Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Special Dance Party: Goodnight Irene!

Most of us on the East Coast have been preoccupied with Hurricane Irene, and with just about everything shut down, we are all spending Saturday Night hunkered down, waiting for the lights to go out or the roof to fly away. Well, as long as we're all stuck here at home on a Saturday Night, why not offer an impromptu Dance Party?

There can be no other topic for this Very Special Episode of the Friday Dance Party (even on a special night!) than this:

Irene was a musical which made its Broadway debut in 1919; it became the longest running show (at 675 performances. Broadway was still pretty young back then), a title it held for almost 20 years. The show created a star out of leading lady Edith Day, who went on to repeat her role in London, and then become one of that city's premier musical actresses. Irene should be remembered for placing a veiled gay character at its center, a flamboyant dress designer provocatively called Madam Lucy. Many years later, Irene should also be remembered as the Broadway debut of Debbie Reynolds.
Irene's cast included film clown Patsy Kelley, on the right, and All My Children icon (and Citizen Kane vet) Ruth Warrick, on the left. Broadway stalwart George S. Irving, upper right, won his only Tony for this performance.

Irene's stars Irving and Reynolds died a few days apart,
in December, 2016.
In 1971, encouraged by the smash revival of another hit from the 20s, No, No Nanette, somebody had the great idea to dig up and dust off Irene. The production had lots of trouble on the road. Billy DeWolfe, hired to play Madam Lucy, had to withdraw due to ill health (he was replaced by show killer George S. Irving, who nevertheless went on to win the Tony for his performance), but that was the least of the problems. In their infinite wisdom, the producers placed this lightweight piece of musical comedy fluff in the hands of (are you ready?) John Gielgud. The Shakespearean titan had never directed a musical, and was a disaster. Despite its trouble, the show was selling out in Philadelphia, on the strength of Reynolds's name, so when she came down with laryngitis, one of the most notorious of all musical theatre performances took place. Instead of cancelling the sold-out performance, Debbie went onstage and mouthed her words, with Gielgud reading her dialogue from offstage.

It was little wonder that Sir John was replaced by Gower Champion, and book doctors were called in to overhaul the show (one of the great librettists of the century, Joseph Stein, had a hand in the revisions, a point I mentioned when I wrote of Stein's death). In the end, only a handful of the original tunes remained, the score was augmented by other songs from the period, and some new ones written by Charles Gaynor and Otis Clements.

Irene limped into New York in March of 1973, where the New York Times proclaimed it "the best 1919 musical in town." Much was made of the fact that Reynolds, who had substantial musical comedy credentials in film, was making a belated Broadway debut, and the show turned into a financial success.

In honor of Hurricane Irene, and the barely remembered musical which also bears the name, here is the best known number from the show. It is actually one of those tunes added to the revival, it does not appear in the original score. Here, Debbie Reynolds does a swell job of bringing some personal charisma to a song which is, let's face it, always tied to Judy Garland. But hey, we're all here on a Saturday night, waiting out the storm. Why not let a Hollywood legend entertain us?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Let's Break Out The Booze And Have A Ball

I was always an admirer of Peggy Lee, dating back to my childhood, when my father had so many of her albums. If you looked up "sultry" in the dictionary (at least in the 50s and 60s), you'd find her picture. She had an extraordinary career as a singer, songwriter, and occasional actress (she received an Oscar nomination for Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955). In addition to her impressive recording successes, she led a campaign, in the early 90s, to force Disney to compensate her for the huge video sales they were earning for Lady and the Tramp. That animated classic from 1955 included 8 songs written by Lee (she performed several of them as well), for which she was paid $3500 at the time. Decades later, the Disney company was raking in the millions, but refusing payment to the artists involved. The landmark case brought attention to outdated copyright laws, and Peggy won a victory for film and recording artists, as well as herself. But none of that has anything to do with this week's Dance Party, which is inspired by the death this week of this guy:
Jerry Leiber


He was in high school when he first joined forces with composer Mike Stoller, and together they became the preeminent tunesmiths of early rock and roll. They had so many monster hits, it's hard to keep track. Their first, the Elvis Presley recording of Hound Dog, was one they openly despised, though they kept cashing the checks I'm sure. They wrote for many if not most of the black singers and groups of the day, furnishing hits for The Drifters, The Coasters, and others. When Ben E. King left The Drifters, they penned his first solo hit, "Spanish Harlem," and followed up with one of the most satisfying hits of that or any era, "Stand By Me." They also wrote "On Broadway," an anthem which turned out to be prescient of their later Broadway success. In 1995, their song catalogue provided the basis for Smokey Joe's Cafe, which had a successful 5 year run and paved the way for a slew of other juke box musicals. This week's Dance Party was not included in that show, with good reason. As the 60s ended, Leiber and Stoller were aging out of fashion in rock and roll, and they turned their attentions to more adult fare. The most famous of these songs became a smash hit for Peggy Lee, the final in her six-decade career. It is an unusual mix of song and narration, reminiscent of German cabaret in the 30s. You can almost hear Marlena Dietrich crooning the tune, but thankfully, we have Peggy Lee instead. The song hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1970, and became one of Lee's signature numbers. She continued to tour for many years, even as ill health and a fall from which she never fully recovered kept her in a wheelchair. Some of those last concerts were no longer sultry, they were positively somnabulant. But this clip, from a variety show hosted by Johnny Cash in the late 60s, shows Lee performing the song with the quiet dignity which I remember vividly. The song is a tribute to survival, though there are those who consider it a tribute to suicide. Who cares, it remains one of my favorites. It is arranged here, by the way, by Randy Newman. In honor of songwriter Jerry Leiber, who died Monday at the age of 78: 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Happy Dancing

Because my name begins with an initial, rather than a name, I have participated in the following dialogue for decades:

Somebody: "What does the R. stand for?"
Me: "It stands for my first name."

Yeah, I'm often that kind of smartass. My first name is no secret, it's Robert. But I have never been known by that name, to anybody who matters. Even my social security card, obtained for me when I entered school at age 6, proves that my name is R. Scott Williams.

That "R" may stand for something else, judging by recent events. I suppose I am becoming "Replacement Scott Williams." And I'm loving it.

Many months ago, I told the story in these pages about my being hired for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on the very day I was to start rehearsal. Somebody dropped out after one rehearsal, and I was in the right place at the right time. A similar situation arose just a few days ago. Olney Theatre's Producing Director, the lovely and talented Brad Watkins, was in a pickle. He had just lost an actor for a show starting rehearsal in just a few weeks, and he posted on Facebook his dilemma. He hoped any of his FB Friends would forward his info on to any actors who might be appropriate to fill in.

I saw this note on Facebook, and dropped Brad an email, alerting him that I was available for the time period in question. The role is a pretty small one, so I was unclear whether or not Olney was looking for a union actor, but Brad responded immediately, inviting me to read a short scene for the show's director. I have auditioned for Jack Going a couple of times in past seasons, but had not attended the initial call for Witness for the Prosecution several months ago.

You can see this happy ending coming, can't you? I auditioned for Jack and Brad yesterday (in the midst of some substantial chaos happening in this region, due to the earthquake), and today, I was hired. So, for the second time in a single season, I have a job because somebody else quit. Hey, I don't care in the least how I get a gig, I only care to do my best once I get it.

I know I'll be writing more about this project as it begins, but for now, I'm just glad to have a fun way to spend the next couple of months. It's time for some happy dancing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Just Sit Right Back And You'll Hear Obit

I'm continuing to comb the files of the recently deceased, catching up on all the death which happened while I took a hiatus from my obits. If you are in the business, you certainly heard of this guy's passing last month. It even made the main stream news, as the legacy he left behind, in the form of two enduring sitcoms, continues to torture us today. I don't have much respect for those two shows, but I have a good deal of respect for the guy who was smart enough to ignore the critics and produce the programs he invisioned.

Sherwood Schwartz


What the heck is it about this guy's two major successes? In their original runs, neither Gilligan's Island nor The Brady Bunch set any records in the ratings. Both series were critically panned, and, at least during their network airings, nobody would ever admit to watching them. But once they were cancelled, and began life in syndicated reruns, they both became cultural phenomenons. They both spawned sequels, reunion films, even stage shows, but if you watch, with an open mind, one of their original episodes, you shrug. So what? (As a side note, one of the many Brady Bunch incarnations was a variety show, a clip of which appeared on this Friday Dance Party. It's a hoot.)

Schwartz did not set out to create two iconic TV shows, he was just a writer out to make a buck. After writing jokes for Bob Hope, he graduated to series television, writing for early sitcoms such as I Married Joan and Ozzie and Harriet. He won an Emmy in 1961 for The Red Skelton Show, though he hated the star so much, he included a clause in his contract that he would never have to be in the same room with him. He soon graduated to script supervisor for My Favorite Martian, after which he famously sent those seven castaways on a three hour tour.

Schwartz claimed to have had a little something bigger in mind when he created his two enduring hits. Gilligan's Island's premise, that 7 disparate people could come together to form a de facto family, foreshadows the support group mentality which was to soon take off in the 60s. As for those Bradys, they showed up at a time when millions of families were fracturing due to divorce (in typical sitcom style, both Brady households had a dead parent, which seemed more palatable to the network, and to Schwartz, than the more realistic scenario of two divorcees melding a new family).

Whatever his psychological or societal intentions, once Sherwood hit upon a winning formula, he had a hard time letting it go. In 1973, he placed Gilligan's Island star Bob Denver in a syndicated sitcom called Dusty's Trail. It's premise? Seven pioneers traveling across the West in a carriage are separated from the wagon train, and must learn to fend for themselves. Denver played the hapless assistant to the wagon master, played by Forrest Tucker. The lost party included a rich Eastern banker and his wife, a beautiful dance hall girl, a farmer's daughter, and a man with lots of book learnin'. Any similarity to the Skipper, the Howells, Ginger, Mary Ann, and the Professor was purely intentional. The series lasted only one year.

Schwartz didn't learn much of a lesson, as, in 1986, he created Together We Stand, a sitcom about a married couple with a family blended with adoptive and natural children. The hook here was that several of the adopted kids were of different races. Hilarity did not ensue, and CBS yanked the series after only six episodes. The show was retooled, and returned fatherless (Elliot Gould was fired), and with a new name, Nothing Is Easy. Dee Wallace remained as the now-widowed mother of a brood of kids with different backgrounds. The show did not last the season.

Sherwood created two other sitcoms of note. Harper Valley PTA started life as a country song which became an international smash in 1968. The song spawned a feature film a decade later, and in turn, that film was spun into a TV series by Sherwood Schwartz. Barbara Eden headed the cast of both the movie and sitcom, which premiered as a mid-season replacement series. The show lasted only 30 episodes.

As the show was based on a hit song, Sherwood did not pull his usual double duty as theme-song writer. He had a hand in the writing of the theme songs for both Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, theme songs which are still among the most beloved (and most annoying) of all such tunes. Schwartz also wrote a lesser-known theme song, to accompany a lesser-known sitcom he created, It's About Time.

It's About Time was created while Gilligan's Island was still in production, and utilized many of the same sets and set pieces and background music. The plot concerned a couple of astronauts whose flight inadvertantly took them back in time, to the Stone Age. There they were taken in by a family of cave people, and hilarity ensued. (I confess that I watched this series during its run, solely due to the presence of Imogene Coca in the cast. In the pilot episode, she was billed as "Shag." Once the show went to series, it was discovered that shag is British slang for sexual intercourse, so she was renamed Shad). At the mid-season mark, the series was retooled, as Schwartz felt that the audience was tired of watching the heroes run from dinosaurs every episode. He had also taken note of the huge success a rival sitcom had, The Beverly Hillbillies. He saw the comic potential of the "fish out of water" scenario, so his astronauts returned to the present day, bringing with them the cave family. The remainder of the series concerned their attempts to adjust to modern life.

As with so many of Schwartz's sitcoms, It's About Time lasted only one season. But since everybody already knows the theme songs for his big hits, here is the third of the themes Sherwood wrote, from It's About Time:

When the show was retooled at midseason, the lyrics underwent a rewrite, too:

Our hero was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008. Florence Henderson, from the Brady Bunch, and Dawn Wells, from Gilligan's Island, were there to commemorate the occasion.

Sherwood Schwartz died July 12, at the age of 94.

Friday, August 19, 2011

They Die But They Don't Obits

It's been so many weeks since my last obituary tributes, the spirits are surely lined up from here to Purgatory. Now that I'm out of work (I mean, "between engagements"), I'll try to clean up the files. These people are out of work, too, since they're dead. These three spring to mind immediately, as they are all perfect examples of the kind of actor I admire: those who spent their careers in the trenches, working hard and often, but rarely if ever achieving the national spotlight. They are players in support.

Alice Playten


She was born Alice Plotkin which, back in the day, may have seemed an inappropriate surname, but in retrospect, she could have kept it. The name seems to fit the oddball characters she played. She had a long career on the New York stage, in comedic and musical roles. She was a replacement Baby Louise in the original production of Gypsy, then went on to create roles in two smash musicals. She was Horace Vandergelder's niece Ermengard in the original, iconic production of Hello, Dolly!, playing opposite such future luminaries as Charles Nelson Reilly, Eileen Brennan, Robert Morse, and of course, Carol Channing. She also created the role of Bet in the original Broadway production of Oliver, sharing duets with Georgia Brown and Jack Wild.

Her star never really took off, though she received glowing reviews, and a Tony nomination when, at the age of 20, she portrayed a maniacal teenager in the musical adaptation of The World of Henry Orient. The show, Henry, Sweet Henry, flopped, though Playten is seen to good advantage in this clip from the Ed Sullivan show. The NY Times called her a "toy Merman," and she continued to belt show tunes in more recent shows like Seussical and Caroline, or Change. She won two Obies for her frequent work off-Broadway, and she appeared on various TV shows, and in films (she wore heavy prosthetics to appear opposite Tim Curry in the sci-fi cult film, Legend).

Her diminutive frame and unusual, nasally voice were always welcome in children's programming.

But I will always remember her from this little commercial. It was part of an acclaimed advertising campaign by Alka Seltzer, a campaign which yielded several national catchphrases back in the 60s and 70s. Take a look at this howler, as Playten plays a newlywed, cooking for her new husband, played hilariously by Terry Kiser (who went on to become beloved as the corpse in the Weekend at Bernie's franchise).

Alice Playten died from pancreatic cancer on June 25, at the age of 63.

The soap world lost one of its most suave supervillains when this guy died on June 21:

Anthony Herrera


He spent some time on Search for Tomorrow, Loving, and The Young and the Restless, but Herrera will best be remembered as one of those supervillains who would not die. Until the show went off the air last year, the characters of As The World Turns could count on surprise visits from Herrera's James Stenbeck, who bedded women, sired children, and repeatedly returned from the dead, for a whopping 30 years on the soap. That's a feat worthy of remembrance, but Herrera's lasting legacy will have nothing to do with daytime drama. In 1997, he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and deadly cancer. He made medical history when he received a stem cell transplant and went into remission. Though the cancer was to recur (despite a bone marrow transplant from his brother), Herrera became a tireless advocate for stem cell research and treatment. He even wrote a book about it, "The Cancer Wars," and continued, to the end of his life, to be outspoken about the medical advantages of using stem cells to cure disease. He died in Buenos Aires at the age of 67.

I was truly saddened by the death of this supporting player:

Tom Aldredge


"His glower is a thing of beauty," wrote the NY Times reviewer, of Tom's performance in the original Broadway production of On Golden Pond. He was the first to play Norman Thayer, Jr., the role which would win Henry Fonda his only competitive Oscar. Aldredge made a career of playing cantankerous old men, earning a whopping 5 Tony nominations along the way. He spent decades with the New York Shakespeare Festival, playing Romeo and Juliet's Tybalt, Twelfth Night's Sir Andrew Aguecheek, King Lear's Fool, and the title role in Cymbeline. His experience with Shakespeare didn't stop there; he played the Bard himself for the TV special Henry Winkler Meets William Shakespeare, and won a Daytime Emmy.

He played fathers, or father figures, on The Sopranos, Damages, and Boardwalk Empire, and on stage, he scored as the father of a blinded Vietnam vet in Sticks and Bones. I will always remember his no-nonsense work as another stage father, the Mysterious Man in the original production of Into the Woods. Along with Chip Zien, he introduced the world to one of the simplest, yet achingly poignant, ballads in the Sondheim canon, "No More."

He played Elizabeth Taylor's husband in the notorious revival of The Little Foxes in 1981, in a production which also starred Maureen Stapleton and Dennis Christopher; the production broke box office records and earned Tony nominations, despite a critically panned performance by Taylor, in her stage debut. In addition to Sticks and Bones and The Little Foxes, Tom received Tony nods for revivals of Where's Charlie? and Twentieth Century, as well as for the original production of Sondheim's Passion.

Aldredge's marriage to costume designer Theoni Aldredge was one of the most enduring in show business (I wrote a bit about that when she died last year), though they had no children. Tom was fond of telling the story of how he first got the bug to become an actor. As a pre-law student from Ohio, he was wandering around the alleys of Times Square on a visit to New York, and came upon two stage hands who were having a smoke behind a Broadway theatre. Aldredge asked if he could peek inside the grand house, but was given the surly answer to "buy a ticket." He did just that, spending $1.80, and took his seat, only to be surprised when the two stagehands, Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, walked out onstage to play A Streetcar Named Desire. Aldredge got the bug, and never looked back. He died last month at the age of 83.