Theatre yesterday and today



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"All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again."

We all know the words to the "Humpty Dumpty" nursery rhyme, but did you know that once upon a time there was a musical called Humpty Dumpty that closed out of town in Pittsburgh? And that it starred a twenty-four year old Ethel Merman, one of the brightest and freshest faces in show business, the result of her triumph two years earlier in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy? Rewritten and retitled Take a Chance, the show performed the near-impossible, opening on Broadway two months after its premature closing to decent reviews and a good solid run.

John Tenniel's illustration from the 1865 first edition of Alice in Wonderland.

What sort of show was Humpty Dumpty? Well, it was a musical revue with a show biz plot not really worth going into, and was the brainchild of Buddy DeSylva, a producer and lyricist, known primarily as part of the team DeSylva, Brown and Henderson (Lew Brown and Ray Henderson); a trio which churned out hit after hit over a six-year span from 1925-31, among them "The Varsity Drag," "Birth of the Blues," "You're the Cream In My Coffee" and "Button Up Your Overcoat." Having split from his partners the year before developing Humpty, DeSylva returned for this new venture writing lyrics solo and collaborating with Nacio Herb Brown and Richard Whiting for his composers. Brown (no relation to Lew) was the man responsible for the music to all the wonderful songs (including the title tune) collected for the 1952 film titled Singin' in the Rain, and Whiting contributed to what is now known as the Great American Songbook with such hits as "Hooray for Hollywood", "Ain't We Got Fun?," "Too Marvelous for Words" and "On the Good Ship Lollipop." In addition to DeSylva's producing and writing duties on Humpty Dumpty, he also took a co-directing credit as well.

Wearing all those hats led DeSylva to the self-realization that upon reading the death notices for the show that there was no one to blame for Humpty Dumpty but himself. One review stated that "Humpty Dumpty started the 1932 Pittsburgh theatrical season at 8:30 p.m. and at 12:08 a.m... it was still starting, and my watch had stopped." But other shows have survived opening nights out of town that were long (famously My Fair Lady clocked in at four hours), so perhaps DeSylva was led on by another review that encouragingly said "If the show did not take so long to begin and so long to end, it might be a great hit."

Convinced that the underlying premise of the show was sound, he went about making the changes he thought necessary to turn things around. First, he let go his co-director Lawrence Schwab (guess he didn't think firing himself was an option), and brought in Edgar MacGregor (who settled for a "Book Directed by" credit in the Playbill ). Schwab stuck around in other capacities on the production for two chief reasons: he was already a co-producer, and he and DeSylva were the co-owners (and landlords) for Taking a Chance's future home on 42nd Street at the Apollo Theatre.

The next order of business was getting rid of Humpty Dumpty's male lead, Lou Holtz. You never heard of Lou Holtz? Neither did I, but he was a once-famous "dialect comedian" who for many years led the renowned George White's Scandals revues between the years between 1919 and 1939. According to sources, Holtz refused to play the character of Sam Mosco with his usual Yiddish accent, prompting DeSylva to go after his old friend, the more reliable Eddie Cantor to take on the part. When Cantor declined, DeSylva knew he couldn't bring the show to New York without a big name (Merman was a show or two away from being declared one yet), so he cancelled the additional tryout weeks in Washington, D.C. and Newark and returned to the drawing board at a loss of $90,000.

Undaunted, DeSylva grabbed one of the best composers of the era, Vincent Youmans, to write some new songs. Rehearsals began only a month later on the rewritten show on October 17th with the new title Two's Company, later changed to We're Three, then We're Three. As we already know, it eventually became Take a Chance, recasting more than half a dozen actors.

Jack Haley, still seven years away from his signature role, that of the Tin Man in the The Wizard of Oz, was given the part abandoned by Lou Holtz. With this casting, there was no way DeSylva could have still been intent on getting any "Yiddishisms" into the proceedings. Now with the character's name changed from Sam Mosco to Duke Stanley, Jack Haley was free to use the Boston accent he never let go of for his entire career. And in the spirt of the show being less Jewish, Sid Silvers, who had been playing the part of Lou Mosco (brother to Sam) in Humpty Dumpty, now sported the name Lou Webb in Taking a Chance (and in a bit of serendipity, Silvers, a man of many talents, wound up as one of the many uncredited contributors to the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz film).

Comedian Lou Holtz and his replacement in Humpty Dumpty, fellow vaudevillian Jack Haley.

Opening in Philadelphia two months later, this new edition of Humpty got far stronger reviews. “A swell example of astute showmanship,” wrote one, while another proclaimed it “a first-rate piece.” Later in the month, Broadway took to it in such a way, that it managed a hastily thrown together film version by Paramount Pictures released in 1933, though much of it was rewritten (yet again), with Merman losing her part to the singing sensation of the day, Lillian Roth.

Pretty easy to spot Haley and Merman, but I would need help

putting faces to names with the rest of this group.

Hopefully, the irony is not lost here that once upon a time a Broadway musical did the opposite of what the nursery rhyme long proclaimed: In the case of Taking a Chance, "All the king's horses and all the king's men (COULD and DID) put Humpty together again."

(I am indebted to the book Broadway Bound: A Guide to Shows That Died Aborning, by William Torbert Leonard, for much of the information provided in this column).

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: