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.
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.
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:
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.
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