The Show That Got Away: Lucky in the Rain
A guest blog post by Sherman Yellen
(with apologies to Harold Arlen)
The writer’s bitter
The stars have lost their glitter
The winds grow colder
Suddenly you're older
And all because of the show that got away
We’ve all had them – every one of us who has ever worked in the theater; that show of ours that we loved once so dearly and continue to love with a lasting passion, the one into which we put every bit of our talent and hopes, knowing that this was the one; the one that could mean a life of everlasting theater glory (Samuel French for royalties that pay the rent and the kid’s school bills) our very own Oklahoma!, our Fiddler, our Annie; the one that everyone assured us was destined for great success on Broadway – the one that had the audience standing on its feet and cheering for five minutes after the curtain fell – yes, that show – the one that eluded our grasp and got away.
In my own career I can think of three that qualify for my singing the “got away blues.” I will deal with them over time, but it is too difficult to sort them out in the order of love, for like my sons and grandkids I am obliged to say that I have no favorites among them. My first theatrical escapee was a show called Lucky in the Rain – one that started with my longtime reading about the hijinks of the wild and wonderful newspapermen and women who worked in the Paris of 1927. These were the journalists on an American paper owned by a tyrannical publisher like the Chicago Tribune’s Colonel Robert R. McCormick. They were underpaid and oversexed and having a grand time in that mythical Paris, despite the former and possibly because of the latter. There were some wonderful anecdotes of their adventures and misadventures and I knew it would make a hugely entertaining musical. That is, if I ever got around to writing the libretto for it.
I had put Broadway aside and was living in Los Angeles working as a screenwriter when I was approached by a representative of the estate of the great song-writer Jimmy McHugh –a musician who worked with such notable lyricists as Dorothy Fields and Harold Adamson. McHugh was the man who gave us “Sunny Side of the Street,” among other classics like “Don’t Blame Me.” I researched his work and found hidden beauties that fit comfortably into that raffish world of Paris about which I wanted to write.
Michael Price and Sue Frost, the excellent people who produced Goodspeed Musicals loved the idea, and praised book that I created using McHugh’s music – a loopy yet sophisticated tale of love in Paris where all goes wrong before it goes right – indeed the heroine actually sleeps with the villain and the hero goes off with Isadora Duncan before it gets sorted out to some spectacular song and dance. It was 1997 and it seemed to me its author and to most of its audience a fresh take on that mythical time in Paris. It was at its best a musical time machine. Chris Ashley, this year’s Tony Award winner directed with great panache. The master musicians Wally Harper and Peter Matz provided the orchestrations and arrangements, tap-master Randy Skinner did the choreography – I added a few lyrics to the mix to bind the disparate songs together – and Lucky had one of the great casts of that time. Patrick Wilson of Oklahoma! was our hero, Henderson Booth: Tony nominee Marla Schaffel of Jane Eyre was our heroine, Rita Gardner – the original ingénue of The Fantasitcs was the elder version of the heroine – Susan Browning of Company was our song belting Gertrude Stein, Patti Mariano of Music Man was her tap dancing companion Alice Toklas, Marcus Neville later of Kinky Boots was the rakish friend, an ensemble led by Kelli Barclay, the charming Rebecca Krupka, glamorous Luba Mason and Cheryl Howard, and that glorious Broadway baby who graced so many musicals like The Producers, Jennifer Smith, who played a lovesick Parisian reporter. Add to this the superb, ‘bring em to their feet cheering” tap dancing of Scott Wise who played the rakish young villain and we were off to musical theater glory.
The early reviews helped me to nurture that belief. The best of them called it brilliant the worst said it guaranteed a good time. The great critic E. Kyle Minor of New England Entertainment Digest wrote of Lucky, and my work in it, “that (Yellen’s) Lucky seems to travel back in time and place, so graceful and indigenous is his writing. Lucky transcends pastiche. There is not a trace of camp or condescension in its body. It may be giddy at times…but these delicious moments are pure of themselves created organically in a specific dramatic moment. This is what elevates Lucky way above such feeble attempts at the same style as (here he names a hit Broadway musical that theater courtesy prevents me from mentioning but whose “slapdash book” he condemns in praising Lucky and its remarkable charms.
A Broadway producer appeared, spoke with my agent, and promised a production in the coming 1998 season. Unfortunately, I did not foresee that my glory did not have a friend in the new young critic at the New York Times, who came to Goodspeed, wrote his review, damning it with faint praise, and the show died then and there. The producer disappeared as if by magic, and none stepped forward to replace him. There was no second rabbit in that magician’s hat.
The NY Times used to claim that it did not have the power of life or death over a play or a musical – a charming fiction that it told itself to relieve itself of the guilt of damning to theater purgatory so many good shows and praising so many bad ones– it was particularly powerful in its reviews of those shows that first appeared at out of-town regional theater. Today, with the emergence of the theater blogger who loves theater and spreads word of a new show’s virtues and defects on the internet that may no longer be the case. And so I mourned, went on with my life, and if this is not enough grief let me tell you about Say Yes aka This Fair World and Josephine Tonight, but that is for another time – neither of which truly qualify as the ones that got away because I am holding on to their legs for dear life, and one day, who knows I will see them standing on a stage once again. Apologies to Jolson and here is the lovely Holt/Friedman Treasure Island tugging at my sleeve, all deserved better in my theater world. I love you each and every one – you may have gotten away from Broadway but you remain at home in my memory. Truth is, nothing actually escapes its creators if one has had the joy of writing it and seeing it once on a stage.