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The Broadway Musicals of 1951

A favorite guessing game: What songs will be heard in the latest edition of Broadway by the Year at Town Hall? logo

Can't wait to attend The Broadway Musicals of 1951 tonight (May 13) at Town Hall. My TheaterMania colleague Scott Siegel's compilation revue series Broadway by the Year has been attracting plentiful audiences who appreciate both the songs and Siegel's oh-so-witty patter. When he emceed The Broadway Musicals of 1940, Siegel noted that Panama Hattie stayed around long enough for Ethel Merman to be married not once, but twice during the run. Bravo to him, too, for pointing out in The Broadway Musicals of 1933 (just released in CD form by Bayview Records) that when Americans rejected Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera after 12 performances that year, they were "penny-unwise and profoundly foolish."

Now that Siegel is going back 51 years to '51, he's again giving me the opportunity to play what's becoming one of my favorite guessing games: What songs will Siegel select when he does one of his shows? Will he begin with "Getting to Know You" or "I Whistle a Happy Tune," especially with Alison Fraser on hand? Either would be fitting for its inherent message, but starting with a song from The King and I would also be relevant because it was the first musical of 1951. Isn't that surprising, given that it didn't open until March 29? Hey, the show opened right in the middle of "The Golden Age of Broadway Musicals," but how golden was it when it didn't offer a new Broadway musical for 98 consecutive days (dating back to the December 21, 1950 opening of Out of This World)?

Let's take the others from the Class of '51 chronologically. Make a Wish (April 18) was a musical produced by the unlikely triumvirate of Alexander H. Cohen (the big-thinking profligate), Harry Rigby (the glitzy guy who sparked the revival craze with No, No Nanette 20 years later), and Jule Styne (who'd written the music to two '40s hits, High Button Shoes and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and who was readying his own new musical when Make a Wish debuted). I suspect we'll hear the perky Hugh Martin title song or maybe the Parisian-flavored waltz "Who Gives a Sou?" But I'd like to hear Nanette Fabray's tongue-in-cheek 11 o'clock number, "Take Me Back to Texas with You," a hillbilly hit that contains the immortally infamous couplet "Oh, my eyes all get all wat'ry / When I see Monsieur Gene Autry."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (April 19) has arguably the best score of any unsuccessful musical, so Siegel is going to have a tough time choosing only a few songs from this Schwartz-Fields masterpiece. The soaring "I'll Buy You a Star" would be perfect for Davis Gaines, who'll be there--but he'd be great on the jaunty "I'm Like a New Broom," too. What about the swirling waltz "If You Haven't Got a Sweetheart?" The show-stopping "Look Who's Dancing?" The haunting "Make the Man Love Me?" The charming "Love Is the Reason?" The strutting "Mine Till Monday?" Perhaps he'll go for the hilarious "He Had Refinement," in which Shirley Booth bragged that her husband wouldn't call "a woman's chest a chest" but instead "her points of interest"--a joke so good that I forgive the false accent on the last syllable of the last word. Hey, I hope--to paraphrase what a certain woman said 10 years later on stage at Carnegie Hall--that they sing 'em all and we stay all night.

I first heard of Flahooley (May 14) when Stanley Green gave it a passing reference in his The World of Musical Comedy as "an unappreciated score of great charm." Indeed it is. Bet Siegel will get a joke out of the fact that it starred the Peruvian ultra-soprano Yma Sumac. (Did you ever hear the rumor that she was really from Brooklyn and simply inverted her name from Amy Camus?) Anyway, when I first heard Flahooley in 1970, it was on tape, and I was impressed that boulevard composer Sammy Fain could stretch himself to write these amazing pieces for Sumac. But once I found the record (it wasn't easy), I saw on the label that her material had been written by (husband) Moises Vivanco. I doubt that we'll hear any of Sumac's selections at Town Hall tonight, but having ones with music by Fain (who actually did stretch himself here) and lyrics by the always-felicitous E.Y. Harburg will be nifty. I'm expecting "You Too Can Be a Puppet" ("Why be bothered by psychiatry? Buy a tree--and carve yoursef a puppet!") Or "Who Says There Ain't No Santa Claus" ("No St. Nicholas? It's too ridic'ulous!") Or maybe the ballad "He's Only Wonderful," which was introduced by one Barbara Cook, who made her Broadway debut in Flahooley.

Courtin' Time (June 13)? You got me, Gabey, you got me: I don't know a single song from this 37-performance flop with music by Don Walker (better known as an orchestrator for Pal Joey and Anyone Can Whistle), lyrics by Jack Lawrence (later of I Had a Ball), and direction by Alfred Drake (yes, that Alfred Drake). But, looking at the song titles, I'd love to hear "I Do! He Doesn't!" Or "Today at Your House, Tomorrow at Mine." Or, best of all, "Maine Will Remember the Maine."

Seventeen (June 21): An adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel about adolescents growing up in a sunnier America? Sounds like a can't-miss, and it shouldn't have, but Kim Gannon and Walter Kent's score isn't first-rate. Still, there are two charmers, and I hope Siegel does both "Ode to Lola" ("She's taken our boys and she oughtta be poisoned!") and the soft-shoe number "I Could Get Married Today."

Two on the Aisle (July 19): The show on which Jule Styne was working when he co-produced Make a Wish. I expect we'll hear "If (You Hadn't, but You Did)" the merry murderess's not so lamentable lament. And it wouldn't be a bad idea for Siegel to start the show with "Show Train," in which a group of out-of-towners sing about all the hits they're going to see. Comden and Green sure got a lot of contemporary references in there that would play perfectly at an evening like this.

Top Banana (November 1): My heart broke when the esteemed Ethan Mordden, in his brilliant Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musicals of the 1950s, called this score "terrible." I find everything but the syrupy ballads to be wonderful fun. If you watch the movie, you'll hear the delighful title song (a must for Siegel) and the charming "You're So Beautiful That" ("Lana Turner turns green"). But I hope Siegel rescues two dropped numbers: "I Fought Every Step of the Way," where a lusty dame tells how she was sexually conquered ("There, where all the roses grew, did I get a rose tattoo") and "A Word a Day," in which Phil Silvers and Rose Marie made a mountain's worth of malapropisms ("Premeditate: That's a doctor who's going to college"). Hope Chip Zien and Leslie Kritzer are paired on the latter.

Paint Your Wagon (November 12): "I Am on My Way" is one of Broadway's best opening numbers, and it too would make a rousing start to the show. (How many opening numbers have I suggested? I guess it really was a Golden Age!) We'll probably hear "They Call the Wind Maria" and/or "I Talk to the Trees," the two best-known songs from this score; I wouldn't be surprised if the former concluded the first act or the entire evening. I'm also rooting for "There's a Coach Comin' In," which I think should be played at baseball stadiums whenever a coach saunters out to the mound to talk to the pitcher.


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

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