The Lost Musicals: Joel Grey’s Star Vehicles, Part Two: The Grand Tour
I think I know why Joel Grey's 1975 star vehicle Goodtime Charley flopped, but I'm less clear about The Grand Tour. The story is powerful and charming. The star performance, was by all accounts one of the most special anyone had ever seen. And Herman's score is terrific — maybe not fully up to his standard of Hello, Dolly, Mame and Mack and Mabel (ok, that one was also a flop, but emphatically not because the score wasn't great) — but it's certainly as good as the score of his next show, La Cage Aux Folles, which was a huge hit.
The source material was a play called Jacobowsky and the Colonel, adapted by prolific playwright and screenwriter S. N. Behrman from an original, quasi autobiographical play by Czech writer Franz Werfel. Like the main character in the play, Werfel was a prominent Jewish intellectual who was chased all over Europe by the Nazis before successfully escaping to America.
The story focused on two characters S.L. Jacobowsky, a Polish Jew who's been one step ahead of the Nazis until landing in Paris; and Colonel Tadeusz Boleslav Stjerbinsky, a slightly anti-Semitic Polish nobleman and patriot who has been entrusted with papers he must get to England to help the allies.
Jacobowsky has managed to snag one of the last cars in Paris, but he can't drive and the Colonel can drive, but can't find a vehicle. Despite the Colonel's reluctance to travel with Jacobowsky, the two unlikely companions team up for a cross-country escape, but the Colonel refuses to leave France without stopping to pick up his fiancée, a Frenchwoman named Marianne.
Jacobowsky, the Colonel, his manservant and Marianne set off and the Colonel's initial dislike for Jacobowsky is strengthened by his perception of a growing intimacy between him and Marianne. They do have a connection, but it's entirely a friendship — on her part. Jacobowsky falls a little in love with Marianne, but she makes it clear that it's the Colonel she loves. Through the course of the play, with duels, escapes and deceptions, these two entirely dissimilar men get over their differences and come to come to respect each other.
Behrman's 1944 play, helmed by the great director Elia Kazan with Oscar Karlweis as Jacobowsky and Louis Calhern as the Colonel had a successful Broadway run of 417 performances. It was adapted into a 1958 film, Me and the Colonel, with Danny Kaye as Jacobowsky and Curt Jurgens as the Colonel. Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble's book for The Grand Tour followed the play very closely.
Hit-master Jerry Herman provided a very tuneful score. The principal ballad, "Marianne" — sung by the Colonel in Act I and reprised by Jacobowsky in Act II — is one of Herman's most painfully gorgeous melodies. The show's anthem, sung by Grey, "I'll Be Here Tomorrow" has the same power and applicability as Herman's more famous a "I Am What I Am." It easily could have been adopted as an anthem for the survival of the Jewish people, just as "I Am What I Am" (from La Cage Aux Folles) has become an anthem for homosexuals in their coming out process. Grey had another showcase for his talents with "Mrs. S. L. Jacobowsky," a simultaneously charming, funny and unexpectedly moving character song, in which he dreams of the joys of being married to Marriane, despite their religious differencs: "I'll go to mass and I'll respect her wishes/And she'll start using separate dishes." Marianne herself has a soaring establishing song, "I Belong Here."
The three songs which develop the relationship between Jacobowsky and the Colonel, "For Poland," "More and More/Less and Less" and "You I Like" are all excellent. The first act finale, the big "numbo," (a pre-requisite for any Jerry Herman musical whether warranted or not) "One Extraordinary Thing" was the one big musical moment Herman phoned in. I think the score is terrific, and I wish I could tell you to go get the cast album and check it out, but it's out of print! Still, the CD is available used if you're willing to pay a little more.
Grey's performance was universally praised by critics and by many friends and fans who wrote to him about its sensitivity and humanity. Rounding out the central triangle were two other Broadway favorites: the appropriately gruff and booming Ron Holgate as the Colonel, and the beautifully clear-voiced and compelling Florence Lacey as Marianne.
This show didn't really have anything wrong with it! Good book, good score, good cast… all I can imagine is that it was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Producing musicals was becoming more expensive, so it was harder to turn a profit.
Crime in in the city — and in midtown particularly — was increasing and many people stopped going to the theatre all together. Of the 18 musicals that opened in the 1978-1979 season, only 3 hit 500 performances, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, They're Playing Our Song and Sweeney Todd.
Perhaps The Grand Tour's traditional musical theatre score and life-affirming story seemed old-fashioned. In later years Herman said in interviews that he thought The Grand Tour had actually suffered from Grey's strong performance, because it turned Jacobowsky into the star part and The Colonel a supporting one, a change from Berman's play, in which the roles had been equal.
Jason Graae and James Barbour were excellent in the Musicals in Mufti production in 2009. Maybe we'll see a full-scale revival one of these days, but in the meantime you can try to track down the cast album and learn more about the show from the Joel Grey Papers at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.