by Michael Colby . . .
It Can Only Happen In the Theatre
It has happened to many shows. CHICAGO was overshadowed by A CHORUS LINE. THE MOST HAPPY FELLA was the other hit in the season of MY FAIR LADY. SHE LOVES ME struggled for an audience, overlapping A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and HELLO, DOLLY!
Currently, there’s much celebration marking the 40th anniversary of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But a month before the opening of the original “Little Shop” (at the WPA), another off-off Broadway musical was hailed as “The next FANTASTICKS.” It was the Colby/Markoe musical CHARLOTTE SWEET (showcased at the American Theatre of Actors). In fact, Christopher Seppe, the longest running “Boy” in THE FANTASTICKS, exited that show so he could play the romantic lead in CHARLOTTE SWEET.
Coincidentally, “Charlotte” and “Shop” had the same topnotch publicist, Fred Hoot. Fred, feeling he was on a roll, promised to promote the musicals side by side, exemplifying a resurgence of off-Broadway musical hits. He told me he loved the two shows equally. I felt we were all in it together.
Because (back then) I lived two blocks away from The New York Times, it was I who phoned Fred to report Mel Gussow’s original Times rave for “Little Shop.” Fred was greatly relieved because Gussow had attended what Fred described as a “quiet” performance; later that day Fred phoned the news to its creators—culminating in one of that show’s first big celebrations.
Originally, the two shows were reviewed together—often and very favorably. Both shows received offers to move on to commercial runs. “Little Shop” was optioned by Cameron Macintosh and the Shuberts. “Charlotte” entertained three offers, two by well-known producers (one who wanted to postpone—and might thereby lose cast members; the other who wanted to replace our cast and creatives with his own choices). Since I was the producer of the showcase version, the ball was in my court. I opted for Stan Raiff, not well known but someone who’d move the show swiftly—with the original cast and other creatives—hoping to ride on the momentum of the showcase. I’ve never regretted this choice because it was the original company who were so crucial in the success of the showcase. A musical about “freak voices,” “Charlotte” was not easy to cast, and we’d assembled a magnificent company. When I had searched for a director, many candidates did not understand my somewhat off-the-wall, all-rhymed style. The young and brilliant Edward Stone was a godsend director (tragically an early victim of AIDS a few years later). The leading lady, Mara Beckerman, was a uniquely high-voiced and funny discovery for whom I wrote the show (She got her Equity card doing it). My faith was more than validated when Mara’s performance garnered a Drama Desk Award nomination opposite Betty Buckley (CATS), Ellen Greene (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS), Twiggy (MY ONE AND ONLY), and winner Natalia Makarova (ON YOUR TOES). There was an occasional critic and audience member that didn’t cotton to the show. But the future looked bright.
Both “Little Shop” and “Charlotte” considered moving into either of two theatres. One was the Orpheum, which “Little Shop” chose (according to Fred Hoot) because it had a larger audience capacity. We chose the Westside Arts because its playing space was more conducive to our show. Our one-time theatre is also the space where the current hit revival of “Little Shop” is playing.
So what went wrong?
Publicist Fred Hoot had a problem. Now employed by the megaproducers, Cameron Macintosh and the Shuberts, he moved cautiously. These producers put on the heat: they hadn’t hired Fred to watch a competing musical ride on their show’s coattails. So, while LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and its producers were getting a lot of attention from Fred, my producer Stan Raiff felt like a poor relative. And I was stuck in the middle because I had brought Fred aboard. Finally, Stan felt our show was suffering and decided to fire Fred. On that day, I sadly phoned Fred, feeling terrible—it was Fred who had done so much to put CHARLOTTE SWEET on the map. I was surprised by Fred’s response. He was profusely apologetic, adding that he’d had quite a day: he’d also been fired from “Little Shop”—because he’d placed a wrong reservation number in New York Magazine for “Little Shop.”
I’ll always wonder what would have happened if Fred had only represented my show. I owe Fred Hoot another debt of gratitude for a serious mistake he salvaged. When CHARLOTTE SWEET was first showcased, we received an incredible review from John Corry in The New York Times. Corry may not have been a first-stringer but he wrote a real “money notice.” When the show moved off-Broadway, Stan Raiff wanted Mel Gussow to re-review it, perhaps thinking Gussow would outdo his “Little Shop” review. I begged Stan not to invite Gussow, who didn’t like whimsical shows, especially those with roseate endings (which CHARLOTTE SWEET surely had). At the time, the Times only allowed two major articles in proximity on a new show. I urged Stan to wait for the powerful Walter Kerr, who was then writing follow-up reviews in The New York Times. I imagined the potent impact if both Corry and Kerr gave us good reviews. And Kerr was a much better bet than Gussow. True, Kerr had been one of the few naysayers on such musicals as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and MAN OF LA MANCHA (no roseate endings in those shows). But Kerr favored whimsical, upbeat shows like PROMENADE and the Styne/Harburg musical DARLING OF THE DAY (a lovely, but ill-fated musical that had been a major influence on my work in CHARLOTTE SWEET). Moreover, Kerr had disliked LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Add to that, Kerr was a good friend of my grandparents (the Bodnes of the Algonquin) and most likely would only print a good review.
Well, as I feared, Gussow came to CHARLOTTE SWEET and prepared a lukewarm review. Fortunately, we already had a rave from The New York Times, so Fred Hoot convinced the paper not to print Gussow’s review. Still, as result, the Times didn’t cover our show for a while. That turned around when their legendary illustrator, Al Hirschfeld, attended and adored the show, widely recommending it.
Concurrently, we only had a modest box office advance. To combat that, I personally appeared at the Duffy Square discount booth before almost every performance, talking visitors into seeing the show—often selling out at the booth. Soon CHARLOTTE SWEET was listed on a TKTS survey/handout as the second most recommended show at the booth (other than TORCH SONG TRILOGY). We had other notable champions. Leonard Cohen was a fan, writing me a letter I treasure. Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, was so enamored, she decorated windows and a showroom promoting the show. Comedian Buddy Hackett stopped Mara Beckerman in an elevator, exclaiming “You’re Charlotte Sweet!”
Also good news: audience size was growing. Our first and only TV review (Katie Kelly on NBC) was a bouquet. Showbill did a feature article on CHARLOTTE SWEET, spotlighting me (“A Witty Way With Words”). One day on the line at the TKTS booth, a waiter from Serendipity said he was there because “CHARLOTTE SWEET and the sellout CATS were all that their waiters were talking about” (which, despite what I felt about CATS, he meant in an enthusiastic way). My favorite review was from Patrick O’Connor of Hollywood Entertainment Network, who wrote “The most ambitious musical since THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. It succeeds brilliantly. What we’ve been waiting for since THE BLACK CROOK.”
There was one more setback, having to do with the New York Post. Previously, Marilyn Stasio wrote a love letter to our “Wonderfully Wacky” show in the Post (our first review;)and the Post’s columnist Earl Wilson wrote the show “Bewitched the critics.” Then the Post’s Clive Barnes attended. Stan Raiff watched Barnes attentively, reporting Barnes was smiling and laughing throughout the show. Stan told me he approached Barnes afterwards, saying “So glad to see you enjoyed the show.” A few days later, Barnes wrote a nasty review, questioning how much a 30-year old American (me) could know about British music hall (the show’s setting).
On the plus side, by the end of October, our cast had received raises because of rising grosses. Discount tickets had been printed that were expected to keep us running through December. Then the bottom fell out.
It was Halloween week. Originally budgeted at $200,000, the cost of CHARLOTTE SWEET had grown to $250,000—with several supporters investing the extra amount while the show was building at the box office.
CHARLOTTE SWEET had a relatively inexpensive breakeven. But without any bankable names, we’d struggled. Mostly, we lost money each week—with advertising a must to let people know about us. GREASE, THE FANTASTICKS, THE WIZ—these are just a few musicals that had similar struggles during their initial run. It’s a race against time till a new musical—without an advance or name recognition—can catch on.
CHARLOTTE SWEET had no name recognition. It was a completely original musical, set in Victorian times, about a troupe of freak singers—toplined by a high-voiced soprano who (to maintain her high notes) becomes addicted to helium balloons. It combined the three elements popular during Victorian days: music-hall turns, melodrama, and a Gilbert-and-Sullivan style all-sung and rhymed libretto. But composer Gerald Jay Markoe and I—as well as the cast and creative team—were unknowns.
We’d hoped, because of its macabre, off-the-wall sensibility, the show would do well during Halloween week. But the opposite happened. We learned that Halloween, midweek with parties going on throughout New York, was not a reliable time for theatre-going.
This fact wasn’t helped by Clive Barnes’ recent putdown of this Victorian show written by a 30-year old American. Other reviews (mostly favorable), ranged from the rhapsodic—Leonard Harris (Hollywood Reporter) and John Madden (Variety)—to a dismissive Edith Oliver (New Yorker). In any case, we were walking a tightrope.
The first days of that week, we played to half empty houses. Then, because of our precarious box office advance, a closing notice went up for that weekend. The actors were in shock—citing their recent salary raise (due to an Actors Equity rule as a show reaches a certain box office level). Perhaps because of that raise, the show had become less affordable to run. Hawking tickets that Saturday at the discount booth, I discovered purchase lines were sparse. It was particularly disturbing since we had both a 7 pm and a 10 pm performance on Saturdays.
The Westside Arts Theatre (407 West 43rd Street) was not far from the discount booth, so it was my habit to attend every performance after promoting the show. When the time neared for our 7 pm performance, I crept to the theatre, anticipating an empty house. I snuck in one-third of the way through the first act. The attendance was very light. Yet that audience was laughing and cheering as loudly as if it had been a full house. The cast and company, even knowing it was their last weekend, didn’t disappoint. The 10 pm audience responded similarly. At the end of the evening, I was strangely comforted AND woebegone.
On Sunday, November 7, 1982, CHARLOTTE SWEET had its final two shows, after a run of 102 performances and eight previews (not including its extended showcase run of 20 performances). On this day, both the matinee and evening performances were sold out. Word had gotten round that it was the final chance to see a show that was a favorite to many. The enthusiastic Betty Corwin, head of the Lincoln Center video archives, attended the matinee, supervising the taping of a very lively performance.
However, it was our evening (final) performance that I’ll never forget. Our original opening night was nowhere near as good (In fact, that was only a so-so performance). Yet, by now, the cast had polished their roles to perfection. Many numbers stopped the show. One sequence, “Quartet Agonistes”—staged by Ed and choreographer Dennis Dennehy—received a two-minute ovation. We had CHARLOTTE SWEET aficionados everywhere, including “Sweet” groupies who’d seen the show several times (even in its short run) and seemed to lip-synch along to lyrics. There was also a personally hilarious moment (an inside joke observed by director Edward Stone and myself). Because helium balloons were so much a part of the show’s plot, some balloons floated to the top of the space’s ceiling and stayed there for days; then the balloons would descend (helium leaked out) at unpredictable moments (mostly when the show was dark). Seated at the closing, there was a production staffer whom Ed and I felt had let the show down (I won’t name names). At some point during the performance, a black balloon (black ones supposedly contained poison gas) slowly descended into the culprit’s lap. Ed and I watched, giggling as the “lethal black balloon” symbolically caught up with the culprit.
But there was really no one to blame. We’d encountered the triumphs and woes of many a worthy show. And we were more fortunate that some. Meanwhile, Edward Stone declared that CHARLOTTE SWEET would have an afterlife comparable to LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But that was not to be. In fact, after Ed passed away, I learned perhaps the last show he directed was a production of “Little Shop.”
The reality was that the show that came so close…had closed. And, some would say, prematurely. But would there be a future?
“Surprise! Surprise! A trouper never dies!” That was the line Merle Louise sang every night in CHARLOTTE SWEET, as her character—“bubble-voiced” Cecily Macintosh—rose from the dead. Working with Merle was a special joy for me, as I was such a fan of her work—especially as the original “Beggar Woman” in SWEENEY TODD. In that show, one of the most emotional and shocking moments came when Sweeney (not recognizing her as the love of his life) slits the Beggar Woman’s throat. In CHARLOTTE SWEET, her character was seemingly shot dead—then sprang back up, loonily recovered. Every time I watched, I chuckled to myself “The Beggar Woman lives!”
After CHARLOTTE SWEET closed, I did everything I could to keep it alive. My grandparents, Ben and Mary Bodne, who’d been instrumental in my producing the original showcase, also helped me finance the cast album of CHARLOTTE SWEET. It captured the entire show on a 2-disk set. The recording featured the show’s closing cast (there had been three replacements) and was picked up by John Hammond Records. John Hammond himself heard the recording and fell in love with the show. Hammond was a music world legend, pivotal in the careers of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger, and Aretha Franklin, among others. It was an immense honor that CHARLOTTE SWEET was the ONLY musical to ever be released on his label (With the many changes in the music business, I’m equally fortunate that the album is now distributed by that guardian angel of musicals, John Yap via Jay Records).
Because “Charlotte” had closed so early in its theatre season, I realized the recording was vital in our receiving any recognition come awards season. Fortunately, the album was done just in time, garnering three nominations for the Drama Desk Awards: “Outstanding Actress in a Musical” (Mara Beckerman), “Outstanding Music” (Gerald Jay Markoe), and “Outstanding Lyrics.” But I knew we didn’t have a chance of winning against CATS and “Little Shop.”
In those days, the Drama Desk Awards were announced before the actual ceremony. Nonetheless, I attended, thrilled by the honor. I sat at a table with (who else?) members of the then cast of “Little Shop,” including the delightful Fyvush Finkel. And I had a wonderful time—they were so kind and supportive of me (even though we all knew who had won). I now joke that when Howard Ashman and “Little Shop” were named for “Outstanding Lyrics”—over “Charlotte” and CATS— I and T.S. Eliot had to console each other.
The album of CHARLOTTE SWEET, like the musical, was well received—but not by everyone. Max O. Preeo, whose Show Music Magazine, was—at the time—the go-to place on theatre albums, stated “Head over heels above almost anything else around.” Operetta historian Richard Traubner wrote “An especially literate, tuneful, and unusual show. Outrageously funny.” Musical theatre history Ethan Mordden wrote “The score never runs out of tunes and inventions. The show would make a splendid video.”
Yet critic David Wolf of Cast Album Reviews, wrote “invariably, 20 minutes into each of Colby’s shows, I want to wring his neck. The plotting of his musicals is always silly and goes too far, leaving amusement behind. Clever isn’t enough; you have to be actually funny which CHARLOTTE SWEET isn’t.”
Of course, many of us writers forget all the positives when we read a review like the last one. And I’m also haunted by a customer’s review on Amazon.com, alongside mostly praise from customers. The naysayer wrote: “The Jay Productions people do a great job of expanding the recording repertory for musical theater. This [recording] is probably the first one that I did not like at all.”
I’ve had so many mixed feelings. Through the years I’ve encountered people who’ve related how CHARLOTTE SWEET has always been a personal favorite. Then I encounter people who tiptoe around the subject; its non-fans seem to have either tuned out because of its all-sung, all-rhymed format or they didn’t respond to its deliberate fractured fairy-tale style.
So what is on the horizon now for CHARLOTTE SWEET? I can’t say. Early on, there were a bunch of regional and university productions. When she was younger, Kristin Chenoweth (who’d appeared in LUDLOW LADD, the prequel to “Charlotte”) stated she’d love to do the show; but nothing came of that. Several directors have told me they wanted to do the show; but, again, nothing evolved.
In my career, I’ve also written other “shows that came so close,” though probably not as close as CHARLOTTE SWEET. Among those that just fell short of making it to Broadway (each a story in itself) were NORTH ATLANTIC, LUDLOW LADD, MRS. McTHING, and TALES OF TINSELTOWN. I’m sure such disappointments haunt many writers who’ve devoted themselves to musical theatre. Still, when I’m feeling most depressed, I keep reminding myself of the show’s champions from Leonard Cohen to Harold Prince to Al Hirschfeld. My experience with Hirschfeld is even recounted on that remarkable man’s website: https://www.alhirschfeldfoundation.org/spotlight/auditioning-nina-new-drawing
My lowest moment happened recently, when I spoke to one of the theatrical licensers of CHARLOTTE SWEET. This is someone who—telling me how much he’d adored the original production—acquired the rights from the show’s original licenser, Samuel French. When I questioned him on why CHARLOTTE SWEET wasn’t being done these days, he answered that it was no longer p.c. or attuned to the times. I’d have understood if he’d replied that its Gilbert & Sullivan-like score and roseate ending weren’t contemporary enough. But the musical is about outsiders deemed as freaks (the Circus of Voice), a heroine who faces addiction, and show-biz exploitation. Aren’t those still contemporary issues, even if cushioned in satirical melodrama? Not only that—but the heroine remains chaste and successful throughout; then when the villain goes too far, she rescues herself. I compare that to the character of Audrey in “Little Shop,” who allows her boyfriend to brutalize her and who is insecure throughout the show. Still, the character of Audrey resonates with a modern audience, so why shouldn’t Charlotte?
I often wonder if my “golden age” style of musical writing is going out of fashion? I’ve acknowledged how my theatre heroes are Larry Hart and E.Y. Harburg, known for the pathos and playfulness of their lyrics. In CHARLOTTE SWEET, the closest I came to bad language was having a character refer to the villains when he, in debt, mentions “owing such sums of riches.” I believe my style remains universal. Young audiences were always some of our best and most responsive. And I continue hearing raves from enthusiasts of the show, like musical theatre historian Kurt Gänzl in his article “CHARLOTTE SWEET Or: When Musicals Were Fun” http://operetta-research-center.org/michael-colby-charlotte-sweet/
When I’m feeling especially down, reading Gänzl warms me up as much as my late grandmother’s matzoh ball soup. Sample:
“a last scene with as many dead bodies as Hamlet… (no, I’m not going to tell you, but it’s the best ending in musical theatre, EVER).”
Best of all, I have my memories of that very special time in my life. Maybe there is a future….
Hopefully to be continued. . .
Lead Photo: Logo by Frederic Marvin