Mercoledi Musicale

Barbara Cook and Stephen Douglas in the 1966 revival of Showboat.  The only time I saw her on stage.

It seems that almost weekly I’m reading of the passing of  a performer who helped define my youth and taste in theatre, music, and the arts.  Yesterday it was the remarkable Barbara Cook – one of the greats of musical comedies in the 1950-60s.  After a troubled period fighting depression, obesity, and alcoholism, during which her career waned, she return to the spotlight in a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall 1975 with Wally Harper.  It was the beginning of a partnership that was to last until his death in 2004.  And it also relaunched her as a premier cabaret and concert singer.  She was to continue to perform until into her 80s and made her last Broadway appearance singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim in 2010.

Here she is in one of her most famous role – Marion the Librarian in one of the most delightful musicals in the canon, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

I was fortunate to see her on stage back in 1966 when the Lincoln Center brought it’s magnificent revival of Showboat to the stage of the O’Keefe Centre.  It was one of the largest shows to tour with a full size showboat sailing on to the levee with a dream cast of the time:  Constance Towers, Stephen Douglas, William Warfield, David Wayne, Margaret Hamilton, Rosetta LaNoire, and Barbara Cook.  It was probably one of her last “ingenue” roles, her subsequent appearance in book shows were in more mature roles.

But in her concert career she both twitted and celebrated her years as Broadway’s leading ingenue.  And no where was it more celebrated than in her version of “Ice Cream” from She Loves Me. Here she almost 40 years after she created the role of Amelia and she hits that last high B with the same panache and accuracy as she did back in 1963.

Tonight the lights on Broadway will dim in tribute to her and perhaps, if you believe in that sort of thing, the stars in heaven will gleam a little brighter.

On this day in 1173:  construction of the campanile of the Cathedral of Pisa (now known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) begins; it will take two centuries to complete.

Mercoledi Musicale

Memory can be a confusing thing. For some reason I thought that the first time I had seen Patricia Routledge on stage was with Alastair Sim at the 1969 Chichester Festival.  I have written previously about the comic delight that was Sim’s Mr Posket in The Magistrate and that Patricia Routledge once said that it was through working with Sim that she perfected her comic timing.

Patricia Routledge as Alice Challice in Darling of
the Day
, the 1968 musical that won her a Tony Award.

However a quick look through Broadway records tells me that the first time I saw her was in Darling of the Day (it was called Married Alive when my friend Charlie and I saw it) on its pre-New York try-out in Toronto.  It starred Vincent Price and the lyrics were by E. Y. Harburg and the music by Julie Styne and despite the billing the real star was Patricia Routledge.  And yes it was a musical and that year – 1968 – she won the Tony Award as Leading Actress in a musical.

What most people don’t realize is that Hyacinthe Bucket was a trained singer and that many of her early stage appearances were in musicals.  And most people don’t realize that in 1976 she also starred in Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue playing every American First Lady from Abigail Adams to Eleanor Roosevelt.  The show was a legendary flop but opening night Routledge stopped the show with Duet for One where she played both Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes on the day of Rutherford B. Hayes’s inauguration.  With a simple re-angling of her bonnet and a slight change of accent she switched from one to the other in a brilliant display of her musical and dramatic abilities.  Bernstein would not allow an original cast recording so unfortunately only a less than perfect pirated recording of that opening night performance exists.

Several years before that virtuosic performance she recorded an album of show tunes and romantic ballads released by RCA in 1973 under the title Presenting Patricia Routledge.  Unfortunately the orchestrations are the lush arrangements of the period that swamped many a lesser voice;  the simplicity of her singing and delivery ride over the throbbing violins and cut through the saccharine to the heart.

Many standards of the time are included along with the occasional lesser known piece such as this lovely song from Jerry Herman’s Dear World.

I was one of those people who resisted the cloying Gallic charm of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and I was never that fond of its hit song I Will Wait For You – even if it was mouthed by Catherine Deneuve.   I’m trying to think of a single singer of the time that didn’t cover Michel LeGrand’s song but not many gave it quite the same operatic treatment as Routledge does here.  Still can’t say that I’m fond of it but she does a fine job and its the only other cut from this album I’ve been able to find.

And somewhere out there in the ether there must be a copy of her singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the 1994 revival of Carousel at the National Theatre.   Her Nettie was universally praised in a highly praised production but unfortunately she didn’t accompany the show on its transfer to New York.

And by the way yesterday (February 18th) was her 85th birthday and she seems to still be going strong.

February 19 – 1674: England and the Netherlands sign the Treaty of Westminster, ending the Third Anglo-Dutch War. A provision of the agreement transfers the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam to England, and it is renamed New York.

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Lunedi Lunacy


To some she was Lady Peel; to others she was Beatrice Lillie; but at one time to everyone she was simply known as “the Funniest Woman in the World”.

Born in Toronto in 1894 she made her way from 86 Davenport Road to Drayton Manor House, Staffordshire with stops en route on the stages of London and New York.   During a 50 year career she appeared in over 40 revues and plays but strangely only one musical – High Spirits by her old friend Noel Coward.  It was her last stage appearance.

She only had a handful of movies to her credit – her style just didn’t work that well on celluloid – but her appearances in the early years of television were many.  From variety shows to talk shows her wit and madcap routines made her a welcome – and unpredictable – guest on Jack Parr, Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan.   She had the singular honour of being the only star that Sullivan devoted an entire show to in the 23 years he was on television.

There are Fairies At the Bottom of Our Garden was a popular children’s poem by Rose Fyleman that was set to music by Liza Lehmann in 1917.   By the time she sang this on Ed Sullivan it had long left the nursery, entered the realm of the cabaret and lost all innocence in the process. (And this goes out to my friend Ron with big hugs – its me!)

She was having her hair done at Elizabeth Arden in Chicago when the wife of the founder of the Armour meat-packing company entered, noticed her, and complained loudly that she hadn’t’ realize there would be chorus girls present or she would not have come. Soon thereafter, as Lillie was leaving and saying goodbye to the manageress in the waiting room, in that voice that carried to the back row of the Schubert, she said, “You may tell the butcher’s wife that Lady Peel has finished.”

She appeared briefly on Broadway as Auntie Mame taking over from Greer Garson and then played Patrick Dennis’s indomitable Aunt in the West End premiere in 1958.   She clocked up 301 performances at the Adelphi in what was her first non-revue performance in many years.

She loved telling this story on her friend Noel Coward:  Noel and I were in Paris once. Adjoining rooms, of course. One night, I felt mischievous, so I knocked on Noel’s door and he asked, “Who is it?” I lowered my voice and said, “Hotel detective. Have you got a gentleman in your room?” He answered, “Just a minute, I’ll ask him.”

In 1924 Queen Bea made her Broadway debut in André Charlot‘s Revue of 1924 and introduced a number that had been a great success in the West End: March with Me. This clips captures that madcap number as well as a glimpse of the wonderful Ed Wynn.

During the Second World War she was an inveterate entertainer travelling throughout the various theatres of war.  It was while preparing to go on stage one evening in April 1942 that she learned of the death of her son Robert Peel.  He had been killed in action aboard HMS Tenedos in Colombo Harbour.  She refused to postpone the performance saying “I’ll cry tomorrow.”  And indeed she did and for many years refused to accept the fact that he would not return.

Al Hirschfeld captures the indomitable Bea in one of her funniest sketches:  MiLady Dines Alone.
She ate the entire meal – corn on the cob, asparagus, lobster without taking her gloves off.

Though she left Toronto while still in her teens she recalled the city with a great deal of affection.  In her book Every Other Inch a Lady she, perhaps with that Irish love of hyperbole inherited from her father, said:  A little bit of heaven had fallen down from the sky onto the shores of Lake Ontario. So they sprinkled it with stardust and called it Irish Toronto.  You have to wonder if her tongue wasn’t pushing itself firmly in her cheek while she penned that sentence?

In another passage she recalls being feted by Mayor Sam McBride (“with a brogue as thick as Irish coffee”).  At the reception he said: Your singable beauty has endangered you to thousands. “I thanked him from the bottom of my galoshes.”

And here’s our Bea, one more time, doing another of her signature pieces – sadly without the visual of her perched on a stool with her long string of pearls.  Noël Coward composed this song after he and Beatrice attended a beach party given by Elsa Maxwell in the south of France in 1937 or 1938 and was sung by Bea the the 1939 revue Set to Music The lyrics in the first stanza are based on a real life party:  Coward and Lillie were invited to “come as they were,” but on arriving they discovered the other guests were all in formal attire.  Perhaps this explains why the singer claims it was hell to “stay as we were”.  “Poor Grace” is a reference to opera singer and movie star Grace Moore who was also a guest. 

It was during the making of Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1966 that it became apparent that Bea was suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer’s.  She died in January 1989 and the lights in theatres in the West End and on Broadway were dimmed in tribute to “the Funniest Woman in the World!”

February 10 – 1920: Jozef Haller de Hallenburg performs symbolic wedding of Poland to the sea, celebrating restitution of Polish access to open sea.

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