Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday Dance Party: A Little Brains, A Little Talent

Gwen Verdon does not star in this week's Dance Party.

Richard Adler
Though this guy had a very long career as a composer, lyricist, and producer, it must be confessed that he peaked pretty early, back in the 1950s.  He provided Tony Bennett with a top-selling hit ("Rags to Riches"), and years later, he did the same for Doris Day ("Everybody Loves A Lover"). 
Adler's first Broadway show was this
revue, starring Hermione Gingold and
Billy DeWolfe.
But he is surely best remembered for his Broadway career, during which he won back-to-back Tony Awards for two musicals which are still considered classics of the golden age of the musical comedy.  Those hits were the result of his collaboration with Jerry Ross, with whom he teamed to write both music and lyrics.  
Jerry Ross's untimely death in 1955 ended their collaboration, and though Adler continued working until his death last month, he never matched his earlier achievements. 

He wrote a couple of forgettable musicals for his wife at the time, Sally Ann Howes, and he produced one of Richard Rodgers' flops, Rex
Who thought the life of Henry VIII would make a good musical? Adler did, as he produced Rex, one of Richard Rodgers's late-career flops. The gal on the far left is Glenn Close, making her Broadway debut as the princess who would grow up to become Bloody Mary.
Monroe's Happy Birthday song to
JFK has become an historical
video documenting his infidelity.
Speaking of producing, our hero was responsible for one of the most memorable events of the Kennedy presidency, the birthday bash during which Marilyn Monroe turned the Birthday Song into a seductive siren's song. 

But let's get back to Broadway.  In the 1950s, Adler and Ross became proteges of the great Frank Loesser, so it was a natural step for the team to hit Broadway.  Their first show was a musical revue, John Murray Anderson's Almanac, which ran a full season in 1953, which was considered a respectable run for writers making their Broadway debuts. 
Almanac launched Hermione Gingold's career
in America.

Their next two shows, though, were legitimate smashes, and solidified their place in the history of American Musical Theatre.  In 1954, Adler and Ross adapted a novel about union workers into The Pajama Game, which remains one of the most revived musicals in educational and community theatre settings. 
Harry Connick, Jr.'s acclaimed performance
in this 2006 revival created expectations
which were dashed when he returned to
Broadway in On A Clear Day, which I
wrote about here.

The show is often remembered for its launching of the career of Shirley Maclaine, who was understudy to supporting player Carol Haney when Haney broke her foot. 
Carol Haney in the role in The Pajama Game which Shirley Maclaine covered.
Maclaine went on in her place and, as legend has it, was discovered by a Hollywood producer who turned her into a movie star. 
Shirley Maclaine
The story is true, but is often a bit misunderstood;  theatrical lore has it that Maclaine had incredible good luck to be viewed by Hal Wallis, the producer from Paramount in question, during the one performance she gave as understudy.  In fact, Carol Haney was out of The Pajama Game for several months, and Shirley performed the role of Gladys during that entire period, not, as is supposed, for a single show.   Haney won the Tony for her performance, but Maclaine got the Hollywood career.

Only a year after The Pajama Game opened (it was still running to full houses), Adler and Ross delivered their second smash, Damn Yankees.  This show elevated dancer Gwen Verdon to star status;  she won the Tony, as did her co-star Ray Walston. 
Gwen Verdon initially turned down the
role of Lola in Damn Yankees. She changed
her mind and landed on the cover of Time.

Though solidly constructed, I would not call this show a masterpiece by any means.  In fact, the show was so tailored to the talents of Verdon that one of her dance numbers (which graced the Dance Party here) is sometimes cut from the show these days, rightfully so.  Not everybody can dance like Verdon.  But Damn Yankees remains a particular favorite of mine, as Walston's role, the Devil, is a dream role of mine.  I played it in Glendale, CA in 1992 (and would kill to play it again before I have to play it in a wheelchair.  I pompously offered this clip from that production as a Dance Party on my birthday a few years ago). 
Jerry Lewis made a belated Broadway
debut replacing Victor Garber in the
1994 revival of Damn Yankees. His
presence extended the run, but his antics
became legendary. He often halted the
show to drop character
and present a stand-up routine.

Both Pajama Game and Damn Yankees have had several Broadway revivals, and this week's Dance Party comes from one.  Musicals from this period usually featured a supporting female character which was primarily a dance role.  Carol Haney's role in Pajama Game was such a role, as is the role featured in this week's clip.  Though Damn Yankees hardly needed another dance role, since Gwen Verdon's Lola did more than her share of hoofing, the writers added one anyway, that of female sports reporter Gloria Thorpe.  In the 1994 revival, the role was played by Vickie Lewis, who co-starred on the sitcom NewsRadio before turning to the Broadway stage.  Here she shows off strong musical comedy chops, in her big number which was broadcast on the Tony Awards that year.

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross were on their way to becoming a substantial composing team when Ross suddenly died in 1955. Because their output was halted, they are not always as admired as other musical writers of the period such as Lerner and Loewe, Sheldon and Harnick, and the very young Stephen Sondheim, all of whom created a full canon of musical theatre gems.  But I submit that the back-to-back successes of Pajama Game and Damn Yankees place Adler and Ross in the pantheon of great
composers of the American musical theatre.