In two earlier lists of a half a dozen each-one here and the other one there-I named my top dozen couples from the Broadway stage. So, what’s with the additional six? Let me elaborate.
In the earlier essays, I was referring to couples in the lust-crazed-excuse me, romantic-sense of the word. That aside, there have been a number of excellent pairings in the history of the Broadway stage that have had nothing, themselves, to do with romance, though, in many cases, they have acted as catalysts. These latest couples do not even have to be boy-girl pairings, and, in many cases, are not. Even so, the couples-particularly the ones I have listed as my favorites-have brought a myriad of color and entertainment to whichever show they have been associated with. Let me provide you with my list, again in chronological order.
1. Man #1 and Man #2 in Kiss Me Kate, 1948
As I did with an earlier couple, Hinezie and Gladys from The Pajama Game, I should start with the disclaimer that I once played one of these roles: Man #1. Still, even if I had not done so-and enjoyed the experience more than words can convey-I would have to list these two as one of the best non-romantic couples ever.
In spite of their nondescript designations, the two characters are not just faces in the crowd. They have their own lines, there own song, and their own monkey wrench, which they deftly toss into the plot. They just happen not to have been assigned names. Although my partner and I were called a number of things during rehearsals (“Where are my gangsters?” “I need my thugs on stage right.”), for purposes of the program we were, Man #1 and Man #2.
The way it broke down was that I had the lion’s share of our lines, but my partner had the best verses in our duet, Brush up your Shakespeare.
They are among the last people to come onstage in the production, because, except for an anomaly, they would have no reason to be there. What brings them onto the premises is that one of the actors in the ongoing production of The Taming of the Shrew, Bill Calhoun, lost a huge sum of money in a crap game, then signed the producer’s name (Fred Graham) to the IOU. When payment is not forthcoming, the two leg-breakers show up in Mr. Graham’s dressing room to encourage prompt payment. I will not tip off any more of the story, except to say, the two are not so easily gotten-rid-of. See this show, if you have not done so already, and you’ll be glad you did. If you can, see the show, not the movie.
2. Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet in Guys and Dolls, 1950
These two are Nathan Detroit’s henchmen. Mr. Detroit, you may remember from my original essay about Broadway couples, is a consummate hustler and perpetual fiancé of the lovely Miss Adelaide.
In spite of their subservient status, they have more and better songs than their boss. They carry most of the weight in the excellent number, Oldest Established, as well as the opening song, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” which you may run into in these pages sooner than you think. Also, they get to share the title song between them (Don’t be fooled by the movie version. They stuck Sinatra-as Nathan-into the number, because it seemed a shame to waste his musical talent on just one song.). And then, Nicely-Nicely has the show-stopping number, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” toward the end of the show.
I got to be in a production of this show, in which I was among the gamblers’ chorus (I was Liver Lips Louie, for the record). When we were rehearsing the music for the “Oldest Established” song, our music director, a friendly, but meticulous, Englishman, wanted to get the intricate harmonies just right, particularly on the last line: “It’s the oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York.” There was something he didn’t quite like about our harmony in the middle of the line, so he kept shrinking it, in an effort to find the problem. First, he said, “Give me ‘oldest established, permanent floating crap game.'” He continued to whittle the line down until he thought he had arrived at the nub. “All right, gentlemen,” he told us, “I want you all to give me ‘floating crap.'” Eventually, he did manage to restore order.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Guys and Dolls is a top-notch show, made all the moreso by Nicely and Benny.
3. Mr. Applegate and Lola, Damn Yankees, 1955
For the benefit of you who are not at all familiar with the show, the condemned Yankees in the title are not Union soldiers, but, rather, the successful collection of ballplayers who toiled for the New York American League franchise.
“Mr. Applegate” is the Devil, who answers couch-potato, Joe Boyd’s fervent wish for his hometown Washington Senators (“Washington, first in war, first in peace and last in the American League”) to get “just one long-ball hitter.” In fact, he even goes Boyd one better by letting him become that desired hitter, who ends up playing under the pseudonym, Joe Hardy.
Joe proves to be a tougher negotiator than Applegate counted on and finagles himself an escape clause that will allow him to return to his former self, under certain conditions. When “Joe Hardy” discovers how much he misses his wife and then decides he wants to escape, Applegate brings in his bedazzling assistant, the sultry, sensuous Lola. Her song, Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets became a big crossover hit, shortly after the show debuted..
In a way, this villainous duo (superbly played by Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon), reminds me of a later evil couple, Boris and Natasha, from The Lone Ranger Rides Again. No, not really: just testing to see if you were paying attention. On the other hand, you could do worse than to pay attention to Damn Yankees, if you have not seen it already. The movie and the stage show are not congruent, but they both have their strong points. Either one is worth seeing.
4. Mae and Albert Peterson, Bye Bye Birdie, 1960
Not only is there no romance involved between Mae Peterson and her son, Albert, Mrs. Peterson seems determined to stifle the budding romance that is supposed to blossom between her son and his secretary, Rosie Alvarez, played by the ubiquitous Chita Rivera.
I’m sure there have been many shows on Broadway that feature a son and his overbearing mother, not all of them comedies. The Glass Menagerie comes to mind. Nevertheless, this is one of the most amusing such relationships I have seen on stage or screen.
Paul Lynde, in the role of Mr. MacAfee, completely stuffed this show into a gunny sack and stole it, but that is not to say the dynamic between Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) and his mother (Kay Medford) was not, in itself, very entertaining.
For all their interaction, the two did not have much in the way of songs together, so instead, I thought I would throw in this song, which, while it doesn’t feature the Broadway Albert and Rosie, does lay out a good deal of the show’s dynamic.
If you are looking to see Bye Bye Birdie for the first time, I strongly suggest you skip the movie and see a local community or repertory production, even if you won’t be able to catch Lynde (dead), Rivera (old) or Van Dyke (old and sober) any more.
5. Mame Dennis and Vera Charles, Mame, 1966
The first musical I ever performed in was a production of Mame, in 1990. I was cast as the nudist educator, Ralph Devine, although, to the everlasting relief of one and all, I remained clothed throughout. In any case, it was a good show to start with, even if it was not the best one I’ve ever been in.
Mame, who is Mame Dennis in the first act and Mame Dennis Burnside in the second, is based on the character, Auntie Mame, from the play of the same name. I’m sure it was quite enjoyable in its own right, but the fine score by composer Jerry Herman makes the musical a far more entertaining product.
Vera (played by the Bea Arthur to Angela Lansbury’s Mame) is Mame’s best fair-weather friend. At the time of the Act I finale title song, Vera is no longer speaking to her former friend, but they get back together in the second act. It is a good thing they do, because, from that reconciliation, comes perhaps the best duet ever written for two women in the history of the Broadway stage: Bosom Buddies.
This is a popular show in repertory, so you may get an opportunity to see it, if you are so inclined. If someone offers you a chance to see the movie, though, FLEE FOR YOUR LIFE!
6. Hucklebee and Bellomy, The Fantasticks, 2008
Say, wait a minute, you may wonder aloud (or not; it’s entirely up to you), I think I heard about this show before 2008. Indeed you did. The noted year is for the show’s Broadway debut, but it played off Broadway for a little while beforehand, like for 17,162 performances between 1960 and 2002.
These two middle-aged gentlemen are both single dads with an adolescent child apiece. Bellomy has a daughter, while Hucklebee has a son. They want, more than anything, for their children to fall in love and marry. On the other hand, they are both sharp enough to know the absolute wrong way to go about it. Technically, the pair do the opposite of the advice they offer in their first big duet: Never Say No. Their thinking is that, by forbidding the children to see one another, they will drive the two of them into each other’s arms, and it works…to an extent. By the way, the clip of the song I have provided is far from the best rendition of it I have ever seen, but, of the choices available on the YouTube, it is the one that most clearly enunciates the clever lyrics.
I could also put in a plug for the two itinerant rascals, Henry and Mortimer, as another outstanding stage couple. Both are non-singing parts. The role of Henry is made for laughs, but that of his partner is a lot trickier. I have seen a production where Mortimer was little more than a cipher, and another one when he had the audience in hysterics.
This is a very popular show at the community level, because it is so easy to stage, requiring only a small cast and a minimum of scenery. If you have seen it, you will know what I mean. If you have not, then you have missed out.
But wait, there’s more…
There is one more show that should have made the list, but fell short by half in terms of the criteria. I am referring to Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It opened in 1979, starring Len Cariou in the title role and our old friend, Angela Lansbury as his partner-in-crime, Mrs. Lovett, a miserably poor vendor of meat pies. The thing is, Sweeney regards their pairing as a simple business relationship, while Mrs. Lovett wants them to be partners in more than crime. That will prove to be both their undoing.
But, until that sad denouement, the two of them do a thriving business as an adjunct to the demon barber’s killing spree, once they work out the details at the close of the first act, in the lively number, A Little Priest.
There have been many renditions of the Sweeney Todd legend. If you want to familiarize yourself with the best of them, make sure you catch a performance of the Sondheim musical and not some other rehash of the story.
And there you have my favorite non-romantic couples of the Broadway stage. As ever, I am haunted by the fear that I have left out some major players, but I have every confidence that you, the erudite reader, will not hesitate to put me wise.
Thank you for your support of local live theater. It’s show business, and, if there’s no business, there’s no show.
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