The Very Model of a Major Merman Musical

Aaron Netsky

January 16th marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the onetime Queen of Broadway, Ethel Merman. The following is excerpted from a book I am working on about the collaboration of my great-uncle Harold Karr and his writing partner Matt Dubey, one of whose projects was one of Merman's lesser known musicals: Happy Hunting. If you have any information about Happy Hunting, or anything else they worked on, together or apart, please contact me at aaronednet@gmail.com.

In August of 1955, about four months after Grace Kelly first met Prince Rainier III of Monaco while attending the Cannes Film Festival, an item about an optimistic group’s plan to put on a Broadway musical called Las Vegas appeared in The New York Times. Producer Melvin Parks described it as “a $250,000 musical…which will, of course, be about and take place in the Nevada resort.” Harold Karr and Matt Dubey had written the score, and Philip Burton, a British television and stage writer, and father of Richard Burton, had reportedly written the book. Parks expected “a famous Hollywood film mogul” to provide nearly all of the capitol. In December of that year, a month before Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III announced their engagement, another item appeared in the Times, announcing the temporary cancelation of Las Vegas, and the departure of the songwriting team, “by ‘mutual agreement.’”

Fortunately, Dubey and Karr’s agent, Richard Seff, who had discovered them when they had played their Las Vegas score one Tuesday in a small audition room at MCA, was able to set up a very important audition for them. Ethel Merman was looking to return to Broadway in a musical, and was hearing songs from people as well established as Irving Berlin, but was turning them down. Seff got Dubey and Karr to fly to Colorado, where Merman had moved with her husband Bob Six, who was president of Continental Airlines, to audition for her directly, and she chose their score (Burton’s book did not come with it). Merman had wanted to retire to a quiet domestic life after she finished filming the movie adaptation of Call Me Madam. Her husband, though, wanted to be married to Broadway superstar Ethel Merman, not homemaker Ethel Merman, and she wanted him to be happy.

Since the book did not follow the score to Merman, there were songs but there was no story. Her old friends and collaborators Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, book writers for such musicals as Anything GoesCall Me Madam, and, a few years later, The Sound of Music, were brought in to write the book. It was decided that it should be based on the hottest news item of the day: the “wedding of the year” of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier III. Not directly, though. Merman’s character would be a member of Philadelphia’s Main Line society by marriage, and she would be snubbed when the wedding invitations went out. The plot would revolve around her trying to get into the wedding anyway, and then attempting to upstage it by marrying her daughter off to an heir to the Spanish throne. The musical would be called Happy Hunting.

David Merrick was briefly signed on to co-produce with an enthusiastic Jo Mielziner, the latter of whom then had six shows running on Broadway with sets he had designed. Merrick, a more experienced producer than Mielziner, was convinced by Mielziner’s enthusiasm for the project, but left as it dawned on him that the script was taking its time being written, and, he said, “the venture was economically unwieldy for me as a producer.”

The society aspect echoed the plot of Merman’s last musical, Call Me Madam, for which Lindsay and Crouse had written the book. One of the songs, “Mr. Livingstone,” sounded like it could have been sung by a grown-up Annie Oakley. The mother scheming for her daughter’s success and fame and the matchmaking that leads to hint at future Merman projects Gypsy and Hello, Dolly!, the latter of which originally starred Carol Channing, but was conceived for Merman, and she eventually did play the role.

Between the coercion of Bob Six and the shoehorning of a pre-existing score into a new, topical, Merman-appropriate plot, it was a less than ideal launch of a new musical. That did not dampen spirits at the start, though. Merman was happy to be working with Lindsay and Crouse again, as well as Jo Mielziner, and Abe Burrows, a young director who had previously been involved with Guys and Dolls and Can-Can. Dubey and Karr were the wild cards. Karr continued to operate his dental practice in Philadelphia all through the production, which annoyed Merman. He and Dubey were also defensive of their material, which lead to clashes. In one clash confirmed by Karr’s brother, Marvin, Karr told Merman, referring to the way she had been singing one of the songs, “If I’d wanted it sung that way, I’d have written it that way.” Merman reportedly said something to the effect of, “Tell the dentist never to speak to me again.” Dubey also got in trouble, criticizing Burrows staging of “Mutual Admiration Society,” which had Merman and Virginia Gibson, who played her daughter, facing each other. Dubey said their voices would go into the wings, to which Merman replied, “My voice will never go into the wings.”

They all had a job to do, though, and when called upon, they did it. When Merman wanted a new opening number, Dubey and Karr produced a song that, despite her feelings about them, Merman kept singing in concerts even after Happy Hunting closed. That song was “Gee, But It’s Good To Be Here,” and when she sang it on opening night, the cheers of the crowed may as well have been saying, “Gee, but it’s good to have you here.” Another change seems to taken place with a song from the Las Vegas musical called “I’m A Funny Guy,” which became “I’m A Funny Dame” for Merman, with mostly new lyrics, but the same sentiment of not being affectionate but still feeling affection. One song that was cut, “They Love It,” had Merman’s Liz Livingstone singing to Gordon Polk’s Sanford Stewart, the young love interest of Liz’s daughter, who is not interested in the Spanish heir, about how to woo women. I don’t know where in the story the song came in, but presumably Liz did not know who Sanford was wooing.

Merman also had trouble with some of her fellow cast members, particularly her co-star, a recently retired Argentine movie star. A French actor and singer who had already been on Broadway, Georges Guetary, was considered, but the part ultimately went to Fernando Lamas. Lamas did not like that she projected her lines out to the audience instead of speaking them directly to him, as he was the intended recipient of the lines. Some of the tension also stemmed from the fact that he had as much star power as she did, and so he could get his own way over her objections, as when he insisted the cut of the suit he wears during his first appearance on stage show off his “legendary package,” and she could not undo the change. By the end of the production, though, he was sanctioned by Actor’s Equity for his behavior, which had come to include regularly stepping on her lines, wiping his mouth after kissing her, and ignoring notes from stage management, a part of the job he disliked so much that he once, completely naked, screamed at and chased a stage manager out of his dressing room.

So noxious was Lamas’s relationship with Merman that, on one occasion, when he courteously covered a split down the back of Merman’s dress with his jacket so that she could turn her back on the audience and walk upstage with him at the end of the show without the audience seeing, Merman got upset with him for that too. Paul Libin, now the Executive Vice President of Jujamcyn Theatres, was there, a stage manager at the time, ready to call for the curtain to come in had Lamas not done so, and Merman been in danger of exposing herself during her exit.

On a smaller scale, when Gene Wesson died his hair to look older so that he could audition for a film role, Merman told management to make him change it back, for continuity in the show, or fire him. When he was fired and did not get the role, he slandered Merman and got censured by Actor’s Equity. Some cast members had a good relationship with her, though. Virginia Gibson, who had been warned to be wary of a reportedly temperamental Merman from the start, became good friends with her. When Gibson, therefore, had an opportunity outside of the show, Merman did not get in the way of her leaving to do television, shortly before the musical closed.

Dubey and Karr did not have much to do with Happy Hunting after it opened, even when two of their songs were replaced halfway through the run. Roger Edens, a friend of Merman’s, wrote the songs “I’m Old Enough to Know Better” and “Just A Moment Ago” to replace “The Game of Love” and “This is What I Call Love,” respectively. Edens wrote under the name of his friend Kay Thompson, creator of the children’s book character Eloise, to avoid trouble with MGM, with whom he was still under an exclusive contract. Merman had not been satisfied with the original songs, and apparently liked the response to the new songs better. Obviously the producers had no problem with changing the material months into the run, and perhaps Dubey and Karr lacked the clout to challenge the decision, or just did not want to fight with Merman.

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Happy Hunting opened in Philadelphia and Boston before opening on Broadway on December 6th, 1956. The out of town reviews were positive; the reviews from the Broadway opening were less so. Merman, Lamas, Gibson, and costume designer Irene Sharaff were nominated for Tony Awards, but no one won. The musical ran for a year on Broadway and Merman never missed a show, though there is an amusing photograph of her dresser apparently trying to drag her to the stage for a matinee performance. When it closed, she continued to perform “Gee, But It’s Good To Be Here” and “Mutual Admiration Society.” She sang the latter in the pilot of a television show that was never picked up called Maggie Brown, with Susan Watson, who had done Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway, singing the part Virginia Gibson had sung. The song was also adapted by Eric Nagler and Bram Morrison for an episode of Sharon, Lois & Bram, Fred Gwynne and Joe Ross for an episode of Car 54, and Gerard Alessandrini for an edition of Forbidden Broadway, in which Ethel Merman and Mary Martin sing about their friendship and working together, and it hints at rivalry. (Fun little note: like Karr, Sharon Trostin, of Sharon, Lois & Bram, is also a distant relation of mine.) The song was also performed by Rita Hayworth and Carol Burnett on The Carol Burnett Show, and Billy Crystal very briefly referenced it in the opening of the 1990 Academy Awards, singing, “We belong to a mutual Dead Poets Society, Walt Whitman and me.”

The sum has had less of a life after Broadway than its parts. Gypsy Rose Lee, the real life daughter of Merman’s next Broadway role, Mama Rose, played Liz in a production in Valley Forge in 1958. In 1977, it was revived at the Encompass Theatre, with Mary Lynne Metternich. In March, 2013, the York Theatre Company in New York City put on a staged reading starring Klea Blackhurst, after which I got to be part of a talkback with Paul Libin and the York cast and creative team.

Happy Hunting was assembled in less than a year and centered around an event that had just taken place, the Kelly-Rainier wedding, so it lacks a timelessness that other shows have, so specific were the circumstances of its creation. It never disappeared, mostly because Merman made a cast recording, but it never achieved the kind of lasting fame of other musicals of the era. Musicals like Bells Are Ringing, which features the character of Dr. Kitchell, a dentist who wants to write music.

As the run came to a close, Merman was already planning her next musical, which she wished to be an adaptation of a novel by Homer Croy called The Lady From Colorado. It would have featured her as an “Irish immigrant girl from County Wicklow, who became the first titled lady of the Centennial State,” based, again, on a real person. It never took shape, though, which may have been for the best, because then we may never have had Gypsy.

Ethel Merman famously would not allow Stephen Sondheim write the score of Gypsy all on his own, insisting he be joined by the more established Jule Styne. Sondheim was not happy about this, since it was his ambition to write music and lyrics, but his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, advised him to do it. Merman had her reasons, and they were named Harold Karr and Matt Dubey, the two untested songwriters who had, as far as she was concerned, been largely to blame for the failures of Happy Hunting, and also very annoying. The feeling was mutual: Dubey and Karr had not liked working with Merman, and they therefore wanted an unknown to play the female lead in their next musical, We Take the Town. Their loss: they almost booked Barbra Streisand.

Aaron Netsky’s writing has appeared on AtlasObscura.com, Slate.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, Medium.com, and all over his personal blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Days/366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). He is also a novelist, actor, and singer who has performed and worked in a variety of capacities off and off-off Broadway. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.