“Chronicle of a Closing Night” Revisited


I’ve been collecting Playbills for years. Not only for the shows I’ve seen, but also ones that I’ve picked up at the Broadway Flea Market or in various shops. It started initially with some of my favorite flops, but has expanded to include almost anything I can get my hands on. Last week, I was flipping through my Playbill for the original Broadway production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one I picked up randomly for a spell-check, when I came across a fascinating feature article by Colette Dowling chronicling the closing of the musical Illya Darling, a 1967 screen-to-stage adaptation of the hit 1960 film Never on Sunday.

Illya Darling was mostly eviscerated by the critics, with raves only for its Greek star Melina Mercouri, who was reprising her star-making, Oscar-nominated performance as a care-free, empowered prostitute (It’s about an insufferable American tourist who tries unsuccessfully to reform her in a sort of reverse take on the Pygmalion myth). 1967-68 was not a particularly strong season for Broadway musicals; at 320 performances, Illya was the longest running Best Musical Tony nominee of the season. The show lasted as long as it did because of a strong advance and the magnetic presence of Mercouri. However, business had dropped off precipitously during the Christmas holiday prompting a provisional one-week closing notice in January.

The article starts off by discussing the final week of the run. Mercouri, Orson Bean and three other principal players proposed taking Equity minimum to stay open, but the producer (Kermit Bloomgarden, who is never actually mentioned by name) said no. When the provisional notice wasn’t rescinded as of Thursday, the cast realized their show was closing in two days. Next to the notice was a typed thank you note from the producer, information regarding unemployment insurance and a request for donations for the closing night party.

Ms. Dowling was allowed backstage access during this final performance. She shadowed Mercouri throughout the performance, but also saw much of the behavior that goes on behind the scenes at a musical. Star Mercouri is weary and emotionally exhausted. The stagehands are noisy. The assistant stage manager pisses off the production stage manager by stealing his photo of Melina and having it personalized. The most unsettling incident: a cocky stagehand grabs Mercouri just prior to an entrance and kisses her to impress his friends, refusing to let go of her. Mercouri, who briefly flirts with rage, laughs it off and barely makes it onstage in time.

There is an unusual political aspect associated with Illya Darling. The infamous Greek military junta took place just ten days after Mercouri’s Broadway opening. It made her the most prominent exile, as well as a vocal opponent of the junta. Her property and assets were seized. When her Greek citizenship was revoked by Minister of the Interior Stylianos Pattakos, Ms. Mercouri famously declared “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos was born a fascist and will die a fascist.” So great was her power and presence in the anti-junta movement, she was later the target of a failed assassination attempt after Illya had closed.

Before the performance started, Mercouri told Dowling, “Never on Sunday changed my life twice. With the film I became known. And with the play… I lost everything I owned.” There were other Greek actors in the cast, with Titos Vandis and Despo also reprising roles from the film. Many of these cast members are unable to return to their homes and there is a sense of national pride among them. The song “Never on Sunday” – which is sung in Greek – so stops the show at this closing, the audience demands two encores. Everyone on stage is in tears; Melina has stop to collect her breath during the extensive ovation.

One of the most surprising aspects of this article is its length. At 3000 words, the piece seems more like something you might find in New York Magazine rather than Playbill, or at least Playbill as we know it today. Dowling has an exquisite eye for detail, a captivating style and doesn’t shy away from less-flattering aspects of show business (the final section on the closing night party reads like a wake). There are quite a few photos shadowing Ms. Mercouri around the backstage area of the Mark Hellinger Theatre. While we often get to hear about legendary opening nights, it’s so interesting to see a piece about a closing, especially for a show that was little-loved and is mostly forgotten today.

As a result of the article, I decided to pull the Illya Darling Playbill from my collection. The feature article is a piece by Bob Hope recalling his stage career, with anecdotes about the Ziegfeld Follies and Jimmy Durante. In my copy of Pacific Overtures, there is a wonderful interview with Katharine Hepburn, who was then poised to return to Broadway in A Matter of Gravity.  Now, by interview, I don’t mean just a  printed Q&A. The author (Bernard Carrugher) takes his conversation with Ms. Hepburn and develops it into a fully-formed 1500 word piece.  This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could – and did – get lost in these for hours.

The time I spent with my collection led me to wonder: is there a way to create a digital archive of the articles and features from vintage Playbills? There are so many wonderful pieces filled with the minutest of details. I know I’d love access to all of these, with years and years of features, interviews, appraisals, mail-in columns, and occasional fits of whimsy just waiting to be rediscovered. The Playbill Vault is already a wonderful resource, but each entry is limited to the “The Show” portion of the Playbill. These articles are a treasure trove worth exploring.

More Melina

It was Broadway in the 1960s, so a trip to see Ed Sullivan was obligatory! Here Melina sings “Piraeus My Love” (pretaped). Then she comes out to witness “Illya Darling” yet another one in a long line of big 60s title songs choregraphed by Onna White, with a tag of “Never on Sunday.”

And they all go to the seashore!

I’ve been obsessed with the CD release of Illya Darling. I received the album the other evening and have been unable to listen to anything else. The show was a musical adaptation of the hit 1960 comedy Never on Sunday about a Grecophile from America traveling to Greece in search of a lost ideal, something he finds in a carefree prostitute in Piraeus and tries to reform her. The film was directed and written by Jules Dassin, who also appeared in the film as the American (probably due to the budget constrictions). The film was an unexpectedly huge success, as it was a small independent produced for $150,000 and released through United Artists. The film turned Melina Mercouri into an international superstar and a sex symbol at the age of 40 (suck it, Hollywood!). The score and the Oscar-winning title song were composed by Manos Hadjidakis, which also took on a popularity of its own. Dassin and Mercouri received Oscar nominations; he for writing and directing, she as Best Actress.

The musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1967 directed by Dassin and starring Mercouri. Orson Bean was Homer, the priggish American and Hal Linden made his Broadway debut. In an unusual move, two other actors from the film reprised their roles for the stage show: Titos Vandis and Despo (who was playing the earthy, older prostitute named Despo). The show received mostly negative reviews, but managed to play 320 performances based on Mercouri alone (who received nothing short of love letters). The musical was nominated for six Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical, but went home empty-handed.

The cast album was released on record by United Artists, the company that had distributed the original film as well as the other Dassin-Mercouri smash hit Topkapi. For whatever reason, the songs were placed out of order on the LP, most likely to fit the time constraints (which is why material was left off the album). Well, Illya had remained a vinyl collector’s piece for 42 years until this week when Kritzerland released it. There had been word of a release from DRG, but it kept getting postponed and postponed. But now it’s finally here. Kritzerland founder Bruce Kimmel has worked considerably on the album, restoring the score to its show order, improving the sound for CD and restoring two cut bits, one of which is the show’s opening number. When I first read that “Bouzouki Nights” was not the overture, and wasn’t even the real name of the piece, I was a bit disappointed. It’s one of my favorite tracks and is one of the most joyous instrumental pieces recorded for an original Broadway cast album.

However, as soon as I pressed play on the overture, a delicate and sweeping paean to the bouzouki (an instrument I just love), I was immediately taken with the new recording. Hearing the subtle nuances of Ralph Burns’ masterful orchestrations with such clarity had an unexpected effect on me. I had previously found the cast album on record to be something of a guilty pleasure, but now I was finding myself genuinely enjoying the score. It never achieves greatness but thrives on the music of Manos Hadjidakis and the charming Mercouri. I have never understand why Joe Darion worked as a Broadway lyricist, whose work here is less than stellar. His big show is Man of La Mancha, and don’t get me started on the quality of those lyrics… As it turns out, Sondheim himself was brought in to doctor the lyrics while the show was in previews, but none of his work actually appears in the final show. There’s an amusing anecdote regarding Mercouri and Sondheim in the liner notes, and the reason why she reverted back to Joe Darion’s version of “Piraeus, My Love.” Turns out she dropped his lyric because he “didn’t go backstage every night to pay homage to his star.” I question the validity of this assessment, but it makes for amusing reading, no? Kimmel wrote the liner notes himself and they are concise and endlessly informative.

There are a couple of strong numbers – the song “Never on Sunday” was recycled into the second act (retaining its original character-driven Greek lyric, not that vapid English substitute so widely recorded), a lovely ballad “After Love,” the comic “Medea Tango” showcasing Illya’s warped interpretation of Greek tragedy (this post’s title) and the charming finale “Ya Chara.” On the other hand: in Open a New Window, Ethan Mordden’s tome on 60s musicals, the author calls “I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore” the worst theatre song of the decade. (Like I said, there is not a lot of critical love for the show).

Tangent: The show opened April 11, 1967 on Broadway. Ten days later the Greek military junta took over in Greece. Mercouri became an avid anti-fascist activist almost instantaneously. Being in New York and out of Greece, the junta seized her property and revoked her citizenship. She rallied around the world and became an iconic figure promoting the re-establishment of democracy in her homeland. When asked for comment about the loss of her citizenship, Mercouri said “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos (who revoked it) was born a fascist and he will die a fascist!” Mercouri spoke out against the tyranny of Greece in speeches world-wide, leading rallies and marches, singing and recording albums of protest. She was subject to several terrorist attacks and even an assassination attempt, which only made her more determined. When the junta fell in 1974, Mercouri became involved in Greek parliament eventually becoming the first female Minister of Culture for Greece. Her contributions on the political level in Greece made her a national treasure. Mercouri died in 1994 and she was given a state funeral with Prime Minister’s honors. Thousands upon thousands of Greeks came out to mourn. There is a bust of the actress/politician in Athens, right near the steps leading to the Parthenon, for whose preservation as an archaeological park she worked tirelessly. Truly a remarkable life. End tangent.

It’s highly unlikely that the show will ever be revived (even though I was surprised to see it listed on the Tams-Witmark licensing website), so this album remains one of the few links to this rather obscure musical. Here is the song order from both releases to give you an idea how inaccurate the record album was in representing the show. Let me tell you, it makes a difference to hear the score as it should be heard.

The LP release track list:

1. Bouzouki Nights
2. Piraeus, My Love
3. Golden Land
4. Illya, Darling
5. Medea Tango
6. I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore
7. Never on Sunday
8. Overture (Entr’acte)
9. Love, Love, Love
10. I Think She Needs Me
11. Dear Mr. Schubert
12. Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This
13. After Love
14. Yorgo’s Dance
15. Ya Chara

The new CD track-list (and proper show order):

1. Overture (formerly Entr’acte)
2. Po, Po, Po (previously unreleased)
3. Piraeus, My Love
4. Golden Land
5. Yorgo’s Dance
6. Love, Love, Love
7. I Think She Needs Me
8. I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore
9. After Love
10. Birthday Song (previously unreleased)
11. Medea Tango
12. Illya Darling
13. Dear Mr. Schubert
14. Never on Sunday
15. Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This
16. Taverna Dance (Bouzouki Nights on LP)
17. Ya Chara

There were only 1,000 copies of the cast album printed, and the album is almost entirely sold out. But if you’re interested, there are still a few copies left. With this and the recently released Anya, Kimmel has hinted there more to come. Both were recorded on the United Artists label, so perhaps I should keep my fingers crossed for a CD release of the original London cast album of Promises, Promises with Tony Roberts and Betty Buckley…

Upcoming releases, plus a thorough wishlist…

Winter’s on the wing and the weather has been turning magical and resplendent. But with such resplendence comes the sweet poison of pollen. Flowers, grasses, trees. You name it. It’s floating out there. And making evil of me. I know many of you must be suffering as I am. Well, thankfully I’m not as bad I have been thanks to ongoing allergy immunotherapy, lots of pharmaceutical assistance and my neti pot.

Enough about my woes… There are treasures to be had this spring in the guise of DVD and CD product.

On April 29, DRG is releasing two: the CD premiere of the 1967 musical Illya, Darling, a vehicle for Melina Mercouri based on her blockbuster success Never on Sunday. While not a spectacular score by any means, it has some interesting items, most especially “Bouzouki Nights,” the show’s Grecian-flavored overture. Also coming out on that day is the CD reissue of the Merm’s Happy Hunting, which is considerably less exciting, but still, it’s good to have it out there. Also, Sh-K-Boom will be releasing the cast recording of William Finn’s Make Me a Song.

No word on when the Gypsy cast album will be recorded and released, but the South Pacific cast recording was made yesterday and will be released on May 27. (Kelli O’Hara, who has missed performances for the first time in her career according to Playbill.com, is suffering from a severe cold and will record her tracks at a later date). The same day we also get the original Broadway cast recording of A Catered Affair.

It’s nice to hear that DRG is still bringing out the cast recordings. Apparently many of the titles are now only available via Arkiv. I know they’re officially licensed with reprinted liner notes and all, but I feel somewhat cheated getting a CD-R of an original CD. For my money, give me an official remastered issue. There are still many older cast albums on LP that have been left on the shelves and in used music stores that should come to CD. Of the New York entries there’s The Consul, Cry for Us All, Anya, A Time for Singing, Donnybrook!, Doonesbury, Maggie Flynn, The Threepenny Opera (’76 revival), the NYCO Regina, and the off-Broadway The Cradle Will Rock. There are a lot of original London cast albums that have never been issued on CD: Carnival, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man (the budget CD issue doesn’t count, it’s missing 7 or 8 tracks), Camelot, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I Do! I Do!, Man of La Mancha, 1776, Once Upon a Mattress, Do Re Mi, Promises Promises, and Hello Dolly!. As has been the case, copyright laws in Britain expire after 50 years, sending recordings into the public domain. Look for some of these recordings to be released when that occurs.

And inevitably, those albums previously available on CD that are now out of print: Darling of the Day, Little Me (OBC, OLC & NBC), Sugar Babies, 110 in the Shade (OBC), Woman of the Year, Wish You Were Here, Me and Juliet, Wildcat, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, High Spirits (OBC & OLC), Sugar, Tenderloin, Black & Blue, Mr. Wonderful, Take Me Along, Minnie’s Boys, High Button Shoes, Sophisticated Ladies, Hello Dolly! (with Pearl Bailey), Two on the Aisle, Henry Sweet Henry, Milk and Honey, Prettybelle, Do Re Mi, Zorba (OBC), Mr. President, and One Touch of Venus/Lute Song. The original London cast albums of She Loves Me, Flower Drum Song, Forum, Where’s Charley?, Cabaret (with Judi Dench as Sally Bowles), Passion Flower Hotel, Company (the OBC with Larry Kert dubbing over Dean Jones), Anne of Green Gables and Charlie Girl; all of the latter were either part of the long-defunct Sony West End series, a London counterpart to the Sony Broadway series of the early 90s or the West End Angel Series. Also, The Good Companions, Little Mary Sunshine (with our beloved Patricia Routledge in the title role), A Little Night Music (OLC & RNT w. Judi Dench), City of Angels, The Card, 70 Girls 70, Anything Goes (with Elaine Paige) and the Donmar Company revival.

We have quite the minimal market, so it makes sense why many titles haven’t yet been released, or have been deleted from their respective catalogues. Most of the major labels don’t go in for a cast album unless it’s one of the major shows. It’s up to Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom, PS Classics and Nonesuch to pick up the slack and integrity. I didn’t even bother going into the studio cast albums because there are way too many to be taken into consideration. Anything I missed? Anything you want to see out there? Discuss.

Darling Illya

Melina Mercouri is probably the sexiest thing to happen to Greece since Helen. There I said it. I first watched Mercouri in the delightful 1964 comic caper film Topkapi, a heist film in that delightfully offbeat early ’60s style. Directed by her husband and frequent collaborator Jules Dassin, the film starred Mercouri, Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov, who would win his second Oscar for this outing, as an unwilling, bumbling con man/patsy. Topkapi is based on Eric Ambler‘s novel The Light of Day and tells the unabashedly entertaining story of Elizabeth Lipp, an exotic jewel thief who enlists a former lover (Schell) to help her in an incredibly dangerous and seemingly impossible mission to steal the legendary emerald dagger from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. At first, I couldn’t really understand a thing that Mercouri was saying, as her Greek accent was incredibly thick, but I couldn’t get over the sensuality of the actress nor the coy way she had of flirting with the camera. (And I also found that after a few minutes, she was speaking English and I could understand it). I won’t go further in the plot of the film, but it’s one to be seen. It directly inspired Mission: Impossible and was even mentioned and homaged in the 1996 film adaptation of the classic TV series. (The scene where Tom Cruise hangs upside down; watch the original for the inspiration). It’s a product of the 1960s; that is for certain, but its charms and incredibly tense climax (the film was also a spoof of Dassin’s own Rififi, a dark and serious film about a heist that ends badly for all involved) make for a pleasant viewing.

Anyway, my fascination with Melina began with Topkapi. It continued when I watched what is considered her signature role, Illya (Ilia according to IMDb, Illia according to the DVD case…oh well) in Never on Sunday. The film centered on an American academic Homer Thrace (Dassin, who also directed) who becomes obsessed with reforming an incredibly popular and vivacious prostitute in the coastal town of Piraeus, just outside of Athens. Illya is unique because not only is she adored by the men in town, she also commands their respect, and she in return, loves them all platonically (and occasionally a little more). She has no pimp, she sets her own prices and only chooses men she likes for consorting. There is a Pygmalion-esque subtext underlying throughout the film, Homer is trying to recreate the Grecian ideal through Illya, though unbeknownst to her, he is financing her education through the local crime boss, who would much prefer to see Illya retired and not influencing his prostitutes to take their independence (as evidenced by an older prostitute played by Despo, who would also have a brief role in Topkapi). She heartily devours the Greek tragedies, always at dramatic festivals to see them and always retelling them to the men in town who adore her. However, her interpretations of said classics make them, how shall we say?, more upbeat. With all of them ending with a picnic by the sea shore. (One of the film’s funniest scenes is her revisionist Medea). The title stems from the fact that on Sunday, Illya takes the day off and has a party in which she invites all of her friends, mostly men, over to apartment. (Nothing of that sort happens). The film was a critical and popular sensation. Not only did the film make Mercouri a world-wide celebrity, it also managed one of the more impressive feats that I find from the film: it made her, at the film industry’s death knell age of 40, an international sex symbol. Her husky purr of a voice, combined with those devilishly enchanting eyes are enough to captivate even today. The film was nominated for five Academy awards, winning one for its incredibly popular bouzouki flavored song “Never on Sunday,” by Manos Hatzidakis. Melina was nominated, but she lost to Elizabeth Taylor’s tracheotomy.

Never on Sunday became a musical in 1967. Again, it starred our Melina. Again Despo played the older prostitute friend. Again it was directed by Dassin. Again the music was from Hatzidakis. The show was called Illya, Darling; an uninspired and rather poor choice, though one can appreciate the early film to stage adaptations trying to make themselves distinct from the original property, much like Carnival! from 1961 and with Promises, Promises a year after Illya opened. I have to admit, for such an incredibly weak score, it’s a guilty pleasure. The overture is a thrilling Grecian piece entitled “Bouzouki Nights” and may be the most thrilling opening to grace a dud of a score. Many of the character numbers lack sound structure and some lack lyrical finesse. (Particularly, Despo’s annoyingly catchy but truly awful “I Never Lay Down Anymore.” When the title of a song says all there is to be said, it shouldn’t be dragged out for another 2 1/2 minutes). It speaks volumes that “Never on Sunday” was interpolated into the score and it remains the strongest piece. But all of the above and Orson Bean‘s irritating nasal whine aren’t enough to make me stop the record. It has Melina. And God bless her, she really put her all into it. Her singing voice isn’t spectacular. It’s rather gravelly and deteriorated due to years of chain smoking (in the two films you rarely see her without and its a pity, Melina died of lung cancer in 1994). But there she is to lead the troupe through what must have been an interesting evening for 320 performances (given that she was basically the sole attraction, who else would want to fill those shoes?). The back of the LP is filled with love letters the critics wrote for her. My favorite being from Walter Kerr of the NY Times:

“Melina is, of course, something to contemplate. She’s a creature you would be happy to take home to Mother if Mother was out. Leggy and luscious as before, clasping a shy sailor to her very warm breast. Melina stripped down to a minibikini. Melina locked in the muscular embrace of a handsome dockworker without a shirt. Melina propped up in bed on her elbows, crying a little through cigarette smoke over three weeks love lost because of her over-indulgence in virtue. The lady’s smile is as broad as the blaze of noon. she moves as though she had been born a dancer.”

And they say Brantley worships Chenoweth. She’s got nothing on Melina.

On the BlueGobo website, there is an extended clip of Melina and the company. First, she performs her opening “Piraeus, My Love”, then men of the ensemble lead the title song and it ends with an encore of “Never on Sunday,” sung in Greek by Melina and assisted by the chorus.

I’m not entirely sure why I felt like writing about her tonight. Just seemed to be on the mind as I’ve been recommending her recently to friends. Now I only know her via these two roles, but I do intend on checking out Phaedra and Stella. I do hope you check out Melina in the two filmes I mentioned. They are incredibly enjoyable, especially to see a star as lustrous as Mercouri make proverbial love to the camera. (Illya Darling is also worth a listen for the curious).

There are plans to remake Topkapi. I wish they wouldn’t.