When the production of My One and Only was first announced a little over a year, it was supposed to be the occasion for three gala events. It was to be a revival of the 1927 George and Ira Gershwin musical
Funny Face, with a new book but still featuring such classic songs as "'Swonderful" and "How Long Has This Been Goin' On?" The show was to mark the return to tap shoes of Tommy Tune, the acclaimed director and choreographer
(Nine, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine), who hasn't performed on Broadway since 1974, when he won a Tony Award for his show-stopping
performance in Seesaw. And it was to herald the Broadway debut of Twiggy, the former English fashion model turned actress and singer.
But the course of a Broadway musical rarely runs smooth. What was intended to be a buoyant, Broadway-bolstering mixture of old songs and new faces arrives at the St. James tonight, after a series of disasters and delays, looking more like a storm-tossed ship finally reaching shore. The journey has been a comedy of errors. Is this a tale of art versus business? Innocence versus experience? Whatever else it may be, the story of how
My One and Only finally reached Broadway is a revealing guide to the pressures and pitfalls that await anyone rash enough to become involved in producing a multimillion-dollar musical.
Not all the voyagers have survived. The original director, Peter Sellars, the 25-year-old Wunderkind from Harvard who captured national attention with his unorthodox stagings of
The Inspector General and Orlando at the American Repertory Theater, was fired from
My One and Only shortly before it began its pre-Broadway engagement in Boston. Mr. Sellars's musical director and arranger were dismissed along with him, and the book writer, Tim Mayer, and set designer, Adrianne Lobel, were soon to follow, although vestiges of their contributions remain.
In the radical reorganization that ensued, many of the songs from Funny Face
were replaced with numbers from other Gershwin shows, and Peter Stone
(Woman of the Year) was hired to write a new book. While Tommy Tune nominally took over the direction with his co-choreographer Thommie Walsh, Mike Nichols, Tony Walton and -- at the last minute -- Michael Bennett were brought in to help with the direction, choreography and set design.
The production used up practically its entire capitalization of $2.8 million by the end of its out-of-town tryout, at which point it very nearly closed. Finally, Paramount Theater Productions, which holds the controlling financial interest in the show, agreed to come up with the additional $1.3 million needed to get the show through four more weeks of rehearsal in New York and four weeks of previews before opening on Broadway.
That means, essentially, that $4 million is riding on the back of one man. My One and Only
has become, with Paramount's blessing and a little help from some very talented friends, Tommy Tune's
bid to become the king of musical comedy wearing a three-point crown: director, choreographer, star.
The cast of My One and Only, both onstage and off, is a large one. Besides Mr. Tune and Twiggy, who play a barnstorming pilot and the English Channel swimmer he falls in love with, there are a female mechanic (Denny Dillon), a phony Russian prince (Bruce McGill), a debonair Harlem preacher (Roscoe Lee Browne), an enigmatic wise man (the tap dancer Charles "Honi" Coles), a barbershop quartet, six chorus girls and seven male dancers. They and the long list of producers, designers and uncredited "helpers" have all been through many costume changes, literally and figuratively, since the show went into rehearsal last November.
In fact, the cast has been through three almost completely different versions of the show -- the one Mr. Sellars originally conceived, the one Mr. Nichols pulled together for the four-week Boston tryout and the one that opens on Broadway tonight.
It all began with a chance remark. Being interviewed by a journalist, Bernard Carragher, about
Cloud 9, the Off Broadway hit he directed, Mr. Tune mentioned that what he most wanted to do next was return to performing. Mr. Carragher had seen Mr. Sellars's production of
The Inspector General and suggested that he would be the ideal director for Mr. Tune. It turned out that Mr. Sellars was eager to do a Broadway musical and envisioned "a Gershwin Tune." When he proposed
Funny Face, which originally starred Fred and Adele Astaire, Mr. Tune immediately thought of Twiggy for his dancing partner; they had both wanted to work together again since they had appeared in Ken Russell's 1971 movie
The Boy Friend, a spoof of 1920s musicals. The original book for
Funny Face was hopelessly outdated, so Mr. Sellars asked Mr. Mayer, a playwright, director, and rock lyricist to write a new one.
"Tim and I worked out the story in the exact tradition of the Fred and Ginger movies. Imperative in the formula is to have some outrageous metaphor for each of them that allows them to dance, and we hit upon flying and swimming. Swimming represented an enormous liberation for women; the idea of women entering into sports set off a new era not just in fashions but in what a woman is allowed to do. And flying is a standard metaphor for dancing, but it also represented the new method of transportation that made this century totally unlike any other, which is why we decided to have Russian Constructivist sets -- the design was based on the idea of machinery transforming our view of the world."
Once the story and the stars were set, the next obstacle was the Gershwin estate, which carefully controls the theatrical use of the Gershwin repertory. "I explained I did opera, that we considered this material on the same level as Verdi and Mozart, and that we would treat it accordingly," said Mr. Sellars. "Mrs. Gershwin said, 'It's yours.'" In order to avoid any confusion between the new book and the 1957 movie, neither of which bore any relation to the original storyline of
Funny Face, it was agreed that the show would henceforth be called
My One and Only, the title of another song from the original score.
Now there remained the small matter of money -- $2.8 million to begin with. Mr. Carragher had intended to produce the show himself with three partners collectively known as King Street Productions. But after several months, they had raised only a fraction of the financing required, so Mr. Sellars and Mr. Tune approached Lewis Allen, who had produced
Annie with Mike Nichols, and asked him to come in as supervising producer.
Mr. Allen became a catalyst in attracting backers; he invited the well-known theatrical agent Sam Cohn to see a preliminary run-through, and Mr. Cohn in turn stirred up enthusiasm among potential producers. Eventually, Paramount -- which had produced the workshop version of
Nine but declined to take the show to Broadway -- consented to put up half the money for
My One and Only. Francine Lefrak and Kenneth-Mark Productions, co-producers of
Nine, together accounted for $900,000. Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the St. James, supplied $200,000, and King Street Productions came up with $100,000. The final $150,000 came from C & C Company, which Mr. Allen characterizes as "some friends of mine who wish to remain nameless."
After a year and a half of preparation and months of delay, the first day of rehearsal should have been a joyous occasion. The teaming of Peter Sellars and Tommy Tune seemed particularly auspicious, for both are brilliant, iconoclastic innovators. But while his academic background made Mr. Sellars' directorial approach intellectual, Mr. Tune's central point of reference was show business. And as soon as
My One and Only began rehearsals, "artistic differences" set in over everything from the book and the musical arrangements to the advertising and the star entrance. It became a struggle, as Mr. Sellars later put it, "between the forces of Brecht and the forces of
The Pajama Game."
Mr. Sellars and Mr. Mayer had concocted a wild, purposely silly book involving rum-running in Cuba, a flight to Morocco and a case of amnesia. Yet within this comic context they hoped to comment satirically on such notions as the rise of the corporation, the colonialization of the Third World and the oppression of women. This was not exactly the stuff of musical comedy, however, and both Mr. Tune and Paramount became increasingly impatient with Mr. Sellars's conceptual approach.
The producers panicked when they saw the first run-through of the show, and when Mr. Sellars (who had just been announced the recipient of a so-called "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation) refused to make major changes he was fired, five days before
My One and Only was scheduled to begin previews in Boston.
Mr. Sellars contends that the real issue at stake was the music. He was committed to using the original Gershwin orchestrations, played without amplification. "They were interested in a real Las Vegas sound -- efficient, hard-hitting stuff. The sense of musical architecture was primitive," Mr. Sellars said.
"I don't mean to say if I had just directed it there wouldn't have been any problems," he continued. "Let's just say that I was interested in trying some things that suddenly other people in the room weren't interested in trying."
"Both Peter and Tim are geniuses of sorts, and their concept was quite brilliant," said Lewis Allen, whose function as supervising producer is to act as liaison between the financial interests in the show and the artistic staff. "But musical theater is a specific genus. It's not like a book or a painting that can be enjoyed over a period of time; the audience demands instant gratification. Peter wanted to enlarge the scope of the musical theater, and he was trying to say more in the text than a musical book can allow."
Mr. Tune was more blunt in his assessment of the original version of the show. "It was just a burial ground," he said. "We were all totally sapped of our spirits and were just sort of meister-puppets that had been moved around. I should have known the first day of rehearsal. I started choreographing my entrance, and he didn't want me to dance; he wanted me to walk on, play a long scene and sing a song. I thought the whole point was to dance to these Gershwin tunes. And if a show is to dance, it must be presented in the first minute of the show where the ground rules for the evening are presented.
"Don't get me wrong, I wanted Peter's team. I thought Broadway needed younger, fresher ideas. They didn't take care of business, the young
kids. I would say 80 percent of the original rehearsal period was wasted."
With Mr. Sellars's departure, Mr. Tune offered to take care of business himself and direct the show, which was acceptable to the producers. But he also immediately got on the phone to colleagues in New York soliciting help. Michael Bennett was busy mounting the touring production of
Dreamgirls; however, Phillip Oesterman, a boyhood friend of Mr. Tune who directed the erotic revue
Let My People Come, flew to Boston at once and remains with the show as "associate director."
But it was Mike Nichols who saved the day. Although he was editing his film Silkwood
and reluctant to take over from another director, when it became clear that he was desperately needed, he went up to Boston and went to work. In a few days, he cut one character, two songs, almost the entire book, and an hour's worth of running time.
"He did major surgery and saved us from putting people to sleep," said Mr. Tune. (Mr. Nichols declined to be interviewed, claiming that his role is simply as "a friend of the court.") "Mike made it make sense to us. It certainly was never meant to be an end product. It was a means of getting the show to continue until we could do what really needed to be done."
The interim version of My One and Only opened in Boston to mixed reviews. The critics liked some of the dances and the lavish costumes, but they complained about the "kindergarten-Cubist" sets, the incoherent plot, and the rather lengthy curtain speech in which Mr. Tune apologized for the parts of the show that didn't make sense.
The company immediately went back into rehearsal for phase three of the show. Jack Lee, a Broadway veteran, came in as musical director to soup up the orchestrations. Mr. Tune began choreographing a new opening number. And although Mr. Mayer was willing to rewrite the book, Mr. Tune and Mr. Nichols brought in Peter Stone because he had done rewrites before and could work fast. Now the production was in the hands of Broadway professionals instead of young mavericks.
My One and Only was in dire trouble when the company returned to New York. The show had lost $800,000 in Boston. It was scheduled to begin previews nine days later and to open two weeks after that, yet there wasn't enough money left to get that far. Mr. Tune and Mr. Nichols decided that previews needed to be put off to allow four full weeks of rehearsals.
"We could have closed the show in Boston and walked away with some money," said Paramount's Dan Sherkow, who held the pursestrings throughout the production of
My One and Only. "Any producer who got notices as bad as those we got would have contemplated closing." There were a few tense days in which rehearsals slowed to a crawl and the producers wondered where the next payroll would come from.
Then several things happened. After seeing a run-through of the new first act with Mr. Stone's book and Mr. Tune's new dances, Paramount agreed to put up most of the $1.6 million it would take to get the show to opening night; the Francine Lefrak group of producers raised the rest of the money. The actors and musicians, entitled to full pay having performed the show in Boston, elected to take rehearsal pay both during the four-week period of revisions and -- in an unprecedented move -- during the preview performances as well, reportedly saving the producers $25,000 a week. And other members of the artistic staff (with a few holdouts, including Mr. Nichols) agreed to defer payments.
And so, under great financial pressure, Mr. Tune, Mr. Nichols and Mr. Stone set about creating the third and final version of
My One and Only. With the cooperation of the Gershwin estate, they decided to drop several songs from the original score, including "Funny Face," and to replace them with standards from other Gershwin shows. In completing the new book, Mr. Stone said, "We kept the characters as defined by the casting, but we made the decision to inject believability into the story, which they'd purposely left out before. That meant simplifying the story and motivating the characters."
"The show has become about America. It's not about Russian Constructivism anymore," Mr. Tune said. "The show itself, just the making of it, is a metaphor for America. There is a drive to this country and an energy and a fearlessness that's really inspiring. There's nobody saying, 'You can't do that,' so we just go on and do it."
As the countdown began toward opening night (postponed three times from March 24 to May 1), the last-minute frenzy that often attends Broadway openings mounted. The cast and crew worked overtime as new scenes were written daily, new scenery was installed, songs and choreography went through changes. One Friday night Mr. Tune went to Michael Bennett's birthday
party, and the next day Mr. Bennett had agreed to help with the choreography. "It was getting to that point where Tommy really needed to concentrate on his performance, and he was having trouble with a couple of numbers, so I said 'I'll do it for you,'" Mr. Bennett explained.
Through all the turmoil, Mr. Tune remained calm. Without closing his eyes or ears to the problems that have plagued
My One and Only since the beginning, he seemed able to focus his attention on the most important matters at hand.
"It's quite strange," he said, musing about the difficulty of switching back and forth from directing to performing. "It's like going into and out of a mirror. I'll get something set on stage and then go look at it from out front or even from the wings, and it's all different. There's an invisible mist that exists between the edge of the stage and the first row of the orchestra, and I have to call it the magic of the theater because I don't know what else to call it.
"This show has been a tough one but it's not anything that's being forced on me. I'm liking it. It's really not that different from playing in the family garage back in Texas. I'm just doing what I've always like doing best -- makin' up shows."
New York Times, May 1, 1983