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The Lost Musicals: "Skyscraper"

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The successful casting of non-singing stars (or at least stars not known for singing) such as Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and Richard Burton in Camelot inspired a trend in 1950s and 60s musicals. In his book Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s, Ethan Mordden classifies these as “Novelty Stars.”

Writing for and casting a novelty star was a dicey business. For one thing, the songs had to be written in a certain way — to accommodate a different kind of performance, and even then the star had to have enough sense of pitch and rhythm to get through the songs. But mostly, the star had to be so special that they could get away with not really "singing." Not every novelty star made their vehicle as successful as My Fair Lady, though. One such case is the casting of one of America’s great dramatic actresses, Julie Harris, in the musical comedy Skyscraper (1965).

Julie Harris, Digital ID TH-19149, New York Public LibraryJulie Harris

By the time she made her musical debut at age 41, Harris had already won acclaim for her starring roles in The Member of the Wedding and I Am a Camera, both on stage and screen and played opposite James Dean in East of Eden. She had two Tony awards, two Emmy awards and an Oscar nomination. She didn’t have much of a singing voice, but no one seemed to think that would matter. 

Skyscraper, written by Peter Stone, is credited as "suggested by Elmer Rice’s play Dream Girl," and that’s a pretty accurate description. Dream Girl focused on the heroine’s attempts to get through life and love while constantly checking out for involved day dreams.

Skyscraper did retain that day-dream element from the original play, as well as the basic plot set-up of Georgina (Harris) living with her parents and running an unprofitable business with the brother-in law, who she has a massive crush on, until she meets another man who she instantly hates but ultimately ends up in love with.

In Rice’s play, this man is a blunt journalist who tells Georgina that a novel she’s written stinks. In Stone’s book, the love interest is a visionary young architect, Timothy Bushman (played by Peter Marshall, a comedian who’d recently displayed his musical theater chops in the London production of Bye Bye, Birdie). 

Marshall and HarrisMarshall and HarrisGeorgina owns a 19th century brownstone in the east 50s, which has historical value to her but a different value to Bushman, who wants the building so he can tear it down and build a skyscraper, which will symbolize a promise of the future for him. The argument of whether the old should be preserved or torn down to make way for the new is the central conflict, intensified by sexual tension between Georgina and Bushman. That in itself was enough for one show, and Stone might as well have tossed Rice’s daydream concept as it's a totally different story. To hear the introductory number for Georgina, "Occasional Flight of Fancy," you'd think the show is about her day dreaming, but it's just a mildly distracting side line in the musical! Once you get over this problem, Stone’s script has plenty of fun dialogue to enjoy.

The songs were by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. Van Heusen, who was often partnered with Cahn but also worked with other lyricists, had composed hit songs for dozens of Hollywood musicals (including four Academy Award-winning songs), as well as plenty of pop songs, often written for and originated by Frank Sinatra.

During Sinatra’s reign as America’s most popular singer, Cahn and Van Heusen were court composers providing him with hits, such as “All the Way,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “Come Fly with Me,” “High Hopes” “Love and Marriage,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago),” “Only the Lonely,” and “The Tender Trap.” During Bing Crosby’s reign, Van Heusen had written songs for him to originate in many movies, including Going My Way and several of the Road pictures. 

Cahn and Van Heusen wrote two other Broadway scores, but neither was a hit. Walking Happy (1966), a musical version of Hobson’s Choice written with Cahn the year after Skyscraper, only lasted a few months. Van Heusen’s only previous Broadway score, Carnival in Flanders (1953), was written with lyricist Johnny Burke and only played six performances, but one of the songs, “Here’s That Rainy Day,” emerged as a major hit. 

Skyscraper's delightful score was unfortunately not given a fair hearing by Harris’ singing voice — which wasn’t exactly up to the same standards as her acting — and should not be overlooked. Marshall’s second act ballad “I’ll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her” was promptly covered by Sinatra (naturally), Bobby Darin, and many other singers. It has become a standard, more recently by Harry Connick Jr. (Darin also recorded the show’s other hit, “Everybody’s Got the Right to Be Wrong,” on the same album, In a Broadway Bag.) I actually think Marshall’s soaring first act ode to skyscrapers, “More Than One Way (To the Stars),” is even more gorgeous. And the sexy/antagonistic duet for Tim and Georgina, “Opposites,” is catchy and funny. 

Harris and ReillyHarris and Reilly

The cast was graced by another Broadway favorite, Charles Nelson Reilly, as Georgina’s lusted-after, but spineless brother-in-law Roger. Reilly, who would become a beloved television personality, had already originated roles in two classic musicals: Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) and Cornelius Hackl in Hello Dolly (1964). He brought his usual zany campiness to Skyscraper as well — and formed a lasting friendship with Harris, whom he would later direct in The Belle of Amherst.

Unless you were around in 1965, you probably aren't lucky enough to have seen a production of Skyscraper, but you can still enjoy the cast album and read the published script (as well as earlier drafts) in the Peter Stone Papers of the Billy Rose Theatre Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

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Singing actors or acting singers?

Entertainment never argues with success, so after the non-singer triumphs of My Fair Lady and The Music Man, there was no doubt that a new trend was born. It would never have worked twenty years earlier, when the stories were almost always subservient to the songs, but by the 1950s, singing for acting was often a fair exchange. Do you think that the Hollywood solution to this dilemma (i.e., dubbing) was an improvement? Van Heusen never did have a Broadway hit. By all accounts, it wasn't a big concern to him, but his partner Johnny Burke was extremely disappointed that their tremendous success in Hollywood never translated to Broadway. For some reason, it was a hard transition for everyone. Only Frank Loesser started in the movies and became a major Broadway success. Any ideas as to why?

Singing actors or acting singers?

Since "Oklahoma!" songwriting for the theater evolved into something different from songs written for film. It became much more character-oriented. Standards also seem to have been tougher, which might have been a benefit of the tryout process, which Hollywood lacks. In other words, some songs in films of the 1950s and 1960s would likely have been lost in Boston had there been audiences to test them on.

Well, i think dubbing is

Well, i think dubbing is dangerous--sometime's it's seamless and great--Marni Nixon for Deborah Kerr in King and I is the best example. But other times it ends up being jarring and unintentionally funny--like the "Two Faced Woman" number in Torch Song. The track was originally recorded by India Adams to dub Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon but when it was cut from that, MGM threw it into Torch Song for Joan Crawford to lip synch to. Adam's distinctive voice isn't all that plausible for Charisse--even less so for Crawford. I think Van Heusen was a great song-writer, but not so much a great dramatist. Writing music that works in a dramatic context is a different skill. Lots of great song-writers don't have that. This is controversial, but leaving out Porgy and Bess, I don't think George Gershwin had that skill either. I'd say Jule Styne and Burton Lane also made the Hollywood to Broadway transition with success--and they both landed on Broadway around the same time as Loesser.

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