Something to Dance About
One sunny summer afternoon in 1949 Broadway producer Howard Lindsay stumbled on a magazine article about Perle Mesta and her appointment by President Harry S. Truman to the unlikely position of United States ambassador to the tiny European Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Miss Mesta was the daughter of one millionaire and the widow of another. She was indeed a Washington monument—a slightly out-of-place socialite and a thrower of legendary parties. She was in fact the city’s ‘Hostess with the Mostes’. She was, figured Lindsay, the ideal subject on whom to base a cheeky, up-to-date, all-American Broadway musical extravaganza.
‘Who’s Perle Mesta?’ grunted Ethel Merman when Lindsay suggested she would be perfect in the leading role. She had worked with Lindsay in Anything Goes and Red, Hot and Blue! and she was soon persuaded. So was Irving Berlin. The legendary songsmith was still smarting from the failure of his most recent show, Miss Liberty. At sixty-two he was worried that people thought he was out of touch with modern audiences. He wanted to do one last show, a show with a contemporary setting that would prove that he could still deliver the goods. Not only would the proposed production let him leave Broadway in style, it would also re-unite him with Merman, who had starred so meteorically in his Annie Get Your Gun in 1946.
Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin during rehearsal for Call Me Madam, 1950. Photo by Vandamm.
New York Public Library, New York
With Miss Mesta’s bemused blessing, Lindsay and Russel Crouse set to work on the book, leaving the music and lyrics to Berlin. There was even a memorable dinner party for Miss Mesta to meet Miss Merman. Lindsay, Crouse and Berlin were there, with Margaret Truman, Ray Bolger and Ezio Pinza for good measure. As Berlin sat at the piano accompanying Perle’s singing of his old hit ‘Remember’, Merman stage-whispered to Margaret Truman, ‘If this dame's going into my racket, I'm going to ask your dad for a job in the diplomatic service.’
To finance the show, producer Leland Hayward negotiated an extraordinary deal with RCA. The recording giant agreed to underwrite the entire production cost, $250,000; in return, the producers and principals agreed to take a 20% reduction in royalties until RCA had recouped its investment from sales of the show’s cast album. The arrangement was all the more bizarre because Miss Merman was firmly contracted to Decca, who refused to ‘lend’ her to RCA. Eventually there were two albums: Dinah Shore—a strange choice—substituted for Merman on RCA, while Merman was joined by Dick Haymes and a studio cast on the Decca release. To RCA’s chagrin the Decca disc stayed on Billboard’s ‘Best Selling Popular Album’ chart for thirty-six weeks and reached number two position, while RCA had to be content with a thirteen-week run and a peak at number six.
Call Me Madam was Ethel Merman’s eleventh Broadway musical. As a major star she could demand ten per cent of a show’s box office gross, but for Call Me Madam she sagely settled for eight percent—plus a ten percent stake in the property itself. This meant that she had a financial interest in this and every subsequent production.
Co-starring with Merman were Paul Lukas as Cosmo Constantine, Lichtenburg’s Prime Minister; newcomer Russell Nype as Sally Adams’ egghead aide, Kenneth Gibson; and Galina Talva as Princess Maria of Lichtenburg. Raoul Péne du Bois designed the sets and costumes—for everyone except Miss Merman. Her wardrobe was sensationally extravagant. ‘Under those wonderful gowns,’ she quipped, ‘I was a kind of sexy Tugboat Annie gussied up by Mainbocher’. Mainbocher (Main Rousseau Bocher), the legendary French-born society couturier, excelled himself with a series of stunning creations that were almost capable of stopping the show by themselves.
Under the experienced guidance of director George Abbott and choreographer Jerome Robbins, rehearsals began in New York in August 1950. All went well until the first try-out in New Haven. The second act was slow and dull. Two songs created the problem. One was an anthem to democracy called ‘Free’; the other was ‘Mr. Monotony’, an old Berlin song that had already been dropped from two previous shows. Out it went again, along with ‘Free’. To replace them Berlin speedily created a bright number called ‘Something to Dance About’ and one of his famous counterpoint duets for Merman and Nype, it was ‘You're Just In Love’. When she heard it, Merman predicted, ‘We’ll never get off stage.’ Ever the thrifty recycler, Berlin later rewrote ‘Free’ as ‘Snow’ for the 1954 film White Christmas.
There were more changes and refinements—then refinements of refinements. Eventually Merman rebelled. ‘Boys,’ she said, ‘as of right now, I am Miss Birdseye of 1950. I am frozen. Not even a new comma.’
Despite public concern about the progress of the war raging in Korea, interest in the new show was enormous. The Imperial Theatre announced a Broadway record box office advance sale of approximately $1 million, and tickets for the gala first night—12 October 1950—changed hands for $200—instead of the official $7.20! Call Me Madam’s premiere was the most glittering of the season. Autograph hunters jammed West Forty-fifth Street to see the celebrities arrive. Among them was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, reportedly there to check out the show’s ‘They Like Ike’ production number. He must have approved; later, retitled ‘I Like Ike’, it became his presidential campaign song.
The first night patrons chuckled at two tongue-in-cheek disclaimers in the program: ‘The play is laid in two mythical countries. One is called Lichtenburg, the other the United States of America’ and ‘Neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams, nor Miss Ethel Merman, resembles any other person alive or dead.’ Seconds before Jay Blackton led the orchestra into the overture, Russel Crouse asked Merman if she were nervous. ‘Nervous?’ she drawled. ‘No. The audience has paid their money. They’re the ones that should be nervous.’
If they were nervous, there was no need. Call Me Madam was an instant hit. ‘You're Just In Love’ was encored seven times. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said, ‘It throws a little Stardust around the theatre and sets the audience to roaring.’ Atkinson commended the show as ‘genuine comedy because the leading character grows and develops in the course of the play, and because Merman puts into it good will as well as swaggering self-confidence.’ Newsweek called it ‘A rowdy delight’. The Herald Tribune was succinct: ‘The Berlin songs and a superb production make Call Me Madam the gala it promised to be.’ Even Perle Mesta enjoyed herself. She told reporters, ‘l only hope that someday I become as great a diplomat as Ethel Merman is an actress.’ Now, that’s diplomatic!
After just nineteen weeks, Call Me Madam chalked up its first million dollars at the box office. It went on to garner two Tony Awards—Best Actress in a Musical for Miss Merman (her only Tony) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Mr. Nype. Guys and Dolls, which opened a few weeks later, won Best Musical and several other Tonys. It was probably the competition provided by Guys and Dolls, South Pacific and, later, The King and I, that limited the Broadway tenure of Call Me Madam to 644 performances—not in the same league as Annie Get Your Gun’s 1147, but very a satisfactory run just the same.