The road to Broadway—especially for a composer/lyricist new to the scene—is a rough one and often ends up with good people doing bad things. Or, as one Broadway veteran put it, “You can’t be a mouse in a rat’s game.” An exaggeration? Read on, please.
In 1953, the major New York dailies generally did not cover off-Broadway theater. I was lucky. Arthur Gelb, of The New York Times, bravely ventured below 42nd Street to the 8th Street Playhouse to cover the opening of a show, By Hex, for which I had written the music and lyrics.
Gelb’s review (bless his heart) was good and even singled out the music and lyrics. That got my engine started. Incidentally, By Hex was the first musical ever to be written and produced about the Amish sect of Lancaster County, PA. It seems to have stimulated interest in these once contained agrarian people by a greater public, including novelists and musical playwrights.
Not too long after By Hex opened, my dear friend and agent, arranger Bill Koppelmann (VP of Brandt & Brandt) arranged for Jerome Weidman to hear some of my songs. Jerry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for co-authoring the Broadway hit, Fiorello, liked what he heard. And he and I decided to collaborate on a musical—hopefully—for Broadway.
Once we completed writing our show, Bill found us a producer. The producer found us a star, Stanley Holloway, fresh from his triumph in My Fair Lady. Our producer was a youngish, strangely cerebral and hip woman producing her first show. She and a director who was never heard from again convinced Jerry to rewrite the book, changing its focus. Jerry did, and from then on, I wasn’t sure what the darn show was about this. But, heck, I was the new kid on the block so I kept my mouth shut—something that hasn’t happened since.
That was only the beginning. Without any advance notice, our producer announced that Stanley Holloway, with his wife Laney, was in town and wanted to hear the score in person. Fortunately, I was in Manhattan meeting with our music director, Johnny Lesko. Not only was he a gifted musician, Johnny also was an amazing pianist who could read any piece of music put before him.
With Johnny in tow, I called my wife and announced that I invited Stanley, his wife, Laney, and Johnny for dinner at our Port Washington home. Great gal that she was, she didn’t faint. She was up to the challenge. Dinner was excellent and the evening was not only successful, it was fun.
Best of all, we made new friends.
Rehearsals went as rehearsals usually go for a new musical, only the rewritten show was much different from the one we started with. In truth, I wasn’t sure what it was really about. Our out-of-town tryout in New Haven and another town were canceled for reasons that nobody knew. That meant we had to open cold in Philadelphia, ready or not. And not a good idea at all.
We were scheduled to leave for Philly in two days. Then I hear the company that made the sets wouldn’t release them until the producer came up with $20,000 to pay for them.
Just like in a movie, the producer comes up with an honest-to-God Texas millionaire (who shall remain nameless) who happens to be in Manhattan town with his very attractive young (ahem) niece. I grab Lesko and get my pal, Vincent Sardi, to let us use the restaurant’s third floor Belasco Room to perform the songs for our last hope, the Texas millionaire. It was an uproarious scene with Johnny playing piano and me dancing with a chair and singing the songs to the unabashed enjoyment of what’s his name and his lady and a very nervous producer.
We must’ve struck gold because the following day, the sets were on their way to Philadelphia and so was I—while comfortably ensconced with Stanley Holloway in his rented limo. And that’s how Cool Off was finally able to open on schedule at the Forrest Theatre.
The critics’ reviews of the show generally, while complementary regarding the music and lyrics, were scathing. The producer clearly had gone ahead with the show without raising enough money to keep the show running while we tried to fix it. Cool Off closed, and I returned to Port Washington the same way I left – in Stanley Holloway’s rented limousine. What a heartbreaker.