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I Got the Show Right Here

Charles Wright reviews Cy Feuer's new memoir, which is full of anecdotes about such hits as Guys and Dolls and Can-Can. logo

Cy Feuer is so closely identified with Guys and Dolls that, for the past half century, Broadway wags have been cracking jokes that turn on the American pronunciation of the surnames Feuer (that is, "fewer") and Loesser ("lesser").

Feuer produced Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows-Jo Swerling "Musical Fable of Broadway," with his longtime business partner, Ernest H. ("Ernie") Martin. The show occupied the 46th Street Theatre from 1950 to 1953. Its 1,200 performances secured it fourth place among long-running musicals up to that time; only Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I had lasted longer. It has been revived twice on the Main Stem, most notably in Jerry Zaks's colorful 1992 production, which ran just 57 fewer performances than the original and made stars of Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, and Peter Gallagher. By anyone's account, Guys and Dolls is American musical theater at its best.

Feuer, now 92, has outlived Martin by eight years (and counting). No longer producing, he still works in show biz as chairman of the board of the League of American Theatres and Producers. Now, he has penned a memoir with an elaborate, grandiose title that toys with the opening lyric of Loesser's "Fugue for Tinhorns" -- I Got the Show Right Here: The Amazing, True Story of How an Obscure Brooklyn Horn Player Became the Last Great Broadway Showman (Simon & Schuster, 294 pages, $27.00). One can understand Feuer's uneasiness that, in our sound bite culture, he may be remembered solely as one of the guys behind Guys and Dolls; one can fathom his desire to countermand that prospect with an autobiography. But what would Ernie Martin say if he could come back to earth like Billy Bigelow and get a load of his old partner billing himself as the "Last Great Broadway Showman?"

As the subtitle of his book indicates, Feuer was born in Brooklyn. His father ran a Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In his youth, Feuer earned pocket money by playing trumpet in pick-up bands for catering halls around the Northeast. After studying at Juilliard, he became a pit musician at Radio City Music Hall. He crossed the United States with Leon Belasco and his Society Orchestra, settled in Los Angeles, and took a job at Republic Pictures, which had Gene Autry and Roy Rogers under contract. While working his way up to head of Republic's music department, Feuer determined that his talent for composing was less than he had hoped; but he also met Martin and Loesser, who would join him, after World War II, on his odyssey back East to Broadway.

From 1948 to 1963, Feuer and Martin mounted shows that helped define the golden age of the Broadway "book musical" -- three by Loesser (Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying); two by Cole Porter (Can-Can and Silk Stockings); Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend; and the Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh confection Little Me. During those 15 years, the partners avoided all but one misstep. For Whoop-up, a 1958 collaboration with composer Mark ("Moose") Charlap that was set on a Montana Indian reservation, the producers, in a stroke of hubris, chose to write their own libretto rather than finding someone -- a Burrows or a George Abbott -- with the requisite experience for such a difficult task. The upshot was a 56-performance run.

After Little Me, Feuer and Martin found the hits harder and harder to come by. Their successes -- e.g., The Act (1977), a Kander and Ebb vehicle for Liza Minnelli -- were offset by disappointments such as Skyscraper (1965), the James Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn-Peter Stone musical vehicle for Julie Harris. In the 1970s and '80s, Feuer, apart from Martin, produced some high profile films. Among them were Cabaret (one of the most outstanding movie musicals of all time) and A Chorus Line (one of the most misguided).

I Got the Show Right Here, written with the assistance of a visible "ghost" named Ken Gross, is a compendium of the sort of earthy backstage stories one might overhear in the downstairs bar at The Players Club. Narrated with Runyonesque swagger and stylishly concerted breaches of grammar, the book provides glimpses of great talents at work -- Loesser, Abbott, Porter, Kaufman, Burrows, Ray Bolger, Rudy Vallee, Julie Andrews, Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse, to name a few. From time to time, Feuer conjures the atmosphere behind the scenes at a Broadway hit or on-location with one of his films. Just as often, he tosses out scraps of anecdote that are little more than excuses for invoking famous names. I Got the Show Right Here never lives up to Feuer's promise to "reconstruct the essential flavor of my life" and "the actual taste of my days." At some points, it peters out to a trickle of happy talk about the author's triumphs, with here and there a mention of the flops. The book's principal shortcoming is that Feuer never plunges deeper than those tales one overhears in the Players' bar.

If I Got the Show Right Here isn't a distinguished literary performance, like Claire Bloom's Limelight and After or Lauren Bacall's By Myself, it's nonetheless entertaining and, in its way, edifying. Brief enough to be read in one sitting, the memoir contains an abundance of what, for want of a better word, must be termed gossip. For example, Feuer spills the beans on his love affair with Susan Hayward and settles scores with the likes of Lilo, the French chanteuse who starred in Can-Can, and her husband, Marquis Guy de la Passardière. His nostalgia for Broadway between World War II and the arrival of the giant corporations is likely to be contagious even for readers who weren't around for much of that era. "Of course, the economics [of theatrical production] are different than when we began," Feuer writes. "Hard to take big chances with fresh material when it costs so much. Broadway almost has to depend on revivals and cheap sentiment."

Whether it's primarily the result of economics or of forces in contemporary culture that are more difficult to articulate, the job of producing for the musical stage has undergone a radical change since Feuer's salad days. In the late 1940s, when he and Martin began their assault on the Rialto, American commercial theater was dominated by producers who were lone-wolf risk-takers. Those men and women -- Cheryl Crawford and Kermit Bloomgarden, for instance -- did more than raise and invest money. In Bloomgarden's evocative phrase, they threw out sparks in order to stimulate artists "to make better use of their own creativity." In the case of Where's Charley?, Feuer and Martin's first production (and their first hit), the producers actually concocted the notion of combining the warhorse farce Charley's Aunt, Frank Loesser melodies, and the beloved comedian and hoofer Ray Bolger. They took the proposal to Loesser and librettist George Abbott, rather than the other way around, as would happen today.

Later, Feuer and Martin identified some Damon Runyon stories and a slender book of humor by ad executive Shepherd Mead as suitable inspiration for Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed, respectively. Today, there are still individual "producers" whose names appear above the titles of shows but, generally, they're responsible for bringing in dollars rather than performing the tasks of "producing" in the old sense of the word. With notable exceptions, such as Margo Lion (the force of nature behind the musical version of Hairspray), the independent producers of today don't spend their days and nights searching for innovative ideas to turn into musical plays or mortgaging their homes to ensure that the lights go up on opening night.

I Got the Show Right Here is a diverting testament to a bygone era. It's a snack rather than a meal, and it leaves the reader more tantalized than sated. Still, as backstage yarns go, it rates a place among Marjorie Morningstar, All About Eve, and Carol Channing's recent Just Lucky I Guess. No question about it, Feuer has had one helluva career.


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