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The King of Broadway?

On the anniversary of The King's death, Filichia finds connections between Elvis and musical theater. logo

Elvis Presley starred in G.I. Blues,
a loose adaptation of the stage
comedy Sailor, Beware
I still remember walking down Eighth Avenue 25 years ago today, and seeing a man holding a newspaper, a just-minted afternoon edition (remember afternoon editions?) of the Daily News, folded vertically so all that I could see was the letters "RESLEY" on the top line of the headline and the letters "IES AT 42" on the bottom. I immediately knew what had happened.

I know I'm not the only one who Remembers Where He Was When Elvis Presley Died. This week, I saw a lot of references to Presley as this anniversary approached, but there always have been, every August since 1977. I remember three years ago reading an article saying that, though Elvis had been gone 22 years, his name still shows up in many contemporary movies. In the span of that one week, I went to see Kat and the Kings, Side Man, and Mother Courage and Her Children -- and found that all three mentioned Elvis. Kat has a moment where Elvis is said to have influenced the group; Side Man has the jazz musicians see Elvis on TV and realize, "This'll do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton." And while Brecht never mentioned Elvis Presley in any of his works, this Mother Courage was Rodolfo Vera's version set in the Philippine Islands in the '70s. He changed Mother Courage's name to Nanay Isog and her son Swiss Cheese to Elvis -- because "Hound Dog" was popular when he was born.

Only a few days later, I saw that the Black Ensemble Theatre of Chicago got Jefferson Award nominations for its production of Elvis Presley Was a Black Man. Only a few weeks earlier, I'd seen Paper Mill's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, wherein the Pharaoh was (of course) patterned after Elvis. Then I saw that a few theaters were scheduling Picasso at the Lapine Agile, in which Elvis makes an appearance -- though playwright Steve Martin would probably rather I keep that quiet.

Elvis appeared on The Steve Allen Show, which was taped
in the theater formerly known as The Hudson
Presley never appeared on Broadway, unless we count two TV appearances that were broadcast from legitimate theaters used as television studios: The Hudson (now a convention center, though plenty of it is intact) when he did The Steve Allen Show, and the Maxine Elliott (razed in 1960) when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Speaking of Ed Sullivan: Elvis's most famous theatrical appearance came via Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie -- and, 21 not-so-happy years later, in the sequel, Bring Back Birdie. His big song in the hit ("Honestly Sincere") became an off-hand mention in the flop, in a song called "You Can Never Go Back." (Conrad, you see, had tired of show business and had become mayor of Bent River Junction, Arizona. Of course.)

Presley did appear at the Palace via a 1978 impersonator who did a show called Elvis: The Legend Lives. But, other than that, the closest The King ever came to Broadway were movies that were extraordinarily loose adaptations of the musical Whoop-Up (which became his non-musical Stay Away Joe) and one comedy, Sailor, Beware, that was musicalized into G.I. Blues.

When the writers and producers of L'il Abner were readying the show in 1956, they did discuss the possibility of hiring Elvis as their leading man. And when that didn't happen, they obviously didn't hold too many hard feelings -- for there is a line in the show that claims Yokumberry tonic is so terrific that "it'll make Elvis Presley stand still." To which one resident of Dogpatch responds: "But I like him the way he is!"

How well I remember being at the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah some years ago and, after a performance of King Lear, sauntering across the street to a high school where an entertainer named Phil Urban was doing a show called Elvis: That's the Way It Is. I joined three other members in the audiences on the gym's bleachers as the Man Who Would Be King gave his spirited rendition of Elvis's signature song "Hound Dog" -- and got no applause from any of us. Nor did he for the entire night, probably because we all felt that applauding would be a feeble sound in the wilderness.

Priscilla and Elvis Presley
Still, we may yet see Elvis Presley as a character in a musical, for a Santa Monica company known as Immortal Entertainment announced recently that it and Priscilla Beaulieu Presley will create and co-produce a "one-of-a-kind live musical theater experience based on the storybook love affair of Priscilla and Elvis." According to Immortal Entertainment president David Codikow, "Priscilla's relationship with Elvis was like living in a musical, (so) we are just helping her to bring her story to the stage. Their love story mirrors many important moments in history. The story is as much about Elvis and Priscilla's romance as it is about the landscape of popular culture evolving before, during, and after their relationship."

"I am looking forward to a partnership with Immortal," stated the Widow Presley. "This is a project that I believe will revive memories for us all and impact and excite a whole new generation." To add to the fever pitch, Ms. Presley will judge the nationwide contest to find the ultimate Elvis impersonator, who'll sing The King's hits, as well as someone to play Priscilla during her nubile years. I'm wondering if it'll all be as popular as L'il Abner or as yawn-inducing as Phil Urban.


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

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