Having written about The Pajama Game last week, it seemed fitting to write about a show that came four years later, and owed its existence in full to that musical. So here goes:
When in 1958, a new Broadway show offered "music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green," audiences would not have been wrong in assuming they were buying tickets to a musical. But with Say, Darling, what they were actually getting was something billed as "a comedy about a musical." Richard Bissell, one of its three writers, had four years earlier been part of the creative team that adapted his novel 7 1/2 Cents into The Pajama Game, a big, splashy Tony Award winner. It was a wild ride for Bissell, who prior to the experience, had lived a far calmer life in Iowa. When 7 1/2 Cents was optioned for stage, with little to no preparation, he was invited east and quickly thrown into the fast-paced world of Broadway under the tutelage of the esteemed George Abbott, hired to co-author and direct (a job Abbott eventually shared with Jerome Robbins). After Pajama Game opened to great reviews, and what promised to be a long run, Bissell went back to writing novels. Thinking it might be fun to do something satirical based on his time with the likes of Abbott, Robbins, Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, Harold Prince, John Raitt, Janis Paige, et. al., he wrote a fictional version of the backstage goings-on involved in the crafting of Pajama Game (re-naming it Paddlewheel). Thus, in 1957, Say, Darling was published.
Let's not hold it against Bissell (and his publishers) to try and sell a few books back in 1957.
The Sunday prior to the opening of the Broadway musical version of his novel, Bissell stated, somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the New York Times, that "I was sitting in my hacienda in South Norwalk, Conn., counting money when my agent summoned me and my wife Marian to a meeting with the famed piano prodigy, composer, song writer and producer, Jule Styne." He goes on to say how Styne pitched him the idea of turning Say, Darling into a stage play, enamored as he was by its plot: a novice from the hinterlands (Bissell), who serves as an audience surrogate to experience all-things theatre, from holding auditions, to its rehearsals, to the out of town rewrites and the company in-fighting (as well as its romances).
From l to r: Johnny Desmond, David Wayne, Jerome Cowan, Vivian Blaine,
Horace McMahon and Robert Morse in Say, Darling.(1958).
Sparking to the idea, Bissell volunteered his wife on the spot as co-writer, at the same time, sheepishly informing Styne they would need an experienced hand to guide them. "We don't know how to write a play!"
Styne, tremendous talent that he was as a composer, was also a prolific producer of note. Smartly, he turned to the most respected comedy writer of musicals at the time, Abe Burrows, who agreed to become the third wheel to Mr. and Mrs. Bissell. Actually, more like the first wheel, as he would direct as well.
Now in order to write a show about the making of a musical, there would have to be musical numbers. The choice of composer was simple: Styne himself. And asking his pals Comden and Green to write the lyrics was a no-brainer, as this trio's first collaboration was one of the last successful entries in the category of the once-popular Broadway revue —1951's Two on the Aisle, that had starred Bert Lahr and Dolores Grey.
Now here's where things got tricky: Since Say, Darling was a play, there was no intention of hiring a full orchestra to play a score half the length of an average musical. Besides, with most of the songs staged as rehearsal numbers, a full orchestra coming in every time someone sang would destroy any sense of realism in the play. Still, confusion must have reigned when its "Original Cast Recording" was released—one featuring words and music by Comden, Green and Styne. What sort of show do you think it put audiences in mind for? In addition, the record featured a full Broadway-style orchestra (complete with an "Overture!"), bought and paid by RCA especially for the album, assigning its orchestrations to one of their best in-house arrangers, Sid Ramin (Gypsy and West Side Story among his many credits). This undoubtedly helped to sell the show (and the album), but there must have been folks dismayed when they sat in their seats at the ANTA Theatre (now the August Wilson) and heard only two pianos and a small combo playing. And at Broadway prices charging a $7.50 top!
Ad in the Sunday New York Times, April 13, 1958.
Signed on were the two-time Tony Award winner (David Wayne) to play the playwright; Vivian Blaine (the original Miss Adelaide herself), to star as the star of the musical within the play, and popular crooner Johnny Desmond as the composer (Pajama Game's Adler and Ross rolled into one). But it was a relative newcomer in a supporting role who stole the reviews, making not only a name for himself, but a prized connection with Say Darling's co-writer and director, Abe Burrows, that would pay off a few years later.
This was Robert Morse, the future star of Burrows' and Frank Loesser's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a role Burrows suited to Morse's singular talents while writing it. As Ted Snow in Say, Darling, Morse portrayed a thinly-disguised version of the twenty-five year-old Harold Prince (for which The Pajama Game served as his introduction as a Broadway producer). Getting reviews that could have been written by his own mother, Walter Kerr wrote of Morse in the New York Times that “The determined satirists introduce us to a glossy young nincompoop who wears white shoes, paws everybody in the chummiest possible manner, flickers his indolent eyelids as he drops knowing phrases like 'I don’t like that kind of negative thinking,' and generally behaves himself like a land-crab on roller-skates. They call this fellow a producer, and they encourage a brilliantly comic young actor named Robert Morse to shiver his jello shoulders, flip his feet out in front of him as though he had just kicked them off, and look as though he had recently eaten a very distressing blintz every time anybody is rude to him.”
Al Hirschfeld's depiction of Say, Darling (1958).
I spoke with Robert Morse this past week on the occasion of his eighty-seventh birthday, taking that opportunity to talk about his memories of Say, Darling. More on that next week.
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.