TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Give Me Liberty

Notes on the troubled creation of Irving Berlin's 1949 show Miss Liberty, which will be given the Musicals-in-Mufti treatment this weekend. logo
Quick: Which Irving Berlin musical ran two decades? Annie Get Your Gun? Call Me Madam? Nope, it's the one that opened between those two hits: Miss Liberty, which gets a Musicals-in-Mufti staged reading courtesy of the York Theatre Company this weekend. The original production opened on Broadway in 1949 and closed in 1950.

All right, that isn't actually a two-decade run, but many Broadway observers might have thought that the show would eventually manage just that when two Main Stem heavyweights joined forces in the late 1940s: Berlin, fresh off Annie Get Your Gun (his longest-running hit), and Robert E. Sherwood, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and recent Oscar winner for The Best Years of Our Lives. That 1946 film dealt with returning World War II veterans, who were also responsible for spurring the idea for Miss Liberty: When Sherwood was sailing back to America after the war in Europe had ended, his shipmates included a large contingent of soldiers, and the way they cheered when they spotted the Statue of Liberty in the distance got him very interested in the landmark.

In doing research, he was surprised to learn that when Frederic Bartholdi's statue arrived as a gift from France in 1886, it was in pieces packed in crates that remained on New York's ship docks for months. The French had provided the statue but not a suitable pedestal. Sherwood read that Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, had helped raise the money to literally get the statue off the ground, and in this he saw some dramatic possibilities. The odd thing is that he envisioned a musical even though he'd never written one before. (Such plays as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Idiot's Delight and The Petrified Forest were his stock-in-trade.) So he called Berlin, his ol' Algonquin Round Table pal, and soon he was telling the composer-lyricist his plot: One of Pulitzer's publishing rivals would send a reporter to France to find the woman whom Bartholdi used as a model and the scribe would fall in love with her, forgetting his girl back home.

Although Berlin was interested, he did some research on his own and discovered that the actual model Bartholdi used was Mme. Bartholdi -- his mother. Sherwood said that the truth didn't much matter and that his concocted story was better because it involved romance. Perhaps the writers would have been better off if they had created a story about a reporter who expected to find some Parisian cutie and was at first aghast when he found out that the artist's mother was the inspiration but eventually came to the conclusion that a mother is a perfectly fine inspiration for Miss Liberty.

But they kept what they had, and seemingly scored a coup when they brought Moss Hart on board as director. Who wouldn't want to produce a Berlin-Sherwood-Hart collaboration? No one would get the chance, however; the three collaborators decided to raise the $215,000 necessary to produce the show themselves. They also made the smart move of booking the Broadway opening for the fourth of July. Berlin was excited about adding music to Emma Lazarus's poem "The New Colossus" -- the one that starts "Give me your tired, your poor" -- and, in fact, was convinced that he was giving birth to another "God Bless America." What's more, getting Jerome Robbins to choreograph the show certainly seemed promising.

Then came some troubling signs. Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, reports in her memoir that Hart's wife Kitty Carlisle "thought that Berlin called Moss too often" during pre-production. Berlin also decided to recycle two dropped songs that he'd written a year earlier for the film Easter Parade: "Let's Take an Old-Fashioned Walk" and "Mrs. Monotony" (which became "Mr. Monotony"). The former stayed in the show but the latter didn't; Rodgers and Hammerstein saw a Philadelphia tryout performance and said it was the wrong song for the wrong character in the show.

Though Berlin's last show, which R&H had produced, had headlined mega-star Ethel Merman, here the composer approved the casting of non-stars Eddie Albert (who'd become famous 16 years later as Oliver on TV's Green Acres) and Allyn McLerie. (Not Allyn Ann; that came later. She did just the opposite of the former Audra Ann McDonald, who dropped her middle name as time went on.) Also in the cast was Mary McCarty, who'd have to wait 22 years before she'd be in a great musical. Miss Liberty wasn't it.

What happened? As Philip Furia explains in Irving Berlin: A Life in Song, "Sherwood was accustomed to having his plays produced as he had written them, and was inimical to the constant doctoring required to pull a musical into shape." Worse, Sherwood developed a nerve ailment that caused spasms in his facial muscles, and he took to drink instead of taking to the typewriter. Worst of all, he wasn't happy that McLerie wasn't open to his amorous advances. (That wasn't her only complaint. As she told her then-husband Adolph Green, "They were all geniuses, and they were so happy being geniuses that they didn't get down to brass tacks.")

Though the Philadelphia critics and audiences loved Miss Liberty, Hart wasn't fooled and extended the tryout. That wonderful karma about opening on the fourth of July was lost as the show's Broadway bow was delayed for 11 days. Miss Liberty got lackluster reviews, but with those names, it had a considerable advance sale that kept it at the Imperial for 308 performances.

How it will work at Mufti remains to be seen. The cast album documents a most pleasant score that includes one of my favorite songs, "You Can Have Him," though it's not the rendition on the cast album that I adore but, rather, a pop interpretation by another singer. Imagine my delight when I saw my opinion validated in Colin Larkin's The Virgin Encyclopedia of Stage & Film Musicals; he wrote that the song "received a sophisticated reading on a 1965 Nancy Wilson album." That's the recording I hope the Mufti cast and crew use for inspiration. See you there!


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

Tagged in this Story