|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.
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)
|David Steinberg and Groucho Marx, 1970|
|Earl Wilson on Hippie David Steinberg being picked to write the Marx bros play|
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|
|Producer Arthur Whitelaw and his star, Shelley Winters|
|Totie Fields: "Too Jewish"|
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
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|
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)|
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|
Lewis J. Stadlen as Groucho in a mid-seventies Aqua-Vela commericial (featuring Groucho Marx's then girlfriend Erin Fleming):
|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|
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:
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|
|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|
|Groucho telling Stadlen and the audience that he was "better than I was--and younger"|
(photo from "The Groucho Phile")
|and a third|
|"Be Happy" Minnie's Boy's sheet music|
|Minnie's Boys original cast album|
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|
First-rate, Drew! An excellent history.ReplyDelete
Wish I coulda been there in the Imperial with you!
First rate, Drew! An excellent history.ReplyDelete
Wish I coulda been at the Imperial with you!
You just said that. That's the problem around here... talk, talk, talk.Delete
You just said that. That's the problem around here... talk, talk, talk.Delete
My parents took me and my brother to this. I think it was the very first Broadway play I ever saw.ReplyDelete
Thanks for all the info, Drew.
- Bruce Pross
So you lost the autograph?ReplyDelete
That was fascinating.
Via Bob Greenberg, who attended opening night:ReplyDelete
I was there on opening night! We had tickets for March 26th, my birthday, but the opening was postponed to the 26th. We came in from Brooklyn to exchange our tickets. When my sister told the box office that we were supposed to go tonight 'cause it was my birthday she exchanged our tix for 3 seats in first row mezzanine center! Now, my dad wasn't dressed nor was I or my sister for an Opening Night or even for "a Show," so we were quite a sight in an audience filled with tuxes, furs, diamonds, etc. IT WAS GREAT when Groucho came on stage afterwards. I loved his business with Lewis J. Stadlen and his heartfelt speech. I was also surprised to see HOW SHORT he was! The Cast made him look like Billy Barty!
And more from Bob...ReplyDelete
I also recall that Groucho whispered something in Lewis J. Stadlen's ear and then they both did the Groucho walk up and down the stage. I actually got to see the Groucho walk LIVE on Broadway! In his thank you speech, he looked up and said, "I wish my brothers Harpo and Chico were here... I know Chico is in a card game somewhere and Harpo, with that harp of his, I think we know where he is..."
I love the recollections of you and Bob. Just wonderful.ReplyDelete
Well done and, dare I say, scholarly? I will!ReplyDelete
The poster art looks like an amateur attempt to copy Hirshfeld freehand.
What a great recollection, and thanks for the extensive firsthand notes. Because the show was a flop, no one has written much about it, but us Grouchophiles live for this kind of material. My Mom had that Steve Lawrence record and I always thought it was a surprisingly good sentimental song.ReplyDelete
Off topic but Andy Griffith's passing immediately brought to mind your comic strip of Mayberry mayhem back in the pages of Hight Times, the first work of yours I ever saw. Pure genius. I was immediately hooked and am still a big fan of your unique and brilliant art.
This is epic, and I mean that. I think around the age of 11, our musical-theater tastes are set (or not) for life, so I'm glad you got to see this show of shows (for you) and meet an idol. Now, when will the Three Stooges be made into a Broadway Musical? Because I am so there.ReplyDelete
Will Finn, I thought of Drew's strip immediately after Griffith passed, especially when all the Facebook friends started posting their sentimental Mayberry memories, photos and clips. I'm just wired for the comic-strip version of everything, especially when it acknowledges painful realities. Excellent work.
Wonderful memories. This was one of the earliest shows I saw on Broadway and I recall loving it. Years later, while studying at AADA ,my favorite acting teacher introduced me to his friend ,Lewis J Stadlen ! I used to sing MOMMA A RAINBOW at auditions . This show definitely deserves revisiting .ReplyDelete
Terrific article! I heard the cast album for the first time in the 70s. I liked it a lot until the closing number. Instead of becoming the Marx Brothers throughout the show and closing with a "Marx Brothers" scene, they chose to go with the worst Phony Showbiz Bullshit ending: "Hey! I've got a great idea! I'll wear a fake MUSTACHE!" and after 15 years of vaudeville, they suddenly become the Marx Brothers within five minutes. Fake, fake, fake and disappointing.ReplyDelete
Just fyi Pearl Bailey also recorded two songs for an album released at this time "Rich Is" and "They Give Me Love".ReplyDelete
Oh.. and it's "Jules Styne" not "Julie"
The Project 3 Label was Enoch Light's. Also on that label: The Free DesignReplyDelete
Very informative post. Your post really gonna help the people like me who are looking for such terms and info.... I am glad i visited here and learned.ReplyDelete
Broadway Musicals Compared at CompareThings
I love this show! Directed a summerstock production back in the 70's that was very successful---did some tinkering with the book & it worked beautifully. I think it deserves an ENCORE! production.ReplyDelete
I still have my vinyl LP I constantly played when in college, when this musical debuted. I was 20, immersed in Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, and this LP.ReplyDelete
Of all the many CDs I've owned, only one cracked in half. Minnie's Boys. I have lusted and longed for a replacement, but the cost is prohibitive. I loved loved Rich Is! I loved Minnie's song telling her love of her boys. She believed in them so much. Everyone should be so lucky to have a mother like she. But when they passed out luck for a loving mother, where was I? I love that song too...
Such a shame they couldn't get it together. And that Groucho insisted on Ms. Winters, never known as a loving mother in the movies nor a singer.
Great, great wonderful memories listening to those songs, while I created art. One of my fave Broadway cast albums.
Now if ONLY the rights were available to turn this into a CD on demand on Amazon. Oh well ... thanks for the great memories, photos and memorabilia.
Daniel Fortus was my father's mother's sister's son. He was the nicest of my relative's, in my childhood recollection. I was 13 when he died, an early victim of AIDS.ReplyDelete
Yeah, I know he died very young, 32 I think. Very sad.ReplyDelete
I thoroughly enjoyed all of the wonderful "Minnie's Boys" history you provided. I owned the album (and now the CD) but was not fortunate enough to have seen either the original production or any that followed. "Minnie's Boys" along with Jerry Herman's "Mack & Mabel" (my favorite "flop" musical score) are the two shows that I most wish to have seen. With the recent failure of "Chaplin" (a show I did see and liked very very much) I'm wondering if maybe era (early 1920s) with possibly the exception of "Funny Girl" doesn't transfer well to the Broadway stage.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this wonderful blog.....I love this show! I directed a very successful summer stock production in Michigan back in the mid 70's. The score is exceptional, & I think with some work on the script & a good cast this show could revived. Perhaps an Encore! production?ReplyDelete
Another thank you for the blog. I just got the album out again the other day and laughed and wept as I remembered my young days and association with it. I love the score. It is highly underrated.ReplyDelete
I wish I saved my album. I saw it as a young kid and later became a talent agent. In fact my agency represented Lewis Stadlen for voice overs years later. I thought the score was superlative . I only wish ITunes would remaster it.ReplyDelete
Encores should do this or a revamped production, much like the one they keep working on for "Mack & Mabel" should reviewed.
Ahhh, so sad Groucho has been gone forty years (forty winks?) and a day--a day I remember well, I doodied in my diaper in manure memory of his passing.
Has anyone seen a color photo of the cast with the Paul Galdone artwork (the five floating heads) in the background?
Would like to put it in my "Booko" film art of the Marx Brothers book I am currently designing.
Gracias por su supporte :)
Thank you for another great article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.ReplyDelete
broadway for broke people