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The Saga of Kelly

Filichia tells the sad story of the creation of Kelly, the 1965 Broadway flop that was in distress from the get-go. logo
When I heard that Eileen Rodgers died a few weeks ago, I immediately thought of what she was reported to have said when she was in Philadelphia with Kelly, the musical that opened at the Broadhurst on February 6, 1965: "I wish I was back in Tenderloin. It was a flop, but at least the people were friendly."

This came from a 12-page article that Louis H. Lapham wrote for The Saturday Evening Post for its issue of April 24, 1965. That happened because producer David Susskind's press agent, Jack Perlis, had proposed an article about the making of a Broadway musical. According to Lapham, "Perlis announced that Susskind would welcome the presence of a writer during all phases of the production." (Susskind's co-producer Daniel Melnick would later tell Lapham, "You will be able to write a textbook on how to produce a play in the American musical theater.")

"No producer had ever before suggested such a thing, Perlis said, but no producer had as much courage as Susskind." As it turned out, Susskind would need that courage. But on October 25, 1964 -- 74 days before Kelly would open on Broadway -- Perlis described Susskind and co-producer, Joseph E. Levine as "Titans, giants of the entertainment industry, the Barnums of today." Well, they would become suckers who'd mourn every minute of their involvement with Kelly.

Reports Lapham, "The first rehearsals took place in an old theater on the seventh floor of the New Amsterdam movie house at Broadway and 42nd Street. Drafty and dimly lighted." (How nice that those sentences are now obsolete.) About Herbert Ross, he writes, "Kelly was the first musical that he ever directed." (No wonder Ross scooted off to Hollywood shortly thereafter.) Composer Moose Charlap and bookwriter-lyricist Eddie Lawrence "had been unable to get Kelly performed because the producers to whom they brought it had wanted to make unacceptable changes in the script." (Little did they know that more of the same was to come from Susskind, Melnick, and Levine.)

Their story concerned Hop Kelly, who "has tried and failed in three attempts to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge....A group of gamblers took him up on the offer and squandered large amounts of money on his three losses of nerve." Lapham goes on to note that "The characters pause in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht to sing songs intended as commentaries to the audience" and that "Both Lawrence and Charlap thought of the play as an artistic statement about modern life, not as a Broadway entertainment." (Are you starting to see ominous signs?) "They were thankful that in Susskind and Melnick they at last had found producers with the courage to present such a play. 'Other guys,' Lawrence said, 'wanted to change the kid into some kind of knight in shining armor, like a crummy love story.'" (So would these producers, Eddie, so would these!)

Six weeks later, Melnick said that "Eddie and Moose are, of course, insane" -- but, according to Lapham, Melnick "intended the remark as a high compliment." Yet soon we read about Melnick's insisting the authors drop a song. "Let's be realistic," Melnick says. "I won't cut it," Charlap responds. This happened just before the run-through "for 100 friends and relatives." Lapham reports that the assembled "did not laugh much, nor did they applaud in a way that could be thought of as heartening." That prompted Ross to say, "There isn't a page of dialogue that works, not a line." Melnick countered, "They're interested. They're intrigued." He added, "The wonderful thing about this show is that everybody is working together. There is none of that terribleness, that viciousness, those cliques common to most musicals. What we have here is a unity."

Famous last words! On December 23, the sets and costumes arrived. Susskind called the former "ravishing". Melnick termed the latter "smashing, absolutely gorgeous." But, as per Lapham, "Charlap and Lawrence disapproved of both. They would have preferred a bleak stage and abstract sets, something more in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht." (That name is cropping up a lot, isn't it? Brecht is also alluded to via Charlap's choice of musical director, Sandy Matlovsky, because he conducted The Threepenny Opera revival. How did Ross feel about Matlovesky's conducting? "That's the worst thing I've ever heard." Charlap and Matlovsky were friends, yet we'll read later on that Matlovsky thought "the score is like a dead animal.")

Kelly director Herbert Ross
Soon after, Ross and the producers asked Charlap and Lawrence for "three new scenes and at least one new song. Although the authors agreed to these requests, they did so with heavy reluctance." Susskind said, "They ought to be down on their hands and knees for all the creative collaboration they're getting." (But they didn't.) After the December 28 opening night performance in Philadelphia, Charlap's reaction was, "The producers complained the book doesn't hold. Well, it holds, it holds like nothing you ever saw before." Melnick's reaction: "At least we now know the things we thought were bad are really just as bad as we thought." Ross' opinion: "I hope we don't get good notices. Eddie will be more difficult if we do."

Ross needn't have worried. The Philadelphia Bulletin called Kelly "a tedious story torpedoed by indecision." Susskind told Lawrence, "I agree with that review 100%" and added that the opening song had to go. "I think it's funny," Lawrence said, "and my friends all think it's funny." To which Susskind responded, "Your friends are wrong." To which Lawrence said, "I'm not willing to give it up." But he did write the three new scenes. When he read them for the brass, Lapham reports, they "listened in noncommittal silence, prompting Lawrence to say, 'I don't know what I'm writing anymore. I liked my own show better. It was intimate and small, and now I see it turning into a lavish Broadway spectacle. I hate it.'"

Acccording to Lapham, Lawrence still came to the theater every day -- not as a matter of interest but in fear that the producers would change lines without asking him. "Never again, no more Broadway producers," Lawrence said. "They want to run the theater like a bargain basement in a department store, trying to sell only what the public will buy." But Lapham reports that "Melnick was pleased with the changes" and told Ross, "It's sensational, Herb, sensational."

Ross wanted to fire leading lady Ella Logan, who hadn't been on Broadway since 1948 when she closed in Finian's Rainbow. Said Ross, "She's so vulgar," which sounds overly severe until you read that Melnick's choice of words was worse: "She's a cancer." What's most interesting to me is Lapham's report that "Charlap and Lawrence, surprised by this suggestion, pointed out that Miss Logan was the nearest person they had to a star, that so far she had received the loudest applause, that many tickets had been sold because of her name, and that without her, the already small business at the box-office might diminish even further." Hmmm, wait a minute. Charlap and Lawrence all along have been moaning about the crass commercialism of Broadway -- and now they're interested in selling seats? I see more problems ahead, don't you?

So, did Ella Logan get canned? And how did Kelly fare in its next tryout stop in Boston before braving Broadway? You'll find out in my next column.


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

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