Mary Martin in "Hello Dolly!"

There’s Carol, there’s Barbra and of course Pearlie Mae. But Mary Martin was the one who not only opened Hello, Dolly! in London but also toured with the show in Vietnam and Japan during the Vietnam War. This is incredibly rare footage of the curtain call and Martin’s specialty encore of the title song at the show’s first performance in Vietnam. The audience is made up of thousands soldiers, mostly American troops as well as some from Vietnam, Korea and New Zealand. This was taped for a 1966 television special called “Mary Martin: Hello, Dolly! Round the World,” which was a documentary about this touring production, narrated by Martin. Truth be told, I find this incredibly moving. Take a look:

Reconsidering Irma La Douce

A couple of weeks back, I introduced myself to Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of Irma La Douce, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. For the most part, it’s an amusing movie but it suffers due to its overlong running time. But more importantly, I started thinking about the original musical from which the film came. Irma, in a situation parallel to Harold Rome’s Fanny, had all of its musical numbers removed for its film version. The musical themes heard on the Broadway stage were adapted as underscoring (Andre Previn, who won the Oscar for it) and there was no singing and dancing, except an homage to the first act’s major showstopper “Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc” with MacLaine kicking up her heels on top of a pool table.

The show’s origins are unusual: it is the most successful musical comedy ever to originate in France. With music by Marguerite Monnot (Piaf’s best friend and favorite songwriter) and book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort, Irma La Douce (which translated means “Irma the Sweet’) opened in Paris in 1956 to wide acclaim and popular success, running for four years. In a move that foreshadowed the journey of Les Mis some twenty-five years later, the show was optioned by British producers.

Plotwise, it was a rather innocent, albeit farcical adult fairy tale of a Parisian prostitute living near the Place Pigalle, who is the most popular girl on the block. A young law student (cop in the film) falls in love with her, becomes her pimp and is so jealous at the thought of other men being with her, he creates an alternate identity and becomes her sole customer. When Irma feelings for this new “customer” start to threaten the initial relationship, the pimp kills off the alter ego only to be sent to Devil’s Island for murder. And there’s also a baby. Oh, it’s ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous fun. With enough charm, the show works quite well. The score matches that sense of fun, with some dynamite musical numbers, especially for Irma who shines with “Dis-Donc” and the title song in the second act.

The English translation of the script and songs was done by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. Directed by the famed Peter Brook, the new version of the show opened at the Lyric Theatre in London where it was a tremendous success. The cast was led by Elizabeth Seal, who had previously scored a triumph as Gladys in the London company of The Pajama Game, Keith Michell as the lover and Clive Revill playing several roles, but is mainly the bartender and confidante to the lead characters (and also the show’s narrator). The show ran for 1,518 performances.

Then David Merrick got involved. Merrick is probably best known as the Abominable Showman for his ruthless (if admittedly effective) marketing schemes and especially for his blockbusters like Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street. However, he was also known for importing London successes, including such diverse shows as Stop the World I Want to Get Off! and Marat/Sade, among many others. Irma La Douce was another of his imports.

The three London stars made the trip across the pond. Among the supporting cast were the perennial George S. Irving, a pre-Munsters Fred Gwynne, Elliot Gould and Stuart Damon. (Virginia Vestoff, later to find success in Man with a Load of Mischief and especially 1776, was Seal’s standby). New dance music was arranged by John Kander for Onna White’s choregraphy. Robert Ginzler supplemented Andre Popp’s orchestrations to accommodate changes made for the show’s NY berth.

The show was a hit. Critics and audiences raved and the money poured out. Even before the show opened in NY, it was announced that Billy Wilder was to direct Jack Lemmon in the film version. Elizabeth Seal was the toast of Broadway, winning the show’s sole Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, besting Julie Andrews in Camelot, Carol Channing in Show Girl and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi. (The show was nominated for six others). Irma closed after 524 performances, a solid respectable hit.

Michell later headlined productions of Man of La Mancha and La Cage Aux Folles and is familiar from his recurring role as Dennis Stanton on Murder She Wrote. Revill opened Oliver! on Broadway for Merrick, and later took on the title role in Sherry! He was also the voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back. However, Seal’s career never quite took off. She made one more appearance on Broadway in the Cicely Tyson revival of The Corn is Green. She’s done some BBC radio appearances, notably taking on Solange la Fitt in a concert of Follies. Her most recent film credit was a bit part in Lara Croft Tomb Raider in 2003.

The musical itself held international appeal. Hookers with a heart of gold seem to be a popular draw in musical theatre and many international cast albums were recorded. However, the musical hasn’t received many major revivals. As it turns out there was some disagreement between the French and English estates involved with the property making professional English language productions almost impossible to pull off. But there is good news: I attended the first NY revival of the show was presented by Musicals Tonight in October ’08 which showed that Irma still has some life left in her. I can only hope that now we might see more productions of the show, perhaps at Encores! But then again it might be too small a show for the City Center: the cast is comparatively small and the show’s original orchestration is a producer’s dream: nine pieces (with some considerable prominence given to the xylophone).

There is a London release of the OLC through Sepia, and that particular recording is a slightly more intimate affair with more dialogue (including the entire “There is Only One Paris for That” musical sequence) but I have a greater affinity for the Broadway cast album, especially since it contains that sparkling, infectious overture – one of my absolute favorites. If you’ve never heard Irma La Douce, pick this one up, I don’t think you’ll be at all disappointed. The question now comes down to this: who could play Irma?

The pictures interspersed throughout the post are from the November 14, 1960 issue of Life Magazine entitled “Sweet Irma in a Wicked World.”

January Wrap-Up

I can’t really say it’s been an exemplary month in the world of my theatre-going. There were two trips: Ragtime at the beginning and Tyne Daly at Feinstein’s in the middle. The month saw its usual amounts of closings. Ragtime, Finian’s Rainbow, Superior Donuts, Altar Boyz and some other limited engagements ended their runs. It’s a bit tough to look on and see the critically acclaimed work fall short of the financial mark while underwhelming mediocrities walk away with the golden egg. However, like every other year there is always the promise of spring, and there are some high profile productions slated to open in the coming months.

I’ll be back at the Regency for Betty Buckley’s new show For the Love of Broadway next weekend, followed the next day by the Encores! revival of Fanny. I’m particularly excited for both: the former marks the first time I will have ever seen Ms. Buckley live in performance, the latter possesses a score that I have long admired.

The original Broadway production of Fanny was a big hit in 1954, running 888 performances and establishing David Merrick as a producer to be reckoned with. The show was based on Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays which were also popular films in the 1930s.

In an attempt to repeat the success of South Pacific, Merrick went out of his way to bring as many folks on board. Initially Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were on board, but they passed on the project. Rodgers and Hammerstein were approached, but they were at the point where they were producers of their own work and supposedly Rodgers disliked Merrick. Merrick was able to snag from the South Pacific team director and co-librettist Joshua Logan, singers Ezio Pinza and William Tabbert, scenic and lighting designer Jo Mielziner as well as the Majestic Theatre. At one point they even considered casting Mary Martin in the title role.

Unable to enlist Rodgers and Hammerstein, Merrick hired composer-lyricist Harold Rome. Rome has been known mostly for his revues and a light musical comedy Wish You Were Here. This would prove to be one of his most ambitious scores, often finding itself reaching operatic heights. Walter Slezak (who would win a Tony for his performance) and 20 year old future TV icon Florence Henderson (as Fanny) rounded out the cast. The show opened to positive reviews; there were some issues with the book. But the show proved an audience favorite with its story of young lovers separated; he goes off to sea, and she stays in Marseilles unmarried and pregnant. She marries a kindly older widower because he loves her, and because she knows he will provide her and her child. Melodrama and legit singing ensue. A cast recording was released by RCA. (I’ll go into greater detail on the music when I report on the Encores! production).

Logan and Rome collaborated on the 1961 film adaptation. In a move that would be replicated by the later musical Irma La Douce, the songs were dropped from the feature, and the musical themes adapted as underscoring. The non-musical drama starred Leslie Caron in the title role, Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Horst Buchholz. The film was a critical and financial success, garnering five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

2010 brings about numerous birthday celebrations for Stephen Sondheim. Encores! will closed out its season with a rare NYC revival of his beloved cult bomb Anyone Can Whistle with Sutton Foster and (as rumor has it) Harriet Harris as Cora Hoover Hooper. Final word on casting is pending. There will be galas from the NY Philharmonic, Ravinia Festival, City Center, Roundabout’s Broadway run of Sondheim on Sondheim (much better than the alleged original title iSondheim) and many others. And of course, the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music continues to play at the Walter Kerr Theatre. So your options are ample.

I did see A Little Night Music starring the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones and sublime Angela Lansbury. The musical has been long overdue for a Broadway revival. However, this production stumbles from its initial concept. Going for Chekhov off the bat, director Trevor Nunn misses the balance between the light and dark that makes the show a substantial, touching comedy. While I gather this production benefitted from the intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is not conducive to plant a production built for a 150 seat theatre into the 990 seat Walter Kerr. The set is ugly, the costumes are drab, the orchestration anemic. I am loathe to place blame on the actors, as the problems with the production all stem from his misguided directorial vision for the musical.

Casting is uneven. Erin Davie is a bit of a mess, playing Charlotte as a victim with far too many tears. Aaron Lazar fares better. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Ramona Mallory are projecting a bit too broadly, with Mallory the worse of the two. Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent jumps through three countries in as many scenes. She sings well enough, but there is no directive for “The Miller’s Son” making it stand out more than usual. Alexander Hanson is the epitome of elegance and panache as the aging lawyer Fredrik Egerman.

Catherine Zeta-Jones brings star quality and an eagerness to the role of Desiree Armfeldt. However, in doing so she tends to lose some of the poignancy. There is a tendency for her to oversell her songs, as though trying to prove something. Her performance is far too mannered and comes into some semblance of humanism far too late. She’s gives an adequate performance, but it lacks the spark that has long made the role such a dynamite success for other actors (Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons, and Judi Dench to name a few). Angela Lansbury outdoes her Tony-winning performance in Blithe Spirit with a delicious, understated performance as the disapproving, observant Madame Armfeldt. In the eleventh hour, her character has a reveal so moving I was convinced that the legendary actress is destined for a record sixth Tony. If the rest of the production lived up to her stunning performance, I would say it was worth the ridiculously high ticket price they are asking.

What this revival points out to me is that no matter the production – the book and lyrics of Hugh Wheeler and Sondheim, respectively, can survive even the most inept handling of the material. This revival would have been better served with the Lincoln Center team- Bartlett Sher, Cathy Zuber and Christopher Akerlind – exploring and fine-tuning every nuance and color waiting to be revisited within this glorious musical.