Sunday, November 7, 2010

Douglas Messerli "The Brotherhood"

by Douglas Messerli

There is a Brotherhood of Man,
A Benevolent Brotherhood of Man,
A noble tie that binds
All human hearts and minds
Into one Brotherhood of Man.

—Frank Loesser, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

It may seem strange, particularly to young theater-goers, that one would want to write a short essay on the death of a Broadway producer. If younger people have any concept of a producer, it may resemble the notion presented in Mel Brooks’s film and musical comedy, The Producers; many of today’s producers, moreover, represent larger groupings of commercial entities (Walt Disney Studies, Warner Brothers, etc.), and they rarely have a public persona. Not so for the producers of the great period of American theater existing from the mid-1940s through 1965—what the New York Times recently described as “the heyday of the American musical.” In those years, producers were often as visible as the creators of the works they presented, and like the American film studio executives, held great power over all events that occurred upon their stages. Names like David Merrick, Kermit Bloomgarden, Robert Griffith and Harold Prince, Saint Subber, Roger L. Stevens, and Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin struck terror and imparted hope into the hearts of young actors and chorus members as well as playwrights, composers, directors, designers, and choreographers.

The death on Wednesday of Cy Feuer, accordingly, almost marks the end of an era: a time when plays and musicals weren’t just discovered (a process to which our numerous revivals attest), money found, and the right “team” brought in, but an age when producers often “imagined” what would make a good play or musical and sought out the artists—in every category—to make it happen.

From his earliest years, Cy Feuer seemed destined to become a Broadway legend. His life could have been the pattern for a hundred bio-films of the lives of significant composers and musicians. Born into poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Seymour Arnold Feuer (who later changed his name to Cyrus and then to Cy) went to school in South Brooklyn, where, with his mother’s encouragement, he played trumpet in the school band. His mother also made sure that he attended Juilliard for further trumpet studies, which led, in turn, to Cy’s performing in the pit of the Roxy Theater on West 47th Street, a job he quit to join the Radio City Music Hall orchestra. He left Radio City in the mid-1930s to join Lionel Belasco’s society orchestra.

On a trip to Los Angeles, Feuer—who apparently already had the persuasive powers necessary for producing—talked his way into becoming the West Coast representative of Republic Pictures’ record label, Brunswick; and before long, he had convinced Republic Pictures to appoint him as their music director. Feuer was what he later described as a “second-rate trumpet player,” and his scoring capabilities were on the same par, but Republic, a B-movie studio, seemed oblivious to his lack of talent as he composed for numerous films from 1939 to 1948. World War II briefly interrupted, and upon returning to Republic he met a young would-be producer, Ernest Martin, joining forces with him and returning to New York.

The rest of his life is Broadway history. Just as the great Broadway musicals began to be produced—works like Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon (both 1947)—Feuer and Martin bought up the rights to a turn-of-the-century cross-dressing farce, Charley’s Aunt. The team negotiated with Ray Bolger (well known for his 1936 appearance in The Wizard of Oz) to play the lead, “closing the deal,” one might note, by signing Bolger’s wife, Gwen Rickard, as co-producer. Veteran playwright, director and all-around-theater doctor George Abbott was hired to direct and write the adaptation. But the most brilliant of Feuer and Martin’s brainstorms was to choose then-unknown composer, Frank Loesser (recognized primarily for his World Wary II ditty “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and as a lyricist for several film tunes), to compose his first Broadway score, which included the hits, “My Darling, My Darling,” and Bolger’s campy rendition of “Once in Love with Amy.” Despite reviewer reservations, the 1948 musical was a long-running hit with 792 performances.

It was Feuer and Martin’s 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, however, that truly defined their achievements. Their original idea, to present the Damon Runyon story as a serious love tale, was fortunately scrapped with their rejection of Jo Swerling’s book. To liven up the work they hired writer Abe Burrows (known primarily for his writing of “The Milton Berle Show”) and composer-friend Frank Loesser. Throwing out Swerling’s book, Burrows wrote a new work around Loesser’s songs—and what marvelous songs they were! From the opening trumpeting (performed, in the original, by black trumpeter Joe Wilder) of “Fugue for Tinhorns” to the religious conversionary testament of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” Loesser’s score, in my estimation, is the very best of Broadway musicals before and since. “Adelaide’s Lament” and “Luck Be a Lady” would be among my choices for the best songs ever composed for the Broadway stage. I’ll save any further discussion of this great musical for a piece I’m planning on the influence of Damon Runyan on theater and film. Let us just note the great success of this masterwork: in its original production it ran for 1,200 performances; the 1992 revival, which I saw, ran for another record 1,143 performances.

Had Feuer stopped here his name would still have been a force to be reckoned with in Broadway history. Soon after this hit, however, Feuer and Martin asked Burrows to write and direct another show—a work they had little notion of except for its period and locale, Paris in the late 1890s. A researcher presented the producing team information on the noted “can-can,” the notorious dance of the period which, even in this notoriously “libertine” city, drew the ire of groups of the day such as the League Against Licentiousness of the Streets. Traveling to England, Feuer and Martin sought out Cole Porter to do the score. Porter warned them, the critics will judge the show “not up to my usual standards,” but agreed to the task. The result was another hit, Can-Can (892 performances), despite the critical reaction Porter had predicted. In truth, it was not his best score, but with songs such as “I Love Paris,” “It’s All Right with Me,” and “C’est Magnifique,” and the discovery through this musical of a brilliant, young, red-headed dancer, Gwen Verdon, who can complain?

The team’s next production was The Boy Friend, British composer and writer Sandy Wilson’s 1920s satire (The Drowsy Chaperone of its day) which opened in 1954 with a then-unknown Liverpool-based performer (no, not one of the Beatles) Julie Andrews. It was not a long-running show, but survived a reasonable run of 485 performances. It later became a favorite of amateur theater companies.

Feuer himself directed the team’s next Broadway effort, Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, which premiered in 1955. The book was a “collaborative” affair by George S. Kaufman, Kaufman’s wife of the time, Leueen MacGrath, and Abe Burrows. Fired from the production, Kaufman quipped that when he died and was cremated “someone should throw my ashes on Feuer and Martin’s faces.” Although not one of their hits, this musical also had a reasonable run (478 performances).
While at work on these last two productions, Feuer and Martin were encouraged by Loesser to option his friend Meredith Willson’s autobiographical book on his experiences playing in John Philip Sousa’s band, and to turn it into a musical. The team agreed, but because of their current commitments, postponed the project. When Kermit Bloomgarden offered to take up the project, Feuer and Martin readily agreed to give it up. The Music Man opened to phenomenal success two years later, in 1957. It must have reminded Martin of his partner’s previous failure to take up his suggestion of producing George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Feuer’s reply is legendary: “It’s a tone poem. It’s not a show.” In some respects, I agree with his judgment.
I do not agree with some of his later choices of works such as The Act, starring the over-acclaimed Liza Minnelli, or his decision to produce the motion pictures Cabaret and A Chorus Line. The former was, at least, successful—if sales and trophies are all that matter. A Chorus Line was a failure. Feuer summarized: “We took a second-rate play and made a first-rate movie in Cabaret, and in A Chorus Line we took a first-rate play and made a second-rate movie.” To my way of thinking Cabaret was a far better stage musical than the overblown and politically confused motion picture. But what does my point of view matter? The imperious Feuer believed in what he produced.

And why shouldn’t he have? As if their string of successful stage musicals were not enough, the producing team entered the 1960s with another of their very best productions. Buying up the rights to a book few might have imagined as theatrical fodder, Feuer and Martin were determined to see the “how-to” satire How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, transformed by writers Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert into a musical, relying again on collaborators Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser to bring it into shape. The producing team, writer and composer succeeded, with a great deal of “trying” I am sure, in bringing what was to be their one of their last Broadway productions into theater history.

Without a true “hero,” How To Succeed depends entirely upon the likeability of the Machiavellian window washer, J. Pierpont Finch, and the comparative incompetence, greed and neuroses of the other business characters. In this sense, there is no moral center in this spoof of office life. Secretaries, the executives are warned, are not to be treated as “toys,” but they the secretaries are all definitely out to catch the boys, and Finch—the cutest kid in the office pool—is also the most aloof as he centers his entire behavior on himself, swooping into conversations merely to drop his name and to flatter those who might reward it. The major musical numbers are centered around an office memorandum about the role of secretaries, an impending coffee-break, obedience to company policy, what to do at the end of a long day, a college pep song, and the hero’s belief in his own capabilities sung to the bathroom mirror! Only when he is revealed as a fraud does Finch come to perceive any moral connection with the world, expressed in the boardroom in a revivalist-like paen to “The Brotherhood of Man.” How could it succeed? Loesser and Burrows, blessed by Feuer and Martin’s brilliant casting of the puckish charmer Robert Morse as the young Machivellian window washer and ag├ęd movie-star Rudy Vallee as the pompous and befuddled company president—to say nothing of his neurotically infantile nephew, played by Charles Nelson Reilly—brought it all off with the greatest of ease. Bob Fosse replaced the young choreographer Hugh Lambert in out-of-town tryouts, creating a stylized conga-line for the “Coffee Break” number that was so original filmmakers could not successfully reproduce it on celluloid.

That is what producers used to do! They were not merely sources of money or data banks of potential funders.

In 2003, I determined to edit a book on responses by major world figures on the impending war in Iraq. But the question I posed to the hundreds of individuals to whom I sent the correspondence was not about Bush, America and Iraq, but about war in general. I wrote:

My interest in the subject has no specific political agenda behind it; I simply feel that it might be important for our age to compile such responses (Reasons Not To Go to War) and pass them on to our own and other generations. We all know that war is sometimes necessary and that it occurs with regular frequency throughout the world; Machiavelli even argued
that a prince “must have no other object and no other thought than war, its methods and conduct.” But I do also believe that most men of reason detest war. Perhaps by sharing those reasons, we can give generations new hope that they may live in peaceful times.

Out of some 600 such letters to people in science, religion, art, literature, music, dance, film, politics, theater, and numerous other areas, I received about 40 responses—mostly from people in the arts. Among the serious responders was Cy Feuer:

Dear Douglas,

In the case of Iraq, it seems all too obvious that what’s behind this bellicose administration’s agenda is a combination of greed (oil), imperialism and a quasi-psychotic need to control and bully. I’m still in a state of shock that the Supreme Court placed Bush/Cheney in the White House to begin with. At 92, I can honestly say I’ve never been this embarrassed by my government. Having served in WW II, I have strong feelings about the need to overcome the harshest of adversaries, but this imminent, arbitrary destruction is unacceptable.
Apologies for not quite adhering to your request, but due to the exigency of today’s threat, I can’t address war as a concept without being specific. If you’ve any thoughts or comments regarding what I’ve said, I’d me most interest.

Somewhat coincidentally, my autobiography, I Got the Show Right Here (Simon & Schuster), is being published March 6. It includes many chapters on my experiences during the war. I was a captain in the Army Air Corps.

Best of luck with your project. It sounds excellent.


[signed] Cy

It is not his politics I applaud—although I most certainly agree with them—but his commitment, his concern. I never knew Cy Feuer personally and I suspect, as Fosse, Kaufman and others have testified, he was a fairly difficult person. Later he described himself, quite unlike the major character of How to Succeed in Business, as being “on fire with ambition,” as someone who “didn’t follow the expected rules or play the predictable game for the sake of ease or expectations.” Feuer was also a man who clearly loved what he did and cared for the society in which he functioned. Perhaps that is why musicals—when they were not frivolous entertainments—spoke to the culture at large in those days and still do—when they are created with imagination and empathy—to those of us who love this now almost dead genre.

Los Angeles, May 20, 2006
(c) Copyright 2006 by Douglas Messerli

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