Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Itty Bitty Bojangles

The star of this week's Dance Party was never one of my favorites, though I always respected his talent. He popped up on my radar this week as I was writing my obit for Broadway librettist Joseph Stein, who furnished him with his Broadway debut, Mr. Wonderful. Sammy Davis, Jr. always seemed a little too showy for my tastes, but that attitude came naturally to him. He spent his entire life in show business, beginning with vaudeville appearances at the age of 3.

He faced down racial bigotry throughout his career, for which he deserves a lot of respect. He made his first splash as a nightclub performer; it's said that his performance at the after-party of the 1951 Oscar ceremony, at Ciro's nightclub, caused a sensation and brought him to the attention of the Show Business Greats. He was soon headlining in Vegas, but as a black man, was forced to leave the showroom after his performances and go across town to sleep in a boarding house, while white performers stayed as guests of the hotels which housed the showrooms.

In 1954, driving from Vegas to Los Angeles after one of his gigs, he had a car accident which cost him one eye. He wore an eye-patch for a while, before receiving the glass eye for which he became famous (it was this car crash which also lead to his conversion to Judaism). By the late 50s, he had recorded several albums, and had become a member of an ad hoc clique of performers first started by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall. By the time Davis joined, the group included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. The club also included some female stars, though they were treated more as mascots than as equal members. Shirley MacLaine, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, and Angie Dickinson were a few of the dames the guys included. When Davis became a member, Sinatra was calling the group "the Clan," a moniker to which Sammy objected as being too closely related to the Ku Klux Klan. The name was changed within the group to "The Summit," but the press always referred to them as The Rat Pack.
Sammy had several songs hit the Billboard charts over the years, including "What Kind of Fool Am I?" ( a tune from Broadway's Stop the World, I Want to Get Off), which hit #11, and a surprise #1 smash from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, "The Candy Man." But I recall Davis getting lots of traction with his rendition of "Mr. Bojangles," which he sang on many variety shows in the 70s and beyond. He would always include a smooth soft-shoe to accompany this song of a guy sitting in a drunk tank with a homeless bum who could dance.

Sammy won a Tony nomination for his performance in Golden Boy in 1964, and Emmy nominations for guest appearances in The Cosby Show and daytime's One Life to Live. He made a cameo appearance as himself in the first season of All in the Family, and created a legendary moment by kissing the bigot Archie Bunker on the cheek. His commemorative special Sammy Davis Jr.'s 60th Anniversary Celebration won the Emmy in 1990, though Davis himself had died several months earlier. He has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys and a Kennedy Center Honor.

But he always felt that his race set him apart from the other Rat Packers (he was the only black member), and he never stopped fighting for civil rights. He attended Martin Luther King's March on Washington, and was a supporter of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. He was asked on the golf course once, by Jack Benny in fact, what his handicap was. "Handicap? " he replied, "How's this for a handicap? I'm a one-eyed Negro Jew."

Davis died 20 years ago this summer, after a vicious battle with throat cancer (he was a lifelong smoker). For this week's Dance Party, please enjoy one of the first film appearances of Sammy Davis, Jr.:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Maybe That's Why We Always Wear Our Hats"

The artist who provides the dialogue, and often the overall structure, of a musical comedy is the unsung hero of the genre. It's said that he must be prepared to sacrifice every beautifully written word to the composer and lyricist, who are likely to boldly steal the librettist's words and put them into song. This week, we lost one of the giants of those red-headed step-children, the musical's book writers.

Joseph Stein


If it weren't for Zero Mostel, we may never have heard of Stein, who was one of the preeminent musical librettists of the 20th century. But he didn't start out that way. He was a social worker (he held a masters degree in the subject from Columbia) when a chance meeting with Mostel rerouted his life. At a party, Stein impressed Zero with his quick one-liners; the star encouraged Joe to submit material for use on the radio programs of the day. He contributed material for Henry Morgan, Tallulah Bankhead, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason, before landing a writing gig on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. He joined Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and Larry Gelbart as alumni of that fertile training ground, and made his first Broadway contribution to the revue Lend An Ear. In 1954, he was asked to write the book for a new musical in the vein of Oklahoma, but taking place in Pennsylvania. You might not think that a musical about the Amish would amount to much, but Plain and Fancy had a healthy run of several years, and is still remounted annually at the Round Barn Theatre at Amish Acres in Indiana, where it has topped 3000 performances.

Joesph Stein is remembered most famously for taking a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem, written in Yiddish, about a Jewish milkman living in poverty in Czarist Russia, and creating a blockbuster.

Everyone was sure Fiddler on the Roof was folly; no one believed such a specific story, with such Jewish overtones, would appeal to the mainstream audience of 1964. Everyone was wrong. Fiddler went on to become the longest running musical in Broadway history, until it was overtaken by Grease!, and has seen four Broadway revivals and a film version.

(The above is from the most recent revival, with its replacement cast of Andrea Martin and Harvey Fierstein)

The original production was nominated for a whopping 10 Tonys, winning all but one (guess Boris Aronson had an off-night), with Joe winning for Best Musical and Best Book. Along with the song-writing team of Bock and Harnick, Stein created a very specific story of a man attempting to hold onto traditions in a changing, sometimes brutal world. The themes are universal, and Fiddler on the Roof is surely one of the masterpieces of American Musical Theatre.

Stein's other work is often overshadowed by the monster success of Fiddler, and he had his share of moderate hits and downright flops. He provided Mr. Wonderful as a starring vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. (who put his father and uncle in the show; the thin book reflected the show's real purpose: to showcase Davis's nightclub act), and he retooled an old musical from the 20s, Irene, as a vehicle in which Debbie Reynolds, already an established musical star, made her Broadway debut (an unknown Carrie Fisher, Debbie's daughter, also made her Broadway debut in Irene, in the chorus). Stein turned Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, Ah, Wilderness, into the musical Take Me Along, which won a Tony for Jackie Gleason and featured a young Robert Morse in the cast.

Some of Stein's missteps included a misguided effort to turn Sean O'Casey's Irish melodrama Juno and the Paycock into a musical; Juno lasted only two weeks in 1959. Our hero spent many years involved with various incarnations of Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing, as script writer for the play, the film, and for its musical version, So Long, 174th Street. The musical, with Robert Morse in the lead and with Rita Rudner, of all people, in the cast, lasted only 16 performances in 1976, but recent tinkering with the piece has had some success. The Off-Broadway York Theatre presented a revival last year, returning the show to its original title, Enter Laughing, and issuing a cast album. The show has been announced for a Broadway transfer.

Stein was the book writer for a musical version of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which had its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Virginia in 1999.
At the time, the show was called Over and Over; I saw the production and can attest to They had Kander and Ebb writing the music, and Stein of course adapting source material which had won the Pulitzer, its cast included Broadway legend Dorothy Loudon and livewire comic Mario Cantone:

Stage stalwart David Garrison did his best, though original star Bebe Neuwirth bolted (or was fired, who knows?) from the production during rehearsal and was replaced by an unknown named Sherie Rene Scott, only a year before she took Broadway by storm in Aida (she gave the strongest performance in the show). But the creative team just could not get the thing to work. It continues to be retooled, and received a full production at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2007, under the title All About Us.

Stein had two quite famous flops back-to-back in the late 80s. Rags lasted only four performances, a victim, everyone says, of massive overproduction by director Harold Prince. Joe's next project, The Baker's Wife, has become such a legendary failure that star Patti Lupone devotes a chapter to it in her memoir. She has frequently quipped that, if Hitler had lived, a suitable punishment for his crimes would be to put him on the road with a musical in trouble, and The Baker's Wife was that musical. The problem seemed to be infighting among the creators, though the stars had their problems, too. Lupone clashed with Israeli star Topol, who had earned an Oscar nomination playing Fiddler's Tevye on film, but who was, apparently, a pig. He was originally hired to play the male lead and toured with the show during its lengthy tryout period; once Topol was sacked, Lupone had just as much trouble with his replacement, Paul Sorvino. As for book writer Stein, he was never able to create a viable way to turn its source material, a French film, into a workable stage script. Lupone reports that, during the show's pre-Broadway stop at the Kennedy Center, The Baker's Wife took the record for the smallest audience ever to attend a performance there. In a house seating 2700, only 25 people showed up. After that catastrophe, the show closed, never having reached Broadway.

But not every attempt Stein made to transfer a film into a musical ended so disastrously. In 1968, while Fiddler was still packing them in, he teamed with Kander and Ebb to turn Zorba the Greek into a stage musical. It was also a hit, and Joe lived long enough to learn that a revival is currently being planned with Antonio Banderas in the lead. Zorba was Stein's favorite work, and he often used the philosophy of the show as his own:

"Life is what you do until the day that you die, so you better make use of all of it."

Joseph Stein died this week as a result of a head injury sustained during a fall. He was 98.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Pity These Fools

Here are a couple of talents we lost in the past month; one was an expert at detecting and exploiting the general public's cultural appetites, while the other introduced a new age of American film making.

Stephen J. Cannell


Writing seems a strange career for someone like Cannell, who struggled with severe dyslexia throughout his life. He was working for his father's furniture business in Los Angeles when he sold his first television script, in 1968, for an episode of It Takes a Thief. He attracted the attention of Universal, the studio which, at the time, was delivering much of the meat-and-potatoes programming for the three networks. He penned scripts on a free-lance basis for a short while before landing his first full-contract gig, as story editor on Adam-12. He claims to have been the lowest paid writer on the Universal lot, but a glitch in his contract promised him $70,000 for each two-hour pilot he wrote, and an additional $100,000 if the pilot was made. Obviously, he began to churn out the pilots.

By his estimation, he personally wrote over 450 television episodes in a career spanning three decades, and executive produced over 1500. He created at least 40 TV series, most of them crime/adventure dramas aimed at the male audience. He was one of the first American producers to recognize the financial wisdom of filming in Canada to avoid Hollywood-style labor costs, so he built his own studio in Vancouver. He furnished the fledgling Fox network with its first season hit 21 Jump Street, which incidentally launched Johnny Depp's career.

His tongue-in-cheek series about a reluctant superhero, The Greatest American Hero, provided a top-40 hit with its theme song.

He created the slightly lurid Silk Stalkings, and made a TV star out of future killer Robert Blake as Baretta. Baa Baa Blacksheep took a look at an air force squadron in the Pacific during WWII, and in Tenspeed and Brownshoe, he paired Broadway hoofer Ben Vereen with uber-geek Jeff Goldblum (even in 1980, the pairing of black and white leading men was unusual; the series failed).

Cannell is probably best remembered for the creation of two series which exemplify his male-centric point of view. In 1983, the first episode of The A-Team premiered after the Super Bowl, bringing this series about a group of misfit mercenaries to the attentions of millions of male viewers. The show was a top-10 hit for four of its five seasons, and turned a mohawked, former wrestler named Mr. T into a cult figure. The show had a cartoon feel to its over-the-top violence (it even inspired its own series of comic books); despite repeated explosions, car crashes, and the like, nobody ever seemed to get seriously hurt. The show continued to be popular during syndicated reruns, and remains an international hit. A feature film was released this year in an attempt to revive the franchise (it was not a success).

Cannell was also responsible for the creation of one of the most beloved of all television gumshoes in The Rockford Files. Jim Rockford, as portrayed by James Garner, was the antithesis of the TV detective of the time. He wore rumpled clothing and lived in a trailer at the beach; he handled only cold cases so as not to have to deal with the police, and often suffered money problems caused by his deadbeat clients. But Garner and Rockford were a match made in casting heaven, and The Rockford Files is considered one of the finest examples of the TV detective genre. And its theme song also hit the Top 40 music charts.

Honestly, I didn't watch any of the above shows. What a shocker. While Mr. T was creating a national catchphrase with "Piddy duh fool," I was watching The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. But Cannell was responsible for one series which did appeal to me, Wiseguy. The premise concerned a cop who lives his life deeply undercover, spending many months on a single case. In a departure from the norm, Wiseguy's 4 seasons were comprised of long story arcs which took many episodes to conclude. Its brooding star, Ken Wahl, became such a sensation that he has since become a recluse, and the show can be credited with bringing attention to young character actor Kevin Spacey, whose multi-episode performance in season one, as a loony millionaire with a truly creepy sister complex, launched his career.

In recent years, Stephen J. Cannell has become a best-selling fiction writer, with a number of crime novels to his credit, including one which will be released posthumously. He was an occasional actor, and recently had a recurring role (as himself) on Castle. Each of Cannell's productions ended with his signature logo:

Cannell lost his battle with melanoma last month at the age of 69.

Arthur Penn

As a director, he had substantial success with both stage and screen, and is remembered as a pioneer of the New American Film movement of the early 1970s. His career, in retrospect, looks a lot like a badminton match, with Penn as the birdie, flitting back and forth between stage and screen work.

While serving in WWII, he met producer Fred Coe, who would become a longtime collaborator on many of his early projects. Coe set Penn up as a director of 1950s television, and their collaboration included a William Gibson teleplay about Helen Keller. The live program won Emmy nods for Penn and for star Teresa Wright, but more importantly, it cemented a strong working relationship between Gibson, Coe, and Penn. The trio turned to Broadway, providing Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft with a substantial hit in Two for the Seesaw in 1957. On a roll, Penn headed to Hollywood, helming the first of his many underrated flops, The Left-Handed Gun, a Gore Vidal story starring a moody Paul Newman. As with most of his under-performing films, this one has received better reviews in retrospect than it did at the time, and it failed at the box office.

Arthur returned to Broadway to direct William Gibson's stage adaptation of the teleplay which had put both of them on the map. The Miracle Worker was a smash, earning Tonys for Penn, Gibson, and star Anne Bancroft. It was director Penn who suggested that Bancroft's character, Annie Sullivan, sport an Irish brogue. Bancroft was just coming off a year in Two for the Seesaw, in which she used a thick New York accent, and the actress was having trouble getting rid of it. Arthur sensed that, if Bancroft could replace the accent with another one, she would have no trouble, so Annie Sullivan's Irish accent was born. The role is now traditionally played with a brogue, though the historical Sullivan had none. (I offered that story and others when I wrote my obit for playwright William Gibson a few years ago, go here if you wish to read a bit more).

Arthur Penn became one of the go-to Broadway directors of the early 60s, providing the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May with their Broadway debut, as well as guiding Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic. He also influenced the presidential election of 1960, when he directed the third television debate between JFK and Nixon. He advised Kennedy to keep his answers short and pithy, and to directly address the camera, advice which is commonly thought to have swung the election in Kennedy's favor.

By 1962, Hollywood was begging for Penn's return. He was the logical choice to direct the film version of The Miracle Worker, earning Oscars for his stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, and nominations for himself and for Gibson's screenplay.

He clashed with the star of his next film, Burt Lancaster (don't get me started on his phenomenal lack of talent); Lancaster had more clout, and Penn was sacked after a few days of shooting. His luck with Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty, and The Chase, starring Marlon Brando and Robert Redford, was not much better (the latter film was taken out of his hands and re-edited by the producer). Both films reflected Penn's admiration for the French cinematic techniques which were misunderstood in Hollywood at the time.

Our hero retreated to Broadway (again), where he guided Lee Remick and Robert Duvall in Wait Until Dark, turning it into one of the all-time great stage thrillers. When Francois Truffaut declined Warren Beatty's offer, Penn was approached to direct what was to become his best known, most influential film.

Arthur had to be persuaded by Beatty to direct Bonnie and Clyde, who offered him complete autonomy on the set, and approval of the final cut of the film.

American films of the 60s, until that time, had been unable, or unwilling, to reflect the tumultuous civil unrest, the violence, and the new sexual freedom of the period. The studio contract system had collapsed, but the studios themselves were still attempting to deliver the mainstream product which had worked for decades. Bonnie and Clyde's mix of screwball comedy, sexual explicitness, and shocking violence (set to an upbeat bluegrass score composed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who also wrote The Beverly Hillbillies theme) paved the way for the new wave of American films of the 70s. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, and Robert Altman all point to Penn's work as an inspiration for their own.

Arthur followed up Bonnie and Clyde with the subversively gentle Alice's Restaurant, the epic Little Big Man, and the existential thriller Night Moves. His films were not as well-received by the mid-70s, so he once again headed to Broadway, where he placed George C. Scott in Sly Fox, an updated adaptation of the Elizabethan comedy Volpone, and re-teamed with William Gibson for Golda, another vehicle for Anne Bancroft. In his later years, Penn executive produced Law and Order, with his son as director, and delivered a surprise cult hit with Penn and Teller Get Killed.

His final work for Broadway, the 2002 adaptation of Turgenev's Fortune's Fool, won Tonys for both Frank Langella and Alan Bates. He died last month, a day after turning 88.