Veteran Actor George S. Irving, Sheldon Harnick Remember Bette Davis in Her Only Broadway Musical
By: Ellis Nassour
Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning actor George S. Irving, 91, star of numerous TV series and TV guest-starring roles and who’s starred in over 32 Broadway and Off Broadway shows since his debut in the original Oklahoma!, has "a still very vivid" memory of working along side Bette Davis on Broadway in Two’s Company (1952).
The revue had sketches directed by Jules Dassin and musical staging by Jerome Robbins; music and lyrics by Vernon Duke/Ogden Nash, Sammy Cahn, and among numerous others, Horton Foote and Sheldon Harnick.
The great star of stage and screen, Bert Lahr, co-starred. If he had been difficult to deal with in earlier revues, such as a year earlier in Comden and Green’s Two on the Aisle revue, where he and Dolores Gray constantly clashed, the difficult quota tripled with Davis’ demands and her being plagued with insecurity and the inability to meet the demands of the production.
Among Irving’s co-stars were several other great character actors, including Nora Kaye, Tina Louise [well-remembered as Ginger Grant on TV’s Gilligan’s Island], dancer Buzz Miller [who was then Robbins’ partner], and Hiram Sherman [who won featured Tonys for Two’s Company and later How Now, Dow Jones].
"Two’s Company was a troubled production to begin with," recalls Irving. "To make matters worse, Bette Davis and Jerry Robbins didn’t get along. They clashed if they merely looked at each other. You had two taskmasters, each afraid of the other. He would give her some movement to do and if she didn’t get it right away, he would say, ‘You’re not a dancer. How can I stage a number when you can’t do it?’
"Miss Davis would flare, ‘What do you mean, I can’t do it?’ She was high strung and would storm off and scream the place down."
Irving says that quite often, "no one in the cast knew if we coming or going. There were changes every day, and sometimes changes within the changes. Listening to the commotion between Miss Davis and Mr. Robbins and the producers wasn’t conducive to morale. However, it was fascinating. In fact, it was a good rule book in how not to do a show!"
He explains that after her years in film, "Davis didn’t find it easy doing a sustained stage performance, especially one with singing and dancing. We had a long try-out on the road. My wife Maria Karnilova [prima ballerina with Jerome Robbins Ballet; Golde in the original Fiddler on the Roof (Tony Award) and 1981 revival, God’s Favorite, Gigi, Madame Hortense in the original Zorba (Tony nomination), and the original Tessie Tura in Gypsy] was in the show, so we brought along the kids, who played with Bette’s daughter, B.D. We had no foreboding of what was to come when she wrote her book.
"When I got to know Miss Davis on a personal basis," adds Irving, "I adored her. However, it was a poor man, indeed, who ever thought he could get something over on her."
The evening consisted of a series of show business-themed comedy sketches and song-and-dance routines tailored for the talents of its centerpiece, Bette Davis, who accepted the challenge of an eight-shows-a-week schedule when good film roles failed to follow her triumph in All About Eve.
She did characterizations of Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanne Eagels, the Maugham character tropical siren/"fallen woman" Miss Sadie Thompson, an actress involved with an Italian director, an Ozarks hillbilly singer dressed as a country "hag" sitting next to moonshine, and parodies of Noël Coward and Arthur Miller plays.
Desperate for help as the out-of-town tryout was set to open at Detroit’s Shubert October 19, 1952. Robbins got permission from Davis to fly Josuha Logan [Mister Roberts, original South Pacific, Picnic] and writer Paul Osborn [adapter of East of Eden for Elia Kazan and the screen]. Harnick was called in for help. In Ed Sikov’s biography Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Harnick, who flew at his own expense to the try-out, says, "Miss Davis had this song ‘Good Litle Girls,’ which was kind of like ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm.’ It got very long [because of a number of choruses]. I never saw her get through the song. She always fumbled at some point."
On opening night there, Harnick reported Davis was a bundle of nerves. When it came time for the song, "I detected a sense of hesitation. I thought, ‘She’s going to blow it again.’ And suddenly she fainted. She just fell to the floor." The audience thought it was part of the show. She was revived by husband Gary Merrill. Davis walked to the stage apron and with a smile spoke to the audience, "Well, you can’t say I didn’t fall for you!" That little gesture not only won over the audience but also the critics. However, the reviews were more kind than favorable.
There was less enthusiasm, at least from critics, in Pittsburgh. That’s when the massive changes began. Roles were recast, sketches were eliminated, new ones added, and musical sequences were rearranged. Fed up, Lahr quit the show to be replaced by David Burns [two-time Tony winner for A Funny Thing… and The Music Man and a three-time nominee].
By its Boston opening, the show was in such trouble that noted playwright and Davis’ good friend dating back to the 20s, John Murray Anderson was brought aboard.
"Murray was the king of revues. He was a man of great taste. You always pictured him with a glass of champagne in this hand – or a martini." Murray, who had also gained a reputation for theatricalizing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, pronounced the show "more amateurish" than a college show.
Everyone knew, but no one would acknowledge publicly that Davis was the problem. She was also the attraction. By now, it seemed she was running the show.
It was obvious Davis realized she was in a nightmare; however, she also had a contract. Day-to-day the production became a quagmire. One day, Davis was so unhappy with her Act One sketches, she had production stage manager Bill Ross cut them. The audience wondered if she was even in the show. Then, she appeared in Act Two.
Suddenly, she couldn’t do the opening number, stating she was too frightened. Robbins created a new one, "Just Turn Me Loose on Broadway." It debuted in Boston, after only a day’s rehearsal.
Just when Davis was set to let loose on Broadway, the opening was delayed almost two weeks, opening December 15 at the Alvin Theatre [now, the Neil Simon], where it ran for 90 performances.
Opening night telegrams from the rich and famous poured in: Leonard Bernstein, old friend Joan Blondell, Yul Brynner, Abe Burrrows, Rex Harrison, Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle, costumer Edith Head, Kim Hunter, Irving Rapper [the director who was so helpful to her and whom she took relish in dissing], Jule Styne, Kay Thompson, Mike Todd, and Richard Widmark. Notably missing in the gram bag were messages from Jack Warner, her beloved director William Wyler, and Joan Crawford. However, and showing a great deal of class, Miriam Hopkins wrote "I wish all that is fine for you!
Among those attending the show were Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and director Joshua Logan, who’s been quoted, "Bette Davis was all that I dreamed she’d be in a musical." You might wonder if that was a rave or a pan XXX did have a rocky road????? Well-read and powerful columnist Walter Winchell wrote raves. A reader replied, "But she can’t sing or dance!" His response: "That’s worth the price of admission." In Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Sikov reported how Winchell tooted Davis’ horn, writing "There is no coincidence in the two Ts in the star’s name…They stand for Terrific Trouper! There are two Ts in Bette and two in Talent."
The opening night critics used a lot of Ts in their reviews, which were quite hosTile.
Irving says, "Miss Davis summed up the experience quite aptly. She was quoted, ‘The ovation was, to say the least, heartwarming. The reviews were bloodcurdling.’"
On Broadway, despite the unfavorable notices, the show soldiered on, playing to sold-out houses thanks to Davis’ star power. Sadly, Davis continued to have bouts of fatigue, and missed a number of performances. Consulting doctors could find no physical cause. However when a wisdom tooth became inflamed, it was discovered she was suffering from osteomyelitis of the jaw, no doubt due to another kind of fatigue – Davis’ chain smoking. She required surgery. With no hope of Davis returning, producers James Russo and Michael Ellis closed the show, taking a loss of more than $300,000. Davis’ recovery left her unemployed for next three years.
Read more about Bette Davis in Ellis Nassour’s series:
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