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The Rodgers He Knew

Walter Willison, a Tony nominee for Two by Two, offers a corrective to Meryle Secrest's biography of Richard Rodgers. logo
Richard Rodgers
(Oil on canvas portrait by Kim Beaty)
Among the many and various celebrations of Richard Rodgers during his centenary year is Meryle Secrest's biography of the late, great composer, titled Somewhere for Me. A contributor to the book is Walter Willison who, as Japheth, introduced the song "I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You" in the Rodgers musical Two by Two. Secrest gives him "a lovely thank you in the acknowledgements," according to Willison, "but she doesn't use anything I said correctly." In addition to setting the record straight, the actor/singer would like to take this opportunity to share some of his memories of the man.

Says Willison, "Dick Rodgers was nice to me. How he treated everyone else, including his family, I don't know. [Secrest] seems to want to dwell on his dark side. I didn't see it. It's probably all true--but, since my information was used incorrectly, I can't believe anything else about the book." For example, the sequence of events surrounding Two by Two as detailed by Secrest has Danny Kaye, who starred as Noah, becoming "stubborn and resentful" because he was unhappy with the show's reviews and was passed over for a Tony nomination. Then, according to the book, Kaye fell and broke his ankle; when he returned to the show, performing in a wheelchair, he began "freely inventing his own dialogue."

Here is Willison's version of the story: "We opened in November [1970] and Danny would screw around a little bit. In February, he was on TV with Dick Cavett, and the next night Cavett came to the show. Danny was showing off and he fell and hurt his foot; I sat with him on the edge of the [onstage] house. As the rest of the dance number ensued, his leg was getting bigger and bigger. At the end of the number, they brought down the curtain and Danny went to the hospital. Joe Layton [who directed and choreographed the show] came up with the idea of putting Danny in a wheelchair and having him use crutches. Joe restaged the entire show but, every time he got to something Danny had not liked out of town, Danny would say: 'Oh, I don't know if I can do it. My leg hurts.' Finally, Joe gave up and left. He told me, 'Danny's won. He's going to do whatever he wants.'

"Joe had tried desperately to direct Danny during rehearsals, but he was undirectable," Willison continues. "He didn't have it in his contract to cut scenes but, if he didn't want to do something, he would go onstage and make sure it didn't work; he would do everything to kill the laugh. Danny would win in an unfair way, but he got very good reviews when we opened. It was after he hurt his leg and started screwing around that the Tony nominations came out. [The late columnist] Radie Harris told me that the Tony nominating committee didn't want to reward Danny for ad-libbing and fooling around onstage. They knew that, if he was nominated, he'd win--just because he was Danny Kaye. Instead, for the first and only time, they nominated a replacement: Larry Kert, who had taken over for Dean Jones in Company." (Ironically, notes Willison, Kert had at one point been a front-runner for the role of Japheth. When Layton chose Willison, Kert accepted Hal Prince's offer to standby for Jones, who had expressed his desire to leave the cast as soon as possible after Company opened.)

By the time Willison received a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in Two by Two, he and Kaye were no longer speaking off stage. In fact, "By the end of the run, no one was speaking to Danny." Kaye didn't know that Joe Layton was advising young Willison. ("Joe would say, 'When he does that, you do this.'") The star could never figure out how Willison was able to stymie his onstage shenanigans. Says Willison, "I mentally made my peace with Danny Kaye when I played Noah in another production of the show, years later. It's a huge role--like Mama Rose, only bigger. I don't understand how he managed to do all that and still have time to fool around and ad-lib."

There were two other Rodgers projects in which Willison was involved, albeit briefly. "There was a celebration of Rodgers [for the benefit of the Museum of the City of New York], and the big star at the end of the show was Mary Martin," he relates. "After the performance, they told me to go to her dressing room. Dick Rodgers said to me, 'Hey, kid, you're going to be a part of my next show. Mary and Ethel [Merman] are going to play the two ladies [in a musical version of Arsenic and Old Lace] and you're going to be Mortimer,' the Cary Grant role in the movie." Alas, that project never came to fruition.

Walter Willison
The other missed opportunity was Rex, which did make it to Broadway--but not as intended. "Originally, Jerry Lawrence and Bob Lee were going to write the book," says Willison. "Jerry told me that they wanted to write the juvenile role for me. They called me after the presentation and said, 'Dick's going to write the music and he's delighted with the idea of you being in it.' They let me read the treatment. It was wonderful: King Henry VIII was telling his little daughter, Elizabeth, his life story, which was acted out on stage. A child actor was going to play him as a boy, I was going to play him as a young man, and another actor would play him in later life. The show was only about Henry's love affair with Anne Boleyn--not about any of the other wives or about beheadings. The conceit was that we'd play scenes as they really happened and then, when the older Henry didn't like something, he'd push the boy or me aside and play the scene himself. The title song was sung by the three Henrys: the 12-year-old, the 22-year-old, and the 40-or-50-year-old. Sheldon Harnick was writing the lyrics and Dick Adler was producing. Then, according to Jerry Lawrence, Dick Adler decided that they must have all the wives and beheadings. Lawrence and Lee argued, but lost. They told me, 'We have bad news: We've walked.'" Sherman Yellen was brought in to rewrite the book and, as it turned out, Willison did not appear in the short-lived Broadway production of the show.

Willison played Lt. Joe Cable in South Pacific on three occasions: in a St. Louis production with Mary Travers (of Peter Paul & Mary) as Nellie Forbush and Jerome Hines as Emile DeBecque; in a 25th anniversary celebration of the musical at The Players Club in New York ("I sang 'My Girl Back Home,' a Cable song that had been cut"); and in a Museum of the City of New York benefit honoring Joshua Logan. "When I was 15 or 16," Willison remembers, "I checked out Six Plays by Rodgers and Hammerstein from the library. Five years later, I was actually working with Richard Rodgers. Can you imagine? He always treated me so kindly and he wrote the most beautiful letters. After Two by Two, he asked me to call him 'Dick,' but it took me a long time before I finally did. Any time there was a tribute, he'd always ask for me as a participant. I'd visit him at his office, and we'd sit and talk. On my last visit, he played a tape recording of a song that his grandson, Peter Melnick, had written for him. Dick was beaming; he was so proud of that recording.

"Once, I told him about doing a club act and singing 'I Do Not Know a Day' at a slower tempo. He said that maybe he could get me a recording contract; he arranged for a demo and had a studio booked for two days later! I sang 'I Do Not Know a Day' and a song from Rex, 'Away from You,' that Dick always thought should sound more contemporary. There's all this talk about Dick being dictatorial, but I did a very pop kind of version with key changes. Dick even played for me; I have a tape of it. The recording contract never happened, and he died soon afterwards. That studio session was the last gift he gave me."

On March 23, Willison will participate in "Wall-to-Wall Richard Rodgers," a free, 12-hour event at Manhattan's Symphony Space (95th Street and Broadway). According to Isaiah Sheffer, artistic director of the venue, "More than 100 entertainers have signed up so far, including James Naughton, Melissa Errico, Rebecca Luker, and Comden and Green." Willison says he's "part of something that's bound to be a big surprise, but they haven't announced it yet." In addition to his signature song, "I'll sing for the first time in public--if the powers that be permit it--a song written especially for me by Dick. You know, as much as I respect and admire composers today, I don't know anyone who's a legend. Richard Rodgers was a legend. But he was like a grandfather to me."

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