How Things Work

I like trying to figure out how things work and I come to that naturally. My father, my mother, my uncles and aunts were all mid-western farm stock. Everyone knew how to make things or fix things, doubtless because they were poor and had little but maybe because it also made them feel right with their world. What I carry forward even a generation or two away from those beginnings is that knowing how things work makes me feel right in my world though it is a far different one. And what I have found is that most disciplines have “process” in common; painting, acting, cooking, carpentry, architecture, gardening, even parenting. To put a workmanlike spin on it, pretty much anything that asks us to problem solve—like good writing. Is there too much difference between planting at the right time, cultivating and harvesting or, setting an idea down on paper, then letting it unfold and shepherding it along the way? I think not.

I am a great admirer of talent and inspiration, unbidden gifts of prose that transport the reader. I equally admire writing where the craft is invisible enough so that one easily assumes it all comes about in a brilliant flash of creativity and the words shine like jewels. They are not jewels. They are black marks on white paper. Miraculous. How can black marks on white paper land me laughing like a mad person, (Bill Bryson: WALK IN THE WOODS) or gasping for breath while weeping, (the last sentence of James Joyce THE DEAD) or locking all my doors, (Stephen King’s THE SHINING). How does that happen? The Vietnam Memorial is little but a piece of carved granite, a Van Gogh is only clumps of paint on canvas, Michelangelo’s DAVID is hard white marble. It is the artist who makes it so and he does it from the inside out.

Sentences: The musical scoring of prose.

If you haven’t read Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST since college then make a point to re-visit it. Hemingway is a sentence wizard. Read this one out loud:

“It was a lovely evening and I had worked hard all day and left the flat over the sawmill and walked out through the courtyard with the stacked lumber, closed the door, crossed the street and went into the back door of the bakery that fronted on the boulevard Montparnasse and out through the good bread smells of the ovens and the shop to the street.”

This sentence flows in the same fashion as the walk down and through the courtyard, across the street and through the bakery. It is a graceful long sentence that replicates the action. It is simple. He did this, then this, then this and got to where he was going.

It is worth including the rest of the paragraph so that you can see how the completing sentences work to make up a piece.

“The lights were on in the bakery and outside it was the end of the day and I walked in the early dusk up the street and stopped outside the terrace of the Negre de Toullouse restaurant where our red and white checkered napkins were in the napkin rack waiting for us to come to dinner.”

Another sentence that “walks” as the writer walks. Then, he stops.

“I read the menu mimeographed in purple ink and saw that the plat du jour was cassoulet.”

And look at this fine short sentence topping it all off.

“It made me hungry to read the name.”

This paragraph makes me so darned happy because it felt effortless and familiar. Do I think that was the way it came about, all in one lucky run? Not on your life.

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

— Oscar Wilde

“Succeed…” Post script

Gradually, I began to absorb what had happened. That was completely due to being thrown into the company of professionals landing me on a learning curve that trumped school. Trumped life, if the truth be known.

The singers and dancers cowed me with what they knew and what I didn’t. Then there were the supporting roles; Sammy Smith and Paul Reed both veterans of vaudeville and burlesque now having moved into shows and television. They were shamelessly bawdy and never met a one liner they wouldn’t repeat.  They asked me to be their “talking woman” in a tribute to George Abbott at the Lamb’s Club. (A “talking woman” was the one girl who didn’t strip but was the straight man for the comics.)

Bobby Morse as “Finch” was all over the stage winningly crazy like a golden retriever. He and Charlie Reilly (Bud Frump) were perversely inventive in their scenes together, particularly as the run got longer. They brought new meaning to the verb “elaborate.” Rudy Valee was, well, Rudy Valee. Because he had trouble projecting “Succeed” was one of the first musicals to use a wireless mike. Virginia Martin, (Hedy La Rue) a sweetheart of a southern sex pistol, the venerable Ruth Kobart (Miss Jones) and her even as venerable operatic voice was my dressing roommate.  Bonnie Scott (Rosemary) and I could not have been more different even though we were both twenty one.  She was a product of band singing in Los Angeles and I was just a lucky duck who managed to sing loud.

Once the show opened we became the hottest ticket in town.  And nightly in the wings we named who we could see in the audience: every film star that was in town, Broadway stars, Brits, politicians.  Nixon and then Kennedy and then, the astronauts.  The astronauts!

Still, I was largely sanguine, though grateful. That changed one day when driving on the FDR Drive and on the car radio the announcer said, “And now, Claudette Sutherland singing “Been a Long Day” from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” I barely made it to the emergency lane to bang on the steering wheel and shout, “I’m on the radio. The radio!”

It was a good ride.






“Succeed” Revival #2

It wasn’t as if I had a background of musical comedy history. I didn’t.  For me not to know who Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser were, (even though I knew all the verses to “A Bushel and Peck” which I sang to my mother to make her laugh) was in retrospect pathetic but hopefully, at the time, guileless. When I met Frank Loesser a few days later and auditioned for him I was much less sure of myself and had a terrible cold, but he gave a pass.

Frank was my idea of a real New Yorker.  A little Jewish which was also a little Italian and a little Damon Runyon-esque. When you come from anyplace else, but hold out New York as your dream, New Yorkers are already fiction. He was a compactly built man who came just up to my shoulder. He wore good suits, nice cologne, his hair was slicked back and he seemed to always walk on his toes. He was like an animated spark plug. An inveterate schmoozer he loved actors.

Before we went into rehearsal I would meet him at the end of the day in his offices on 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall and he taught me the songs. “Like this,” he’d say pounding the keyboard and booming out a lyric. He made me feel like I knew exactly what I was doing. I didn’t. He would play a couple of his songs from other shows, “They told me I this interval would never work,” and then he played the change in “My Time of Day,”(…and it’s the only time I ever wanted to share it…with you.)

I was finally suitably impressed when I found he had written “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” “ Heart and Soul,” and “My Darling, My Darling.” I knew all the words to those songs. “Hey, I sang those when I was a little girl.” I heard them on the radio from the backseat of the car when my mother, my father and I drove across the country to race our greyhounds in the 40s and 50s. Then Frank would pour us a glass of scotch which made me feel tremendously sophisticated and offer me a ride home in his car if he was going to see his mother who lived in my neighborhood.

The show went to Philadelphia to the Shubert Theater for try-outs as did most shows, to work out the kinks and make changes. It was a heady time. My god, I had a hotel room all to myself. I wasn’t in it much for we rehearsed well into the nights and then ended up in the Variety Club, a private club for actors who were working on the road. Daily there were changes in the songs and scenes. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” made the rounds of several cast members until it found a home as a company number. The other day I found my old script which I didn’t know I had kept. Some of the onion skin inserts were still slipped in between the pages their edges curling. I laughed to see my handwriting of the stage directions. It was small and tight, timid. I must have been terrified at some level. I was grateful to Charles Nelson Reilly who kept me boneless with laughter both on stage and off. Sometimes I prayed that he wouldn’t look at me during a number because I would be sure to lose it.

Frank always looked out for those of us who were newbies. “Ever have Chicken Kiev?” he asked one night then took me to a Russian restaurant and ordered it. “You won’t forget this,” he said. When I put my fork into the chicken breast golden butter shot out. I just had to tell my mother about this to see if she could make it.

Looking back at the girl I was I see that I was skilled at putting up a good front. I knew how to act in groups, how to acclimate immediately. It came from a having lived an itinerant life seasonally crossing the country from dog track to dog track in the small carnival-like world of greyhound racing. I was raised squarely in the company of eccentrics, gamblers, the high falutin’ and the hoi polloi just like…well, the theater.

How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying Revival

March 27th sees another revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” starring Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. It is those two roles that set the tone for the production right from the start just as Mad Men’s Bobby Morse and Rudy Valee did so successfully in the original production. This pairing sounds promising in the same way.

October 1961 was the opening of the original some fifty years ago. I was “Smitty” in the principal cast of which I believe only three remain: Bobby Morse, Bonnie Scott and myself. I had moved, with my mother cheering me on to New York from Yale when I was twenty, dead set on being an actress. For both of us it was a bittersweet parting.

I bought “standing room” for Broadway shows I couldn’t afford at full price. From the back of the house I watched Ethel Merman eating up the stage like a one person manic music machine in Gypsy and grew weak with longing. I had solid training as an actress, but loved musicals; the sweep of them, the color, the possibility of a world where one could unapologetically burst into song.

I went to Off-Broadway shows, stayed up late with friends landing the needle of my hi-fi to a specific cut from Candide. We knew all the lyrics and sang all the harmonies.  During that first year, I would take the subway down to the Village at night and sing in four person revues on dime sized platforms with four brightly painted stools, boas, derbies and a piano player. The coffee houses were very cold or very very hot and suffocatingly smoky. Heaven. We passed the hat.  One night friends of my parents whose racehorse had just won a big stake race at Belmont came to see me and put a handful of twenties in the hat. We were ecstatic.

Throughout this time my real dream job was to be in an uptown revue called Upstairs at the Downstairs, produced by an elegant gay southern gentleman named Julius Monk. I wanted nothing more than to be one of the smart clever girls in little black dresses, high heels and pearls who parried in crisp snappy repartee. Very soignée. Very New York.  That was for me. So I looked up Julius Monk in the phone book. I dialed his number, he answered and in one run-on sentence I explained that he just had to come down to the Village and see me in this revue. “Please,” I said. He thanked me kindly and though my cast members laughed at me, showed up one winter night and sat huddled in a gigantic raccoon coat on a small chair. We shook hands after the show and he complimented us graciously.

I didn’t have an agent. I wasn’t Equity and even if I had been, I wouldn’t have known where to start. I was woefully ignorant of “the ropes” but trusting I would figure it out.  I answered my phone one day and it was a woman I had known from Yale who was working as an assistant to a talent agent.  She asked if I wanted to audition for a Broadway musical. I said that would be good, but it would have to be on my lunch hour. I was a receptionist in a Wall St. bank, something that thankfully required zero skills which was exactly the extent of my business savvy. She said, “They just want you to belt something.”

I had a big loud voice but had never auditioned as a singer, still I thought if they wanted loud, that would be a cakewalk. I nailed our piano player after the show one night and asked him to put some songs together for me. I chose the last eight bars from several songs since those were usually the loudest parts, and strung them together much to the horror of the piano player who had more musical taste than I.  They were “Old Man River,” “Johnny One Note,” “God Bless America,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and  the end of “Rose’s Turn.” The audition was on the stage of the Lunt Fontanne theatre. Abe Burrows, Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, the two writers, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert sat deep back in the darkened house, the piano player below me in the pit. (I was to meet Frank Loesser later.) When I finished, there was a significant silence. Then Abe came walking down the aisle and said “Well, then girlie, tell us a little bit about yourself.” The part was mine in a show I knew nothing about.

My friends were delirious. I however had quiet reservations. It wasn’t, after all, my dream job. Sure enough, well into our rehearsal, again my phone rang. This time is was Julius Monk saying he would be interested in seeing me for his next production. I leaned against the kitchen wall of my walk-up apartment, choked back tears of regret and managed to weakly stammer “Oh, I’m so sorry,Mr. Monk. I can’t do it. I have to be in this Broadway show!” Why, just why this once couldn’t things have worked out the way I wanted?

Check back again soon – there’s more to follow…