The current national tour of Legends! prompts a re-reading of Diary of a Mad Playwright, James Kirkwood's hilarious memoir of the show's ill-fated 1986 production.
As you probably also know, these ladies are not the first actresses to tackle these roles. Twenty years ago, a pre-Broadway tour of Legends starring Mary Martin and Carol Channing was on the road. It turned out to be a rather unpleasant experience for playwright James Kirkwood, who died in 1989. He tells all about it in Diary of a Mad Playwright, which he wrote after the ill-fated show closed out of town. Many times during the play's 34-month odyssey from page to stage -- March 4, 1984 to January 18, 1987 to be precise -- Kirkwood must have wished he'd taken Mike Nichols' offer to stage the show with Harvey Fierstein and Betty Bloolips in the leads instead of those legendary ladies.
All started out well. In an early letter to Martin, Kirkwood wrote, "We could have such a good time. It could be such a triumph for you!" Martin was interested, although she did ruminate, "If only Ethel (Merman) were alive. And we could get Pearl Bailey to play the maid." Channing wasn't so thrilled with the idea of Martin playing opposite her; she was worried that the star would want to "fly on stage" or "wash her hair." The two eventually signed on to do the show -- but Kirkwood had a feeling something was wrong when, at the big Mary Martin tribute held at the Shubert in October 1985, neither the honoree nor Channing mentioned that they'd be doing Legends!
Still, James and Mary and Carol and Charles went ahead. (This was during the era when Channing was handled by her husband and oh-so-seldom lover Charles Lowe.) The last part of the equation was director Clifford Williams, whom Channing didn't much like from day one; she was afraid that he wouldn't "let us go ahead and be as trashy as we are." For his part, Williams eventually told Kirkwood: "It's like doing a school play with two elderly 12-year-olds."
There were also some ominous omens along the way. Kirkwood noticed that some graffiti in Los Angeles, "Jesus, save us from Hell," had been amended by another scribbler to read, "Jesus, save us from Hello, Dolly! revivals." Then a homeless man happened to saunter by Kirkwood and told him, "Beware the ides of March." Granted, it was December 6, but the guy turned out to have a point.
The biggest issue, in addition to the stars' clashing personalities, was that Martin, then 72, just couldn't learn her lines. Kirkwood suggested a hypnotist; super-agent Biff Liff recommended an earpiece that would feed her what she couldn't remember. The latter idea was eventually embraced, which made for some awkward stage waits. Pretty soon, Kirkwood wrote: "My awakenings [are] no more the Boy Scout who bounces out of bed [but a] crawl out [to a] chilly rehearsal hall with chillier results."
Not that the rehearsals were always chilly. One day, Martin ad-libbed a moon to Channing, causing Kirkwood to describe her gluteus maximus as "firm and pink and pretty." They decided to keep the moon in the show, albeit with Martin wearing a pink body stocking. But fun moments like that didn't grow on trees. At the company Christmas party, Channing noted, "Oh, isn't it lovely that Mary isn't here?"
A mere 12 days before the opening, Martin announced that she had to quit, but she was discouraged from doing so. Still, as Kirkwood notes, "Clifford and I were both convinced that Mary would not make it to Dallas, or if she did, it would be analogous to President Kennedy's visit there."
Many possible replacements were discussed: June Allyson, Vivian Blaine, Eileen Brennan, Coral Browne, Carol Burnett, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Greer Garson, Tammy Grimes, Florence Henderson, Celeste Holm, Kim Hunter, Shirley Jones, Nancy Marchand, Jayne Meadows, Maureen O'Sullivan, Geraldine Page, Estelle Parsons, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Simmons, Frances Sternhagen, Claire Trevor, Teresa Wright, and Jane Wyatt. But none came, none saw, none conquered.
When it was time for the show's final run-through, "The applause amount[ed] to the beating of a single crippled dove's wings," Kirkwood reported. Martin got through the first performance but looked "as if she'd swum the English Channel with a refrigerator strapped to her back." However, the final Los Angeles preview went surprisingly well. Channing helpfully explained why: "Mary wasn't drunk." She'd also call the erstwhile Maria von Trapp "an alcoholic" and "not quite senile."
Nevertheless, there was more talk about replacing Martin. Zsa Zsa Gabor said she was too young for the part, a statement with which Kirkwood begged to differ. But Martin stayed with the show, and when she verbally stumbled during one performance, the audience was with her, laughing and applauding in empathy. Channing would later say of the moment, "That was the most tasteless thing I've ever seen -- something only Ethel Merman would do."
Kirkwood wrote of his stars, "After a while, you wonder if they get together backstage and say, 'Okay, I drove them crazy today. It's your turn tomorrow.' " Also: "I recently had three dreams within a week's time in which I killed Kevin [Eggers, one of the producers]." Instead, the show itself was killed when Martin decided not to continue and no actress of note wanted to replace her.