Friday, April 3, 2015

Friday Dance Party: The Simonizer

Broadway lights were dimmed this week in honor of one of the most successful stage directors of his generation. At the height of his career, he was responsible for bringing smash after smash to the stage, though in a curious twist, one of his greatest musical stage hits became one of the biggest musical film flops, both under his hand.

Gene Saks
In A Thousand Clowns, Saks played neurotic kids'
show star Chuckles the Chipmonk, a role he
repeated for the film starring Jason Robards.
He started and ended his career as an actor, but is far better known for his directorial knack with what someone called "Theatre of Repartee."  His friends reported that, though he himself was not particularly funny, his expertise with finding The Funny in a script, and bringing it out, was unparalleled.  
Saks's first film as director was
Simon's Barefoot in the Park, which
brought attention to Robert Redford
and Jane Fonda.

It was no surprise, then, that he became known as a premiere interpreter of the work of Neil Simon.  He directed eight of Doc's plays on Broadway, and translated three more to film.
Neil Simon's plays translate to film with varying degrees of success, but no one complains about The Odd Couple, in which Saks directed Lemmon and Matthau to greatness.

Saks brought Neil Simon's mid-career, autobiographical works to Broadway, including the so-called "B&B" plays. Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound were successive hits for Simon, and all concerned his adolescence and young adulthood. Matthew Broderick became famous for his leading portrayals in the first two of these pieces.
Neil Simon won the Tony,
and the Pulitzer, for
Lost In Yonkers, in which Saks
directed unknowns Kevin
Spacey and Mercedes Ruehl.
Gene had other substantial hits.  He directed the slight 2-hander by Bernard Slade, Same Time Next Year, to a three-year run, and his guidance of the film version of Cactus Flower earned Goldie Hawn the Oscar. 
When I saw I Love My Wife, Lenny Baker, above,
had already won the Tony for his performance, but I
was bowled over by the unknown playing his best
friend's wife. It was Joanna Gleason
in her Broadway debut.

He won the first of his three Tony Awards for his direction of I Love My Wife, a musical concerning the wife-swapping phenomenon of the early 1970s. No wonder the show is rather obscure today. I wrote about seeing the show here, and one of the comic numbers of the piece showed up here a while ago on the Dance Party, in a duet between Bea Arthur and Rock Hudson.

Saks won his other two Tonys for Simon plays, though he was nominated several more times. 
Saks was sacked on the road with this
musical, and replaced by Michael
Kidd. The show became a major flop
and ended the Saks/Simon partnership.

His final show on Broadway, Barrymore, earned star Frank Langella the Tony in 1997.  By then he had fallen out with Neil Simon, after he had been fired from the musical version of The Goodbye Girl. Perhaps they should have listened to Gene, as his success rate with stage musicals was impressive.  He not only won the Tony for I Love My Wife, but years earlier, his direction guided one of the most enduring hits of the 1960s and beyond, Mame.

There are a few grainy clips of Angela Lansbury as Mame out there, but a while ago, Lansbury appeared in this Dance Party, in which she displayed all the characteristics of her signature role.  
Angela Lansbury was already an established star when
Saks placed her in the role of Mame, but the marriage
of character and star was so spectacular that she rose to
the top of Broadway stardom, where she has remained
to this day.
Angela won the Tony, as did her costar, who was Gene Saks wife at the time.  The story goes that Bea Arthur lobbied hard to play Mame, but her husband wisely gave her the drunken sidekick Vera Charles.  
Imagine going home to your wife, Bea Arthur, and
telling her you decided she will NOT be playing the
leading role in the play you are directing. "God'll Get
You For That, Gene". In fact, He kinda did, with this
week's Dance Party.
Imagine that conversation at home? I suppose Bea forgave her husband, since she won her Tony playing Vera Charles, and even repeated the role in the miserable film version, also directed by Saks.
What were they thinking as they turned Jerry Herman musicals into movies? The casting corps had a great sense of talent but a lousy sense of timing. Barbra Streisand was a great choice to play Dolly Levi, in about 25 years.  Conversely, Lucille Ball would have made a great Mame Dennis, about 25 years earlier.
You may think this week's Dance Party is
torture, but at least I didn't present a
number from this TV movie, also helmed
by Gene Saks.
Gene was not originally slated to direct the movie Mame, but there was a year-long delay in filming as they waited for Lucille Ball to recover from a broken leg.  Original director George Cukor took that opportunity to bale, and Saks was signed to replace him.  I wrote about the disastrous result when Lucy and Bea Arthur appeared in this Dance Party, feel free to read all about it.  But we can't let the late Gene Saks get away from us without one more dig at his lousy movie.  
Here's Angela Lansbury in the opening number of Mame, "It's Today." This number is this week's Dance Party, starring Lucille Ball; I'm afraid it should have been renamed "It's Too Late."
After a brief song which acts as a prelude to the action, Mame opens with a bang.  Here is the film version; in lieu of actual choreography, Lucy gamely allows herself to be grabbed, shoved, and tossed around by the chorus. At her age (62), and recovering from a broken leg, she does her best.