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…