Theatre yesterday and today



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On this date in 1971, a new musical opened in a city not known for out of town tryouts. But back in the day, it was not uncommon for shows to test the waters on the summer stock circuit in far-flung places beyond Broadway’s purview. This is how it came to pass that W.C., based on the life of the vaudeville and film comedian, W.C. Fields, made its debut in Albany, New York.

What made this show interesting was its participants, many of whom came from so many disparate areas of show business. First, Mickey Rooney was cast as Fields and it wasn’t an illogical choice. Like Fields, Rooney once performed in vaudeville, as it’s where he started as a child before the age of two. While only nineteen, Rooney enjoyed three years at the top as Hollywood’s biggest box office star, something he was happy to remind you whenever he had the chance—which was often. (I know this because I actually got to work with “the Mick,” not once, not twice but on three occasions.) This was during his late career renaissance where, after many years of show business purgatory, he received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for The Black Stallion in 1980, and later that same year, opened on Broadway in the hit musical, Sugar Babies. But in 1971, his career was in the doldrums. Surely he was hoping W.C. would be his comeback vehicle. Only it didn’t happen. Not by a long shot.

His co-star in this musical was Bernadette Peters, who played Fields’s long-term mistress Carlotta Monti. Between 1968 and 1969, Peters had twin successes with Dames at Sea and George M!. But by 1971, she had barely survived a one-night fiasco; her first starring Broadway role in Lionel Bart's musical of the Frederico Fellini film, La Strada, and the disappointment of a full-scale revival of On the Town. Folding quickly, at least it allowed Peters the chance at grabbing her first Tony Award nomination). As supposed lovers in W.C., the only thing she and Rooney had in common was that they both began as child performers. Otherwise, it was a mix of oil and water.

Its book, music and lyrics were by Al Carmines, an avant-garde composer, not normally associated with anything like the standard musical comedy form he attempted for W.C. An integral part of the burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement of the 1960s, Carmine’s best known shows went by such titles as Peace and The Faggot. Again, this all made for an odd mix, to say the least.

Carmines was a fascinating character. After receiving his Masters in sacred theology, the former prodigy musician was hired at a Greenwich Village church as an assistant minister. Almost immediately, he was asked to put together a play in the basement. From there began a non-stop period of productivity when, according to one obituary, “he wrote dozens of musicals, operas and oratorios, 10 of which had Off-Broadway runs.” He acted in many of them and always kept his job at the Judson Memorial Church, until illness forced his retirement in 1981. He died in 2005.

But back in 1971, W.C., still with its sites on Broadway wound up instead playing just Baltimore, Maryland, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and Westbury, Long Island. In the one review I was able to get my hands on, Variety reported “that had W.C. Fields witnessed the event, he would have really boozed it up.” It noted “the incredibly bad orchestra [which] does nothing for the weak music of Al Carmines … the chorus line is unattractive and the choreography mediocre.”

It wasn’t in the cards for W.C. to be the show responsible for Mickey Rooney’s long sought Broadway debut. That wouldn’t be for another eight years when he finally arrived in grand fashion at the age of fifty-nine. He and Ann Miller lit up the town with Sugar Babies, an uproarious salute to burlesque. I saw it and the two of them were just great.

And if you’re curious about what the songs from W.C. might have sounded like, there was a recording made in 1994 featuring some of the songs as performed by Carmines himself, and the wonderful Alice Playton. Give it a listen ... that is, if you can find it. It's been out-of-print for twenty years.

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