The Adventure Continues

TT in the Blue Mountains and Sheldy in New York.

Culture Shock.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Australia's Broadway Baby

I don't usually put press articles on this blog but Peter Filichia's latest column on THEATERMANIA is terribly flattering!

Ever hear of a comedy called Come Live with Me?
You’re pardoned if you haven’t. After all, the 1967 comedy lasted all of four performances at the Billy Rose (now the Nederlander). In those days, that was the theater where the least-anticipated shows of the season would be relegated.
Come Live with Me was written by Lee Minoff and Stanley Price, who had never had a play on Broadway before, and would never again. The director was Joshua Shelley, whose one Broadway credit had been 10 years earlier, when he'd guided the musicalSimply Heavenly to a 62-performance run.
If anyone remembers Come Live with Me at all – and I did talk to someone on Tuesday who did -- it’s because it starred funny man Soupy Sales. He did not win a Theatre World Award for his Broadway debut.
But the person who remembered Come Live with Me on Tuesday (my good news day) did win a Theatre World Award – this year, in fact, for his performance as Bernadette inPriscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Faithful readers will recall my reporting that while I emceed the Theatre World Awards last month, I was astonished at Tony Sheldon’s acceptance speech. He told us that as a kid, he poured through Theatre World annuals, and even amassed a complete set, although he was living in far-off Australia. He then cited show after show to prove it, and even mentioned Riverwind, a musical that he correctly placed as a 1962 off-Broadway entry.” As I wrote at the time, “I’ve GOT to invite this guy to lunch.”
We were at Pigalle for almost two-and-a-half hours trading memories of my Boston and Broadway experiences and his Brisbane and Melbourne ones. We both admitted that we've scared some people when we've asked too many obscure or weird questions. Case in point: When I met Soupy Sales some years ago, I asked him if, in 1977 when so many eccentrically named entertainers died – Zero, Bing, Elvis, Groucho and Gummo – if he had worried that he was in danger.
And that's when Sheldon asked, “And did you ask anything about Come Live with Me?”
So is there any doubt that Sheldon, although born in Australia, is a Broadway baby? He literally was. Many of us can recall the first show we saw when we were 5, 10, 15 or 20. Sheldon has memories, too, of his first – The Pajama Game – which occurred when he was 18 months old. (Months, mind you, not years. Months.)
Of course there’s good reason why he was there. His mother, the great Australian star Toni Lamond, was playing Babe. “I remember her in ‘Small Talk’ and ‘There Once Was a Man,’” he reports. “I also remember ‘Steam Heat,’ even though she wasn’t in it. And, being so young, I have memories of being really scared by ‘Hernando’s Hideaway,’ with all those faces peering out of the darkness.”
During his boarding school years, Sheldon would live for Saturdays when would go into town and see a musical. “I saw I Do! I Do! maybe six times and Half a Sixpence seven,” he says. “I even love the Half a Sixpence movie.” Having a mother in the business meant he met a lot of stars – some of which he still sees. “I recently spent some nice time with Barbara Windsor,” he said, citing the British leading lady of Sign a Rude Song andTwang!!
So by the time Sheldon reached his early teens, he was already a dyed-in-the wool fan. His aunt, Helen Reddy, would learn that after she invited her nephew to come from Australia to Los Angeles as a birthday present. Although Reddy had risen to prominence by singing the musical theater classic “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” she was much more involved in the current pop music scene – and assumed her young nephew would be, too. So as she was waxing rhapsodic about Leon Russell and was arranging for tickets to see him and other rock artists of the day, young Tony countered with, “Um, thanks, Aunt Helen, but Tammy Grimes is here doing Private Lives and Mart Crowley has a new play called Remote Asylum …” As he recalls, “I disappointed her greatly.”
Sheldon never considered a career in anything but performing. His run in Priscilla is certainly his longest: over 1,300 performances, when one adds up the Australian, New Zealand, London, Canadian and Broadway runs. On the other hand, there was that production of I Love My Wife.
“What advance publicity we had on that one,” he recalls. “Our faces were plastered all over town, and we expected we’d be around forever. Two weeks! But the funny thing is that we recorded a cast album, which doesn’t happen often in Australia – although there are Australian cast albums of Pippin and even one of Charlie Girl,” he said, citing the long-run ‘60s British musical.
Sheldon also appeared in a production of The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd that was set in a post-apocalyptic world. He got to sing “Feelin’ Good,” but was also asked to understudy the actor playing Cocky (the Anthony Newley role).
“The kid was healthy as a horse,” said Sheldon, “so I never thought I’d have to go on. Well, wouldn’t you know that during the final Saturday matinee he sprained his ankle, and during intermission they told me I’d have to take over. I didn’t feel all that secure about the part, so I went into the lad’s dressing room where he was in a cold sweat wincing in pain and said, ‘You’ve got to continue. You’ve just GOT to!’ And I convinced him, and during the entire second act, when he was performing in agony, whenever I passed him in a scene or song, I’d smile and say, ‘You’re doing GREAT!’
I learned a lot about Australian musical theater. Who knew that a Broadway flop such as Wildcat would be produced down under? “Not only that,” said Sheldon, “but ourWildcat had a song that had been dropped out of town, one called ‘Ain’t It Sad? Ain’t It Mean?’” And if that weren’t enough evidence, Sheldon started singing it for me and remembered a good 90% of the lyrics from the song’s first 16 bars.
Adding a song or two to American musicals didn’t happen too often, Sheldon reported. “Oh,” he said, “when No, No Nanette was done in Australia, Yvonne DeCarlo, who had the Ruby Keeler role, was best known as a singer and not a dancer. So she wanted a song, and they gave her ‘More Than You Know,’ which was at least another Vincent Youmans song. But the first to do the Ruby Keeler role in Australia was Cyd Charisse, who was of course known as a great dancer. However, during rehearsals, when they said to her, ‘Okay, today we’ll do the tap number,’ she replied, ‘I don’t tap.’ Well, ‘I Want to Be Happy’ depends on tap, so everyone got very nervous. But she was willing to learn and they taught her to tap.”
He also mentioned that Betty Grable was supposed to do Sweet Charity in Australia, but withdrew at the last minute. I don’t recall what got us on the subject of Martha Raye, whom he brought up first, but it spurred me to mention that she did a summer stock musical called Hello, Suckers -- to which he immediately said, “About Texas Guinan.”
Now come on – has this guy been paying attention or what? After all, Hello, Suckersjust played a handful of summer stock engagements for a few years, never made it to Broadway and yielded no cast album. But Sheldon knew of it. “Well,” he said, “I had a friend who had a tape of it and used to say, ‘I have Hello, Suckers and you don’t.’” He shook his head slowly as he was reminded of man’s inhumanity to man.
Of course, two musical enthusiasts can’t agree on everything. I like Robert and Elizabeth more than he; he likes Man of LaMancha more than I. Sheldon believes the overture to High Spirits is better than the one to Funny Girl, which I like much more.
That made me cite an observation that my buddy Joseph Weiss once pointed out to me. “Have you ever noticed that both the overtures to Gypsy and Funny Girl only use songs sung by the female star?” Sheldon hadn’t, so I was pleased to give him some piece of information he hadn’t known, given all the lovely and fascinating nuggets he had already given me.
Hail Tony Sheldon! There should be one of you in every home! I was so fascinated, entertained and moved that I almost said to him, “Come live with ME.