Jerry Orbach’s Broadway

It’s hard to believe it, but it’s been almost six years since the world lost the great Jerry Orbach to cancer. His presence is still greatly felt, through TV reruns, frequent airings of Dirty Dancing on TV and he is fondly remembered by practically every person I know. Even though Orbach hadn’t been on Broadway since the mid-80s, he epitomized the essence of NY theatre for so many. You could see him at opening nights, presenting at the Tony Awards or even just riding the subway. While Law and Order gave him that household recognition, he was still just a New Yorker.

He got his start off-Broadway as a replacement in The Threepenny Opera and was the first El Gallo in The Fantasticks. The star also appeared in an acclaimed 1964 off-Broadway revival of The Cradle Will Rock. Broadway called in 1961 when Orbach was cast as the bitter puppeteer Paul in Carnival, with a score by Bob Merrill and direction by Gower Champion. It was a stage adaptation of the MGM hit Lili, about a naive French orphan who joins a seedy carnival where she becomes a star attraction with a Kukla, Fran and Ollie type connection to the puppets. The show was a big hit, earning a Tony for leading lady Anna Maria Alberghetti and running 719 performances. In this clip, from The Ed Sullivan Show, Alberghetti starts off with “Yes, My Heart” leading into Orbach’s stirring rendition of “Her Face”:


Orbach received his first Tony nomination in 1965 for his well-received Sky Masterson in the limited run revival of Guys and Dolls at Lincoln Center. The following season he was back on the boards supporting Ethel Merman in the 20th anniversary revival of Annie Get Your Gun. But it was 1968’s Promises, Promises for which Orbach would win his Tony Award. A musical based on the 1960 hit The Apartment, the musical version updated the story to 1968 with contemporary costuming and sensibilities and was a mammoth hit, running three years. On the Tony telecast, before Donna McKechnie leveled the joint with “Turkey Lurkey Time,” Orbach performed his act one charmer “She Likes Basketball”:


While Jerry always hit home runs in the musical department, he didn’t have as much success in plays. His first Broadway drama was The Natural Look which opened and closed on March 11, 1967 (and included Gene Hackman, Doris Roberts, Brenda Vaccaro and Andreas Voutsinas in the cast). He fared somewhat better with 6 Rms Wiv Vu in 1972 opposite Jane Alexander. Orbach returned to musicals in 1974 when he was signed on for Mack and Mabel. However, director Gower Champion abruptly replaced him with Robert Preston just before the start of rehearsals and no parties involved were ever given a clear reason why.

However, it was back to the top the following year when he created the role of the conniving lawyer Billy Flynn in Bob Fosse’s production of Chicago. Orbach held his own opposite leading ladies Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. The show was ahead of its time in terms of its cynical tone and was swept away by A Chorus Line during awards season (though the revival would prove far more timely). On the Tony telecast, Orbach represented the company with his first act number “All I Care About”:


As it turned out, 42nd Street would be the final Broadway credit for both Jerry and director Gower Champion. The show, based on the 1933 film, was a juggernaut success, praised for being an old-fashioned throwback and run for 8 1/2 years. It’s opening at the Winter Garden in August 1980 is the stuff of legend, and it was Orbach (who was playing impresario Julian Marsh) who called for the curtain after producer David Merrick’s shocking announcement of Champion’s death earlier that same day. Orbach, who enjoyed long runs, stayed with 42nd Street for years until he proved too expensive for Merrick. On the Tonys, he led the company, including Wanda Richert and Lee Roy Reams with the second act showstopper “Lullaby of Broadway”:


And for the road, here’s Jerry singing “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks on the 1982 TV special “The Best of Broadway.”


Thinking About "Carnival"

Earlier in the week it was announced that Leslie Caron would be joining Kristin Scott Thomas in the upcoming Paris production of A Little Night Music. If this is at all indicative of my thought processes, I was describing Caron’s career to a friend who had never heard of her and it had me thinking about the musical Carnival.

Caron’s film career got off to an auspicious start as Gene Kelly’s love interest in the 1951 Oscar winning Best Picture, An American in Paris (which has had a musical version in the works for years). She also starred in another Best Picture winner Gigi (later adapted for Broadway), the film version of the musical Fanny (which dropped the songs and adapted Harold Rome’s music for underscoring) and also a little gem of a film called Lili.

Lili, which premiered in 1953, was a hit for MGM garnering an Oscar nomination for Caron and co-starring Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kurt Kaznar. Based on a short story by Paul Gallico, it’s about an incredibly naive French orphan who is pretty much adopted by a traveling circus troupe. She’s in love with a slick magician who dismisses her as a child, all the while finding herself in a tempestuous relationship with a puppeteer who is embittered because war injuries permanently halted his career as a dancer. The film won an Oscar for its musical scoring (by Bronislau Kaper) and featured a hit song “Hi Lili, Hi Lo.”

In what was then a rare occurence, Lili was adapted from the screen as a Broadway musical, retitled Carnival (according to some sources it was Carnival!) The stage musical featured an entirely original score by Bob Merrill, quite easily his greatest achievement as a composer, with a book by Michael Stewart. (In lieu of using the hit film song, Merrill wrote an original song, the haunting “Love Makes the World Go Round” to take its place). Gower Champion made his Broadway directing debut under the guidance of producer David Merrick. Anna Maria Alberghetti in her only Broadway appearance played Lili, Jerry Orbach made his Main Stem bow as the puppeteer. Kaye Ballard took on the Zsa Zsa Gabor role.

The show opened at the Imperial Theatre on April 13, 1961 to rave reviews, winning a Tony for Alberghetti (in a tie with Diahann Carroll in No Strings) and its scenic design. It lost out on the big prize to the Pulitzer Prize winning satire How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. An original London production opened in 1963 and failed after 34 performances. But aside from regional productions and a popular Encores! mounting starring Anne Hathaway and Brian Stokes Mitchell in 2002, the musical has not seen a major revival on Broadway or in London, though there was talk of an Encores! transfer (as is usually the case when one of their mountings is considered an artistic success).

The original production had its share of backstage lore. The most famous was the all out feud between Merrick and Alberghetti. One time when she called out for illness, Merrick believed her to be faking it and sent her a dozen dead (or depending on the source, plastic) roses and demanded she take a lie detector test. She hung his picture over the toilet in her bathroom. Merrick later claimed one his greatest achievements was “Making sure that Anna Maria Alberghetti never worked on Broadway again.”

Also, Alberghetti was apparently the first actress in a Broadway musical to use a body mike during a performance. During one performance, the actress exited on cue and had two minutes until she reappeared, bee-lining for the ladies room. However, this particular time the actress forgot to turn off her microphone, so during the middle of the show the audience heard the sound of streaming water followed by an unceremonious flush (which in itself was followed by Algerghetti’s re-entry). The audience was beside itself with laughter, but that’s the beauty of live theatre…

In spite of all this, Alberghetti was the toast of Broadway. Susan Watson, Anita Gillette and Carla Alberghetti (you guessed it, her sister) all played Lili during the Broadway run while Ed Ames replaced Jerry Orbach. Another amusing anecdote, this time from Ms. Gillette, was relayed in the dishy Making it on Broadway. When she took over the role of Lili, she was asked if she wanted her name put above the title. She said yes (I mean, who wouldn’t?). A few weeks later she received a bill from the company manager for the cost of the sign. It wasn’t in her contract. She took it to Equity and lost.

I think it’s high time someone revived the show on Broadway, it has such a beautiful score that deserves to be better known than it is. But until we reach that day, here she is, the Tony-winning original assisted by the company performing the spirited “Yes My Heart” followed by Jerry Orbach’s devastating ballad “Her Face” from an appearance on Ed Sullivan: