A site I belong to celebrates musicals – chiefly those that have been forgotten – and this time of year many of the posts highlight the glory days of summer stock. Those halcyon days when cities and towns around North America had tents, converted barns, or outdoor theatres with small resident companies of singers, dancers and directors who were joined by a visiting “star” in a musical (or sometimes play) that had been a popular a season or two earlier in New York, or perhaps a time-honoured operetta, one of the Rogers and Hammerstein biggies or even Gilbert and Sullivan.
In Toronto we had the Music Fair out at the Dixie Plaza in Mississauga from 1958 to 1960. It was a tent theatre connected to the Melody Fair in North Tonawanda, New York. A company would play two weeks at one theatre (while rehearsing another show) then head across the border for two weeks in the sister house. Mario Bernardi, who went on to conduct at Sadler’s Wells and founded the National Arts Centre Orchestra*, and John Fenwich, who conducted and composed at the Charlottetown Festival, were the young conductors; Zachery Zolov, principal choreographer at the MET, was dancer director. In the chorus was a very young Victor Braun who went on to a major European opera career – it was a invaluable training ground.
The first show I saw was in early July 1958 – Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings with Rae Allen – a name well known to my friends at the aforementioned site. I was hooked. Every second Saturday for the next three summers I would walk – the best I can tell about 5 kilometres (3.5 miles) – via the shoulder of the Queen Elizabeth Highway (try that now!!!!) to catch the matinee. As well as a raft of musicals with known Broadway performers such as Ms Allen, Gretchen Wyler, and Nancy Andrews I got to see Eve Arden in Goodbye Charlie, Red Buttons in Teahouse of the August Moon, James Garner in John Loves Mary, Jill Corey and Roddy McDowell in Meet Me in St Louis, Dorothy Collins in South Pacific, Jeannie Carson in Finnan’s Rainbow, and almost Genevieve in Can-Can.
I say almost because back in 1959 the gamine Mlle Genevieve was touring in the Cole Porter musical as La Môme Pistache and I was set to go to the last Saturday matinee. She had become popular on the late night Jack Paar show with her fractured English and in cabaret with her Gaelic way with a song. Though the show had a less than great book I loved the original cast recording with all those wonderful Porter songs: C’est Magnifique, It’s Alright with Me, I Love Paris and my own favourite Allez-vous En.
Which leads me to today’s Mercoledi Musicale.
Sadly I never got to see her sing it in person. Midway through the second week Genevieve made her exit up the aisle, tripped on an electrical cable and broke her ankle. In summer stock there were often no understudies to speak of so the rest of the run was cancelled. It was to be another thirty years before I would have a chance to see Can-Can.
In 1988 Chita Rivera and the Radio City Rockettes toured a version that played the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. And it involved another broken leg story. But first here’s Chita and the Rockettes doing the can-can from that production. It was filmed during a performance at a theatre-in-the-round which accounts for the odd camera angle.
Watching the fabulous Chita it’s hard to imagine that in 1986 she had been involved in a major car accident. She broke her left leg in twelve places, and it took eighteen screws and two braces to mend the breaks. Two years later she was touring in a major role and doing that cartwheel-split combo seven times a week! A Broadway legend indeed!
*I once mentioned to Mr Bernardi that I remembered him from those Music Fair days and he seemed less than thrilled at the reminder.
I thought I’d make a list of the wonderful (to my young eyes at least) shows I saw over and above those I’ve already mentioned: Song of Norway, Happy Hunting, Oklahoma, The Boy Friend, The King and I, Brigadoon, Bells Are Ringing, Most Happy Fella, The Student Prince, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance,
On this day in 1886: The first scheduled Canadian transcontinental train arrives in Port Moody, British Columbia.