Stories of theatrical lore often slip into legend, and many come with an extra dollop of “un-truthiness” that make for a better tale. But the one that occurred at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on the opening night of Abe Burrows and Cole Porter’s Can-Can, sixty-five years ago this evening, happened as reported (save for a few of the smaller details). After all, the critics were all there (as they were in those days), witnessing it with their own eyes (and pens) on May 7, 1953.
The opening night Playbill for Can-Can (1953)
Can-Can was written and directed by Abe Burrows (a duel assignment he began, then never relinquished over the next twenty-five years, beginning two years prior in 1951 with the hit musical revue Two on the Aisle). Words and music were by the inimitable Cole Porter, and dances by Michael Kidd, who won his first of five Tony Awards as Best Choreographer for his work on Finian’s Rainbow, and would win his third for Can-Can (Guys and Dolls came between). Produced by the team of Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin, whose two previous shows had been Frank Loesser’s first musical, Where’s Charley? and his masterwork, Guys and Dolls, their next three shows were the British import The Boy Friend (the Broadway debut of Julie Andrews); another Porter hit, Silk Stockings, followed by the Pulitzer Prize winning How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. As Broadway producers, they were said to have possessed the Midas Touch, and no one helped promote that image more than Feuer and Martin themselves.
The star of Can-Can was Lilo. And who was Lilo that she could get away with one name like Cher does or Prince did? Well, she was a beautiful and leggy chanteuse who had become an international sensation in French music halls in the early 1950s and was therefore a pretty good choice to portray a nightclub owner in 1893 Paris. She had a striking and sexy voice (listenable on the original cast recording), and for her efforts, was well reviewed in the role.
Lilo as La Mome Pistache in Can-Can (1953)
But someone else from the cast of Can-Can managed to steal Lilo’s thunder (as the saying goes). Someone whose name didn’t even appear on the poster and was listed merely as a featured player. And without any Eve Harrington in All About Eve backstabbing bitchiness, did it on the strength of her talent alone, heralding to anyone who saw her on that opening night, that hers was a name that would have to be reckoned with from that time forward: someone whose name was Gwen Verdon.
Gwen Verdon as Claudine in Can-Can (1953)
Though we have the stories by way of what happened out front on May 7th, it sure would be great to have the backstage stories of what went down on May 8th. Can you imagine what Lilo was like arriving the next night after having her show stolen out from under her by a featured player? Sure she could take some degree of joy in Brooks Atkinson proclaiming in the New York Times that “When Lilo takes charge of a song, the temperature in the theatre rises perceptibly. She has a good brass-band voice; she is a stunning blonde and she tosses herself into the middle of the show with gratifying abandon.” But it couldn’t come close to comparing with Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune, who wrote of the favor that choreographer Michael Kidd had done “by introducing a red-headed extrovert named Gwen Verdon. From the time she starts playing footsie with a tempting apple in that first act finish, she is the dance discovery of the season. Miss Verdon comes upon sex with a magnificent astonishment, rueful, dismayed, interested, and deeply pleased all at once. The abandon with which she takes over the later, ‘Apache’ business — sending chairs and males spinning with a flick of her ankle — is devastating. The audience held up the show for some minutes in Miss Verdon’s honor last evening, causing the actress to take a breathless bow in even great deshabille that the producers of Can-Can probably intended.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, deshabille, it is defined as “a state of undress.” As the Times was a family newspaper, what Kerr was describing is how Verdon exited at the end of her number to an ovation so forceful that it forced her back onstage to acknowledge the tumultuous applause. The show simply couldn’t go on. And Verdon, unaware of what was happening, did what she had to do next — change into another costume. Informed that the audience was clamoring for her — and practically naked — she returned to the stage and took her extended bow in front of the drop curtain … wearing her bathrobe. (Some reports are that it was a towel).
How’s that for an opening night performance? Digging deeper into the story, according to a story posted at the Sony Masterworks website, repository for much of the classic cast recordings over the years, “an extraordinary mishap at its climax on opening night was of the stuff that makes Broadway legends. Gwen was supposed to seize a knife and plunge it savagely into the breast of her partner. When she reached for the knife, the handle came off in her hand, without even the semblance of a blade. With a quick ad-lib, she pulled the guy to her and kissed him. The audience leapt to its feet and started chanting her name as she hurried to her dressing room for a costume change.”
If that was the case, it only adds to the luster of what (from everything I’ve ever read and heard) is a true story.
As William Hawkins wrote in the World-Telegram & Sun: “Lilo went into the show a star. And Gwen Verdon came out of it a star.”
Gwen Verdon on the cover of Time Magazine (June 13, 1955).
With praise heaped on Can-Can for Verdon (and Lilo), and three breakout Porter songs (“I Love Paris,” "C'est Magnifique" and “It’s All Right With Me”), the show ran for two years and 892 performances, (in spite of not terribly great reviews). When it closed on June 25, 1955, Gwen Verdon was two blocks away at the 46th Street Theatre, packing them at Damn Yankees, which had opened a month earlier. It was the first time Verdon had her name above the title, and would turn out to be her second Tony winning performance (she won Featured Actress for Can-Can, her one and only time in that category). She finished her career with a total of four Tonys (losing her last two times at bat for her iconic turns as Sweet Charity and Roxie Hart in Chicago). I mean, come on! Careers like that don’t grow on trees.
And Lilo? She returned to Broadway only once more in a musical called Pousse Café. Even with a score composed by Duke Ellington, it closed in 3 performances. Poor Lilo. Someone who learned the hard way that all that glitters is not gold.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.