berle was in Earl Carroll's Vanities, and James Stewart was a chauffeur in Goodbye Again.
All in all, there were180 attractions right up to May 15, 1933 when three shows opened on the same night. One was a play-with-music version of Candide, while the other two were June Moon and Of Thee I Sing. What's most interesting about those is that each was co-authored by George S. Kaufman, the co-author of Dinner at Eight. Wonder which one he went to see that night? For Kaufman, unlike Mrs. Oliver Jordan, sure must have felt that there was plenty to see.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]