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Wait for Me, World: The Kander, Ebb and Wasserman Musical that Never Was
Most archivists will tell you that the best part of our job is the feeling of possibility. Every time you open a box and start digging through it, you might find that something amazing — you might be making an intellectual discovery. This can be especially exciting when you’re dealing with a subject that you thought you pretty much had down cold. Professionally, I live for these moments and I had one while processing the Dale Wasserman Papers.
After his tremendous success writing the book for the mega-hit Man of La Mancha, Wasserman continued writing musicals, though none made it to the screen or to Broadway. Some, like An Enchanted Land, Shakespeare and the Indians and Western Star, were produced regionally, but others are languishing unseen and unheard in acid-free boxes in the New York Public Library.
As I foldered (yes, “folder” is a verb) the script for one of these un-produced musicals, I happened to open it up and take a look inside and I had my archivist moment. The title page read: “WAIT FOR ME, WORLD, Written by Dale Wasserman, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb.” A note at the top of the page described it as the “Horatio Alger Musical.” Kander and Ebb?!
I know a lot about Kander and Ebb. In fact, I thought I knew everything about Kander and Ebb, but I had never heard of Kander and Ebb collaborating with Wasserman, and the idea is pretty thrilling: Man of La Mancha’s inspired book-writer teaming up to write a television musical with the celebrated composer and lyricist responsible for Cabaret, Zorba and Chicago?!
I set to work to find out everything I could about this project, from the Wasserman papers and from the Fred Ebb Papers. The Wasserman papers supplied the second draft of the script — with song lyrics, yes, song lyrics. So there was a score — a score — a new, unheard Kander and Ebb score. The Ebb papers also include scripts (three drafts dated from between May and September of 1972) and one folder of production files, which was even more valuable to me. From these pieces of evidence, I’ve tried to put together the history of this doomed musical.
Wasserman had written outlines of the story and characters, which he sent to Kander and Ebb in April of 1971. So, we know the show was Wasserman’s idea and he brought it to Kander and Ebb. This was Wasserman’s vision for the project, as he outlined it to his collaborators:
“A musical play for TV, based on the works and person of Horatio Alger Jr. At heart it will be an affectionate tribute to him…The play will not be based on any specific Alger novel but will use re-imagined characters and plot-elements which are common in varying ways to all of them…There’s to be no cheap comedy, no takeoff, and especially no condescension…The style will go very high, however…The aim is not reality or naturalism; rather more like Oliver, or more accurately Guys and Dolls—fairy-tales grounded in good atmosphere and characterization.”
The principal characters were Alger (Wasserman envisioned him as a Jack Lemmon type), Phillip Fallon — an idealistic young street musician (inspired by Alger’s “Phil the Fiddler”) — and his various sidekicks and cohorts: Rafferty — a broadly drawn Irish mob boss who threatens Phil to get protection money — and the mother and father Phil has never known. The mother, Molly Mulligan is a no-nonsense saloon keeper (or possibly madam) who has an uncharacteristic soft-spot for Phil. The father, Jiffy Kinch is a down-and-out boozy ex-actor who teaches Phil and his troupe to perform. (Wasserman wanted Gene Kelly or Dan Dailey for this role.)
Here’s a little taste of one of the Kander and Ebb songs the world may never hear, “I Love Music” sung by Phil Fallon:
Honor, I like
Ideals, I like
And knowing how the pride of virtue feels I like
But liking is one thing
And loving is another
And I love music
Alger is torn between his fantasies — of being a great “literary” author, living a glittering life with a coquettish and beautiful wife — and his reality — of being a writer many consider a hack. In the end, inspired by Phil’s purity and ambition as he find his true calling and his parents, Alger decides to accept his own reality as the mere author of paeans to the American Dream.
The script went through three revisions and was submitted to ABC TV in September of 1972 and… there the trail ends. ABC must have rejected the script. Maybe they sent it out to other production companies, but I can’t find any record of it. The project is not mentioned in Kander and Ebb's delightful 2003 memoir, Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration and All That Jazz. In James Leve’s 2009 book, Kander and Ebb, he says that “although Wasserman kept the project alive for many years, Kander and Ebb started to recycle the songs into other projects and eventually lost interest.”
Other projects? On my first look through the script, I had recognized the title and lyric of one song that was used in Kander and Ebb’s The Act (1977), “It’s the Strangest Thing.” In The Act, it’s a standard love song and, moreover, a diegetic number that superstar Michelle Craig has become famous performing. In Wait for Me World, Molly Mulligan sings the song about the intangible connection she feels to a young man she doesn’t know is the child she gave up for adoption years earlier. Liza Minnelli is the foremost interpreter of Kander and Ebb’s songs, and she was at the top of her game when she gave the song a stellar performance for the original cast album of the Act. However, I think the situation it was originally written for — in Wait for Me, World — was a stronger one. (Wasserman’s notes for Kander and Ebb on the score actually suggest that they write a new song for this spot, but Kander and Ebb must have known it was too good to waste!)
The other re-purposed song was a comic turn for the aging song-and-dance man, Jiffy Kinch, called “I Can’t Do that Anymore.” As early as 1973 Ebb used this song in an act he was putting together for Frank Sinatra’s comeback, called "Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back." He and Kander would later put it into 70, Girls, 70 when they made some revisions for a 1991 London production.
And the rest of the score? Well Kander and Ebb wrote at least 12 songs: “The Greatest Living Writer in America Today,” Far Away from Home,” “I Love Music,” “Wait for Me, World,” “The American Way,”* “Machine,” “It’s the Strangest Thing,” “I Can’t Do That Anymore,” “The Bowery Rag,” “Mother” and “Easy Living.” *Although “The American Way” is only described in the scripts, the Ebb papers include drafts of a lyric for that character and that spot in the script with “The American Way” as the closing line, and though it may have been titled “In the Great American Tradition,” I think it’s the same song.
There is a very good chance that Kander and Ebb recorded a demo of this score, and it might exist still in some private collections. But until that re-surfaces, we can al least hear those two songs on the cast albums for The Act and 70. Girls, 70 in London. I’ll close this blog with a passage from the optimistic title song, in the hopes that I’ll hear it someday!
Wait for me, world
And I’ll tell you a story
I’ll tell you a story I’m planning to write
A tale about love and intrigue and adventure
Wait for me, world
I’m beginning tonight!
For more on Wait for Me, World or to read the script yourself, consult the Wasserman Papers in the Billy Rose Theatre Division and the Ebb Papers in the Music Division, both at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.