It was the last night of one of the most tumultuous out-of-town tryouts in recent Broadway history. The young director had been fired during rehearsals, the reviews had been negative, and the show was still an embarrassing mishmash by the Feb. 26 closing night. At the curtain call for the final Boston performance of My One and Only, the musical’s star, Tommy Tune, made a conciliatory speech. Acknowledging the show’s troubles, he thanked Boston for its patience, brought out the tolerant stagehands for a bow, and then asked an unusual favor of the audience. Requested Tune, “Please say a prayer for us.”
Next week Tune will learn whether those prayers will be answered. After going through a major overhaul, five directors and an estimated $4 million, My One and Only is scheduled to open in New York on Sunday, May 1. Although it is among the most expensive Broadway musicals ever mounted, the onstage extravaganza cannot surpass the drama acted out in the wings. Playing show doctors on My One and Only are an all-star team of surgeons, including director Mike Nichols, writer Peter Stone, set designer Tony Walton and lighting whiz Jules Fisher, with only Stone receiving credit in the program. Earlier this month director Michael (A Chorus Line) Bennett also came aboard. As one production associate wryly notes: “Practically every major person in the American theater has now worked on this show.”
My One and Only was initially touted as a surefire crowd pleaser in a dismal theater season dominated by the English musical import Cats. Adapted from George and Ira Gershwin’s 1927 hit Funny Face, the period piece featured a classic score, tap dancing, the Broadway debut of model-actress-icon Twiggy, 33, and the considerable contributions of its star and co-choreographer, Tommy Tune, 44, who won last year’s Tony Award for directing Nine. Set in May, 1927, Timothy Mayer’s new book cast Tune as a Texas pilot intent on beating Lindbergh to Paris. Twiggy plays his sweetheart, champion swimmer Edythe Herbert, “the second woman and the first pretty one” to conquer the English Channel.
Ironically, all of those Broadway legends are applying their talents to a show that none of them conceived. My One and Only was the brainchild of director Peter Sellars, 25, a wunderkind of the avant-garde who once staged Antony and Cleopatra in a Harvard dormitory swimming pool. Sellars envisioned My One and Only as “an alternative” on Broadway. Says producer Bernard Carragher, “Peter was going for a neo-Brechtian thing,” which would contrast “the lightness of the musical numbers with the impending doom of the Depression.” The producers, however, were not going for that. One week after Sellars won a $144,000 five-year grant given by the MacArthur Foundation for “exceptionally talented individuals,” he was fired from My One and Only. Says Sellars: “I never even saw the costumes.”
To attempt a rescue, Nichols and Stone traveled to Boston, where they imposed proven Broadway standards on the confused production. Recalls co-choreographer Thommie Walsh: “At one point Tommy wasn’t onstage for the first 25 minutes, and Twiggy didn’t come on until 10 minutes later.”
After Boston, the company returned to New York for more rehearsals and more money raising. New sets, costumes and choreography were added. To make the show “warmer,” the love story was beefed up, the coldness of Twiggy’s character toned down. In fact, after the show took shape, her performance dramatically improved. Six tunes, including Funny Face, were excised, six other Gershwin songs added. Even the name of the hero’s plane was changed from Funny Face to Lone Star. Salaries underwent an alteration, too. Since the budget was strained in Boston, the cast, directors, producers and writers agreed to defer full wages while the show previewed.
Tune remained dissatisfied. When he attended Michael Bennett’s 40th-birthday party on April 8, he asked Bennett to see the show and make suggestions. That request startled the Broadway community. In last year’s hotly contested Tony race, Nine and Tune won over Dreamgirls and Bennett. Bennett’s energetic participation caused an 11th-hour complication with Nichols. Walsh acknowledges that Bennett is overseeing “everything. That’s the way Michael works.”
Oddly enough, the many delays may work in the show’s favor. With critics and theatergoers starved for musicals this season, My One and Only could well find a responsive audience—and indeed, word of mouth in New York has been changing from fearsome to favorable. But whatever the show’s fate, Tune and his comrades have effectively made their point. They have turned My One and Only into a matter of professional honor. In a sense, this musical is their $4 million affirmation of an age-old Broadway axiom: No matter what happens, the show must go on.