The Musical That Mary Martin Didn't Make Famous
Filichia details the drama behind the Noël Coward flop that starred a very miscast Mary Martin.
Mary Martin in a Noël Coward musical? Sounds marvelous. And to think it all took place in "Samolo, the principal island of the Samolan archipelago in the Southwestern Pacific. Latitude: 18 degrees north. Longitude: 175 degrees west." But as Martin would sing in a subsequent musical, "It's not on any chart." You must find it in your musical theater history books, and only the ones that deal with the most arcane shows. For this was the locale for Coward's 1946 London musical, Pacific 1860, which gets its American premiere in a staged reading as part of the York Theatre Company's "Musicals in Mufti" series this weekend.
How fitting that Pacific 1860 should surface during this terribly cold winter we've had in New York. As Charles Castle wrote in his book Noel, one reason the show only ran 129 performances was that it "opened in the midst of the worst winter England had known for years." The Brits had it worse than we have: "There were constant lighting and fuel cuts," wrote Castle. "The box office had to sell tickets by candlelight, and the theater could not be properly warmed." Perhaps that's because the theater was the Drury Lane, one of the biggest in London. Though the Drury Lane had been restored after the war, the heat apparently wasn't well fixed.
Here's hoping that Mufti gets a warmer reception for the show, though Castle does admit there is "something indefinably wrong" about it. Let's put it this way: When Oklahoma! opened at the Drury Lane on April 29, 1947 -- only 17 days after Pacific 1860 closed -- no one minded the lack of heat, because the show, cast, and audience provided it. Oklahoma! lasted for 1,548 performances -- "the longest run in the 287-year history of the Drury Lane," according to David Ewen in American Musical Theatre.
Librettist-composer-lyricist-director Coward started out with the title Scarlet Lady and sought movie star Irene Dunne for his lead. She wasn't available, but when Coward saw another movie -- The Great Victor Herbert -- he became enchanted with Mary Martin. She was already a genuine blue-chip Broadway star thanks to One Touch of Venus, though her three most famous roles were yet to come. In her autobiography, My Heart Belongs, Martin said that her husband Richard Halliday "thought we should hear the music first and see the script" of Pacific 1860. "I told him I didn't care if it was written in Sanskrit or in Braille, I had to see England and I had to work with this man."
Martin would play Elena Salvador, an opera singer who falls in love with Kerry Stirling, a younger man. (As the beau, Coward cast his own beau, Graham Payn.) Kerry's family hates the idea that he's consorting with someone who makes a living in vile show business, so she bravely gives him up but returns some time later to see how he is.
According to Payn in his book My Life with Noël Coward, Martin was hamstrung because she "wasn't a true soprano and lacked the necessary range for operetta." Martin didn't take issue with this in her book: "I thought every song he wrote was the most divine thing in the world, but I kept wondering who would sing them. They certainly didn't sound like me." Payn also notes, "She was almost exactly my age, which altered the entire meaning of the book. Instead of love lost between the generations, it became a straightforward romance. With his decision to offer the part to Mary Martin, Noël had to entirely rewrite the libretto. The rough draft for Scarlet Lady was, in my opinion, much better than the eventual Martin-ised version." (Still, one can easily understand why Coward would want to work with the actress who became the First Lady of the American Musical Theater to many musical theater fans.)
Payn goes on to say that "From the very beginning, Mary was restless," that Elena was a woman "who spoke seven languages. But Mary was a Texas girl who only spoke American English and had never been farther west than Tijuana. She knew she was miscast, so this sweet lady suddenly became very difficult indeed." One incident involved the song "Alice Is at It Again," about sex before and outside of marriage. In her book, Martin said that when she first saw the lyric, "I almost dropped dead." It's a similar complaint to the one she made 17 years later while doing Jennie, when she refused to sing a certain lyric in "Before I Kiss the World Good-bye." Both times, she won the argument; but, according to Payn, "Mary admitted years later that she should have sung it, that it would have probably stopped the show."
Similarly, Martin -- ever the lady -- had trouble in the scene where Elena has to give her manager a vivid slap. "Mary couldn't do it," Payn writes. "Noël berated Mary...how could she be so dumb? Hadn't she learned anything? And it worked perfectly. She hit her unfortunate colleague with such a resounding wallop that he couldn't hear straight for days." (Martin put the same story in her book.)
Martin reportedly warred with the costume designer, for after she had told her that she didn't want dresses with bows, that's precisely what the designer gave her. Later, Martin refused to wear a hat because she said it made her face too small. "Then Mary's husband began to get on Noël's nerves," wrote Payn. "(He) wanted a say in everything, as stage husbands often do in order to justify their existence...he was a boor and a bore, but he was also a convenient mouthpiece. By opening night, Noël wasn't speaking to Mary, and Mary wasn't speaking to either of us." That situation lasted for two full years, until Coward went to see Martin on Broadway in South Pacific and was so moved by her performance that he went backstage and insisted they stop the feud. "'I think you're wonderful in this show,'" Coward told her, according to Payn. "'It proves that 'Pacific' in a title is not the kiss of death." Martin in her autobiography called their contretemps "the worst and silliest mistake of my whole career."
Good thing they mended their fences; had they not done so, we wouldn't have had Together with Music, their terrific TV special in 1955. But even there, Payn writes, there was a bit of trouble. "They first had to get past the problem of the title song. Mary didn't like Noël's first attempt, finding it too cold and clever." Lest we think that Payn is just being loyal to his boyfriend, he does then admit that "Noël decided to grit his teeth and rewrite a softer, more romantic version that was more suited to the show. Mary's instincts had been right after all."
Kurt Gänzl in The British Musical Theatre says that Pacific 1860 "was full of incidentals which were interesting, amusing, and in the vein of the best of Coward." He goes on to say that one problem with the show is that its best songs are given to the supporting players. One, sung by a kid at a picnic, does sound particularly funny: "I Wish I Wasn't Such a Big Girl." Another, delivered by Elena's traveling companion Rosa, is titled "This Is a Changing World." The critical reception given to Pacific 1860 reflected that thought; as James Agate wrote in the Sunday Times, "No, No, Noël."
Coward later recycled "This Is a Changing World" as well as the score's "This Is a Night for Lovers" for use in his 1961 Broadway musical Sail Away but dropped them prior to New York. We'll hear them at Mufti this weekend. Let's hope we also hear "Alice Is at It Again." (If it sounds familiar, that's because Coward enjoyed performing it in his nightclub act.)
Nancy Anderson, the dynamo who stole Jolson & Company away from Stephen Mo Hanan, is reunited with him for the Mufti reading. She plays Elena and Hanan portrays Kerry's father. We'll soon see if Mary Martin was the sole problem with Pacific 1860 and if Jack Lee at the piano gives us what the original cast album does not: a Pacific overture.