By Michael Elihu Colby
Part 10: Musicals “R” Us
1966 was a very good year to have a grandmother who liked taking her grandkids to Broadway musicals. In January, we saw the incomparable Gwen Verdon in the first musical of the year, Sweet Charity. Grandma had one of her “Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have brought the kids” moments watching a show about undulating, hustling dance hall hostesses. But we adored it anyway, and Grandma explained, “Those girls just shake like that to stay in shape.” We’d had a similar experience a few months earlier when Grandma took us to Man of La Mancha, whose heroine was Aldonza, a “kitchen slut reeking with sweat”. 1 At least Aldonza reformed by the end of the show. I’m not sure how Grandma would have explained some of the musicals today. She even had a hard time saying the title of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which she called The Best Little House on the Prairie.
In March, Grandma treated Douglas and me to opening night tickets for It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman—theatre heaven for this fan of both DC comics and Broadway musicals. Grandma herself found special delight taking us to Mame, wherein Angela Lansbury nightly announced, “See You Tuesday at the Algonquin.” As if things couldn’t get better, during the Summer, we saw three glorious revivals, the first two with their original stars: Ethel Merman as “Annie Oakley” in Annie Get Your Gun (Lincoln Center), Vivian Blaine as “Miss Adelaide” in Guys and Dolls (City Center), and Show Boat featuring Barbara Cook, David Wayne, Constance Towers, and one of Grandpa Ben’s favorite songs “Make Believe” (Grandpa’s other favorite was “Gentle On My Mind” which he sometimes called “Gentile on My Mind”).
But it was in the Fall that we saw a musical that would be a watershed event for me. It was among several notable musicals that Fall. Beforehand, there was The Apple Tree in which, as a waif who turns into a sex siren, Barbara Harris and her magically expanding breasts were one of my all-time favorite stage effects. There was I Do! I Do!, in which Broadway superstars Mary Martin and Robert Preston depicted a harmonious 50-year marriage—which, in light of my parents’ fights, I enjoyed as a musical fantasy like Brigadoon or Peter Pan.
The capper was the original production of Cabaret. This breathtaking show, demonstrating how musicals could be synchronistically entertaining and illuminating, made writing musicals my ongoing goal. As a Jewish teen, I could for the first time comprehend how something as evil as Nazism took root. At the start of the show, the audience saw a glamorous, sensual Berlin beckoning like a siren song, led by the epicene emcee, the unforgettable Joel Grey. Soon the setting became a bustling cabaret/nightspot where wine, women, and whatever were available. It was not a blatantly decadent setting—no grotesques with track-marks like in recent revivals—but a naughty, seductive mirror of an era still daring but not yet deathly. At its pulse was the baby-faced kewpie doll Sally Bowles (Jill Haworth) and the American writer Cliff Townsend (Bert Convy) being drawn into the hypnotic undertow—as the audience followed their example. Like a nightmare overtaking us, Hitler’s chorus dulcetly sang “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and the musical grew darker and darker. Every song dazzled us, while the show insinuated its message: Don’t turn a blind eye to what’s really happening in the world or you may succumb to the consequences. By the conclusion, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities of what a musical could achieve.
After an exhilarating weekend of theatre-going, I returned to our Long Island house, freshly restored after our big fire. There, life was anything but entertaining. I faced escalating arguments between by parents that spurred my insomnia some nights, followed by dreams so ferocious I often woke screaming.
Fortunately, I knew weekends at the Algonquin meant visits to musicals where, as often as not, “people sing when sad, lights are pink and gold, villains booed when bad, happy endings told.” 2 I’d also have the chance to meet creators of musicals and better understand the magic they made.
One of my guides to bygone musicals was the theatrical agent and former producer, Charles Abramson. He was a walking encyclopedia on theatre history who loved sharing his knowledge with me. His career harked back to the 1930s, when he presented two musicals, Orchids Preferred and All the King’s Horses. A close friend of my grandparents, the debonair, moustached “Mr. Abramson” (as I called him) reminded me of an avuncular version of actor Adolphe Menjou (especially in the film Stage Door). He would evoke the glories of a time in which Broadway was the center of the entertainment world and he’d pay nightly visits to new musicals by Rodgers & Hart, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. His own circle of associates had included Preston Sturges, Philip Burton (Richard Burton’s adoptive father), and the agent/producer Charles Feldman (for whom Mr. Abramson negotiated films ranging from The Glass Menagerie 3 to What’s New Pussycat?—the sublime to the ridiculous).
Mr. Abramson reveled in verbally reliving the past. Sometimes he told stories so lengthy, he didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep. But, divorced and having no children of his own, he devoted time to members of my family as if they were his own. Moreover, he encouraged my writing and helped me in any way he could. It was he who introduced me to a couple—staying at the Algonquin—who would be pivotal in my pursuits: actor Teddy Hart and his wife Dorothy. Teddy was the brother of one of my favorite lyricists, Lorenz Hart, who’d been another regular at the Algonquin before he died in 1943. No one could spin poetry out of pain as potently as Lorenz (Larry) Hart with such songs as “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “Little Girl Blue,” and “Falling in Love With Love.” Teddy was gifted as well, the originator of roles in two classic musicals One Touch of Venus and The Boys From Syracuse—the latter co-written for him by his brother. Dorothy was dedicated to both men. She was instrumental in preserving the legacy of Lorenz Hart after he died—plugging his shows and writing his biography. She was also delightfully eccentric, with a sensitivity to the cold air that led her to wearing oversize furs in summer and coming down with pneumonia after a drink with too many ice cubes. I’ll pay further homage to Dorothy and Teddy Hart in an installment to come.
During the 1940s, Lorenz Hart had bolstered the confidence of another Algonquin guest I grew to know. The two men met after Alan Jay Lerner returned from serving in World War II, facing a shaky marriage and concerned that his poor vision (blind in one eye from a boxing incident) might impede his future. According to Lerner’s biographer Gene Lees: Larry Hart became a mentor and “the man who did most to make him [Lerner] believe that he had talent to make a life as a lyricist.” 4 As lyricists, Hart’s and Lerner’s work habits couldn’t have been more diverse. Dorothy Hart told me that Larry could lock himself in a room and ten minutes later deliver the words to “Ten Cents a Dance,” featuring ingenious rhymes like “Sometimes I think I’ve found my hero,/ but it’s a queer ro-/mance.” 5 Alan Jay Lerner took long spans writing his lyrics, struggling for more than nine days on Gigi to come up with “She’s so oo-la-la-la-la, / So untrue-la-la-la-la,/ She is not thinking of me.” 6
However different their work methods, each created timelessly witty and emotional lyrics to beloved songs. These were songs my father blissfully played on his stereo as sung by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Additional songs by Hart (written with composer Richard Rodgers) included “Where or When,” “Thou Swell”, and “There’s a Small Hotel” (the last one my parents’ wedding theme). Lerner’s included “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Get Me to the Church On Time,” and “Almost Like Being in Love” (which title should have been my parent’s wedding theme). Hart and Lerner were also alike in substance dependency. Hart was an alcoholic, Lerner a smoker, amphetamine-taker, and uncontrollable nail-biter. He chewed his nails so badly, he’d wear white gloves to discourage himself. My grandmother cited Lerner as another example of what show business does to people, saying “He doesn’t have fingers, he has knobs.”
Lerner and his most frequent collaborator, Frederick (Fritz) Loewe, both stayed at the Algonquin on and off throughout their careers. Some might say writing musicals was their first love beyond any wives. Maurice Abravanel—the renowned conductor who musical directed Lerner and Loewe’s The Day Before Spring (1946)—reportedly stated:
I liked Fritz and Alan both as human beings. But they were strange human beings. Alan’s first wife, Ruth, was a lovely… girl. I sat with her after the premiere of The Day Before Spring, because Alan didn’t pay any attention to her. She told me she was alone. Alan didn’t live with her. Alan would call her maybe once every two or three weeks. He and Fritz totally neglected their wives. They both lived at the Algonquin. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the two women…” 7
Nevertheless, staying alive became more important to Frederick Loewe than composing. This was especially true when, working on Camelot at the Algonquin, he suffered a massive coronary. Lerner did briefly coax him out of retirement (and back to the hotel) to collaborate on two projects: a stage version of their Oscar-winning movie Gigi and a new movie musical based on The Little Prince (which, incidentally, was co-produced by Grandma Mary’s second cousin, Joseph Tandet). But neither project succeeded.
Lerner ultimately clocked in eight wives and thirteen Broadway musicals (among them, the Lerner & Loewe hits, Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot). My grandparents saw most of the musicals and wives, albeit Lerner’s shows sometimes ran longer than his marriages. Aside from Loewe, Lerner wrote shows with a top tier of Broadway composers, including Kurt Weil, Burton Lane, and Leonard Bernstein. Of these shows, only Coco (composed by André Previn) made money—largely on the drawing power of star Katharine Hepburn. I sat and talked to Lerner when he had high hopes for his last musical, Dance a Little Closer. Collaborating with composer Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie), he multitasked as lyricist, librettist, and director of this musical based on Idiot’s Delight—a play written in 1936 by Algonquin Round-Tabler Robert E. Sherwood. As we sat, Lerner positively beamed—asserting how well the musical’s early performances were going, particularly proud because it starred his eighth wife, British actress Liz Robertson. Sadly, he was as oblivious to reality as Sally Bowles was in Cabaret. Dance a Little Closer was roundly panned, lasted one performance, and received the nickname “Close a Little Sooner.” However, Lerner did something very right on the show. This time, while the show was being developed, he lived at the Algonquin with his wife. It was probably his happiest marriage: he and Liz Robertson stayed together until his death did them part.
Another veteran lyricist I knew through the Algonquin was Irving Caesar, the nicest Tin Pan Alley mensch you’d ever want to meet (and a longtime friend of my grandparents). He led a fantastic, long life. He grew up knowing the Marx Brothers. He was lyricist for George Gershwin’s first hit tune, “Swanee,” which—as recorded by Al Jolson—outsold all Gershwin’s other songs. His other songs included “Animal Crackers in My Soup” (composers: Ray Henderson & Ted Koehler), “Just a Gigolo” (music: Leonello Casucci), and—from the Broadway musical No, No, Nanette—“I Want to Be Happy” and “Tea For Two” (music: Vincent Youmans). 8 In 1971, Caesar was in major demand because of the smash Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, as directed by another Algonquin regular, Burt Shevelove (the great co-librettist—with Larry Gelbart—of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).
I recall visiting Irving Caesar’s office around that time, a place which writer Mark Steyn described as:
[A] step back in time. … The sheet music covers are quaintly dated, the faded photographs show singers and writers long dead, and each chair has its own spittoon. Littering the floor, stacked up against desk legs, are dozens of awards… most for ‘Tea For Two’ as ‘Most Performed Song of the Decade’—not in the twenties, when it was written, but in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987… ‘They give it to me every year,’ sighs Caesar heading for his hundredth birthday. ‘I don’t know what to do with ‘em any more.’” 9
During my visit, Caesar recounted how he originally improvised the words to “Tea For Two” as a dummy lyric that people told him to keep. He relished telling this story; I’d heard it at least two times before—when he made guest appearances at events. But, as a bonus just for me, he sang the “Stonewall Moskowitz March,” whose lyrics he’d co-written with Larry Hart for the Ziegfeld musical Betsy. Sample lyric: “My name is Stonewall Moskowitz. / I’m no Doctor of Philoskowitz./ I’ve got money in the bankowitz. / I’m as good as any mankowitz.” 10 After hearing the song, it was clear to me why it never reached the popularity of “Swanee.”
Most treasured of all such Algonquin introductions was my meeting E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, one of my two lyricist idols (alongside Lorenz Hart). Harburg’s contributions to shows like Finian’s Rainbow were lyrical equivalents—years ahead—to the accomplishment of Cabaret: they entertained while edifying. Though not as dead serious as the message of Cabaret, Harburg’s lyrics were memorable social commentaries cushioned in whimsy with catchy tunes by such composers as Jay Gorney, Burton Lane, and Harold Arlen. Such Harburg songs were “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
Harburg, who was blacklisted during the 1950s for his views, also wrote wildly witty political verse, such as in his book of poetry Rhymes for the Irreverent:
We’ve licked pneumonia and T.B.
And plagues that used to mock us,
We’ve got the virus on the run
The small pox cannot pock us.
We’ve found the antibodies for
But oh, the universal curse
From Cuba to Korea,
The bug of bugs that bugs us still
And begs for panacea!
Oh, who will find the antidote
For Pentagonorrhea? 11
It’s amazing that this cynical verse came from the same man who wrote the wistfully child-like lyric to “Over the Rainbow” (music: Harold Arlen).
During our conversation, I was touched when Harburg acknowledged that his all-sung and rhymed “Munchkinland” sequence—in The Wizard of Oz—was inspired by similar scenes my other idol, Larry Hart, wrote for movies like Love Me Tonight. I myself would one day write several musicals that were all-rhymed and all-sung.
I might have never been introduced to these wonderful musicals and veteran writers, if not for my grandparents, the Bodnes, especially Grandma Mary. She had no idea what an outlet they’d become for me, shining light on darker aspects of my own life. Cabaret would remain my favorite musical, closely followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, where people in a tumultuous marriage are unable to express their love, coming to blows instead. Carousel struck a chord with me in a home where my parents were fighting so constantly that expensive steps were taken to conciliate their marriage. Urged by my father, the Bodnes arranged for them to receive family counseling with a therapist at Johns Hopkins University. My parents, my brother Douglas, and I traveled to Baltimore, so our testimonies would give the therapist the fullest picture of our family dynamic. Unfortunately, Grandma Mary decided to influence the results. After going to all this trouble and expense, Grandma coached Douglas and me on what we should say. We were to claim my mother’s temper and intense agitation—later diagnosed as OCD—were mostly the fault of my father and his drinking. Grandma Mary thought that information would help the therapist fix things at home without causing stigma to her daughter. I realize Grandma thought she was handling the situation correctly, protecting her daughter. She was part of a generation of immigrants that wanted the best for their children but acted from the heart rather than psychological acumen. Needless to say, when the Colbys returned from Baltimore, the fighting just got worse. Like in Cabaret, a blind eye had been turned on the truth and, eventually, our family would succumb to consequences.
Next part: Learning the Ropes
1 Darien, Joe. Lyric to “Aldonza” from the musical Man of La Mancha (music: Mitch Leigh; libretto: Dale Wasserman) © 1965.
2 From the song “Frank Kiley”: lyric by Michael Colby, music by Peter Millrose, © 2013.
3 Williams, Tennessee. The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume II: 1945-1947. Edited by Albert J. Devlin, co-edited by Nancy M. Tischler. New York: New Directions, 2004.
4 Lees, Gene. Inventing Champagne: The Musical Worlds of Lerner and Loewe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1960.
5 Hart, Lorenz. Lyric to “Ten Cents a Dance” from the musical Simple Simon (music: Richard Rodgers; book: Ed Wynn & Guy Bolton) © 1930.
6 Lerner, Alan Jay. The Street Where I Live. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.
7 Lees, Gene. Ibid.
8 Zollo, Paul. “American Icons: Irving Caesar” in American Songwriter Magazine. June 23, 2010: http://www.americansongwriter.com/2010/06/american-icons-irving-caesar/.
9 Steyn, Mark. Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then & Now. London: Faber and Faber Limited: 1997.
10 Caesar, Irving & Hart, Lorenz. Lyric to “Stonewall Moskowitz March” from the musical Betsy (music: Richard Rodgers; book: Irving Caesar & David Freedman, revised by William Anthony McGuire) © 1926.
11 Harburg, Yip. “An Atom a Day Keeps the Doctor Away” in Rhymes for the Irreverent. Illustrated by Seymour Chwast. : E.Y. Harburg’s Poems. NY: Grossman, 1965.
© 2014, Michael Colby
*No copyright Infringement Intended. For Entertainment Purposes Only.
Click Below for Parts 1 thru 9 :