Back in Swing of Things : Tunesmith Duo’s Stage Version of 1943 Hit Movie Is Headed for Broadway
Forty-six years ago, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the MGM classic starring Judy Garland.
They were hot then, on Broadway stages and on the silver screen, though some might have said hotheaded. They worked with greats: Cole Porter, George Abbott, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin. But Martin walked out on Garland and Hollywood during an argument about how she ought to sing “The Man That Got Away.”
“She was singing at too high a key,” he explained. “It was wrecking her voice.”
But the intervening years were not kind to the songwriting duo. Now as both men approach 75 (July 26 for Blane, Aug. 11 for Martin), the silver-haired duo are a mutual admiration society, overflowing with heartbreak about arguments past, such as the one with Garland, whose framed picture, lovingly dedicated to Martin, sits atop the piano as the prized possession in his Encinitas home.
The only venom they retain is for Elvis Presley and the influx of rock ‘n’ roll, which knocked their kind of sentimental, melodic music off the map.
Post-Presley jobs became scarcer to come by. They did a revival of their Broadway musical “Best Foot Forward” that gave Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, her first professional break in the 1960s. (Martin said he argued for her to get the lead, but the producers wouldn’t go for it because they said “she wasn’t pretty enough.”)
And they worked for more than 30 years on a stage musical of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” but it never got off the ground.
At long last, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is scheduled to open at Broadway’s largest theater, the Gershwin, on Oct. 30, with 10 new songs by Martin and Blane and a handful from the movie, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"--which made it into the Songwriters Hall of Fame last year as the most-recorded Christmas song of all time--and “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door” and the title song.
The songs adorn a true, but simple, story, written by Sally Benson in The New Yorker, about her own turn-of-the-century family that was going to uproot itself from St. Louis to go to New York, only to find that everything that made them happy was right at home in St. Louis, from budding romance to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
It struck a chord with Martin, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and Blane, who still lives in Broken Arrow, Okla.
“The family (in the story) adored each other and that is what makes it so winning,” Martin said. “That was my childhood.”
It struck a chord with America as well, making the movie a classic. Now, Martin and Blane hope America will again welcome an old-fashioned story and music--without the sex or profanity of which they so strongly disapprove.
“The trend has been so against our kind of music,”
Blane said. “I’d like to see it change.”
“I’m not ashamed to say that we didn’t get offers from the mid-'50s on because we couldn’t write rock ‘n’ roll,” added Martin. “People as great as Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg said they couldn’t get a job.”
One of their favorite new songs for the show has lyrics that go “Tunes are for humming/Guitars are for strumming/And dreams are for coming true . . .”
They seem to have their hearts in the lyrics that Martin played and Blane sang at the piano, hoping that this musical will prove that pendulums are meant for swinging back.
And Broadway does seem to be turning back the clock. After last year’s dearth of musicals--the futuristic and since-closed “Starmites” and two revues, “Black and Blue” and “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway"--a flood of nostalgic work is pouring in along with “Meet Me in St. Louis”: “Nick and Nora,” based on “The Thin Man” stories; “The Grand Hotel”; “Grovers Corners,” based on “Our Town”; the sequel to “Annie”; “Prairie,” based on the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories, and “The Red Shoes,” which features music by the legendary Jule Styne, now enjoying a successful revival of “Gypsy,” which he also composed the music for, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.
This is no coincidence as far as Louis Burke, the producer and director of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” is concerned.
“Broadway passed them by,” said Burke of Martin and Blane on the phone from Los Angeles, where he was holding final auditions for the musical. “But I believe very much in tradition. I believe we can reaffirm what the American musical was. I think this is a transitional time. I think that people have been a little scared that so many new ones have failed. People are trying to find their feet and no one knows in what direction they’re going. The fact that we have had so many British megahits is making the American producers look at each other and say: ‘Why aren’t our musicals working?’ ”
Burke, a South African producer and director, who will be making his Broadway debut with “Meet Me in St. Louis,” may seem a curious crusader for the American musical. But he is adamant about his dedication to the form he has been producing in South Africa and England for 30 years.
And he feels “Meet Me in St. Louis” is right in step with the blockbusters of yesteryear.
“I was looking for a classic American love story,” Burke said. “I was stunned when I heard ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ had never been done. I got Hugh Wheeler out of retirement to write the book. He is the only one who won three Tony Awards for musicals (“Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music” and “Candide.”). Martin and Blane have also literally been talked out of retirement. I’m sure that Hugh (Martin) never thought when they met me that I was going to make them work so hard.”
All that didn’t make the job of wresting the property rights from MGM and later Ted Turner, who bought MGM, easy. That, along with raising $5 million to produce the show, took five years of struggle that resulted in several promises of opening dates that ended as false starts.
Sarah Tattersall, who won the role of one of the sisters in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” has been changing her professional plans to accommodate the changes in the show’s opening dates. Now, she is starring as Maria in “The Sound of Music” at the Starlight, while she waits for the contract for the musical to come in the mail.
Thanks to corporate sponsorship by EPI Products, USA Inc., co-producing with Christopher Seabrooke and Burke-Brickhill Productions (Burke and his wife, Joan Brickhill), the funding is at last in place and it looks as if the show will go on.
If Burke had any doubts about his mission being blessed--which he said he doesn’t--they were dispelled by reassurance from one of the leading composers of the new Broadway, Stephen Sondheim himself.
“When I met Stephen Sondheim at a party, he said, ‘I can’t believe that you’ve stolen away one of the best projects that America has ever had and no one noticed it.’ He said, ‘Martin and Blane were my mentors when I was growing up. The fact that you got them out of retirement is marvelous.’ ”
As for Martin and Blane, they say they are out of retirement to stay. Martin, who has been spending his weekends playing hymns for the North Coast Christian Fellowship Church in Encinitas on the weekends, is already represented in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” with his song, “Gotta Dance.”
If “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a hit, they already have their next project completed and ready to go.
It’s a musical version of Carson McCuller’s “A Member of the Wedding,” and it is called “Wedding Day.”
In the meantime, they are grateful for little things, like the fact that Burke cut out the one Rodgers and Hammerstein song that was in the movie, “Boys and Girls Like You.”
“We were glad because it would have always been known as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical,” Martin said with a grin. “I remember that after my mother saw the movie, she called to say that we just wrote one of the best songs we had ever written--'Boys and Girls Like You'--and I had to say, ‘No, that wasn’t us.’ ”
And they are waiting to see if Broadway is really about to sing their tune again.
“We’re very anxious,” Blane said. “If they keep waiting to bring us back, I won’t be here. I hope they revive (our kind of music) soon.”