Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Minnie's Boys", The 1970 Broadway Musical Flop

Playbill for Minnie's Boys

"A Rollicking New Marx Brothers Musical"
"Minnie's Boys", the legendary Broadway musical Flop about the early days of the Marx brothers and their mother/manager Minnie, (producer Sol Siegel's planned film biography of the Marx bros, also called "Minnie's boys" had been in the works several years earlier but never got beyond a script) the driving force behind their success, was first conceived by Groucho's son, writer Arthur Marx who proposed the idea to producer Arthur Whitelaw (or as S.J. Perleman referred to him in a letter to his friend Al Hirschfeld "Outlaw") in 1969. 

Arthur Whitelaw

The idea for the show seemed like a good one at the time. The Marx brothers had become counter-culture heros to a new generation of young fans, their films enjoying renewed interest via film book bios, television showings, college campus screenings,  and movie revival houses. A Broadway musical about the rise of the Marx's early days, beginning as a singing quartet, segueing into vaudeville and eventual Broadway success seemed like it couldn't fail, recreating some of their wild comedy sketches along the way, and featuring the ultimate stage mother, a variation of Mama Rose of "Gypsy", Minnie Marx. 
Minnie Marx
Whitelaw was friends with Groucho Marx, so the producer signed the 79 year old comedian on as the "production consultant", most likely to appease him and to avoid any possible Marx family lawsuits. From his home in Los Angeles, Groucho was consulted on many decisions to do with the early stages of the show, including choosing the books author and the pivotal role of the actress who would portray his mother. 

Shelley Winters as Minnie Marx with fellow cast members
 portraying the four
young Marx brothers (brother Gummo had retired from the act at this point)
Neil Simon,  at the time Broadway's most successful playwright, was first approached and instantly turned down the offer. Then the young stand up comedian and Marx brothers fan David Steinberg was offered the job and wrote a script, which was quickly rejected by Groucho.

David Steinberg and Groucho Marx, 1970
Earl Wilson on Hippie David Steinberg being picked to write the Marx bros play
Finally, at Groucho's suggestion, what seemed to be the logical choice, his son Arthur, a veteran film and TV comedy writer who had enjoyed a big Broadway success several seasons earlier with his comedy "The Impossible Years" (Starring Alan King), and who had already written about his father and uncles in his book "Life with Groucho" (and a later followup "Son of Groucho")

Arthur Marx was hired to write the show's book along with his "The Impossible Years" collaborator Robert Fisher.

Arthur Marx, son of Groucho, grandson of Minnie
Groucho Marx, circa 1970
For the starring role of Minnie Marx, Whitelaw and Arthur Marx first suggested to Groucho the idea of casting the funny, vulgar, chubby comedienne Totie Fields, who could also sing.  Groucho HATED the idea and famously dismissed her as being "Too Jewish". When two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters was proposed (also Jewish) Groucho liked the idea of casting a method actress and larger than life movie star, plus he had always admired her "big knockers", so she was hired, despite being vocally challenged.

Producer Arthur Whitelaw and his star, Shelley Winters
 Still, to Groucho she looked and sounded the part, large and loud, with "Germanic" (blonde) features, like his mother.

Totie Fields: "Too Jewish"

Shelley Winters.
 Groucho admired her "big knockers"

 For some reason (perhaps to keep costs down?) rather than hiring established Broadway songwriters of the time such as Stephen Sondheim, Julie Stein, Jerry Herman, John Kander & Fred Ebb or Lee Adams & Charles Strauss, Whitelaw hired two Broadway novices, Hal Hackady to write the lyrics and Larry Grossman to write the music
The show was cast with five unknown actors portraying the young Marx brothers, and after a few false starts with various directors,  Stanley Prager, who had directed many episodes of the classic early sixties sitcom "Car 54 Where Are You?" was hired and the production went into rehearsals.

It wasn't long after the previews began that word began to leak out that there were severe problems with the show, audience members were walking out and the laughs just weren't coming where they should.  Veteran comedy writers were invited to assess the show and offer suggestions, to "punch things up", among them, veteran Marx brothers writer and longtime Groucho friend S.J.Perelman (who described what he saw to his friend Al Hirschfeld: "a scalding descent into a tub of such merde as hasn't been seen outside a Catskill summer camp show" and declined the offer to help),
Groucho and S. J. Perelman
and Joseph Stein, who had written the book for "Fiddler on the Roof". Stein would attempt to do extensive script rewriting.

One witness pinpointed what was perhaps the main problem: "whenever Minnie's Boys got funny, their mom (in the shape of Shelley Winters) would come in and Gummo up the works".

The poster for the show, artist unknown (to me)
In early 1970, Minnie's Boys seemed to be in preview limbo, always a bad sign, seemingly lurching along with no official announced opening date, the speculation that it was heading to be a big turkey after all (which even Groucho was privately admitting to friends). Shelley Winters was having problems memorizing the constantly changing dialog, was plagued with laryngitis, throwing temper tantrums, and the show was rumored to be in turmoil with constant changes to the flimsy script, and songs being added and subtracted nightly

It was at one of these previews in early 1970 that my family and I went to see the show and I ... loved it! Of course, being 11 years old, I tended to love every show I was taken to see, especially the big Broadway musicals. But I was already a huge Marx brothers fan so getting to witness the young Marx boys slowly evolve into the characters of the Marx brothers was thrilling for me, and if the music was unmemorable, and Shelley Winters shrill and unable to actually sing the songs (she "yelled" them), it didn't bother me. To me, I was witnessing the Marx brothers live in full color on stage!
the (actual) Marx brothers
 By FAR the standout of the show was the character of Groucho in the guise of the young actor Lewis J. Stadlen (the son of famed voice artist Allen Swift), who had beaten out almost 1000 other actors for the role and was making his Broadway debut. He INHABITED Groucho Marx, in voice, subtle gestures, mannerisms (even perfecting the Groucho "walk"). He was truly memorable, evolving from the young sensitive Julius Henry Marx to the leering, wisecracking, cigar-chomping  Groucho, and adding his own subtle moves along the way. He would deservedly go on to win the Drama Desk and Theatre World awards for his performance later in the year.

Lewis J. Stadlen as Groucho in a mid-seventies Aqua-Vela commericial (featuring Groucho Marx's then girlfriend Erin Fleming):

Shelley Winters and the young actor cast as Julius Henry Marx (Groucho), Lewis J. Stadlen. Stadlen would later write about Shelley Winters in his memoir:
“she was a person who demanded to be difficult, as a means of exhausting the world around her.” 

The five young men hired to portray the Marx brothers (before their haircuts) from the bottom up: Milton (Gummo) Gary Raucher, Leonard (Chico) Irwin Pearl, Adolph (Harpo) Daniel Fortus, Julius (Groucho) Lewis J. Stadlen, Herbie (Zeppo) Alvin Kupperman
Shelley Winters and Groucho Marx in New York during the previews...

When word reached Groucho that the show was in serious trouble during the early previews, he flew into New York on new years day 1970 for an extended stay at the Regency hotel in a halfhearted attempt to live up to his "production consultant" credit. Aside from appearing with the five young actors dressed as the Marx brothers on the Dick Cavett show, this would consist mainly of backstage reminiscing to the mesmerized cast and crew about the Marx brother's early vaudeville days and distracting everyone from rehearsing.

Arthur Whitelaw solved this problem by hiring a young, sexy personal secretary for Groucho, to keep him distracted by walking and dining with him throughout Times Square. Groucho would eventually even propose marriage to her (his marriage to his third wife Eden had just ended).  Still, he was in attendance nightly at the Imperial Theatre during the previews, including the evening I would see the show.
My Minnie's Boys playbill, autographed by Groucho
Arriving at the Imperial theatre to see Minnie's Boys, I noticed a commotion in the lobby, and sure enough it was frail Groucho Marx himself, greeting fans and autographing playbills. I was thrilled to be in his very presence, even a clearly old and slightly befuddled Groucho (by 1970, he had already suffered several minor strokes) but I couldn't approach him because the house lights were about to dim for the show to begin. I bided my time and sure enough, at intermission he was again stationed in the lobby autographing and greeting fans, his comely "secretary" close by his side. Being 11, I was able to tunnel my way through the crowds and burrow my way right up to him where I presented my playbill which he quickly inscribed and handed back.

 I was in heaven and little did I suspect that this would be the first of three times I would make his acquaintance. It was an amazing evening for me, aside from loving the show, also getting to encounter a living comedy legend, the one, the only... Groucho
From the playbill, the cast and crew

Color photos of the original production of Minnie's Boys:

Still, despite my biased 11 year old perspective of the show, when it did finally officially open (after 64 previews) in late March, the reviews ranged from so-so to poor, with most of the New York critics complaining about the "haphazard book" and "lackluster score",  "lesser" actors pretending to be the Marx brothers, a "coy, watered-down version of Gypsy", and Shelley Winters  "abrasive" performance and "obvious lack of singing talent" as Minnie. Also, as pointed out by several Marx scholars, the script took quite a few liberties with the facts, including beginning the play with 5 young pre-teen boys as the Marx brothers when in fact the youngest brother Zeppo was 14 years younger than Chico, the eldest. In other words, When Chico (and Harpo) were young young teenagers, Zeppo was still an infant.

Only Lewis J. Stadlen as Groucho was singled out for unanimous praise.

As far as a show becoming an instant hit or flop, the only review that really mattered was Clive Barnes in the NY Times. Sure enough he loathed the show more than any other critic and brutally savaged it; "The idea of a musical on the Marx brothers before they really became the Marx brothers is splendid. What ever happened to it?" He went on to site every imaginable reason for it's awfulness, including the low blow that the score by Grossman & Hackady was "Gross and Hack" and perhaps that, as good as Stadlen was, he might be a one trick pony and only be able to do a good Groucho imitation  (speculation is that the Barnes review is the reason why Stadlen was not even nominated for a Tony award, such was the power of the Times. Stadlen would indeed go on to enjoy a long, celebrated career in musical comedies and be nominated for 3 Tonys), Barnes finally adding: "You would be better at home watching the old movies".

The NY Times Clive Barnes, not amused 
That was the death knell. Even the esteemed elder critic and Marx brothers lover Walter Kerr's more positive review of the show in the NY Times Sunday edition: "Where Minnie's Boys was smart, unbelievably bright, really, was in starting them out in birch-bark canoes , sans wigs, sans moustaches,  sans tricks.... Minnie's Boys is partly patchwork, here and there conscienceless, stuck with a gags-to-riches formula. I had a perfectly good time because those four boys onstage honored the men they were not trying too hard to become..." couldn't save it. It was now an official flop and would limp along for 80 more performances before finally closing at a huge financial loss.

Minnie's Boys newspaper clippings and reviews

On a more positive note, flawed as it is, the show has been revived many times over the years,  at colleges and regional theatres, including one touring 1972 production starring Kaye Ballard as Minnie,  and another with Martha Raye and... the Hudson brothers (?!) which closed before it's announced opening. The show continues to find new audiences who enjoy the opportunity of seeing the Marx brothers once again come to life on stage.
Groucho, Shelley Winters, Lewis J. Stadlen pose after a preview performance (photo from "The Groucho Phile")
Lewis J. Stadlen recreating a Marx brothers vaudeville sketch, mincing as a young Groucho
On opening night, with Zeppo and Gummo Marx also in attendance, Groucho took to the stage at the curtain call to a thunderous ovation, privately said to Shelley Winters: "I never thought when I saw you at SAKS buying a sweater for your big knockers that someday you'd wind up playing my mother", thanked the cast and his brothers, and proceeded to do "the walk" with Lewis J. Stadlen (photo from "The Groucho Phile")
Groucho telling Stadlen and the audience that he was "better than I was--and younger"
(photo from "The Groucho Phile")

a second Playbill cover... 
and a third
"Be Happy" Minnie's Boy's sheet music
Minnie's Boys original cast album
The show's "original cast album" was recorded (ironically) on Mother's day 1970 and was planned to be released via RCA records. Perhaps the scalding negative reviews for the show and score gave RCA second thoughts and the album was finally released by an obscure label called "Project 3". The score is really pretty good, the overture is especially exciting (which I remembered it being), and some of the songs are bouncy and first rate,  one "Mama a Rainbow" (song by Adolph/Harpo in the show to his mother) was later recorded by both Jim Nabors and Steve Lawrence:

                                      Steve Lawrence/Mama a Rainbow

 The song that came closest to capturing the spirit of the Marx's and Groucho though was "You Remind Me of You", sung by Lewis J. Stadlen to the Margaret Dumont-like character in the show:

"You remind me of you, cold sober or blind, up front or behind, you'll always remind... me of you"

  I believe the main problem Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady faced was trying to erase the memory of so many brilliant and funny songs written by some of the top Broadway & Hollywood song writers of the day specifically for the Marx brothers and Groucho, among them "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", "Hello, I Must Be Going", "I'm Against It", "Ev'ryone Says "I Love You", "Lydia the Tattooed Lady", etc, etc., (none of which were used in Minnie's Boys) a nearly impossible task.

Cast album back cover

Marvin Hamlish wrote the incidental music and dance arrangements for Minnie's Boys and two years later in 1972 he'd accompany Groucho on piano at Carnegie Hall for "An Evening With Groucho"

 program cover for a 1972 Pittsburgh revival

and a 1975 revival

a 1977 Philadelphia revival featured Stadlin and Charlotte Rae as Minnie

1n 1979, Lewis J. Stadlen would revive his Groucho impersonation for a one man (and one woman on piano) touring show

Many varying accounts has been written about the staging of the show "Minnie's Boys" (the making of the show could be a book or film in itself), yet the books: "Groucho, the Life & Times of Julius Henry Marx" by Stefan Kanfer and "The Groucho Phile" by Groucho Marx provided much valuable information. 

Thanks To Scott Alexander