The Craptacular: Remedial Queens: Little Me

Originally published on The Craptacular.

Little Me

This week, Encores! kicks off its 21st season with Little Me, a jazzy musical comedy — emphasis on comedy — which features a hysterical book by Neil Simon specifically crafted around the talents of original star Sid Caesar, who played seven different roles in the show. Christian Borle steps into all of those roles for the Encores! production, but before the curtain goes up at City Center, let’s take a look back at the history of this show.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to impress/bore your friends/enemies at parties/piano bars with Broadway trivia, Little Me is right up your alley. Based on a book by Patrick Dennis — who you might remember as both a character in Mame and the author of, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, the novel it’s based on – Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen, and Television Belle Poitrine as told to Patrick Dennis. (Does that make Little Me an unofficial sequel to Mame?) The novel, a satire on the self-indulgent celebrity autobiography that has never gone out of style, was built around a series of humorous photographs taken by Cris Alexander. You might remember Alexander as Chip in the original production of On The Town, or for his roles in the original stage and film casts of Auntie Mame.

Little Me, the musical, was the first musical Neil Simon ever wrote, a task that teamed him up with both his old boss Sid Caesar and his good friend Bob Fosse. While Caesar starred in the show, Fosse co-directed it along with Cy Feurer, who you may know as the producer of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (which Fosse had choreographed the previous year). In the future Simon would, of course, go on to write a play about Sid Caesar (Laughter on the 23rd Floor) and work again with Fosse on Sweet Charity. Even further into the future, a lovely bit of circularity would lead Martin Short to star in both the most recent Broadway revival of Simon’s first musical Little Me and an Encores! production of his last musical, Promises, Promises.

Anyway. Producers Cy Feurer and Ernest Martin first saw the potential in the novel version of Little Me and bought the property for Caesar. Fresh off producing Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed…, they were at the height of their producing game for Broadway musical comedy. At the time, Neil Simon was relatively untested, having only one play (Come Blow Your Horn) under his belt, but Caesar knew his work, so he was in. Composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh also only had one show under their belts—Wildcat, a vehicle for Lucille Ball that produced one hit song, “Hey, Look Me Over” which these days is better known as the LSU fight song. But it was clear they knew how to write a song and how to handle a star, so they fit the project just fine.

Simon kept very little from Dennis’s book beyond the structure (poor girl marries her way to wealth and social position through a series of husbands who meet untimely ends) and a few characters. To further emphasize the enormity of Caesar’s stardom—and the ways in which Belle Poitrine (which is French for “beautiful tits”) is constantly overshadowed by the men in her life—Simon split the leading lady role in half, with Nancy Andrews playing the mature Belle looking back on her younger self, portrayed by Virginia Martin.

Other than Feurer and Martin, Fosse was the most established Broadway name of the bunch, and his contributions included a set piece called “Rich Kids Rag” that used period dancing to set the entire plot in motion, establishing Belle as the outsider who just wants to get in, and “I’ve Got Your Number,” which flipped the Broadway convention of a strip tease number on its ear by giving the strip to a man, played by Swen Swenson. (No, he didn’t get naked, but he did the kind of seductive dance that so won over audiences that Sid Caesar got jealous.)

Despite strong reviews and a television star in the lead, Little Me ran for less than a year in 1962-1963. There are a number of reasons it wasn’t a runaway hit. First, Caesar was struggling with alcohol abuse, which is never a great recipe for consistent performances. Second, some speculated that audiences were disappointed to see him playing roles so different from his television persona as well. But the strangest and most likely reason for the short run of the show is that producer Ernie Martin refused to advertise it. This approach had served their previous hit, How to Succeed…, very well, but that’s because How to Succeed was the kind of phenomenal success that didn’t need advertising (think Wicked or Book of Mormon).

Regardless, Little Me garnered great reviews and turned a profit, and perhaps most importantly for the songwriting team, produced a number of songs that have had life outside the show, including “Real Live Girl,” “I’ve Got Your Number,” “The Other Side of the Tracks,” and “Here’s To Us,” the latter a favorite song of Judy Garland’s that was played at her funeral.

So, the following year the show went to London, where a different television comedian, Bruce Forsyth, took on the roles Sid Caesar played on Broadway. Now, it’s not uncommon for American shows to get tweaked for British audiences, although this is usually confined to adjusting rhymes that no longer work in a British accent or occasionally changing or adding a song to suit the specific talents of the British cast. But in the case of Little Me, a British lyricist, Herbert Kretzmer, was hired to do a wholesale overhaul on the show. Kretzmer reset it in England, changed character names, and rewrote large chunks of lyrics. (For example, it was decided that “On The Other Side of the Tracks” was an American idiom that wouldn’t translate, so the song was rewritten as “At the Very Top of the Hill.”) In fact, when lyricist Carolyn Leigh got wind of these changes, she furiously demanded they be changed back. Eventually, she reached a compromise with the producers, allowing Kretzmer’s lyrics to stay in the show as long as Leigh’s appeared on the cast recording. That’s more or less what happened, although sharp ears can still pick out a number of Kretzmer’s contributions on the (hard to find) London cast recording. Incidentally, decades later Kretzmer would perform a similar role on a little French import called Les Miserables and become a very wealthy man.

Little Me has been revived on both sides of the pond a number of times since, and each has production fiddled with the book and score in its own way. A flop production on Broadway in the early 80s split the Sid Caesar roles between two actors, Victor Garber and James Coco, and changed the framing device: while the original featured a wealthy Belle narrating her autobiography to writer Patrick Dennis, the revival gave us a Belle who was a down on her luck cabaret singer, narrating the story of her life to her audience. Two new songs were added, some older songs were cut, and the show lasted exactly one month. Nevertheless, this new version was produced in London (although with the original conceit of one star playing six male roles), where it racked up 334 performances and had the longest run of any Little Me production. Then in 1998, The Roundabout created yet another version for a revival featuring Martin Short playing all the roles Sid Caesar played (plus one he didn’t), opposite Faith Prince who played both Old and Young Belle. That last change required a rethinking of the title song in the style of Kay Thompson, which gave Faith a team of boys to sing backup.

When the curtain goes up on the Encores! production this week, it will be the first time the original book, score, and orchestrations of Little Me will be heard in New York since, well… the original production. Joining Christian Borle in the cast are Judy Kaye (Tony winner for Nice Work If You Can Get It and The Phantom of the Opera) as the elder Belle and Rachel York (who stole the show right out from under Megan Hilty two years ago when Encores! did Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) as young Belle. Shockingly, this is the first Cy Coleman score to get the Encores! treatment, although Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel explained that was mostly due to the popularity of Coleman’s shows: the rights to most of his best are tied up with producers hoping to bring commercial revivals to town. (Roundabout has been talking about On the Twentieth Century for years, and rumors of a Barnum revival seem to pop up every so often, but we want to know when we’ll get City of Angels back on the main stem.)

When Encores! presented Neil Simon’s Promises, Promises years ago, Simon himself prepared the concert adaptation of the book. This time, Viertel does the honors, although he said, “I’m doing almost nothing. I’m trimming stuff that’s impossible to do on our stage. It’s simply overloaded with props and business and tandem bicycles and steam baths and things we simply can’t put on our stage. The adaptation isn’t so much adapting but more a trimming away of the physical parts of the show that are impossible to execute.”

The show has a reputation for being one of Broadway’s funniest, and the Ralph Burns orchestrations feature brass arrangements that are sure to blow the top off of City Center. But Encores! shows happen quickly, so you’ll only have five days (February 5 – 9) to check it out.

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