Get the Picture?
Readers respond to Filichia's list of the best musical stage performances reprised for Hollywood.
When I recently chose The 50 Best Stage-to-Hollywood Musical Performances, I got a lot of raves. "Loved your list!" (David Carlyon). "Great job!" (Dave Chapin). "Super!" (Bill Curtis). "I found little if anything to argue with!" (Ron Fassler). "Loved reading it!" (John Kenrick). "Great!" (Jeff Sanzel). "Terrific!" (Jim Lockwood). "A great column!" (Chris Van Ness). I tell you, if I were a musical, I'd be right up there with The Producers and Mamma Mia!--though I'll confess that I cheated and added the exclamation point after each quote.
Of course, there were disagreements. "Another great piece," began Andrew Thomas in his note; then he added, "I am not going to be one of those that corrects or challenges you on this...I would've put Bobby Morse higher, but that's based on a long-ago crush and not on his performance."
This slight haggle turned out to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Before I could get too cocky about how well I'd done, I began to hear from many readers who pointed out the errors of my ways. Said Brian (who doesn't want his last name used), "I have one MAJOR bone to pick: Where is Ellen Greene's quirky, bizarre, hilarious Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors? If the dumb blonde was already a cliché by the time Judy Holliday had to make the type fresh again, how much harder a task did Greene have more than 30 years later? But fresh she is [in] the moment when she finds out that Seymour has named his plant after her and she is so overwhelmed that she can respond with nothing more than a squeak. [Then there's] her vocal blossoming from a whisper into a blazing belt to match her emotional blossoming in 'Suddenly Seymour.' And [why did you include Lotte] Lenya? [There are] two factors fighting against her eligibility. First, her performance in the Threepenny Opera movie was not recreating a performance she had given on the New York or London stage, since she wouldn't do it in New York until more than 20 years after she made the film. Second, since it was a German movie, it doesn't match the title of the list: '50 Best Musical Stage Performances Reprised for HOLLYWOOD.'" (To which I say, Brian, you're 100% correct. I'll apologize by replacing Lenya with Ellen Greene. That should also please Greene fans Eric Vbank, William McNeill. And it should delight John Connors, who wrote: "For this relatively unknown, Off-Broadway actress to get cast alongside relative big-shots Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, James Belushi, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, and John Candy is pretty special--and she's damn-near perfect in the role.")
Maybe I missed Greene because she made a stage-to-movie musical in an era when stage-to-movie musicals were rare. But Chris Connelly took me to task for missing the opposite end of the spectrum: "There are comparatively few pre-1950 selections," he insisted, before recommending "Fred Astaire in the highly re-worked The Gay Divorce and The Band Wagon. Dennis King in The Vagabond King. Jack Haley and Zelma O'Neal in Follow Thru. Bert Lahr in Flying High. Jolson in Wonder Bar. Irving Berlin in This Is the Army. Wheeler & Woolsey in Rio Rita. And, while I appreciate Helen Morgan in Show Boat, what about the others in that film?" His mentioning Paul Robeson cut no ice with me, for Robeson didn't originate the role, but I did have to concede that he had a great point regarding Charles Winninger (also endorsed by Wayne Bryan, Joe Frazzetta, Steve Rosenthal) and Sammy White (mentioned by Grayson Frankel and Lew Crowley). Chris closed with, "And I guess you don't care for Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence?" No, I don't--for he's cloyingly cute there, which he wasn't on Broadway. Bob Rendell agreed with me ("I admire your inclusion of delightful featured Broadway regulars over the more prominent but uncharismatic performance of Tommy Steele"), though Ben Clay, Kevin Dawson, Don Gibbs, and Brian Vinero did not.
Alan Scott Gommberg opted for Topol in Fiddler on the Roof but noted, "I'm not sure if he was eligible based on your stated rules." In fact, he wasn't, though I may not have made that as clear as I should: Only London performers who originated roles in London musicals were eligible (like Ron Moody in Oliver!), but any London performer who filmed a role that had already been created on Broadway (Topol essentially "took over" for Zero Mostel) was not. Brian also said, "I find Pert Kelton's Mrs. Paroo more of a treasure than Kay Medford's Mrs. Brice. As you pointed out, the cutting down of Medford's role leaves her with very little to do. If another actress did it on screen, it would not have been a tragedy, unlike Mae Peterson--I can just hear how brilliantly Medford must have landed those jokes." (To which I say: Oh yes, Brian, she sure did!) "But," he continued, "who could ever have done 'Piano Lesson' like Kelton? And Juanita Hall's Bloody Mary is a greater performance than her Madame Liang, even if she doesn't get to sing the songs." (To which I say: That's why I felt I had to leave her off.)
I came to agree with Steve Rosenthal, who said, "The categories should have been separated into lead and supporting performances to give the supporting performers more of a chance--like Russ Brown and Rae Allen for Damn Yankees." He also went to bat for Winninger and Hall--but, after sending his e-mail, wrote again immediately to moan: "How on earth could either of us have forgotten George Rose in The Pirates of Penzance?" (Well, credit to Dave Chapin, who remembered him right away.) Speaking of supporting performances, Bob D remembered Gypsy's original Mazeppa, saying, "I'm sure you'll get lots of Faith Dane recommendations." Actually, only two: one from Joe Miller and a quite forceful one from Kevin Dawson. "Some'n' wrong with Faith Dane?!!!" Kevin wrote, aping her famous delivery of "Som'n' wrong with strippin?!!!" I did remember her but had to force her off the list as more names occurred to me. I did miss another Gypsy cast member whom Dawson remembered: Paul Wallace, who portrayed Tulsa so wonderfully (Alan Alexis, Maryann Goldberg, Carl Hill, and Mary Pernell agreed with him). Dawson then requested John Raitt (The Pajama Game), with which Bob Rendell readily agreed.
Morgan LaVere and William McNeill wanted Mabel King (The Wiz). And then there were the performers who got only one vote: Jane Connell (Mame); Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie); John McMartin (Sweet Charity); Rudy Vallee (How to Succeed...); Ronald Holgate (1776); Robert Clary (New Faces of 1952); Allyn Ann McLerie (Where's Charley?); Shannon Bolin (Damn Yankees); Peter Palmer and Howard St. John (Li'l Abner); Len Cariou, Laurence Guittard, and Hermione Gingold (A Little Night Music). Frankly, I remembered them all, but preferred the ones I chose. Let me tell you, this is a list that got to 50 quite quickly!
Then, of course, some disagreed with where their favorites were placed. Joe Meagor, Jr. gave his top choices: "Ya also got no trouble from me about Robert Preston being #1, nor Yul Brynner #2. But I'm surprised at Rex Harrison being only #24. I would make him #4, right after Vivian Blaine as #3." He followed these choices with Gwen Verdon, Barbra Streisand, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman (Call Me Madam), Judy Holliday, William Daniels, and Myoshi Umeki, saying of the last-named performer: "I so much want her to like it here, and there is something about her face."
According to Ed Weissman, "William Daniels should be in the top 10. William Daniels IS John Adams. I just read the David McCulloch bio [of Adams] and I could hear him speaking throughout. How much more wonderful this country would be if our Presidential elections forced us to choose between Martin Sheen and William Daniels!" Alan Scott Gomberg agreed: "I would put William Daniels at the top of the list of musical theater performances on film, at least based on the restored version of 1776...in the cut version, you don't quite get the totality of his performance."
Jerry Rowles said, "Barbra number five? Come on, ol' dear friend, she must be number two; her theater musical event not only changed my life, it is a true legendary experience that will live well beyond Yul Brynner." Brian would disagree with both of us: "Streisand is Number 1, simply because I think she is more electric and thrilling on the screen and turns in a more effective FILM performance (as opposed to stage recreation) than any of the others." And Brian's last complaint was, "No matter how much greater and fresher Rex Harrison might have been in 1956 than he was by '64, he's still pretty damned brilliant and superb in the movie [of My Fair Lady] and I find it hard to believe he doesn't even make the Top 10. I personally would have him in the Top 5."
Before closing, I must add the most pungent comment of all, from Bill Curtis: "Of Judy Holliday, you wrote, 'Okay, the lady is a little chubbier than she needs to be.' Or is it that she's a little chubbier than you, personally, prefer a woman to be? Not everyone wears a 'Pink Taffeta Sample Size Ten' or fits into 'this irresistible Paris original.' Zero Mostel and Stubby Kaye weren't exactly slim but you didn't take them to task. With only 20 or 30 words spent on each star, you wasted 12 of Judy's describing her weight? How about talking about her brains, her brilliant comic timing, her acting chops, or her present-day freshness in a film made 42 years ago? I hope most folks don't similarly judge theater critics by their waistlines. A number of you would fare badly." (To which I say: Guilty as charged!)
Finally, there was Howard Rogut, who took issue not with an omission on the list but with an omission in my opening sentence, which read: "Here's a list that doesn't include Ethel Merman in Gypsy, Angela Lansbury in Mame, or Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady." Rogut roared: "Who's missing here, Peter? Yes, indeed, Mary Martin in South Pacific! True, it's your column, but come on!"