Super Star = Super Troubles
There are many cautionary tales out there about reasons for the failure of seemingly promising Broadway musicals. One of the reasons is the ill-advised decision to take a Super Star and build a show around that luminary. As the recent history of the American musical theatre can abundantly demonstrate in three words: It don’t work!
Take this case in which a Super Star was contracted to play a secondary character.
One of Eugene O’Neill’s lighter plays is “Ah, Wilderness” (1933); and some decades later, David Merrick thought it might be ripe for musicalization. Once the idea gelled, Walter Pidgeon and Eileen Hurlie were cast (both excellent actors but really non-singers) along with the immensely popular Jackie Gleason in the role of Uncle Sid. This character was a sort of comedy relief role, but Gleason was the Great One, as he liked to be called, and secondary roles were too small for him.
Gleason also insisted that he get $50 more than the then highest paid actor on Broadway and wound up with $5050 a week! As his role took on more importance, the balance of the show went all out of kilter; but he did draw audiences. However, when the audiences dwindled, the Great One got bored and began to deviate from the script and from the dance routines. When he pulled a ligament on stage, he left the show, but Merrick hired a detective to be sure Gleason really was incapacitated. His replacement was the less flamboyant but more dependable William Bendix.1
When the show closed, it closed with a deficit, while Gleason got a Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical. (Considering what he did to the show, I think this was a shame.) One should always be aware of the Super Star comedian. But that lesson has to be learned over and over again.
Another comedian known to be uncontrollable but still cast to bring in audiences was Jerry Lewis. Now the old Olsen and Johnson “Hellzapoppin” is not exactly an intellectual evening in the theater and it can bear a star whose unpredictability might be an asset. However, Lewis decided he could dictate what should be done about the show that had little to do with his role. For example, there was his insistence that a young female protégé of his be cast in place of more seasoned performers.
Although we must never second-guess what motivated a person to do this and that, his connection with the female concerned might have caused the more-than-just-friction between Lewis and his co-star, the excellent Lynn Redgrave. Rumor had it that Redgrave’s fine performance was putting the younger woman into the background—which was almost certainly true.
It is also true that incompetence was shown by others on other levels. But the fact remains that the show’s Broadway opening was cancelled and that was that.2
Even worse is the story of Rodgers and Hart’s “I’d Rather be Right.” Egos did not come larger than that of George M. Cohan, who was coaxed into playing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For starters, he detested Roosevelt. Worse yet, he was used to starring only in shows with music and lyrics by…George M. Cohan! From early on, he made it clear to Richard Rodgers that not one song was good enough. Rodgers, always hypersensitive to criticism, felt his music was running a poor third to lyrics and book, and lacked inspiration to produce anything really good for the show.
The show ran 290 performances and would be only of historical interest if revived today. Cohan, of course, is still Mr. Broadway in the annals of the American Musical.3
There is one more danger that must be mentioned in the context of the troubles of building a show around a Super Star. When the immensely popular Lucille Ball was given the lead in “Wildcat,” the critics pointed out that she was the only positive factor in a less than mediocre musical. The show ran only 171 performances, but there were many nights in which Lucy was simply too exhausted to appear—and who wanted to see a rotten show without the star, who was the only reason for having purchased the tickets in the first place?
Rule: When the situation dictates that the STAR must go on, the SHOW has little hope.
(1) The program notes for the RCA Victor CD of “Take Me Along.”
(2) Second Act Trouble by Steven Suskin (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006)
(3) Somewhere for Me: a Biography of Richard Rodgers by Meryle Secrest (Knapp, 2001)