Playwrite Frank Gagliano


Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 3:24pm  

So I’m throwing out boxes of stuff from my garage (summer of 2009 project) and I decide to explore one box before I dump it and --LO! --I find it: The lost souvenir program from the American Theatre Wing’s 1957 “Command Performance--Serenade to the White House. . .Musical Highlights from the Nineties to the Fifties” --a glossy souvenir program glossy booklet I’d been looking for for decades--a program booklet that would prove that I was there--actually there-- at the Ball-- and I automatically give out the famous Jimmy Durante cry: “I found it--My Lost Chord!” 

Jimmy Durante was a famous eccentric comic during most of the 20th century (even warranted a line in a famous Cole Porter song, “You’re the Top.”: “. . .you’re a rose/you’re Inferno’s Dante/you’re the nose/on the great Durante.” Jimmy was a little guy and, indeed, had a magnificent nose. And a belligerent swagger. He was a hell of a piano player; wrote surreal songs like, “Inka-Dinka-Do;” had a gravelly voice; mangled the English language (“It’s a catastrastroke!), always seemed angry -- but the anger was a sham: He somehow exuded sweetness. Everyone loved Jimmy.

(Now watch: I’ll be inundated with Facebook reminiscences of Jimmy Durante being a son-of-a bitch in his private life)

At one point, way back in the day, there was a rage for a churchy, serious, (in my opinion) pompous piece, in the classical music mode--for the organ, I believe: “The Lost Chord,” by Sir Arthur Sullivan, the composer who was half of the successful musical theatre team of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sullivan was always chagrined for not being lauded as a serious composer and, on the side, as it were, he wrote “serious” music. Thus: “The Lost Chord.”

Jimmy durante could not let that one go and he developed one of his classic, zany, musical numbers, “I’m The Man Who Found The Lost Chord,” and de-pompoused Sir Arthur’s earnest “Lost Chord.”

Here’s the content of Jimmy’s number: He’s noodling on the piano one night, “Improvising symphonies” and masterpieces like “Hav’a Banana” from Carmen, and the Sextet from “Luigini’s,” while cracking nuts with his bare feet (”You see I hadd’a eat, too”)--when he finds it: “The Lost Chord.” He riffs on this discovery for a few minutes and plays the miraculous chord over and over again -- then loses the chord! (“It’s a catastrastroke!). He calls out the Marines amidst gunfire and bugles, and in his frustration, Jimmy sits down hard on the piano keys -- and finds the lost chord again. “That’s strange,” says Jimmy, seriously perplexed, “I always thought I played by ear.” The crowd goes wild.

Anyway. When I find the souvenir program, I really do cry out, “I found my Lost Chord!”

Here’s the story about that found 1957 souvenir program for the American Theatre Wing Ball--that may be the only proof that that event did happen:

--so, I’m a graduate student at Columbia University, in the MFA Playwriting program, back in the day, and I see on the bulletin board that a researcher is wanted for a fund-raising Ball that The American Theatre Wing is giving. I don’t know what The American Theatre Wing is (I later discover that they produce, among other things, the annual Tony Awards show), but I figure It could be a good credit for my beginning resume. At the Columbia U drama department, I had been working crew that day on some show, so I exchange my jeans for trousers and jacket from John, a classmate. My clothes are too tight for him, his are too baggy for me--but what the hell. I rush downtown to Tex McCrary’s office (PR for the event, and who was, then, a television personality with his fashion model wife Jinx Falkenberg). I get the job and I meet the producer, Arthur Schwartz, in his law office. I know that Mr. Schwartz wrote the great song standards, “Dancing In The Dark” and “You and the Night and the Music,” but I didn’t know he was a lawyer. (Of course, later, I came to understand that Arthur Schwartz, along with his lyricist, Howard Dietz, had written some of the most elegant songs in the history of Musical Theatre, and Dietz also was PR head at MGM and had developed the MGM Lion logo). Schwartz is an elegant, friendly man who tells me that the theme of the show for the Ball will be "supposed Command Performances from the various presidential administrations, moving backwards in time, through American History." My job will be to gather material -- photos and headlines and interesting trivia from the archives and -- get this! -- I am to report to Oscar Hammerstein II, who will be Master of Ceremonies for the show and, I believe, will write the narration. I meet Mr. Hammerstein -- I can’t recall where, but I do recall that he is a tall man with a pock-marked face. And friendly. Very friendly.

These are a few -- very, alas, few-- of the other things I remember:

Spending a great deal of time in the New York Public Library on West 42nd Street and photo copying photos and news stories (can’t imagine what primitive photo-copying method was available then). The only story I remember making an impression on me in my research is the history of the Chautauqua circuit. I had known nothing about it.

I recall, too, delivering material to various people, including Robert Rounseville, who was then starring in the original production of CANDIDE on Broadway, and to the famous choreographer Helen Tamiris (one of the founders of American Modern Dance and choreographer for Broadway’s ANNIE GET YOUR GUN).

I also recall a rehearsal of bits and pieces of the COMMAND PERFORMANCE show at some midtown rehearsal studios--must have been a stagger-through of sorts because all the artists are there and I am allowed to stick around. There is some kind of an outer room where the artists wait before entering the main studio. Skinny, small, Sammy Davis Jr. is there, wearing tight black fitted slacks and black jacket with a black turtle neck and black socks and black shoes and he never stops moving, tap dancing all the while he talks. He’ll be Sporting Life in the PORGY AND BESS segment of Command Performance.

I also remember walking into the main rehearsal room when Lena Horne is running through her set and when Ethel Merman is rehearsing her set. All I remember of the actual show is the huge Ball Room at The Waldorf Astoria and sitting at a table a great distance from the stage. I recall seeing Comden and Green and Leonard Bernstein somewhere in the room (was I at their table?) and watching Judy Holliday on stage singing (in period costume), “Rose of Washington Square.” But her number -- amazingly -- is all I remember of the show.

Some days after the show, Arthur Schwartz, again in his office, thanks me for the good job I did and asks me if there’s anything he can do for me (I had received no pay). I say, “introduce me an to an agent. If you would.”

What Arthur Schwartz does next is something I’ll never forget (and, I suspect, is a rare showbiz occurrance): He -- right there and then -- picks up the phone and dials the then biggest agent in the theatre, Tennessee Williams’ agent Audrey Wood of the Music Corporation of America, MCA. She picks up and tells Arthur Schwartz to send me around tomorrow to MCA. The next day, at MCA, I meet Jack Phelps, an assistant to Audrey Wood and an aspiring agent, and he asks to read my new play. I give him a copy of THE LIBRARY RAID (later to be produced Off-Broadway as, NIGHT OF THE DUNCE). He calls me soon after and says he wants to represent me--and does.

I keep the Gala event souvenir program in my files. Then one day I want to check something from the program and I can’t find it. Two decades go by (I even call The American Theatre Wing, but they can’t find a copy) and I look and look and then, on 5 June, 2009, while throwing out boxes from the garage, I find it!

The program is in excellent condition and when I review it, my jaw drops. This is what that program for the Command Performance shows me:

The title page features a Programme (with two m’s, that outlines the evening):

Cocktails; The Champagne Dinner; Special Drawing for a 1957 Chrysler Imperial; The Command Performance and, finally, dancing to the music of Meyer Davis and his orchestra--the famous “Society Orchestra”).

The food menu consists of Paupiettes of Channel Sole (I thought Paupiettes were short, French Rockettes), Champagne Sauce, Golden Fleurons; Hearts of Celery, Ripe Green Olives, Salted Almonds and Nuts; Prime Ribs of Beef, Potatoes Champs-Elysee and Asparagus Tips Polonaise; Anniverary Dessert Glacè Surprise, Brandied Cherries Flambe; Petits Fours; Demi Tasse.

Judging by the program, the Command Performance was a full-fledged musical review featuring Musical Highlights of the last twelve Administrations from 1956 to 1890. It had costumes and orchestrations and vocal arrangements by the likes of Robert Russell Bennett, Hugh Martin, Don Walker, Lennie Hayton, Milton Green and Milton Rosenstock. It had an opening number (would I could get my hands on it) written specifically for the occasion by Schwatrz and Dietz (the same team that had written THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, for the MGM musical THE BANDWAGON).

And all I remember of it is one number performed by Judy Holliday.

As listed in this fabled “programme,” here’s how the show breaks down.

The Eisenhower years’ segment feature Janet Blaire and Art Lund, doing a montage of hits from the fifties.

(If you don’t recognize any of these names--google them. Believe me, they were big).

For the Harry Truman years, Shirley Jones and Stephen Douglass perform a scene from Carousel, and Lena Horn (who I had a crush on at the time) sings songs from the forties, orchestrated and conducted by her then husband, Lennie Hayton.

For the Franklin D. Roosevelt period Peter Gennaro and Ellen Ray dance the “Carioca” and Ethel Merman sings (what else?) Cole Porter Songs. In that same section, Steve Allen, Skitch Henderson and Louis Nye perform in a sketch: “Who’d You vote for”

The Herbert Hoover era follows with Julie Andrews singing Rodgers and Hart songs (Rex Harrison is listed, but is not clear what he does) And Daniel Nagrin and a company of four dance to “Frankie and Johnny.”

The Calvin Cooledge section has Edith Adams singing “You Oughta Be In Pictures” with a Vocal Arrangement by Hugh Martin (composer of The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas); Sammy Davis and Company does a scene from PORGY AND BESS; Allyn McClerie and Peter Palmer perform a scene from “Good News.” and -- get this -- ELLA FITZGERALD (Ella--for Christ’s sake!) sings Irving Berlin songs.

It goes on:

In the Warren G. Harding era section, “Dancies of the 20’s” are listed, with additional lyrics by Howard Dietz and staging by Rod Alexander.

The Woodrow Wilson era follows with Sid Ceasar and Carl Reinar doing the Professor sketch and Judy Holliday performing the aforementioned ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE--the only number I specifically remember.

Then comes William H. Taft and a song performed by David Wayne.

And in the Theodore Roosevelt section W.C. Handy (still alive then, apparently)” plays his famous “St. Louis Blues” and Janet Collins sings “Glow Worm,” backed up by a dancing ensemble, with choreography by Helen Tamiris.

For the William McKinley section, Bill Tabbert (the man who introduced the song, “Younger Than Springtime” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC) sings something called, “Little Lost Child,” and assisted by a number of other entertainers -- and with the use of slides (“donated by Mr. Herbert Marks.” Was my research responsible for that, I wonder?)

The Grover Cleveland next-to-the-last segment features 12 top performers performing “The Floradora Sextette”: Stephen Douglass, Bill Hayes, Johnny Johnston,Art Lund, Robert Rounseville, Bill Tabbert and Janet Blair, Dorothy Collins, Virginia Gibson, Florence Henderson, Doretta Morrow and Jo Sullivan.

The Benjamin Harrison presidential segment closes out the show with the great clown Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion of THE WIZARD OF OZ and Estragon, in the first Broadway production of WAITING FOR GODOT) singing, “After The Ball” -- assisted by the entire ensemble.

Again--these were biggies in musical theatre-- and the numbers must have been stunning -- and Oscar Hammerstein’s narration brilliant and witty--but the only sketch I’ve ever been able to remember was Judy Holliday performing “Rose of Washington Square” (the old Fanny Brice number)!

Incredible! And depressing! That I can’t visualize the show.

But I was there! I know now that I was there, because I’m listed in the “staff” section for COMMAND PERFORMANCE. Even John, the fellow student who switched clothes with me at Columbia University, is listed as my assistant.

Important find, this. For me. Because, finally, at my age, one begins to think that it’s all been a dream--one’s life. Then once in a awhile you find something that validates the realty. An elaborate souvenir program, say. You lose it for awhile. Then you find it. And part of your life is validated again. At least this part. But, God, I wish I could remember. . .

FG (

 Monday, May 25, 2009 at 2:19pm | 

At the New Dramatists annual NYC fund raising luncheon (May 19, 2009), this year in honor of Horton Foote and New Dramatists’ (ND) alums (like moi), I sit at Jeffrey Hatcher’s table with ND alum playwrights Robert Shenkkan and James Nicholson, both old friends; terrific writers, terrific guys. Give each of them a copy of my novel ANTON’S LEAP.

Exiting the Marriott’s men’s room at the ND luncheon, I say hello to (OMG!) Edward Albee. Edward (who produced two of my plays in the 60s) has just given a moving tribute to Horton Foote and urged the new, New Dramatists to tell directors who try to rewrite their plays, “Bug off!” Edward and I chit-chat a bit and then we’re both off. I forget to give Edward a copy of ANTON’S LEAP. Damn! I’ll send him a copy.

In the Press Room at the ND luncheon, I say hello to the three (OMG!) Billy Elliot’s starring in the Broadway hit and ask which one I’ll be seeing the following night. They aren’t sure.

Say hello to (OMG!) Joe Masteroff (writer of CABARET and SHE LOVES ME). He looks great. Tells me he’s ninety years old. I say: if you’re ninety then I must be (OMG!) “whatever” years old! “You’re a youngster,” he says. Back in the day, when the world was young, seasoned playwright Joe M took emerging playwright Frank G to a luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria, where we extolled the glories of the New Dramatists—then we ate what I recall seems like the same chicken lunch we were eating at the New Dramatists bash (nothing really changes).

See SOUTH PACIFIC at Lincoln Center: OMG! Beautifully reconceived and staged by Bartlett Sher; gorgeously lit, costumed, designed; magnificently sung and acted by Laura Osnes and William Michals. It’s American operetta, of course, with 1940’s bite, and Broadway-sailor MR ROBERTS’ schtick—and a truly glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein score and lyrics. For me, BALI HA’I, hovers over the entire production and helps sustain the bittersweet romanticism right to the end.

I have always been somewhat distant from Hammerstein’s view of the world as a
“. . .cockeyed optimist. . .a dope with a thing called hope. . .” My view is more—“What entangles my hair is profound despair and I can’t comb it out of my head—not this head.” But Hammerstein’s deeply felt optimism and compassion and astonishing craft win me over this time—fully—and make me want to explore his lyrics anew. The man is a master at theatre storytelling through spoken and sung words (He also co-authored the SOUTH PACIFIC book with Joshua Logan). And, since Hammerstein’s words came first, they also inspired Rodgers to some of his most memorable melodies.“THIS NEARLY WAS MINE” is a perfect example of an integrated theatre song (one of Rodgers’ great waltzes) that is so consequential a moment in a character’s life that only his singing can express the depths of his anguish. And, incidentally, it’s a song I can’t get out of my head (not this head).

I do wonder, though, if the character ensign Nellie Forbush (as written) would use a word like “bromidic” in her song, “I’M IN LOVE WITH A WONDERFUL GUY”). Hammerstein probably said, “So what? I love the word.” (So do I actually; and it does sing).

When the floor covering the SOUTH PACIFIC orchestra slides back, revealing the over 30 musicians, and the Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations kick in, you’re instantly back in the golden age of American musicals—when $4:50 was top ticket price—and you are swamped by a tsunami of breathtaking melody.

I had forgotten how potent the theme of the evils of prejudice and hate are in SOUTH PACIFIC. Must have been quite explosive, back in the day.

Wonderful being back in the Vivian Beaumont. Roomy, almost stadium, seating. My mind shoots back to the 1960s when I was observing rehearsals for the opening play at the Beaumont: DANTON’S DEATH.

Off to the new Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The old collections are like old friends and all the hundreds of diverse visitors from all over the world milling about begin to resemble cubist heads. OMG! In the Picasso room, is that a blue-period woman I see that I have never seen before? I do declare—‘tis!

Still at MOMA: I always thought the skinny, skinny, elongated sculpture, THE STANDING YOUTH, was by Alberto Giacometti. No. It’s by Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Amazing piece. Each section is distorted (the big toe, for example, is longer than the penis; even the right testicle is longer than the penis; the neck is stretched like a ballerina’s and is definitely longer than the Penis and the toe -- combined!). But somehow the whole thing works as a balanced piece. How does an artist do that?

BILLY ELLIOTT, The Musical. OMG! Tonight it’s David Alvarez playing Billy to the packed house. Nothing of the operetta here. It’s a biting (serviceable) Elton John pop score combining a class struggle with a Cinderella story. The show is hip, driving, moving, funny (with its share of showbiz sentiment) and features a standout performance that I can hardly believe. This 14-year-old David Alvarez does ballet, taps, sings, acts, is funny, is charming, has a credible British working-class accent and – in one number – does a Peter Pan in the air while a male ballet dancer stays on the ground, and they execute an amazing pas de deux. Also, the boy can spot and spin with the best of them. The ache to dance in this Billy is overwhelming, and each move that Alvarez makes renders that ache palpable. David Bologna plays Billy’s friend Michael, who likes to dress up in women’s clothes (like his father does). Bologna is already an outstanding comic. I hear that every other young performer who plays Billy is a gifted, formidable show-stopper.

My friend, who saw the show when it opened in London, tells us that this BILLY ELLIOT features Broadway-dazzle production values that weren’t in the original production and that at times seem to technically swamp the simplicity of the story (the high-tech stairway, for example, that spirals up from the trap and becomes Billy’s miner’s son’s working-class bedroom). But, finally, the performers and the strong story transcend the Broadway dazzle and deliver the goods. My friend agrees.

Just when you think the curtain calls are over, Alvarez brings on the entire BILLY ELLIOT cast and what follows is a five-minute production number that raises the roof. Can’t wait to see the other Billy’s strut their stuff. OMG!

And talk about (OMG!) timely! The bringing down of the British miner class by then ruling class—that pits Billy’s mining family against the Thatcher government—resonates like crazy in our own economic climate.

SOUTH PACIFIC and BILLY ELLIOTT. Both about something. Both class acts! Both fall into my category of “Entertainments that Confront.” Broadway, the way it should be—as a model for the best of theatre! I wonder, though, if I’ll be buying the BILLY ELLIOT CD of the score for my musical theatre collection? I will, however, add this SOUTH PACIFIC production CD to my collection (along with the new recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO, the first Broadway musical I ever saw).

At the newly renovated American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Back in the day, Sandy and I would walk across Central Park from our W 87th Street floor-through, $135 a month, brownstone apartment to the Met and stop first at The American Wing (OMG! How I loved the pewter candleholders in those days!).

Transformed, this new American Wing; now a magnificent three or four story courtyard, facing Central Park, features American sculptures; and various levels, feature replicas of early American rooms and one stunning floor that has glass cases filled with great American paintings, furniture, glass, that are usually kept out of sight, in storage.

We also visit the costume collection of stunning (bizarre to me) fashions in a show about how fashion models fashion the times. Also visit the great Impressionist rooms and look in on a painting that plays a part in my novel ANTON’S LEAP. Back then (when I first researched the painting, because she looked like my heroine), the painting was thought to be a portrait of Mlle Charlotte du Val d’Ognes and attributed to the painter David. It has now been authenticated as a painting called YOUNG WOMAN, PAINTING, by a painter named Marie-Denise Villers. I have no idea what I can do with this information now.

And on 55th and 9th Avenue we discover the new Alvin Ailey dance school. The students are performing their Spring Celebration Concert. More dazzling young talent in a packed 300-seat theatre. I like THE END OF THE BEGINNING, a kinetic whirlwind, with a score by Philip Glass and choreography by Troy Powell – where the pounding music builds and repeats driving percussive clusters that bring the young bodies on and off stage in stunning leaps and complex patterns. Very disciplined and well trained, this company of young black, white, and Asian-American dancers. The evening ends with excerpts from Alvin Ailey’s gospel masterpiece, REVELATIONS—with the stunning images of the beautiful black lady, all in flowing white, and with her enormous white umbrella, and the section of the ladies in yellow, with their yellow fans fanning away. OMG!

Dancing down 9th Avenue to return to our hotel on the warm balmy NYC night, we pass restaurant after restaurant filled with mostly young people. The Fleet’s in and dozens of American sailors in scrubbed whites are laughing it up with girls seated at the sidewalk tables. Any minute, one expects the sailors to break out singing and dancing the old Bernstein number, “NEW YORK, NEW YORK, --IT’S A WONDERFUL TOWN!” OMG!


Write a New Note
Health care despair and the Clupeus perk up!

—So I start the day depressed — because it looks like the GOP “Party of No” and many Democratic Congress persons and Senators (whose souls are still owned by Big Parma and the insurance companies that need to maintain their system of making excessive profits by denying claims)—are on the verge of sinking Obama’s health care initiatives (and so, will sink our entire financial system in the long term).

—Then I read an article in the July 20 issue of the New Yorker Magazine about Clupeus, the god of herring, whose annual festival is celebrated in late spring by herring-lovers the world over — and I perk up. ‘Cause I figure: Not a bad way to continue being flushed down the toilet of economic despair then to be munching on some majtes herring in wine sauce on melba toast, while the country and my pension and my health care disappear down the crapper.