Fifty-eight years ago today, on July 7, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Alaska statehood law into effect. With the swipe of pen, America had its 50th state, a nice round number. There are many states in the U.S. I've yet to visit, but I happen to have spent some time in Alaska. Not enough to form an opinion about it, except to say what I saw had some beautiful vistas and the people seemed friendly and kind.
The one thing I would never mistake it for would be a place to take a Broadway musical for its out- of-town tryout. But there is one show that did just that—and only one—in the history of Broadway. The reason for it was that the story took place in the Yukon during the gold rush of 1898. The producer, Robert Whitehead (someone who should have known better) had the brilliant idea that the show should debut in one of the most remote parts of the country ... for what? The publicity value? Who would know? Or care?
The show got good notices for its star, the by-then-already-legendary Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion of The Wizard of Oz) as well as his co-star, the very talented Larry Blyden. In the course of the next year, it switched producers once, then twice, the last one being no ordinary mortal. It was David Merrick—the most prolific and notorious producer of the post-WWII era in the American theatre. Though famous for titles like Gypsy, Carnival, Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street, he also imported French, German and British plays such as Becket, Luther and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
In the twenty years between 1954 and 1974, he produced 42 shows. And if all weren't hits (they weren't) even the flops are shows you may have heard of. There has never been, and perhaps never will be, a Broadway showman better at getting the names of his shows out there. He was responsible for some of the most bizarre and hilarious publicity stunts ever. Probably best reserved for its own column another time.
So today, in honor of the anniversary of Alaska's statehood, I would like to shine a light on Foxy, the musical that once hoped to take Dawson City by storm. Its lyrics were by Johnny Mercer, one of the great songwriters of the American popular song book and its score was by Robert E. Dolan, a renowned film composer of the 40s, before he turned to producing films. The book was by two of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten screenwriters, Ian McLellan Hunter and Ring Lardner Jr., and it was based on Ben Johnson's classic satire Volpone. First performed in 1606, Volpone has retained its darkly comedic bent all these years and is a staple for rep companies around the world. Its starring role has attracted an international stable of actors, the most familiar being British stalwarts Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield and most recently Michael Gambon, as well as American counterparts George C. Scott, Robert Preston and Jackie Gleason, who all played a 1970s version of Volpone in Larry Gelbart's updated, Sly Fox, which smartly set the action in the California gold rush of the late 1890s.
It was an idea Gelbart got not from the creators of Foxy, but by one of the directors who passed on it, Arthur Penn. When first approached, Penn didn't think it would work to reset Volpone this way, but for whatever reason, years later when Gelbart wanted him to direct Sly Fox, Penn suddenly found the gold rush setting as something worth suggesting as being appropriate. Crazy.
The story that Ben Johnson first came up with, and which Gelbart and others have expanded on for centuries, has always remained the same: a con man pretends he's very wealthy and very sick in order to ensnare genuinely wealthy (and equally corrupt) individuals into his trap. He makes them court him in the belief he is their greatest friend and that they will be the beneficiaries of all he owns after his death, making them ripe for a fleecing. Writer Jon Maas (who just happened to have worked at one time as an assistant to David Merrick, though many years after Foxy) has always eyed the unseen potential in this musical. He has been working for a number of years on sprucing it up to see if it can get a new lease on life. He seemed the perfect person to ask to expand upon its backstory, and this is what he wrote:
"When it opened in Dawson City it was at a new theatre. They often played to virtually empty houses, with only Indians in the audience, so it was hard to gauge the audience reaction. After Dawson City, half the score, all the cast save Blyden and Lahr and choreographer Matt Mattox were axed ... According to conductor Don Pippin, the show was still a total riot and Lahr had one moment that caused the audience to laugh for 5 full minutes. After the opening night reviews (which were generally pretty darn good), Merrick sold the show back to Billy Rose, who promptly disappeared, going on his honeymoon and Merrick got stuck with a show he didn’t care about, Hello, Dolly!, having just opened. He convinced RCA to cancel the recording and the authors threatened to sue (but didn’t)."
Foxy only ran two months, though it managed a Tony Award win for Best Actor in a Musical to Bert Lahr. And with other 60s shows that ran shorter and with lesser stars to boast in their cast, recordings preserved them for posterity. But no such luck for Foxy. Maybe via Jon Maas's diligence and talent, we'll see it (and hear it) again some day.
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