The other night I settled in to watch the film adaptation of The Teahouse of the August Moon, an East meets West comedy about the 1946 occupation of Okinawa by the American military. I’ve never read John Patrick’s play (based on the novel by Vern J. Sneider) and I’m sure that productions are few and far between for this once celebrated Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner, so I decided to watch it on a whim. I shared this info on Twitter as I started watching, but soon found myself distracted by the unexpected responses I received regarding the failed 1970 musical adaptation of the play called Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, which played three weeks on Broadway. (The musical’s title comes from the first line of the play).
When the original play opened in 1953, David Wayne won Best Actor in a Play Tony for his portrayal of the Okinawan Sakini (and was replaced by Burgess Meredith and Eli Wallach). The 1956 film star Marlon Brando in the same role. For the musical, Kenneth Nelson (The Fantasticks) was hired. The musical featured a cast of 45 actors, 12 of whom were Asian American. The Oriental Actors of America picketed the theatre on opening night, accusing the production of discrimination and incensed that no Asian actors were auditioned for the role of Sakini. (Miss Saigon went through something similar when Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Engineer).
The score was written by Stan Freeman (I Had a Ball) and Franklin Underwood (his sole Broadway credit), with a book by playwright Patrick. Marc Breaux supplied the choreography to Lawrence Kasha’s direction. Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, “If the music of a musical doesn’t work, if the lyrics don’t sing, and if the book is best left unread – you have an awful lot of strikes against you.” Barnes unintentionally caused a bit of chaos by opening his review by stating “Oh dear, I come to bury Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, not to praise it.” which led to a picketing of the NY Times building by the cast and crew.
With the reviews mostly negative, a closing notice was posted immediately but taken down when the cast and crew agreed to a pay cut. The creative team dispensed with royalties while the Shubert Organization offered assistance in the form of a reduced rental rate for the Majestic Theatre. Producer Herman Levin wrote a lengthy letter to the editor chastising Barnes and blaming the show’s inevitable failure on the critic.
The show eked out a run of 19 performances. Nelson moved to England and never returned to Broadway. David Burns died onstage a mere two months later in the Philadelphia tryout of 70, Girls, 70. Burns, an audience favorite who received raves, would receive a posthumous Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical, one of two Tony nominations Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen received (the other was for Freddie Wittop’s costumes). No cast album was made.
Here is “Simple Words,” a lovely duet between Ron Husmann and Eleanor Calbes and the second act musical comedy turn “Call Me Back,” a rare glimpse into a long forgotten musical: