When Robert Preston Played Pancho Villa

Aaron Netsky

The following is excerpted from a book I am working on about the collaboration of my great-uncle Harold and his writing partner Matt Dubey. If you have any information about We Take the Town or anything else they worked on, together or apart, please contact me at aaronednet@gmail.com.

As Happy Hunting was nearing it’s closing date, November 30th, 1957, Matt Dubey and Harold Karr secured the rights to adapt the MGM film Viva Villa! into a stage musical. MGM planned to turn the musical back into a movie, if it had been successful. Dubey and Karr would again write the score, but Dubey had higher aspirations, and planned to write the book as well, with collaborators Ronald Alexander, who did not end up working on the project, and a young woman named Felice Bauer, who had been the songwriters’ manager when they worked on Happy Hunting. She stuck with it. Joseph Anthony, who had recently directed The Most Happy Fella, was supposed to direct. The film, from 1934, was based on the book of the same name by Edgecumb Pinchon and O. B. Stade, and had been adapted for the screen by Ben Hecht. It told the story of Pancho Villa, the “Mexican Robin Hood,” who would be played, Dubey and Karr told the press, by “a Hollywood star.”

The writers wanted the production to reach Broadway by Fall of 1958, but they had not yet secured a producer. Nearly a year later, Paul Gregory, who had produced a recent hit on Broadway, The Marriage-Go-Round, signed on, and set the opening date for October 7th, 1959, after a pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia beginning August 26th. Anthony Quayle, a British actor who was then portraying James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in London, was in final talks to play Pancho Villa, portrayed in the film by Wallace Beery.

Part of the subsequent delay was Gregory’s determination to get a big enough Broadway house for Viva Villa!, which, when it did get on stage, was indeed a huge musical. He focused, in the mean time, on The Pink Jungle, in which Ginger Rogers was slated to star as the head of a cosmetics business, which Joseph Anthony, also waiting to start on Viva Villa!, was being considered to direct. Quayle had accepted the role of Pancho, and Bob Fosse had signed on to co-direct and choreograph, but the production had been pushed back to early 1960. The slower pace, which probably frustrated everyone, was a very different situation than the rush that defined production of Happy Hunting, but the gathering talent, including Fosse, looked promising.

By July of the following year, Quayle was still waiting for production to begin, but Gregory and Anthony had moved on. Theodore Mann, of the Circle in the Square group, would now co-produce with Frank Productions, Inc., Guys and Dolls composer/lyricist Frank Loesser’s own production company. In addition, José Quintero hoped to finish the film he was working on in time to begin rehearsals of Viva Villa! as director in February of 1961. That does not seem to have worked out, because by January of ’61, talk of the involvement of director Word Baker, of The Fantasticks, then just starting its legendary run, was being bandied about.

The musical was finally on its way to happening, with the new name We Take the Town, in September of ’61, when Stuart Ostrow, former vice president or Frank Loesser’s Frank Music Corporation, started his own company, The Stuart Company, and took over as the producer. It would be the first show he would produce alone. The bigger news, though, was that Pancho Villa would be played by the Tony Award-winning star of The Music Man, Robert Preston, who was said to be “‘totally committed’ to the venture until June, 1963.” Rehearsals would begin January 1st, 1962, with a pre-Broadway run starting February 3rd. The Broadway opening would be March 15th. Ostrow would later accuse Preston of just killing time between bigger projects, but Preston once described his time playing Pancho as “the best damn work I ever did.”

None of the previously mentioned directors ended up helming the production, that job ultimately fell to Alex Segal, a movie director who, according to assistant choreographer Stuart Hodes, had underestimated the difficulty of directing a Broadway musical. He reportedly took large chunks out of the production very quickly, and, as per a film rehearsal schedule, spent a disproportionate amount of time on minor scenes. He drew Dubey’s guile when he and the choreographer, Donald Saddler, were discussing the staging of a scene following Villa’s first victory, and they were ignoring the staging that Dubey had written in. Dubey and Segal began arguing, and eventually Segal grabbed the script, which Dubey had been cradling, and threw it across the room saying, “This is a script, not the f**king Bible.” Segal also, according to Ostrow, had a problem with the color orange, which he revealed loudly to the team when he saw its prominence in Peter Larkin’s set design (Tharon Musser was the lighting designer).

On the cast side, things looked better. John Cullum, who had recently built a strong reputation doing Shakespeare and the musical Camelot, recounted that enthusiasm was running high, largely because Robert Preston was a born leader and a powerful performer, and he inspired the cast. Cullum described the choreography as “wonderfully exciting and just right for the show,” the lyrics as “fresh and different,” and the music as, alternately, “simple, almost unstructured…poignant and pertinent” and “clashing, clanging, banging, sometimes funny, sometimes crazy, sometimes violent” as needed for the story.

The story, though, was one of the main problems. It followed Pancho Villa’s exploits and adventures during the Mexican Revolution, and, in fact, was billed as “a musical adventure.” Ultimately, the show was trying to fit too many elements and real life people onto the stage, and so very little actually came across clearly. The show was also consistently too long. Centering on an ultimately very unlikable character, Pancho Villa, seemed an unfortunate situation as well. Preston was, reportedly, great in the role, which only made it very clear that Villa was not a hero but a villain. The end of the show saw him down and defeated, which may have made it hard for audiences to go away with a positive impression of the show. It’s not that such elements cannot and have not proven very successful in many other musicals, but on top of all of the other obstacles We Take the Town faced, it was a bigger problem than it otherwise would have been.

The central spectacle of the show involved Cullum’s character, Johnny Sykes, a journalist along for the ride with Pancho and his band. A life-sized train would roll onto the stage with Villa’s men, while a huge mountain set rotated slowly in the background, enhancing the illusion of a train in transit. Sykes, assigned to report on the attack and capture of a Mexican town, had pre-written his story with Villa attacking the wrong town, then gotten drunk and slept through the actual attack and capture. When he realized his mistake, he begged Villa to go back and take the right town, from the south, to match what all of the newspapers would report. This turn of events became the title number, and the train would back off of the stage, the mountain rotating the other way. That mountain, reportedly, never worked, and was left in an alley when the show closed in New Haven, Connecticut, a major financial disaster for the production.

Unlike the creative and producing team, the cast was mostly non-problematic. Kathleen Widdoes, who played Terésa, Villa’s love interest, seems to have had the most to complain about. When it was decided that her voice needed help to keep up with Preston’s, and she was given a remote microphone to wear in the front of her costume, she commented, “Now I have three nipples!” While the musical was in Philadelphia, right before it was supposed to open on Broadway, Widdoes gave her two weeks notice to Ostrow. Her spokesman said that she “didn’t have sufficient opportunities to act” despite having been “hired as an actress.” She was not replaced. There was no need, since ten days later it was announced that that show would not open on Broadway.

We Take the Town got positive reviews in its first pre-Broadway run in New Haven, and this only made things worse. In addition to leaving the mountain behind, the creative and producing teams apparently also left their cohesion. Karr, Dubey and Bauer felt that the good reviews indicated the show should not be changed. Preston, Ostrow and Segal disagreed, and felt that work needed to be done, and quickly. Segal apparently disappeared for more than a week while the show was in Philadelphia, and Jerome Robbins had agreed to take over direction, but collapsed before much could come of his involvement, and was taken away in an ambulance. According to Cullum, Jerry Zaks was also considered, but Robbins had insisted Ostrow take over direction. Preston would not agree to that, and time ran out. The money was there, courtesy of Columbia Records, but morale was at its lowest. The Philadelphia critics had not been as kind as the New Haven critics, and show closed early instead of running through March 31st. It was to have opened April 5th at the Broadway Theatre.

Management threw a backstage party for the cast to soften the blow of the news that the show would not go on. Ostrow said at the time that he expected to have narrative revisions by June, and that We Take the Town would have a second life, complete with Preston and, he seemed to hope, most of the cast, but it was not to be. Ostrow finally withdrew himself from the project in October, and new producers Robert Fryer, Lawrence Carr, and John F. Herman were said to have been bringing in Fosse again to direct a re-imagining, with a new book possibly by Robert D. Hock but with Dubey and Karr’s score. Fosse, though, was waiting for the revisions to be finished, and Preston was not officially committed. We Take the Town would not re-emerge.

As with Happy Hunting, the parts overshadowed the sum of what We Take the Town had become as time went on. Barbra Streisand, who was considered for the cast, but whose involvement, Dubey and Karr thought, would be a repeat of working with Ethel Merman, which they did not want, recorded the song “How Does The Wine Taste” on her album People, in 1964, and sang it in her 1965 television special, My Name is Barbra. The song has not, beyond that, seen much success, like “Mutual Admiration Society” and “Gee, But It’s Good To Be Here,” from Happy Hunting. Another song from the show, “Silverware,” caught Stephen Sondheim’s attention. He requested the music from Ostrow shortly after the show closed in Philadelphia, and has listed it among the songs he wishes he himself had written.

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). Still five months of musicals to go, and plenty of odd and obscure musicals to look back through. Plus, you can hear Robert Preston sing “I Don’t Know How To Talk To A Lady” from We Take the Town.