It used to be a morgue, before the building became the aptly named New End Theatre. But the ghosts were kind to us on the night our musical opened in that tiny seventy-seat venue on London’s fringe. In Act One, we were basically six people around a piano, where I sat as we delivered stories, quips, songs, impersonations, and satirical commentary about Hollywood in the golden age and its glorious mixture of absurdity and luminosity. In Act Two, of course, we became the equivalent of the Marx Brothers and their surrounding characters.
Dick Vosburgh, an American comedy writer living in London, had said, “What a shame the Marx Brothers are all dead and there can never be another Marx Brothers movie. So I’m going to write my own.” He took Chekhov’s one-act play The Bear and rewrote it in the style of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico creating chaos in the palatial mansion of Margaret Dumont. Groucho became “Samovar, the Lawyer” and Dumont was the wealthy widow “Madame Pavlenko.” Her butler was split into Harpo (“Gino”) and Chico (“Carlo”). We quickly added two vapid young lovers, named, in the spirit of Chekhov, “Nina” and “Constantin.” Dick and I met after I’d been recommended for the part of Chico (“Carlo”). I played Dick some of my own songs and immediately became the show’s composer.
The excitement had been building for weeks. When the lights went up, I was sitting at the piano only a couple of feet from the front row. Six inches closer, and the audience would have qualified for Equity minimum salaries. I grinned and said, “Hello!” to the startled woman opposite me, and we were off. That first packed audience laughed so long and so helplessly throughout that the comedy sometimes seemed like a weapon of mass destruction. Reviews were ecstatic (and so were we), and we soon transferred from New End to the West End, where the show happily picked up awards.
I read that the Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen was in London, looking for projects. Dick and I tracked him down at the Savoy Hotel, and he came to the show at the Mayfair Theatre, bringing Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The next day we met for lunch, and within five minutes he said, “Call me Alex. I love your show and I want to do it on Broadway.” Dick and I felt as if we were actually in one of the 1930s movies from our show. Tommy Tune came on board as director-choreographer, and the show received the Broadway touch in New York.
In A Day in Hollywood we became Ushers in the lobby of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, putting on a revue about Hollywood. Dick had remembered that that really happened back then, and Myrna Loy was one of the stars who graduated from those modest beginnings. With Act Two, like the aforementioned Myrna, we moved from the lobby to the set of A Night in the Ukraine, sumptuously designed by Tony Walton. I was the only member of the London cast given permission by American Actors’ Equity to cross the pond, because I was in the unique position of playing my own music on the piano.
The Broadway opening night was as phenomenal, dream-come-true glamorous as you could imagine. But moments before the curtain went up, they told me that Chico’s daughter, Maxine Marx, was in the audience. I was so nervous that, as I made my first entrance into Grauman’s lobby in an Usher’s white-gloved uniform, I caught my little finger in the swinging door. Excruciating pain! When I moved to the piano I noticed that I was smearing blood all over the keys. As soon as I came off the stage, the wardrobe master hurriedly applied a Band-Aid and gave me a clean pair of white gloves.
The show was a riot. Afterwards I sat in my dressing room, still in my Chico costume, marvelling at the journey of our intimate show. It was like a newly-discovered chapter of Gulliver’s Travels. Not Lilliput, but Broadwayput. Suddenly, I heard a gentle cough. I looked up, and framed in the doorway was a tiny woman with short black hair in a fringe, pointy spectacles, and a walking stick. She threw open her arms and shouted, “Daddy!” And Maxine and I became firm friends and felt related ever after.
The musical was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won two. Dick and I wrote a lot of new material for the Broadway production, including a rhythmic setting of the entire puritanical Hollywood Production Code, which was rather like making a number out of Leviticus. As Ushers, we recited it while tap-dancing throughout, and later performed it at the 1980 Tony Awards. If you go on YouTube you can still see the telecast of “Doin’ The Production Code.” I’m there in my wavy thirties-toupée, alongside Priscilla Lopez and the others, wearing gold tap shoes. And they still shine in the bottom of my wardrobe.