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THE ABC'S OF BROADWAY

June 7, 2010: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

In my previous column last week on Laurence Olivier’s appearance with the Old Vic in May of 1946, many readers commented how entranced they were by the ABC’s I posted — the New York Times listings of the shows then currently on Broadway. What with there being no ABC’s at all in the Times these days (so depressing), just looking at the overwhelming variety of choices back then was astounding, what with everything from dramas, comedies, musicals, revues… even an ice show!

As impressive as the ’46 season was with the original productions of The Glass Menagerie, Annie Get Your Gun, and so many more, the 1948–49 season was REALLY something. I mean, the competition was so tough that A Streetcar Named Desire didn’t even win the ’48 Best Play Tony.* Just take a look at these classic titles in addition to Streetcar that were then listed in the ABC’s: Anne of the Thousand Days, Born Yesterday, Death of a Salesman, Detective Story, High Button Shoes, Kiss Me, Kate, Mister Roberts, South Pacific, The Madwoman of Chaillot and Where’s Charley?

June 7, 1949 Broadway ABC’s in the New York Times.

And, just in case, you were wondering, Death of a Salesman was indeed the recipient of the Tony Award for Best Play in April of 1949.

And as for the actors? Well, even if Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy had already left Streetcar by this time, their replacements weren’t too shabby with Uta Hagen as Blanche and Anthony Quinn as Stanley (they had been the first to play the roles in the national tour). But these listings glow with the likes of Ralph Bellamy, Shirley Booth, Ray Bolger, Carol Channing, Bobby Clark, Lee J. Cobb, Melvyn Douglas, Mildred Dunnock, Nanette Fabray, Henry Fonda, Jackie Gleason, Lee Grant, Rex Harrison, Arthur Kennedy, Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza and Phil Silvers on the boards.

I mean, just imagine being able to see Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at a top ticket price of $5. The cheap seats? $1.20.

The prices are a bit hard to read but magnifying them reveals that it would only have cost $2.40 for the TOP ticket price of Howdy, Mr. Ice of 1950! And may I say, I would have gone if only for the exclamation point alone! Well, that and its claim (in CAPS, no less) to be AMERICA’S ONLY ICE THEATRE. Actually, the real reason I would have wanted to see Mr. Ice would have been to get a glimpse inside the Century Theatre. Located across the street from the Radio City Music Hall on Sixth Avenue, it was the more “intimate” of the two with a mere 3,500 seats, as opposed to the Music Hall’s 6,000. Completed in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, it never had an easy time of it, and by the time of Howdy, Mr. Ice of 1950!, it had been producing ice shows exclusively for ten years. Demolished in 1954, the theatre bares the distinction today of being the only building among the original architecture of the Rockefeller Center complex to have been destroyed.

The Center Theatre at 50th Street and Avenue of the Americas.

Also while researching this week in June via the New York Times on line, I discovered an interesting item of Broadway gossip that caught my eye:

From Louis Calta’s Broadway column.

Ethel Merman as Miss Adelaide? The mind boggles. Though she had to “down the offer” (a misprint), this casting begs the question of whether this bull-in-a-china-shop of an actress could ever have allowed herself to be under the thumb of Nathan Detroit for a single minute, let alone fourteen years. She would have eaten him for breakfast, right? By 1949, Merman had been on the New York stage for just shy of twenty years, and having appeared in ten Broadway musicals, almost all of them hits, she was not only a star, but a commodity. When you went to see Ethel Merman you knew exactly what you were getting. And after her debut in a supporting role in Girl Crazy, where she stopped the show with the Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” she was forever after, “the lead.” Always the lead.

Which is what made this offer for Merman to be in Guys and Dolls such a head scratcher, as the show really doesn’t have a leading role. The quartet of Adelaide & Nathan and Sky & Sarah are of almost equal stage time and proportion to the story. Someone of Merman’s very specific skill set (loud, brassy and in-your-face) could easily have thrown off the balance of the show. Wouldn’t she (and her audience) have demanded more from her? As it would turn out, composer Frank Loesser only managed five songs (one of them a duet) for his original Adelaide, Vivian Blaine. That was half the number Merman performed in her previous musical, 1946’s Annie Get Your Gun. Also, Miss Adelaide needs to have a vulnerable and demure quality, which does not bring the Merm immediately to mind. That said, she was a one-of-a-kind performer who always delivered, so she might have pulled it off.

Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide, surrounded by the Hot Box Girls, in Guys and Dolls (1950).

​And who was Robert Carson in this article, stated as having “finished the framework of the book” for Guys and Dolls? Research indicates he was a Hollywood screenwriter who had to bow out when the demands of writing the screen adaptation of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Harvey took precedent. It was then the producers of Guys and Dolls, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, next turned to another Hollywood writer, Jo Swerling, who had (among many others) credits on such great films as Pride of the Yankees, Lifeboat and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Though Swerling received credit for the authorship of Guys and Dolls, it has always been shared alongside the legendary Abe Burrows, who never made it a secret of his claim to not using one line of Swerling’s dialogue. Subsequently, the griping and sniping over the true ownership of what is easily considered one of the best books ever written for any musical has been debated forever and a day by the families of these two gentlemen for more than half-a-century. It is a fact that it was Swerling (along with Loesser) who first set upon structuring the two sets of lovers that form the basis of Guys and Dolls from Damon Runyon’s dozens of short stories. The reason that Swerling was let go had to do with the trouble he had delivering on the promise of the humor in the Runyon stories. Swerling was translating too much of Runyon verbatim without adding his own comic spin on the material. And this is when Burrows, then one of the biggest names in radio, was brought in.

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows.

Burrows first hit it big in 1941 when he co-created (with Ed Gardner) Duffy’s Tavern, one of the most popular radio shows of all time. “The people on that show were New York mugs, nice mugs, sweet mugs, and like Runyon’s mugs they all talked like ladies and gentlemen,” Burrows said. “And that’s how we treated the characters in Guys and Dolls.” It should be noted that the director of Guys and Dolls was the eminent George S. Kaufman, not only the man who staged such diverse fare as the original productions of The Front Page and Of Mice and Men, but also one of the most respected playwrights of his day. He worked diligently with Burrows off of the Runyon stories, and what they had of Swerling’s adaptation, which was never more than just the first act. But make no mistake about it: the book was all Burrows.

When Swerling received the final draft of the show prior to the start of its out of town run in Philadelphia, he made it clear he was unhappy to find his name was missing as the book writer. Exercising his contractual right to authorship, nothing could be done to prevent him from getting a co-writing credit, which is why every production of the show forever lists “Book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling.” When the smash hit revival starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Peter Gallagher and Josie De Guzman, opened in 1992, the brouhaha came back in full fury. The reviews all spoke of Burrows wonderful book, as it had been acknowledged for decades that he was its author, which made Jo Swerling Jr. angry as hell. In a letter he wrote to the New York Times, he reiterated his belief that his father was responsible for the core achievement of the show and didn’t fancy the likes of Frank Rich in his review for the Times writing that the “book was written by Abe Burrows from an abandoned first draft by the screenwriter Jo Swerling.”

This, in turn, had Feuer and Martin (still alive at the time) write their own rebuttal to Swerling Jr.’s charges. It made for some fun back and forth of charges and recriminations, but it mainly had the opposite effect, further cementing Burrows as the one and only author of Guys and Dolls.

* The Tony Award for Best Play went to Mister Roberts over Streetcar. Hard to say what factors went into that voting, as one has proven a masterpiece over time, and one has not. It’s important to note that when it opened in 1948, Mister Roberts struck a major chord with all its audience members, for whom World War II was a very recent memory.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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