Theatre yesterday and today



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No, this isn’t an article about The Sound of Music. It’s about a wonderful musical called Do Re Mi, which opened on this date (the day after Christmas), in 1960 at the St. James Theatre, a collaboration of composer Jule Styne, lyricists Betty Comden & Adolph Green and author/director Garson Kanin. The show was based on a 1955 novella by Kanin, which explains why Comden & Green didn’t write the book for it; something they often did when taking on a lyric writing assignment. Beyond this starry group, Phil Silvers signed on for the lead in Do Re Mi, the “Top Banana” himself. One of the most beloved musical theatre stars, Silvers was hot off his four-year television run (1955–59) as the inimitable Sgt. Bilko. And by casting opposite him the hilarious Nancy Walker, Do Re Mi had a better than average shot at being the season’s big musical. But in spite of very good reviews and a year’s run, business was never good enough to make up for its budgeted cost of $479, 738, an amount that by 1960 had become increasingly high for profit-minded producers of the day. And in its two leads, an abrasive husband and wife constantly fighting (until the final curtain, that is), the average businessman-theatregoer might have felt more bruised than he bargained for after two-and-a-half hours of insults, especially when he was used to watching Ralph and Alice Kramden on his home TV set doing the same thing for free. Coming off better, were the team in the secondary love story played by John Reardon and Nancy Dussault, who introduced a song that became a standard: “Make Someone Happy.”

Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi (1960).

Kanin's novella was well received when it was published: another genre in which this jack-of-all-trades excelled. Kanin had begun his career as a jazz musician, then actor, then as a Broadway director—whose first effort he helmed at age twenty-four. By twenty-fix, he was directing feature films, and by thirty-four, he authored and directed one of the longest running plays in Broadway history, Born Yesterday, which made a star of Judy Holiday. How Do Re Mi came about, in Kanin's own words, went like this:

"I read an article in Variety which told the story of how certain little gangs of organized mugs were moving into the record business, and that suggested something interesting to me and I began to explore it. Eventually I wrote a very, very long story that was published in the Atlantic Monthly as a cover story, and from that it was picked up by a publishing company who wanted to do it as a hard over book with illustrations by Al Hirschfeld. And that sold really, really well and it was around for awhile. Then someone bought the film rights, but never actually made a film of it. Then it came to the attention of Jule Styne, who came to me and said, 'Why don't we do this as a musical?'"

The cover of Garson Kanin's novella, illustrated by Al Hirschfeld.

Do Re Mi told the story of Hubie Cram (Silvers), a “schemer and a dreamer” (as his long-suffering wife sings about him), a perpetual loser, always in search of “an angle.” Believing his way to that ever-elusive pot of gold lies in the jukebox trade, Hubie isn’t far off. At its height, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into those machines. That, along with the accidental discovery of a female singer to exploit and promote — an elevator operator with a glorious voice — makes the success that has always eluded him finally in reach.

A colorful cast of characters boasting names like Brains Berman, Skin Demopoulos and Fatso O’Rear (I’m not kidding), were straight out of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls. And in Silvers, you had an actor who knew how to play a con man better than almost anyone, which made for some delightful numbers, bringing out the best of the Tin Pan Alley tradition in which Styne was trained, in addition to clever word play from Comden and Green.

"It's Legitimate" as performed by Phil Silvers, George Matthews, George Givot and David Burns.

It also had the pedigree of a brilliant set by Boris Aronson (did he ever design any other kind?), which was set within the frame of a giant jukebox. In one scene in a nightclub, the tables had drawn figures instead of actors, and for one number ("Fireworks"), black light was utilized to give the effect of shooting stars and Roman candles bursting in the background.