The idea of late blooming was essential to Dorothy Loudon's mythology.
Although she admitted to being 44 at the time of Annie (a fiction that many internet sites, including the Internet Movie Database, presently maintain), Loudon was actually 52. Prior to Annie, Loudon had been through nearly three decades of supper clubs, television, and touring companies, and a series of near misses on Broadway — projects that collapsed before they went on (including a musical version of Casablanca and New Faces of 1959); productions where she got good reviews, but the show didn't (Nowhere to Go But Up; The Fig Leaves Are Falling); or revivals that barely revived (Three Men on a Horse; The Women).
But Loudon's career almost went an entirely different way. She very nearly debuted on Broadway in one of the biggest hits of the 1960s — one that might have made Loudon a star of the stage fifteen years earlier.
"Dot Loudon cuts nitery date for B'way legiter," read the headline in Variety on February 22, 1961. The article noted that Loudon would be canceling an engagement at the St. Regis Hotel's Maisonette club in order to take a role in a new fall musical entitled How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Dorothy Loudon performs at the Sahara in Las Vegas in July 1961, in a photograph mounted in one of her scrapbooksFive weeks later, on March 29, New York Times theatre columnist Sam Zolotow offered a casting update on the new Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows show. Along with Loudon, Robert Morse, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Virginia Martin were now attached to How to Succeed. The manic, gap-toothed British film comedian Terry-Thomas was also "pondering terms" for "one of the major assignments" — unnamed by Zolotow, but clearly that of Biggley, the part eventually originated by Rudy Vallee. But Terry-Thomas wasn't the only potential cast member to take a pass. On April 19, the New York Herald Tribune carried a short item noting that Loudon had dropped out, "on the basis of book revisions recently which have altered her part."
But which part? And what revisions?
Although it would have fit neatly into her "queen of the flops" mystique, Loudon rarely discussed How to Succeed in interviews, even after Annie established her as a star. One of the few profiles of Loudon that mentions the episode was a Mel Heimer's New York column of December 11, 1963, published shortly after she had become an "overnight success" on Garry Moore's television variety show. Heimer wrote that Loudon "had a good part, with four songs, in How to Succeed — and then [producers Cy] Feuer and [Ernie] Martin decided to build up the Vallee part, so they wrote out Dorothy."
That's the extent of clues to be mined from the fossil record of Loudon's papers. None of the press coverage in 1961 bothered to identify the role Loudon was to play, probably because the soon-to-be familiar characters were still unknown to audiences. Loudon in early 1961 — a thirty-five year-old singing character comedienne — might have been versatile enough to have played any of the three major female roles after the ingenue, Rosemary. But in truth, unless Loesser and Burrows originally had something different in mind, Loudon was too old for Smitty, too young for Miss Jones, and not sultry enough for Hedy LaRue. (Plus, the announcement of Virginia Martin's casting at the same time as Loudon would seem to rule out Hedy.) From the details in Heimer's column, one might suspect that the show's authors were thinking of creating a new character just for Loudon. But the Billy Rose Theatre Collection's Abe Burrows Papers contain script drafts from the spring of 1961 that hew too closely to the produced version to make that a likely possibility.
Over the summer, I reached out to surviving members of the original How to Succeed company in the hope that someone could clarify the nature of Loudon's involvement. But Robert Morse didn't remember her being associated with the show. Neither did Stuart Ostrow, who was Frank Loesser's assistant at the time, or Merle DeBuskey, the show's publicist. Joseph Weiss, a Broadway historian and general manager of Frank Loesser Enterprises, had never heard of a Loudon connection to How to Succeed. Nor had Jo Sullivan Loesser, the composer-lyricist's widow, when Weiss asked her on my behalf. And Lionel Larner, Loudon's agent and close friend since around the time of Noël Coward's Sweet Potato in 1968, told me that Loudon had never spoken of the matter.
Claudette Sutherland (center) with Robert Morse and Bonnie Scott in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (credit: Friedman-Abeles)Finally, when I contacted Claudette Sutherland, the original Smitty, I began to have some luck. For Sutherland (who was, coincidentally, in The Women with Loudon in 1973), How to Succeed was a classic "big break" story. It was her first audition in New York. Sutherland was there at the start of rehearsals and, she told me, even earlier, learning the songs with Loesser in his office on 57th Street. But, sometime into the run of the production, Sutherland heard that Loudon had originally been set to play Smitty.
Then Lionel Larner put me in touch with Arthur Gorton, who was a friend of Loudon's as early as 1961. Last month Gorton confirmed that Loudon had been offered the role of Smitty — but that she had turned it down.
"My understanding is, she called Abe Burrows and wanted to know if it was a good part. And he said, 'It's a part,'" recalled Gorton. "That sort of turned her off, and as far as I know she just didn't go in for it. She was very picky about what she did, and she was very savvy about what was good for her and would move her along."
Gorton's memory that Loudon never accepted the Smitty role is difficult to reconcile with the press items (which also appeared in the Post and the Tribune) detailing both her entry and her exit from How to Succeed. But, perhaps, press agents for either Loudon or the show exaggerated the extent of her commitment.
In any event, How to Succeed ran on Broadway for four years and more than 1,400 performances. Did Loudon regret passing on it, even during the years before Annie made her a star? According to Larner, no. "She wouldn't have had any regrets at all," Larner speculated. "Right after that, she did Nowhere to Go But Up and got glorious reviews. She wouldn't have scored the same way [in How to Succeed]. So I think Dorothy was choosing how she wanted to debut."