The York Theatre Company presents a concert version of Rodgers & Hart's longest-running show -- and you'll never guess what show that is.
Quick! Which Rodgers and Hart show enjoyed the longest run in its original production? Pal Joey? No, that ran 374 performances, and the show we're looking for clocked in 427. A Connecticut Yankee? Close, at 418. The Boys from Syracuse? Only 235. Now, we're going backwards.
No, as you inferred from reading the title of this piece, R&H--the old R&H--enjoyed their longest run with By Jupiter, which opened on June 2, 1942 and stayed for the next 54 weeks. That may be paltry by today's standards but, at the time, 427 was enough to make By Jupiter Broadway's 16th longest running musical. And it would have run longer, had star Ray Bolger not decided to go off and entertain our boys overseas. Granted, there was a war on in 1942, and one reason for By Jupiter's long run has been attributed to the flood of people who were in New York at the time--including those soldiers who came there before shipping out. But another reason for the show's success was that everybody just had to see this Ray Bolger do what he did best.
Bolger, now best known as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, could have borrowed a line for By Jupiter from his Oz co-star Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion: "It's sad, believe me, Missy, when you're born to be a sissy." For here he played Sapiens, a man who functioned as househusband while his wife, Hippolyta, went out and fought wars. "I'm just a war groom," he moaned, in what was then a very good topical joke. Gender reversal was the way things were with these ancient Amazons. However, as Kurt Ganzl snippily writes in his Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre: "The situation is not, you understand, because the women are in any way meritorious, but because Hippolyta has this magic girdle which ensure her superiority." Needless to say, the Greeks want to wrest that girdle from her, and Theseus is set on doing just that. Of course, he falls in love with Hippolyta's sister Antiope to complicate matters (also to get in a few good love songs).
And good songs they are. The irony is that the best-known of them, "Wait Till You See Him," was dropped--not during the tryout, as is most usually the case, but after the show opened. Seems that no one could get the song to work in any scene to anyone's satisfaction. (That's interesting, considering that the next Rodgers show, Oklahoma!, was the one famous for integrating songs into the action. The seeds for such integration were being sown in By Jupiter.) Another ballad, "Nobody's Heart (Belongs to Me)," is one of those many songs wherein Hart wrote from the heart, telling of his loneliness in real life. But there are toe-tappers, too, like "Jupiter Forbid" and "Ev'rything I Got (Belongs to You)." Perhaps in honor of what was then a smash-hit comedy that would go on to become the longest-running Broadway play of all time, the songwriters penned a song called "Life with Father," which also has its charms.
The musical was based on Julian F. Thompson's play The Warrior's Husband. Amusing name, isn't it? Maybe not as funny as Edward Bond's The Pope's Wedding, but it's in the same spirit. It started out as a one-act that reached Broadway in 1921 as part of a regional play tournament, and Thompson was encouraged to expand it. When he did, it only played 83 performances on Broadway, despite the presence in the cast of Katharine Hepburn as Hippolyta. (Funny; people make a lot of the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein chose a flop, Green Grow the Lilacs, to rework as their first musical; Rodgers and Hart selected a failure, too, on which to base what would be their last musical.)
Every May, when the mayor has his annual shindig at Gracie Mansion honoring the theater, I pass by the hospital on 87th Street at East End Avenue and I think, "By Jupiter was written there." Well, much of it was, anyway, for that's where Lorenz Hart was drying out from his most recent bout of alcoholism. Rodgers rented a guest room there so the two could write together; the piano they used was the same one that Cole Porter used to compose You Never Know in that same hospital, where he was ensconced after the horse fell on him.
"By Jupiter," says Ted Sod, who'll stage the "Musicals in Mufti" concert version this coming weekend at York Theatre Company, "is the quintessential pre-Oklahoma! musical, with its roots in vaudeville and burlesque. There's every joke on gender reversal you can think of, many involving the feminized man still with the libido of a straight man. Still," he continues, "this one has more of a book than most, and it has the structure of two comic leads/two romantic leads that would be in place for decades to come. What I find interesting is that the original script seems to say that every scene ended with a dance for Bolger--often saying, 'And then he improvises.'"
Rodgers would take his first official co-producing credit on By Jupiter, helping famed impresario Dwight Deere Wiman to accumulate the necessary funds. Early in the money-raising process, a young actor named Richard Kollmar said he'd like to be an associate producer and contributed $35,000. Said Rodgers ominously in his autobiography, Musical Stages, "I never did find out where he got that $35,000." (An aside: Kollmar would eventually become the husband of gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen--and not a good one, if Lee Israel's biography, Kilgallen, is to be believed. Yet I forgive him everything when I read one story that Israel shares in the book. Seems that, one night, the Kollmars threw a party and someone later wrote them a note saying he'd left his hat there, but they'd be sure to know which one it was because inside, the brim, it had been monogrammed "E.D.G." Kollmar went out, bought a policeman's hat, had it inscribed "E.D.G.," and sent it back to him. The man then wrote a letter saying there had been an "incredible coincidence," for that wasn't his hat. Kollmar then went out and bought a fire chief's helmet, had it inscribed "E.D.G.," and sent it off. He later followed those with an E.D.G'd sanitation department cap and a Marine officer's hat. Yeah, he may not have been a good husband, but you've got to love a guy like that.)
Back to By Jupiter, one of those comparatively rare shows that go out of town with one title (All's Fair) and come back with another--though that would happen to Rodgers' next show, Away We Go, rechristened (of course) Oklahoma! Co-starring with Bolger as Hippolyta was Benay Venuta (not to be confused with B'nai Brith), who had understudied Ethel Merman as Reno Sweeney in the 1934 Anything Goes and later assumed the role when The Merm left. In a brilliant stroke, Sod has cast Klea Blackhurst as Hippolyta for the York presentation; Blackhurst just did a show called Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman, so we know she's going to be right in the part.
Sod has a winner as Antiope, too: Suzanne Douglas, back at Mufti, where last year she was extraordinary as Carmen Jones. The way she looked out at that audience and stared it down as a don't-fool-with-me-fellas vixen was mesmerizing. Douglas was also terrific at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, last season as Vivian Bearing in Wit and this season as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill--both under Sod's direction.
I'm also enthusiastic about seeing Kevin Cahoon as Sapiens. He's got one of those faces that can somehow look sad in a way that makes you laugh. Maybe that's why he's played the Hyena in The Lion King, Phil in the Off-Broadway Wild Party, and Hedwig, too. Lord knows, he's got big shoes to fill--"but," says assistant director Joe Marchese, "our concert version will reveal By Jupiter to be an ensemble piece rather than merely a typical star vehicle."
By Jupiter plays at the the York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue, New York from April 5 through 7. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30. Call 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250. But, if you miss the show there, you'll have another chance to catch it when the folks at 42nd Street Moon present their own production; it runs April 17-May 12 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Call 415-255-8207 for more information on that one.