Theatre yesterday and today



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As famous theatre legends go, the one about the night Shirley MacLaine went on for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game is pretty much at the top of the list. You don't know this story? Although there are many versions of it (and even MacLaine's own tellings have contradictions) the underlying one is 100% true.

Of course it carries with it a scene as old as when films first began to talk and sing—the understudy who goes on in a pinch and becomes a star overnight. It goes like this: Back in June of 1954, about a month into the run of the hit new Broadway musical The Pajama Game, MacLaine found herself rushing to the theatre to get there by curtain time. Highly ambitious, MacLaine was already tiring of being in the chorus with no lines to speak and as understudy to the indefatigable Carol Haney, someone who rarely (if ever) missed a performance. So on this day, MacLaine had auditioned and been cast in another show just up the street: Cole Porter's Can-Can. Even though it was another understudy gig, she felt she had a better chance of going on for the newly discovered, Tony Award winner, Gwen Verdon, than she ever did for Haney.

What happened next is best described by MacLaine herself in her 2008 autobiography Sage-ing While Age-ing: "[The Pajama Game producers] gave me the understudy job, but I never had a rehearsal. I had thought Carol would go on with a broken neck. But when Carol sprained her ankle … and I arrived at the St James, across the stage door stood Jerry Robbins, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, etc. 'Haney is out,' they said. 'You're on.' I couldn't believe what I was hearing."

In the documentary Broadway: the Golden Age, by Rick McKay, MacLaine adds a further development (or embellishment): "I had my notice in my pocket, ready to turn it in. The subway got stuck in Times Square, so I was twenty minutes late for my own half-hour call ... and when I got to the theatre it was ten minutes before the curtain was going up! ... So I stuffed my notice back in real quick and I didn't know what key I sang in, I never had a rehearsal."

As the legend goes, the Academy Award winning film producer Hal Wallis was at the show that night. He loved what he saw and signed the twenty-year-old unknown to a five-year Hollywood contract, resulting in her starring in Alfred Hitchcock's next picture, The Trouble With Harry. That part of the legend is true. But to add another layer of improbability, that offer came only after Alfred Hitchcock was in the audience on ANOTHER night when Haney was out and MacLaine was on! Hitchcock then had to borrow MacLaine from Wallis, who with his ironclad contract, exclusively owned loan-out rights for her services. If you find these tall-tales hard to believe, all these stories are in MacLaine's own words from interviews she's given over the course of her now sixty-three year career.

Within the first five years of her screen debut, MacLaine made eleven films, two of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and two of which garnered her Best Actress nominations. She would receive five overall in that category, finally winning the golden statuette in 1984 for Terms of Endearment, nearly thirty years after making her film debut. In her acceptance speech that night, which came over three hours into evening, she said, "I'm going to cry because this show has been as long as my career."

It's been an incredible career, but one that was the film world's gain and the theatre's loss. Except for her nightclub act, after The Pajama Game, MacLaine never appeared in another legitimate musical on stage.

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