Nothing is more fleeting than fame in the theater. A few decades ago, Mike Todd was remembered as one of Broadway's greatest showmen. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is not as a producer, not as the developer of the Todd-AO film process, maybe not even as the man who made "Around the World in 80 Days," but as Elizabeth Taylor's third husband.
Even this might have inspired a musical. What made this runty, coarse middle-aged man attractive to the world's most beautiful woman, then in her early 20s?
For all the charm or flair it manages to eke out of its subject, "Ain't Broadway Grand," ostensibly a show about Todd, might just as well be a musical about Larry Fortensky.
Its thin, plodding score, its book full of stale gags have non of the relentless energy the subject demands. The musical treats a made-up situation where Todd, eager to be seen as classy, produces a satire by two pretentious Yalies. When it looks like a flop, he reverts to his instincts and turns it into sleazy burlesque.
This might have been an amusing 10-minute sketch, but it's not enough for a whole evening. Nor do we ever learn much about the woman who was then Mrs. Todd, Joan Blondell. Nor do the songs give the characters any greater depth. None of the songs has any dramatic development. Instead of musical climaxes, the amplification simply gets louder. The show works mainly when it - like Todd - goes for low humor, as it does in the one strong scene, which takes place in Lindy's.
I'm sure Mike Burstyn could be convincing with a fleshed-out script about Todd, but all he can do here is strike attitudes. Maureen McNamara looks and sounds fine as Joan Blondell, but it is a thankless role. The same is true for Debbie Shapiro Gravitte, who plays Gypsy Rose Lee, and Gerry Vichi, who does Bobby Clark.
The luckiest performers are Alix Korey, Merwin Goldsmith, Gabriel Barre and Mitchell Greenberg, who don't have to sing much and get the few genuinely funny lines. My heart went out to the talented chorus, who work so hard injecting cheer and zest into the lifeless material.
By the way, the show bills itself as a "brand-new 1948 musical comedy." In 1948, "Oklahoma!," "Brigadoon," "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Finian's Rainbow" were all running. "Ain't Broadway Grand" ain't 1948 in my book.
The question that the new musical "Ain't Broadway Grand," which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater last night, irresistably suggests is: Is it grand enough? And the answer is both not really and not quite, although it has a few decent proposals going for it, including a troupe of long-stemmed chorus girls of a style that seemed to have gone out of fashion.
Of course this musical - based loosely on an episode in the life and dames of the showman Mike Todd - does bill itself, doubtless with disarming intent, as a "brand-new 1948 Musical Comedy," so old-style chorus girls can go along with the old-style jokes and old-style music.
Perhaps they ought to try "brand-new 1948" ticket prices - only joking.
Presumably the book-writers Thomas Meehan and Lee Adams have taken their inspiration (or whatever) from the brouhaha surrounding Todd's final Broadway production, "As the Girls Go."
Starring Bobby Clark - as the first gentleman, being the husband of the first lady President to take over the White House - in 1948 this was the first Broadway show to run for more than a year yet still lose money.
However, "Ain't Broadway Grand" is actually centered around some semi-fictional Todd show, also about presidential politics, a musical within the musical, called "Of the People."
This horridly unfunny spoof the authors show us first in some highbrow, high-flopping Daliesque version during a Boston tryout, and later in a second burlesque, high-stepping Vargaesque version on the Broadway first night, in which the lines are all the same but, the second still unfunny time around, double-entendred.
The mixture of fact and fancy - Todd (Mike Burstyn) is caught between his earlier lover and star, Gypsy Rose Lee (Debbie Shapiro Gravitte) and his current wife, Joan Blondell (Maureen McNamara) - traces out the trials and tribulations of putting a show on Broadway.
At times it seems perversely apt, for "Ain't Broadway Grand" itself appears not exactly unscathed and certainly not unscarred, suggesting the authors have remarkable sang-froid and a terrifying lack of irony.
Mitch Leigh's score, like Adams' lyrics, seems efficient rather than inspired, with the title song, catchy but scarcely embraceable, returning throughout the night like radishes on an empty stomach. Yet we have heard far worse music on Broadway, and will again.
Scott Harris' staging is - in these days of virtuoso directors - almost memorably unmemorable, while Randy Skinner's choreography (the dance ensemble is both good and energetic, and do those chorines chorine!) demonstrates conventional to the point of TV.
However, I liked Suzy Benzinger's opulently period costumes, and David Mitchell's scenery, making enjoyably skillful use of back projections, craftily gives a thriftily spectacular look, offering glimpses of a Broadway already vanished in nostalgia.
The casting is generally weak. Burstyn lacks the punch and drive to make a convincing Todd. This is not the man about to send Niven round the world in 80 days or convert Taylor to Judaism.
Of the rest, McNamara's Blondell sings torchily enough but is over-pallid, Gerry Vichi as Bobby Clark hardly suggests comic genius, so among the principals only Gravitte, smiling with naughty effulgence and walking through the show as if slightly slumming, emerges with any abounding grace.
However, the evening brightens whenever Alix Korey and Mitchell Greenberg show up as Todd's henchpersons, Merwin Goldsmith is sweet as a sour Lindy waiter, while Gabriel Barre and Bill Kux have fun as berserk Yalie creators.
The main fault is, of course, not the casting but the inability of the show to grab and maintain the interest. Where failure is concerned there can be no solid substitute for boredom.
As a showman, Mike Todd was a self-generating dynamo, a con artist who transformed himself into a promotional genius. Just as he gave his name to a wide-screen movie process, he lived his entire life in Todd-AO. Originality, which Todd had in abundance, is a key ingredient missing in "Ain't Broadway Grand." The musical, which opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, is smaller than Todd's life. A more appropriate title would have been "Ain't Broadway Bland."
During the few moments that evoke the flashy Todd style, the show strikes entertaining notes, especially when Gerry Vichi is cavorting onstage pretending to be the producer's favorite comedian, Bobby Clark. But when the authors, Thomas Meehan and Lee Adams, try to invent a story thread about Todd's life, the result is substandard Broadway biography. Were this an actual 1940's show being revived at the Goodspeed Opera House rather than a period pastiche, the book would have been rewritten.
Intentionally, "Ain't Broadway Grand" steers clear of the more dramatic side of the Todd story, including his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor and his death in a plane crash in the late 1950's. The show shoehorns in biographical detail while dealing exclusively with a year, 1948, when both Broadway and the producer were booming.
Having chosen that consequential period, the creators of the musical scarcely know what to do with it. One model could have been "Gypsy," which offered both an extraordinary central character and a panoply of that character's show-business world. The book by Mr. Meehan and Mr. Adams is split between Todd's brief, disputatious marriage to Joan Blondell and his obsession with his career. The marriage half of the story is a rehash of old plot lines from musicals and movies, with Blondell repeatedly kept waiting for her workaholic husband. This does, however, lead to Mike Burstyn (as Todd) singing "You're My Star," one of Mitch Leigh's more melodic ballads.
In the freely fictionalized theatrical half of the show, Todd is so desperate to have class that he deludes himself into thinking that a lofty, surrealistic political tract written by two supercilious Yalies can be a Broadway musical hit. The saga of that show's turnabout from Boston flop does have some basis in fact. Todd did indeed rescue "As the Girls Go" as a vehicle for Bobby Clark, who played the First Gentleman of the United States, with his wife the first female President. In the version in "Ain't Broadway Grand," Clark is elevated to the Presidency. During this freewheeling burlesque number, Mr. Vichi, surrounded by a statuesque female Cabinet, gives us a taste of the Todd flair.
Mr. Leigh's score (with lyrics by Mr. Adams) is listenable and recognizable. The titles alone -- "It's Time to Go," "On the Street," "The Man I Married" -- are so generic as to be interchangeable in any number of shows. The composer seems unable to refrain from a refrain. We hear the title song so often that it begins to sound nostalgic. When Mr. Burstyn repeats it for the fifth time at the final curtain, the audience may not need to refer to the supertitles in order to follow the singsong lyrics ("It's not a thoroughfare/It's a tingle in the air").
Although Randy Skinner has synchronized his dancers like Rockettes, his choreography and Scott Harris's staging lack that added sparkle that Tommy Tune brings to a production. In the direction as well as the writing, the borrowings are ample: shades of "Sugar Babies" as well as echoes of "The Will Rogers Follies." "Ain't Broadway Grand" might have further emulated "Will Rogers" and diminished the book (and lightened the evening with a clever dog act). The show may be aimed at people who have seen few musicals since 1948, Mike Todd's last halcyon year on Broadway. One should remember that was also the season of "Kiss Me Kate" and "South Pacific."
Mr. Burstyn has the necessary swagger for the role and a hearty singing voice, but the show's collaborators have shortchanged his character in the area of charisma. It is difficult to believe that this Todd could have been a panjandrum of the grand gesture, as in the "intimate little party" for 18,000 friends that he gave in Madison Square Garden.
In the highly overmiked surroundings, Maureen McNamara (as Joan Blondell) sounds brassier than intended. There are cheeky performances by Alix Korey as Todd's wisecracking secretary and Debbie Shapiro Gravitte as Gypsy Rose Lee, and Merwin Goldsmith leads a clownish chorus of churlish waiters in an obligatory number in Lindy's restaurant. When Mr. Vichi does his re-creation of Bobby Clark, theatergoers may feel that a real revival of one of Todd's Broadway burlesques, like "As the Girls Go," would have been a more salutary idea than this new "old" musical.
No, it ain't.
Thomas Meehan and Lee Adams' bio-tuner has lowbrow producer Mike Todd (Mike Burstyn) putting everything on the line for a high-toned musical satire of the presidency called "Of the People," written by the rightly unheralded, Trotskyite-looking but Yale-graduated team of Fischbein (Gabriel Barre) and Klein (Bill Kux).
Todd, born Avrom Goldbogen, thinks the show will earn him the admiration of the Theater Guild crowd.
"Of the People" flops in Boston; wife Joan Blondell (Maureen McNamara) returns to Hollywood; Todd sees the light and transforms it, with the help of Gypsy Rose Lee (Debbie Shapiro Gravitte) and comic Bobby Clark (Gerry Vichi) into the kind of burlesque for which the producer is best known.
Joan returns in time for the Broadway opening, where she assures her husband that he does indeed have a "special" kind of class all his own. "Of the People" is a smash.
Set in 1948, "Ain't Broadway Grand" opens with a scene from "Girls Ahoy!"-- presumably an homage to "As the Girls Go," Todd's show that year. By then, he had taken his stab at respectability three years earlier, importing the Maurice Evans "Hamlet."
But that's the least of "Grand's" troubles. This would be just another standard-issue flop, gone in a week and not worth the newsprint expended discussing it, except for one thing: Composer/backer Mitch Leigh is not known for throwing in the towel early (this is a man, after all, who reprises the title song five times and then forces the audience to join in an encore). So the pans may not kill the thing off as quickly as it deserves.
There was also the discomfiting sensation, akin to what it must be like to be a black person in the audience of a minstrel show, in watching the show's Jewish characters indulge in every Jewish stereotype, in the service of an idiotic musical comedy that hasn't a single original or interesting idea.
Such an enterprise invariably makes every artist associated with it look third-rate. That includes Burstyn, who lacks even a hint of the magnetism that would get Todd through these tight spots, as well as McNamara and Gravitte, who are saddled with one abysmal, derivative number after another. (One Leigh melody sung by McNamara, "Waiting in the Wings," seems close enough to the Hoagy Carmichael standard "Skylark" to be actionable.)
And Adams describes Broadway in the title lyric as "the gay white way" and has an actress sing, "I feel like a poet with no strings," which must be something like being a fish without a bicycle.
Director Scott Harris and choreographer Randy Skinner fall into the third-rate category, too, though Skinner, lacking originality, at least pays respect (inelegantly) to mentor Gower Champion. And finally, designers David Mitchell (sets) and Susan Benzinger (costumes) have come up with some of the ugliest sets and costumes in recent memory.
"Ain't Broadway Grand" has been knocking around for years in various forms. In all that time, it's merely gone from burlesque to grotesque.