Mercoledi Musicale

Back in the 1950-60s many Broadway shows went on the road and fortunately Toronto and the Royal Alexandra Theatre was a frequent stop on the circuit. On January 1, 1957 my long-suffering father took my friend Bruce and I to see a matinee of Li’l Abner at the Royal Alex. That afternoon began my love affair with Musical Comedy.

The only picture I’ve been able to find of the Music Fair tent – an artist’s rendition from a local newspaper.

Not only did we get road companies but every summer 7 or 8 musicals were presented at the Music Fair tent at Dixie Plaza. I reminisced about those summer stock productions on a previous Mercoledi Musicale back in 2018. Every Saturday afternoon during the summers of 1958/59/60 I would be taken away to Paris, Oklahoma, the South Pacific, Scotland, Siam, Manhattan or some other exotic destination. I thought that over the next few months I’d revisit those three summers and set up my own summer stock season.

Rae Allen – a summer stock favourite, she was known in later years for her role in The Sopranos.

In 1956 Judy Holliday had a surefire hit with Bells Are Ringing created for her by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with music by Jule Styne. The story centres around Ella Peterson who works at Suesanswerphone – an answering service in Manhattan. In that Music Fair production Ella was played by well-known Broadway and Summer Stock favourite Rae Allen. Ella becomes involved in clients’ lives and adds some spice to her own boring existence by adopting different characters and voices. Amongst the clients is playwright Jeff Moss, who suffers from writer’s block and with whom Ella has fallen in love. Although she has never met him, she considers it the “perfect” relationship because “I can’t see him; he can’t see me.”

Of course as can only happen in musical comedy they do meet – Ella assumes the persona of Millicent – and she snaps him out of his writer’s block. And of course, in true musical comedy fashion, they fall in love. In the movie version Jeff was played by Dean Martin, which was a big improvement over Broadway’s Sydney Chaplin. Dean, of course, went on to record and perform one of Styne’s classics as a signature solo number.

After a party to meet all of Jeff’s New York crowd, Ella realizes that their relationship is all based on fantasy and decides that “The Party’s Over”.

But every good musical comedy needs an “eleven o’clock” number that displays the vocal – and in this case comedic – chops of its star and Bells are Ringing was no exception. Ella decides to leave Suesanswerphone and all the deceptions and go back home to work for The Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company.

Of course we know that won’t happen – this is a Broadway musical comedy!

The word for June 22nd is:
Answering Service /ˈans(ə)riNG ˈsərvəs/: [compound noun]
A telecommunications service provider that is employed by a business to process incoming telephone calls. A message is taken and then delivered per the customer’s instructions. Real human beings process these calls.

Mercoledi Musicale

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.

The only picture I could find of the Music Fair tent was a drawing from a local newspaper.

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.

Can-CanI 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,

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