TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

50 Years Ago on Broadway

In this second annual TheaterMania retrospective, Michael Buckley looks at the hits (and flops) of the 1954-55 season. logo
Julie Andrews with John Hewer
in The Boy Friend
What a season it was! Highlights of Broadway in 1954-55 included Mary Martin as Peter Pan, the Lunts in Quadrille, Gwen Verdon as Lola in Damn Yankees, Paul Muni's return in Inherit the Wind (his last play), Julie Andrews's Broadway debut in The Boy Friend, and Paul Newman and Karl Malden in The Desperate Hours. Among the leading ladies appearing were Helen Hayes, reprising her favorite role at City Center in What Every Woman Knows; Kim Stanley starring in The Traveling Lady and later in Bus Stop; Barbara Bel Geddes creating the role of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Geraldine Page in The Rainmaker; Tallulah Bankhead in Dear Charles; and Pearl Bailey in the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers.

One could also see Silk Stockings, Cole Porter's musical version of Ninotchka; Menasha Skulnik as Noah in The Flowering Peach; Patty McCormack as a cute young killer in Bad Seed; Florence Henderson as Fanny, with Ezio Pinza, Walter Slezak, and William Tabbert; and 3 for Tonight, with Marge and Gower Champion and Harry Belafonte. There were many intriguing choices for the Broadway theatergoer 50 years ago...


Helen Hayes hosted the 1955 Tony Awards, and the winners were announced in advance. Part of the ceremony was televised live on an NBC special, Entertainment '55. Joseph Hayes's The Desperate Hours, directed by Robert Montgomery, was named Best Play. In it, Paul Newman played an escaped convict menacing a middle-class family, headed by Karl Malden. (The 1955 movie version starred Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March; a 1990 remake starred Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins.) Newman had loathed his first film, The Silver Chalice, and had sought a play that could salvage his career. The other plays competing for the Tony that year were Anastasia, The Rainmaker, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Flowering Peach (which was the basis for the Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin-Peter Stone musical Two by Two). In 1956, Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes starred in a movie version of Anastasia, playing the parts created by Viveca Lindfors and Eugenia Leontovich.

The Rainmaker, later the basis for the N. Richard Nash-Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical 110 in the Shade, also became a movie in '56, with Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in the roles originated by Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin; the play was revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1999, with Jayne Atkinson and Woody Harrelson starring. The 1957 Billy Wilder film of Witness for the Prosecution starred Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton in the roles played by Gene Lyons, Patricia Jessel, and Francis L. Sullivan (the latter two were Tony winners in the featured actress/actor categories); a 1982 TV version had a cast that included Beau Bridges, Diana Rigg, and Ralph Richardson.

Mary Martin won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, playing the boy who refuses to grow up, and Walter Slezak received the Best Actor in a Musical prize for his performance as Fanny's belated bridegroom. Featured Tony winners were Cyril Ritchard (as Captain Hook) and Carol Haney (who emitted "Steam Heat" in The Pajama Game). The 1955 Tony for Best Musical went to The Pajama Game, which had opened after the previous season's eligibility deadline (and was covered in last year's retrospective). Its competition: Fanny; Peter Pan (which later had several TV productions with its Broadway leads, Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard), Plain and Fancy; and Silk Stockings, starring Don Ameche, Hildegarde Neff, and Gretchen Wyler.

Wyler's role had proven difficult to cast. Elaine Stritch was called to Philadelphia to take over the part -- which had already been filled by Marilyn Ross, Sherry O'Neil, and Yvonne Adair -- but producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin rejected her. In a 2000 interview, Stritch told me, "George S. Kaufman [the show's director and co-librettist] quit because of that. He said, 'If you don't like her, there's no point in my staying down here.' He came back on the train with Gig Young and me -- Gig and I were engaged then --- and we all got drunk." Earlier that season, Stritch had appeared in a revival of the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart-George Abbott musical On Your Toes, with Vera Zorina and Bobby Van; later in the season, she played Grace, the diner owner, in Bus Stop. When Silk Stockings reached Broadway, co-producer Feuer was listed as director. In a 1998 interview, Feuer told me, "I had been staging musical numbers -- songs, not dances -- in several shows. I did 'Adelaide's Lament' and 'Sue Me' [in the original Guys and Dolls]."

Eileen Heckart
Named Best Actress in a Play in 1955 was Nancy Kelly, who portrayed the mother of lethal little Rhoda (Patty McCormack) in The Bad Seed. The role of Mrs. Daigle, the mother of a boy whom Rhoda drowns, was played by Eileen Heckart. In an interview years later, Heckart told me, "The reason [Patty] got the part was not only because she looked right -- her mother dyed her hair and put it in braids -- but also because she came in by herself. She told [director] Reginald Denham, 'I conduct my own interviews.' She was eight! Of course, that had all been rehearsed between the mother and Patty, but she got it." After six months, Heckart left the cast, "because I was getting sick. I carried too much of the baggage of the part with me; I didn't have enough technique. About four o'clock in the afternoon, I'd start getting depressed. I started to see the face of my son, Mark, who was about two at the time, as the drowning child. A doctor told me, 'You can't do this to yourself.'" For the 1956 movie version of The Bad Seed, which retained most of the Broadway cast, Kelly and McCormack received Oscar nominations; so did Heckart for her two scenes, both of which are lessons in great acting.

William Inge's Bus Stop and Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were ineligible for Tonys since they opened past the March 1 deadline. Both were nominated the following year and lost to The Diary of Anne Frank. In my 2003 interview with Ben Gazzara, who played Brick opposite Barbara Bel Geddes in Cat, he recalled that the part "was more difficult [than his role in End as a Man], because it was much more interior. You had to remain alive while saying very little." Gazzara said that he had "really enjoyed working with [director Elia] Kazan. He was happy with what I was doing; I took that as a compliment. We got along famously. I liked all the people. Burl Ives [the original Big Daddy] and I became dear friends. And Millie Dunnock [Big Mama] -- dear Millie!"

Starting the season was a City Center revival of Carousel, with Jo Sullivan as Julie and Barbara Cook as Carrie; a few seasons later, Cook would star there as Julie. Other City Center musical revivals included Guys and Dolls, with Walter Matthau as Nathan Detroit; South Pacific, with Carol Lawrence as Liat; and Finian's Rainbow, with Sharon and Woody played by Helen Gallagher and Merv Griffin. Among the producing organization's play revivals were The Time of Your Life, starring Franchot Tone, Harold Lang, John Carradine, and Gloria Vanderbilt; and The Fourposter, with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy recreating their roles, again directed by Jose Ferrer.

Helen Hayes starred in two City Center revivals, What Every Woman Knows and The Wisteria Trees. In the former, she recreated the part of Maggie Wylie, her favorite role in her favorite play. "I love the theme of it," Hayes once told me, "and I'm very fond of Barrie's plays. They're not as saccharine or as silly as critics sometimes accused him of being." Tallulah Bankhead starred on Broadway in a comedy called Dear Charles, about a woman whose three now-grown children were fathered by as many lovers; since the offspring desire to make respectable marriages, the Bankhead character invites her three former amours to visit in order to choose the best man as her husband. (Sounds like Mamma Mia!, no?) Robert Anderson, whose Tea and Sympathy had scored a hit in 1953, followed up with All Summer Long; John Kerr again had the male lead, but the show ran less than two months.

Julie Andrews made her Broadway bow in The Boy Friend, produced by Feuer and Martin. Recalled Cy Feuer, "I saw [Andrews] in Yorkshire. We brought over most of the cast -- not the boys, but the four girls were important." In a 2003 TheaterMania interview with Michael Portantiere, Andrews noted that Feuer had replaced the original director, Vida Hope, towards the end of the rehearsal period in New York and that "there was a bit of unpleasantness involved." Last summer, Andrews directed the musical at her daughter's Sag Harbor theatre, and she plans to helm a summer 2005 production at Goodspeed. Andrews told Portantiere, "The show itself is a little gem, a piece of lace. It is a sort of pastiche of the musicals of the '20s and, as such, it should be done with enormous affection."

Ronny Graham, Kim Hunter, Robert Preston, and Janet Riley (in her only Broadway show) had the leads in the comedy The Tender Trap. Kim Stanley, Lonny Chapman, and Jack Lord were in Horton Foote's The Traveling Lady. Alfred Lunt, winner of the 1955 Tony for Best Actor in a Play, directed himself and wife Lynn Fontanne in Noël Coward's Quadrille; the Lunts played a rail baron and a marchioness who form a mutual attraction while in pursuit of their errant spouses. Lee Grant and Anthony Franciosa had the leads in Wedding Breakfast; Lunatics and Lovers was a Sidney Kingsley farce (which he also directed) that starred Buddy Hackett, Dennis King, and Sheila Bond; and Eartha Kitt appeared in Mrs. Patterson. Jennifer Jones came from Hollywood to star in Portrait of a Lady, which faded after seven performances, and Vincent Price fared even worse (four performances) in Black-Eyed Susan.

Diahann Carroll and Pearl Bailey in House of Flowers
In House of Flowers, Pearl Bailey's role supposedly grew at the expense of others, but newcomer Diahann Carroll introduced "A Sleepin' Bee." By the time the show opened on Broadway, director Peter Brook and Truman Capote (the musical's librettist and, with composer Harold Arlen, co-lyricist) had left the production; Brook was replaced by Herbert Ross. Barbara Cook had a featured role in Plain and Fancy; 3 for Tonight featured Marge and Gower Champion and Harry Belafonte; and sisters Betty and Jane Kean were top-billed in the low-rated Ankles Aweigh. Eva LeGallienne appeared in the short-lived The Southwest Corner, while Katharine Cornell and Tyrone Power led the cast of The Dark Is Light Enough, which also did not fare well. Polly Bergen, John Dall, and Donald Cook comprised the cast of the comedy Champagne Complex.

All in One was a mixture of opera (Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti), dance (by Paul Draper), and drama (Tennessee Williams's 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, with Maureen Stapleton and Myron McCormick). Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind marked Paul Muni's return to Broadway after several years, in a cast that also included Ed Begley and Tony Randall. (Their respective roles were played by Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly in the 1960 film version.) During the run, Muni lost an eye to cancer and was replaced temporarily by Melvyn Douglas, but later returned to the production. The following year, Muni and Begley won Tonys for Best Actor and Featured Actor.

Damn Yankees, which opened too late for Tony eligibility, won the Best Musical award the following year, and Gwen Verdon won her second Tony for her performance as Lola. In one of her last interviews, Verdon shared with me some memories of the musical (her first with Bob Fosse): "After I was cast, Mister Abbott asked me if I would go dancing. We were doing the merengue at Roseland, and Mister Abbott was on the wrong beat. I started to count for him and almost lost the job." Verdon said that her characterization of Lola "was really funny, but everyone thought it was sexy. I'll never forget watching Bob do Lola. When he choreographed for you, it looked like you had invented it -- on the spot. People thought that in 'Whatever Lola Wants,' I just crawled around on the floor and had a good time. They didn't know that, right down to where I'd slick my hair back, it was choreographed." In the 1958 movie version of Damn Yankees, Verdon and Fosse teamed -- for the only time on film -- in "Who's Got the Pain?" Explained Verdon, "Eddie Phillips [her Broadway partner for the comic mambo] asked for a thousand dollars, and the studio balked. Bob's fee was a hairpiece by the 'Wigmaker to the Stars.'"

Among the Off-Broadway successes of the 1954-55 season were I Feel Wonderful, a revue with a score by Jerry Herman, and Ben Bagley's Shoestring Revue, with a cast that included Chita Rivera and Beatrice Arthur -- both of whom later traveled uptown for the short-lived musical Seventh Heaven, which starred Gloria De Haven and Ricardo Montalban. Roald Dahl's The Honeys starred Hume Cronyn as twins whose wives were played by Jessica Tandy and Dorothy Stickney. Though the play was not a success, Dahl later used part of its plot -- concerning a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb -- for a classic episode of TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Called "Lamb to the Slaughter," it starred Barbara Bel Geddes.

During the season, several stage stars appeared in TV adaptations of plays. Among them: Helen Hayes and Billie Burke in Arsenic and Old Lace, with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre; Monty Woolley and Bert Lahr in The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Merle Oberon, Joan Bennett, and Zasu Pitts; Ruth Hussey and Shelley Winters in The Women, with Mary Astor and Nancy Olson; and Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in Macbeth. And on September 20, 1954, Studio One presented Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, starring Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone. The 1957 big-screen version of the property starred Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb; a 1997 cable TV remake featured Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott. This October, Twelve Angry Men will make its Broadway debut with a stellar cast led by Boyd Gaines and Philip Bosco. And people ask from where new plays are coming!

Tagged in this Story