Pancho Villa (l) in 1911; Robert Preston as Villa (r) in 1962.
With that headline and that photograph, you might be wondering how the Massachusetts born and Southern California raised Robert Preston was ever cast as a Mexican revolutionary. And you would be right to do so. However, you would also have to consider the time in which the Broadway musicalWe Take the Town was being conceived. First, in the early 1960s audiences bought inauthentic ethnic casting all the time. No one would have minded if perhaps the musical theatre’s greatest male star Alfred Drake paraded around sporting a Mexican accent, as no one blinked an eye in 1953 when he played the Siamese Mongkut for a vacationing Yul Brynner in The King and I. Second, in 1962, Robert Preston had still only recently earned the mantle of the era’s most sought musical theatre star after his Professor Harold Hill in 1957’s The Music Man. No, that wasn’t what caused We Take the Town’s doom at all.
For anyone unfamiliar with Pancho Villa (real name José Doroteo Arango Arámbula), he was born in 1878 in Durango to a sharecropper father and, while still a teenager, gained a sordid reputation as a bandit and a killer. Such skills allowed him to rise through the ranks of the Mexican army, of which he was a major player in the revolution that raged between 1910 and 1920. Wildly charismatic, Villa gave interviews to any journalist with a pad and pencil (or a camera), and even starred in his own movies, until he was murdered in a bloodbath. And naturally, when in 1934, Hollywood decided it was time to tell his story, Wallace Beery, the midwestern son of a Kansas policeman, was cast in Viva Villa!.
Viva Villa! served as the inspiration for We Take the Town’s songwriting team of Matt Dubey and Harold Karr. The team had recently made their Broadway debut in 1956 with Happy Hunting, notable as one of the least triumphant shows of Ethel Merman’s illustrious career. It did sport some catchy tunes tough with the Merm really selling the duet “Mutual Admiration Society,” assuring it a modicum of success with other recording artists. But if the score displayed some fine work, nothing could compensate for a dreary book, an ill-suited director and a contentious two-city out of town tryout that ultimately destroyed the show’s chances of arriving on Broadway for its scheduled opening night April 5, 1962. In fact, it played its final performance two and a half weeks prior, causing Preston to forever mourn its passing when mentioning in interviews: “I left the best performance of my life in Philadelphia.” Its producer wrote years later: “His critics assassinated Villa in Mexico City in 1923 while we were merely slaughtered in 1962, when we opened in Philadelphia.” Reviews described it as “a cumbersome and confused show, almost anti-musical in form, which rambles along interminably … ponderously produced … with a leaden script.”
Nathan Lane, while playing host at a concert that featured a song from We Take the Town, wondered aloud in his introduction: “Robert Preston as Pancho Villa? Can you imagine that accent?” Great joke, but all I have ever heard from anybody who saw Preston as Villa have said he was magnificent. Knowing Harold Prince had been to New Haven to consider taking over the direction, I had to bring it up while interviewing him in 2013. “What was Preston’s performance like?” I asked. “Spectacular,” was Prince’s word response. John Cullum, who co-starred alongside Preston long before he became a name actor himself, told me “Bob Preston never really recovered from the show not coming to New York … he really was incredible in it. I pointed out he was hitting a particular note and I didn’t know how he was doing it. He stopped me cold and said, ‘I don’t know either — and let’s not talk about it!’”
Robert Preston as Pancho Villa in We Take the Town (1962).
Originally intended for the fall of 1958, a year after Karr and Dubey had closed Happy Hunting, it was to star British actor Anthony Quayle under the direction of Joseph Anthony, who was coming off excellent notices for directing The Most Happy Fella. And for extra added insurance, Bob Fosse was to choreograph and co-direct (this was prior to 1959’s Redhead, which became his sole directing/choreographing debut). Of course, none of that happened when the producer dropped his option and the show languished. Next, the great composer-lyricist Frank Loesser came on board to produce, as he had a hand in producing The Music Man and was looking for new material. His option too was eventually dropped, but a young man who worked as a vice president for Loesser’s Frank Music Corporation picked up the show believing it was worthy enough, starting his own company in the process. And although Stuart Ostrow would later go on to produce such excellent fare as The Apple Tree, 1776, Pippin and M Butterfly, it was with We Take the Town that he got his feet wet… only to find himself in quicksand.
Of course, signing Preston was a huge deal for a fledgling producer, but finding the right director would prove to be even more key. As Ostrow tells the tale in his autobiography, Present at the Creation, Preston’s schedule was so tight that the show had to go into rehearsals right away. And so, on short notice, Alex Segal got hired. A well-regarded television director, he unfortunately had little to no experience staging a play, let alone a musical. Odd as this may sound, but for someone used to thinking about the big picture, Segal supposedly devoted too much time to small scenes as if getting his actors ready for their close-ups. This wasted valuable time and left him constantly behind. His solution to that was to cut songs and dances until the whole thing was a sha