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The Family Way

Way back in 1962, Harold Prince, John Kander, and the Goldman brothers were all involved in A Family Affair. logo

As the film American Graffiti asks, "Where were you in '62?" If you were at the Billy Rose Theatre (now the Nederlander) any time between January 24 and March 24 that year, you saw A Family Affair, the musical that will have a staged reading this weekend as part of the York Theatre Company's "Musicals-in-Mufti" series.

Wouldn't you have liked to see a musical by the composer of Cabaret and Chicago with a book co-written by the librettist of Follies and the author of The Season, staged by the director of Sweeney Todd, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera, with an Oscar-winner for Butterflies Are Free as the female lead, the leading man of Company in a featured part, and the Tony-winning star of Broadway Bound also in the cast? The only catch is that none of these properties had yet happened when A Family Affair debuted.

A Family Affair was one of comparatively few musicals that didn't identify on its program title page who specifically wrote the book, music, and lyrics; it simply said that the show was "by James Goldman, John Kander, and William Goldman." It seems easy to infer that Kander wrote the music and the Goldmans did the book and lyrics; but a look at the script that Music Theatre International leases for stock and amateur productions tells us that, while the Goldmans wrote the book, James Goldman and Kander wrote the lyrics. What a surprise to learn that Kander performed this task, which he would soon hand over to his next collaborator -- one Fred Ebb.

The vogue of casting non-singers in musicals (which happened quite a bit after My Fair Lady got away with it) reached its apotheosis in A Family Affair, for the three top-billed performers had virtually no Broadway singing experience. There was a tiny listing at the bottom of the cast album that "Shelley Berman is an MGM recording artist," but though he'd already made five long-playing discs by 1962, these were all spoken-word comedy albums. Berman was a stand-up comic -- no, that's wrong. He really was a sit-down comic who could more often than not be found on a stool with a mock-telephone to his ear, pretending to have a hard time with bureaucratic operators and receptionists who never quite answered his questions or connected him with the party whom he was seeking.

Nevertheless, Berman had sung on Broadway in all 16 performances of The Girls Against the Boys in 1959. That was 16 more times than his leading lady, Eileen Heckart, had done in her previous 14 Broadway shows, which had such titles as The Bad Seed, A View from the Bridge, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. A Family Affair would be the only time that the husky-voiced actress would sing professionally on stage.

Before he met Ebb, John Kander
wrote music and lyrics
Then there was Morris Carnovsky, doing his 40th Broadway show in 40 years but his last on the Main Stem. Soon after, he joined the theater department at Brandeis University, where he and some other pros acted in student productions. (Was he ever brilliant as the title character in Brecht's Schweyk in the Second World War.) Carnovsky had once been in a musical -- Kurt Weill's Johnny Johnson in 1938 -- but, as "Chief of the High Allied Command," he wasn't required to do much singing. (Funny: The last song that Berman, Heckart, and Carnovsky would sing in A Family Affair was called "I'm Worse Than Anybody," and one wonders if they subtextually were referring to their singing.)

For the first time -- but certainly not the last -- the words "Directed by Harold Prince" would appear on a program, but Prince wasn't part of the family when A Family Affair went into rehearsal. Staging it then was Word Baker, who'd had a hit (and what a hit!) a couple of years earlier with The Fantasticks. His ingenue in that show was Rita Gardner, and she did so well that he made her his ingenue again in A Family Affair. Opposite her as the juvenile was Larry Kert, the man who wouldn't be able to make a commitment to any woman in Company eight years later -- but he sure could in this musical. Indeed, the first words in the show were his: "Will you marry me?" to Ms. Gardner. (Mrs. Gardner, really, for she was playwright Herb Gardner's wife at the time.)

"Will you marry me?" -- often among the last words one hears in a musical -- instead set the plot in motion for A Family Affair, which just as easily could have been called Uncle to the Bride. Berman played Alfie Nathan, uncle to Gardner's Sally, who'd been caring for her ever since the death of her parents. When Sally comes home and says she's getting married, chaos ensues between Alfie and Tillie Siegel, Gerry the groom's mother. In fact, on the cover of the MTI script, the show doesn't call itself "a new musical" (as new musicals routinely did in those days) but "A wedding in two acts."

The show was based on no source material; the Goldmans dreamed up the plot. Sally and Gerry want a small wedding, and while Alfie and Morris (Gerry's dad) are fine with that, Tillie isn't. Both she and her daughter had eloped, so now she's going to grab this chance to stage an extravaganza. It'd be a financial stretch, though, for these middle-class Jews (Alfie's a real estate broker and Morris is a furrier) who -- surprise! -- don't live somewhere in New York but in Silver Hills, Illinois.

And so it goes -- the choosing of the wedding consultant, the reception site, the wedding gown, the bridesmaids' dresses, the going-away outfit, the shower, the cake, etc. What William Goldman said of How Now, Dow Jones in his 1969 book The Season -- "With a plot like this, are you surprised to learn that there was trouble out-of-town?" -- applies to his own show. Not only was Baker canned but so was choreographer John Butler, who'd previously done one Broadway production, Menotti's opera The Consul, a dozen years before. He'd be replaced by Bob Herget, though two of Butler's numbers -- "The Right Girl" (which would be performed on The Ed Sullivan Show) and "Revenge" -- stayed as they were and he got specific credit for them in the program. In "Revenge," Alfie fantasized what he'd like to do to Tillie. The song stopped dead so that Berman could get on the phone and do one of his trademark routines with an operator. What he got, though, was an answering machine -- this in an age where there weren't answering machines. Could it be that the Goldmans and Kander invented that device?

Hal Prince made his directorial
debut with A Family Affair
Prince admits in his autobiography that he turned down the show when it was first offered to him; but when he was asked to come to Philadelphia to see it, he saw enough there to make him commit to his first directorial assignment. Back then, the set resembled a wedding cake -- which sounds cute and novel -- but Prince felt the show needed a more realistic approach and he did what he could to change it. Though Heckart wanted the show closed in Philly and Berman got testy about changes, Prince did get the piece to Broadway and was proud that he'd made it better.

Who produced? A lawyer named Andrew Siff, who would never produce on Broadway again after A Family Affair proved to be a 65-performance flop. Lord knows, the authors had gone to more established people first; for a while, Leland (Gypsy) Hayward was interested in producing, but he never signed on. Siff must have had a hard time of it. While this was the golden age of record companies capitalizing shows in exchange for cast album recording rights, in the same season when Columbia backed eight shows, Capitol five, and RCA Victor three, all of these labels must have turned down A Family Affair; the record was released by United Artists as that label's first-ever Broadway cast album.

The packaging was lackluster, a single-sleeve job that had a modest precis of the plot on its back cover. One paragraph informed readers that this was the first original cast album ever recorded on 35mm film -- "the most perfect method of reproducing actual music and vocal sound." (As if that weren't enough, early editions of the album were wrapped in a pink paper ribbon that proclaimed "First original cast album recorded on 35mm film.") There was no cast list, which was really a problem, for one jaunty, Dixieland-inspired song -- "Harmony" -- was said to be sung by "Osterwald, Conforti, Lavin, and DeLon." At least Bibi Osterwald and Jack DeLon had their names on the front cover, but who were the others? Well, Conforti was Gino, who'd become the original fiddler on the roof after he'd fiddled in the "Romantic Atmosphere" scene in She Loves Me.

And Lavin was -- that's right -- Linda. Here, she played multiple roles, and Norman Nadel of the World-Telegram & Sun wrote that she "builds her own bright fire whenever she steps on stage." Lavin later told me that A Family Affair was an important building block in her career. When Prince took over, he liked her so much that he gave her more to do. What's more, when he was planning Superman four years later, he cast her in a featured role, prompting New York Times critic Stanley Kauffmann to opine that Lavin -- whom he had adored a couple of months earlier in The Mad Show -- should be in every show.

Another Prince will take part in York’s Affair:
Josh Prince will play Gerry, the groom
The other critics weren't as enthusiastic as Nadel. The best that could be said was "some numbers are lively" (Taubman, the Times) and "Tunes of distinction" (McClain, Journal-American). Walter Kerr in the Herald-Tribune noted that A Family Affair was an intimate show -- "closing the outside door that leads to all those big production numbers." That's one reason why it played the intimate Billy Rose; another reason was that, Rent notwithstanding, this has never been a prime house, and Siff probably had to take it because he had few or no other options available. Kerr also wrote that the show had "genuine charm" and that it was "innocent, easygoing, and pleasant," but these aren't the kind of words that make people rush to the box office.

So, what will we hear this weekend at the York? We'll hear "gay" used as a term meaning "happy" and a reference to the lost-and-lamented Brentano's bookstore, as well as the dated concept that "Every Girl Wants to Be Married." One plot point involves a telephone line's being hopelessly busy in those pre-call-waiting days. But there is the score, which has many fine moments. Maybe we'll even hear one song that was dropped out-of-town: "Mamie in the Afternoon," which 15 years later would have some of its lyrics rewritten by Fred Ebb to become "Arthur in the Afternoon" for his and Kander's The Act.

For the role of Tilly, the York has enlisted the services of someone with a potent musical theater voice: No less than Alix Korey, who unforgettably delivered "Old-Fashioned Love Story" in the Andrew Lippa Wild Party. And esteemed pros such as David Margulies (Morris), Eddie Korbich, and Nora Mae Lyng will join such talented newcomers as Josh Prince (Gerry). Now that's what I call Family Values.


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


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