May 11th marked the 47th anniversary of the opening of a Broadway musical by a new songwriting partnership, brought together by a Broadway agent working on his first big show, and introducing an unknown 19 year old as its star. And as if on cue, that musical is getting ready to be reborn when it opens at 1st Stage on May 18th.
Time to fill in the blanks. Flora the Red Menace by John Kander and Fred Ebb introduced Liza Minnelli and that baby Broadway agent was none other than myself, Richard Seff.
I began to represent John Kander circa 1958 when I was just starting my agency career at MCA. MCA was an international agency, in which our work was compartmentalized, and my special field was musical theatre.
As I’d only recently begun, my job basically was to assist my boss, and so I did much of the dogsbody work with his clients like Leonard Bernstein, Ethel Merman, Rex Harrison, Adler and Ross, Bob Fosse, Rosalind Russell, Jerome Robbins and a host of other major theatre artists. I was also expected to keep my eye out for new talent, to form a little list of my own clients, and I covered every off/off Broadway black box and cabaret theatre looking for those very special new kids on the block.
Each Tuesday afternoon I booked the audition room at MCA in order to listen to the songs of any composer-lyricist, to hear a couple of numbers from any performer who was seeking representation.
On one such day a young Fred Ebb and his then composer partner Paul Klein showed up and played a dozen songs, all of which were written on spec. I thought their work was clearly suitable for theatre, and I signed them to agency contracts.
On another day, I was lucky enough to be invited by my boss to join him and two other powerful agents who represented the musical theatre rights to a French play as adapted by an American playwright. A young trio of aspirants wanted those rights so they could move forward with a musical based on the play. The four of us arrived, we were introduced to John Kander, the composer, and to his collaborators and boyhood friends, William Goldman (who would later go on to write “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Marathon Man” for the screen, and James Goldman who wrote the book to Follies and A Lion in Winter for the stage. None of them had been produced anywhere at the time.
At the conclusion of the audition, my three esteemed colleagues left the apartment, with me trailing behind. All they said on leaving was: “Thank you so much for playing for us. We’ll be in touch.” By the time our elevator hit the lobby I knew it was all over; they were not going to grant the rights these young writers needed. I was so surprised (I’d thought the five or six songs they’d played had been exciting), I said I’d see the agents back at the office, excused myself by pretending to have left something behind, and returned to the apartment to deliver the bad news. “But”, I said, “if you ever write anything again, I’d be delighted to represent you, so please, please let me hear from you.”
During the next months, I ran into John Kander now and then, for he paid his rent by accompanying singers at auditions, by conducting an off/Broadway musical now and then, and by doing dance music arrangements for shows. He did just that for Gypsy, the original production in 1959. I was also trying to launch Fred Ebb and his collaborator Paul Klein, but three completed scores went unproduced, and a fourth did not enjoy a long run at the Phoenix Theatre. At a preview I attended of Gypsy, there was John Kander in the orchestra pit, filling in for the night. After the show, I leaned over the railing and said “Hello” to him, he said “Hi,” and I was about to leave when he added: “Do you remember last year when you said if we ever wrote anything you’d be happy to represent us?” and I said “Yes,” and he said: “Well, we’ve written something.”
And that’s how I got to handle all three authors of A Family Affair. It took over a year to get it on, for major producer Leland Hayward who first optioned it only did so because he had heard Jerome Robbins might be interested in directing it.
When Robbins finally decided not to go forward, Hayward immediately dropped his option. I was determined – this was my first crack at Broadway with clients of my very own – so I talked my cousin Andrew, a theatrical attorney who’d had some experience representing a syndicate of investors in a few successful shows, into producing it.
For the next 9 months, there we were — Kander, the two Goldmans and me, singing our hearts out some 50 times live before potential investors, hoping to land $500 or $1000 from enough of them to finally put together the $360,000 it then cost to mount a Broadway musical. This was difficult as Jim Goldman could not carry a tune, so he just watched. Bill Goldman was loud and sort of on pitch, John played beautifully and sang with great gusto, I crooned a little here and there. But we did get the money, a nickel and dime at a time.
The show opened to mixed reviews, but it did give Hal Prince a crack at directing. As a producer he’d already presented half a dozen hits but no one would hire him to direct. So when the original director of A Family Affair turned out to be unequal to the job, Prince stepped in during the Philadelphia tryout and almost saved the show in little over two weeks, which is all the time our limited budget allowed. It only ran nine weeks, but I was able to take Fred Ebb, one wet rainy Wednesday afternoon to see it, for he was about to split with his first collaborator, and the Goldmans were off on other projects, which left John with no lyricist and Fred with no composer. My instincts howled “these two would work well together,” so I proposed Fred have a look at John’s work. It was a pathetic matinee we attended, Fred and I, with half a house, but at its end, Fred looked at me, and said “Yeah, I could work with him,” I never forgot those words. To me they were as sonorous as “Mr.Stanley, I’d like you to meet Mr. Livingstone.”
Kander and Ebb actually met two years later in the office of their mutual publisher, Tommy Valando. and he and I remained their publishing/agenting team until Tommy and I moved on to other fields, in my case 20 years later. But when Hal Prince, as producer, was putting together a musical version of a novel called “Love is Just Around the Corner” by Lester Atwell, he brought Ebb and Kander to director George Abbott’s attention, and they landed the job of writing the score.
Flora was a joy from start to finish, or so us young ‘uns thought, this being our first crack at the big time. Difficult to finance, because everyone connected with it except Messrs. Prince and Abbott were unknown, including the 19 year old Liza Minnelli who was signed to make her Broadway debut in the title role.
Mr. Abbott had put a lot of his own money into the show, and I kept begging him to let me have some of it, which he graciously did. I was in way over my head, but these were “my boys”, this was to be their first collaborative effort, and I was sure we’d all make a fortune. But this was not a movie or a sitcom, so it lost every penny of its investment as it limped along for 94 performances even though Ms. Minnelli did cop a Tony Award.
It had been such a promising opening night, and the party after the show next door to the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) at Ruby Foo’s Chinese Restaurant was a very happy occasion – until the newspapers began arriving aroundmidnight.
But hey, any party peopled by a young and enthusiastic cast, featuring second generation royalty in Liza Minnelli and the real McCoy in her mother Judy Garland, who had attended opening night, has to be spectacular. Hal Prince wrote to tell me what happened that night backstage: Garland had been phoning the theatre all day to talk to her daughter. His instructions were that she couldn’t speak to Liza because Liza was rehearsing with Mr. Abbott.
Judy announced that she’d be sitting in the front row with flowers in her lap so that at the end of the show she could hand Liza the flowers over the footlights. He met Judy at the stage door a half hour before they opened the theatre and seated her in the 8th row dead center, and things came off very well.
Now here she was at the the party, laughing it up, getting a little sloshed, but there to the end to pretend all had gone well. Liza was singing solo when Judy got up, started a duet and began to edge her out of the spotlight. It was very dramatic and uneasy making, so much so that most of us decided to leave and go home. It’s a good thing there was no YouTube around or this would not be news to you. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli singing an improvised duet. Where was my recorder?
Liza Minelli talked about the show last week with Adam Hetrick for Playbill. She was 17, in summer stock, when she heard her first Kander and Ebb song, and asked to meet the composers. “They opened the door, and Fred and I looked at each other, and that was it. Well, I said, “Can I audition?,” and I already had a job in another Broadway show, but I wanted to do Flora, so I had to audition seven times! The first time I auditioned George Abbott was out in the theatre. I walked down and I heard him say, “Well, this is a waste of time,” but I kept walking down and then I just kept coming back. And finally, I got it!
Adam: You were just 19 at that time [when the show opened] and the cast album is so impressive. You hit the rafters with “Sing Happy” – that’s an emotional and vocal workout!
LM: I know! Their songs are always a workout. But I love them, and there’s something about Fred’s words. I learn them quickly because he speaks like he writes.” Click here to see a 19-year-old Minnelli performing “Sing Happy” during Flora.
I was in Europe with John a few weeks after the opening, and we’d check Variety to see how the show was doing, and it wasn’t easy watching the box office gross drop each week.
But, in the end, it didn’t matter. To show what confidence he had in his new writing team, Mr. Prince scheduled a meeting the morning following opening night to begin working on their next show. And that became Cabaret.
It took years to find a licensing agency willing to take on Flora, so it had very little life after Broadway. The McCarthy hearings of the mid-1950s were still fresh in many minds, and this light hearted spoof of the exaggerated threat of communists like Flora and her young cohorts, was not of particular interest to the mid-sixties audiences. But in 1987, Sue Stroman and Scott Ellis staged a successful revival off/Broadway and it’s had the odd outing ever since, particularly now that Kander and Ebb, with the great success of Cabaret, Chicago and The Kiss of the Spider Woman, have become more familiar to the public. It’s not a perfect musical, but it has spirit and a warm heart, and is even more fun to those who are interested in the early work of the longest collaborative team in musical theatre history.
That collaboration continues on, eight years after Fred Ebb’s death, as one by one, the four shows he left behind virtually finished are mounted and finding lives of their own. One of them, Curtains, enjoyed a year’s run on Broadway, and the other three have had regional and stock (The Visit and Over and Over) and/or off and on Broadway outings (The Scottsboro Boys).
I wish Flora the Red Menace, their firstborn, smooth sailing in its 1st Stage production, with its brand new orchestrations.
– When 1st Stage licensed Flora the Red Menace the publisher sent scripts and a piano score, the actual orchestrations having been lost decades ago. A setback for this young company, which quickly rejected the idea of a solo piano for their first fully produced musical. Later this week we will have an interview with Paul Nasto who created new orchestrations and a new style for Flora the Red Menace. –