Theatre yesterday and today



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Due to the positive response to Tuesday’s column on Ethel Shutta and the history of her performance of “Broadway Baby” from Follies, it seemed appropriate to explore another Weissman Girl’s big number with Mary McCarty’s powerful rendition of “Who’s That Woman?” Even after close to fifty years, Michael Bennett’s remarkable staging of it is still considered one of the best of all time. Stick around till the end (where a special treat awaits you) in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

In late 1970, when Mary McCarty auditioned for the original Broadway production of Follies, she was just what producer/director Harold Prince and casting director Joanna Merlin were looking for: an actress/singer with a past connected to an era that had sadly passed her and her compatriots by. For when she auditioned for Follies, McCarty hadn’t been seen on Broadway in a musical since 1950. To be clear, Prince and Merlin weren’t looking for has beens, but “hey lady aren’t you whozis?” was a feather in the cap of anyone who walked into the audition room. “I’d called the Hal Prince office myself — you do a lot of that, agent or not — and said, ‘I hear you are using, um, varied ages.’ Nice euphemism, right?” Which is how McCarty ended up singing for everybody four times, and, as she spelled it out, “they weren’t sure which role I might do.”

The plot of Follies was that of a reunion of old showgirls on the stage of the Weissman Theatre, veterans of his follies (“every year between the wars,” as the old man puts it) and the box office attraction of four of the five top billed stars all having sizable connections to the past was purposefully intended for Follies’ target audience. And McCarty’s past was a doozy.

Mary McCarty (in blue) leading the charge

with "Who's That Woman?" Follies (1971).

Mary McCarty was born September 27, 1923 in Winfield, Kansas. Her parents separated shortly thereafter, and she was raised by her mother and great-grandmother in downtown Los Angeles, “sort of an Eighth Avenue equivalent,” she told the New York Times in 1977. Being a natural singer, young Mary was put into show business by her stage mom: “My mother didn’t push. She aimed me.” The Great Depression was on and, as early as age five, she was “aimed” into vaudeville (what was left of it) with many appearances at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Los Angeles (ironically torn down in 1962 to make way for a parking lot — just like the fictional Weissman). She also found her way into dozens of feature films and shorts, either in non-speaking or small roles (you can spot her as a fifteen-year-old opposite a ten-year-old Shirley Temple in 1938’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm). Before she turned eighteen, her mother insisted she go to New York (alone) in order to play the great night spots. She told the famed columnist Louella Parsons that “she took along two chickens her mother fried for her to stave off ‘starvation.’” She made good, eventually headlining at the Blue Angel, the Village Vanguard and the Hotel Plaza’s Persian Room with her vibrant singing style and comedic chops.

It wasn’t until she was twenty-five that she landed her first Broadway show, Sleepy Hollow, a musical retelling of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Poor reviews closed it in nine days, but McCarty got a nice mention from Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times: “We are getting some attractive young people in musical shows these days. They are free from night-club pallor (what a line!). There is Mary McCarthy, as a hot-tempered hussy.” Okay, Atkinson got her name wrong, but a mention is a mention.

Fortunately, McCarty found herself immediately cast in another musical, which opened on Broadway three months after Sleepy Hollow closed. It was a revue titled Small Wonder, and in it, McCarty got to really show her stuff alongside such new (and soon-to-be well known) performers such as Jack Cassidy, Tom Ewell, Alice Pearce, Joan Diener and Tommy Rall. With a standout number, “Flaming Youth,” McCarty was able to showcase her singing, comic abilities and dancing, and it proved a jumping off point (literally), as you can see from this photo:

Mary McCarty photographed by LOOK Magazine

in costume from Small Wonder (1948).

It landed her a chance a few years later to do the number on a variety show, and luckily it’s available on YouTube. Not only is it a privilege to see McCarty in her prime, but the dance is by none other than Gower Champion, in what marked his Broadway debut as a choreographer (he would eventually win five Tonys in that category, not to mention three additional ones for direction).