I've always been a bit surprised that the musical, Take Me Along, doesn't get performed more and has largely become lost. It has strong source material -- from Eugene O'Neill, no less, Ah, Wilderness!, the only comedy that O'Neill ever wrote. And a quite-wonderful score by Bob Merrill, who would go on to write the big hit Carnival! and then do the lyrics for Funny Girl with Jule Styne (teaming up again for the classic TV special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol). The show, which opened in 1959, was a respectable hit, running for 448 performances and getting 10 Tony nominations, including Best Musical -- and winning for the Best Actor performance by Jackie Gleason.
There are a few reasons I can think perhaps it's gotten overlooked. The show opened in the middle of Broadway's Golden Age, and good as it is, it got overwhelmed by other, better, far more successful shows of the same time. The same year it was nominated, for instance, other nominees included The Sound of Music and Gypsy, not to mention the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! The next two years brought Bye Bye Birdie, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Carnival! The two previous years had The Music Man and West Side Story. It's easy to get lost in that company, not to mention all the others of that era. And then more years pass, and you're forgotten.
It's also a bucolic play about a past, dated time, taking place in a pastoral 1910. So, that perhaps gives it a more dated sensibility. Though Hello, Dolly!, which came only five years later is set in the same era. (Historical sidenote: it has long been rumored that Bob Merrill, who wrote Take Me Along, came in as a "show doctor" for Hello, Dolly! and wrote two of its songs, "Elegance" and "The Motherhood March.")
To a certain degree, the show's future reputation may not have been enhanced by the reputation that it succeeded to a good degree because of the show's star turn by Jackie Gleason. Oddly, it might have been the decision to hire Jackie Gleason that impacted the show itself -- O'Neill's plays focuses more on the young teenage boy, while the musical centers on the two older couples, and therefore gives a happier, if not as believable resolution than O'Neill's sharper, more "honest" eye. Though, in fairness, it seems reasonable to think that the musical changed its focus before hiring Gleason in order to have two established stars in the lead.
(Another sidenote: This for fans of Mad Man. The young actor who played the the teenager in Take Me Along was Robert Morse, who just two years later would become a big star himself and win his own Best Actor Tony for How to Succeed -- and who now appears in Mad Men, 54 years later, as Bertram Cooper.)
Still, for all the bucolic, pastoral, sweeter, happier nature of Take Me Along that it has -- while that might impact a new Broadway production, it shouldn't impact community theaters. In fact, it should be the very thing that community theaters hunger for. Indeed as semi-proof of this, there was finally a Broadway revival five years ago -- the production got passable, but not rave reviews and closed in just eight performances -- but -- the show came to Broadway following very successful runs at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. So, it does have a life outside of New York.
Beyond all all that, though, it's a show that provides a lot of wonderful roles, something community theaters are always desperately looking for in casting their repertory companies, including two major male star roles (and a third strong one for the young man) and three for actresses.
(On Broadway, the other male star was played by Walter Pidgeon. While you know Jackie Gleason, Walter Pidgeon's name isn't as well-known today. But he was one of Hollywood's film greats. He starred in the screen classics Mrs. Miniver and How Green Was My Valley, and played Florenz Ziefeld in Funny Girl.)
And then almost topping it all, there's that wonderful score. It's lyrical, wistful, very funny in several numbers, and even dark in a couple. Not only that, but it has a joyful title song that's reasonably well-known to people, in part because it was used effectively in a fun TV commercial for United Airlines.
However, there's always been one thing that has frustrated me about Take Me Along. And that's the inability to find any video of that title song with the original stars.
There are several numbers in Broadway history that are considered iconic, magical theater moments. One is in My Fair Lady when Eliza finally learns to speak properly and the the actors break out in "The Rain in Spain." Another is from The Music Man when the hereto silent Winthrop suddenly breaks through the crowd to joyously sing with his lisp about "The Wells Fargo Wagon" arriving. The title song of Take Me Along, from all I've read, is another one.
It's an incredibly simple number, yet utterly charming, sung by two legends Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon -- however it was when these two gentlemen break into a soft shoe that it apparently melted the house and stopped the show.
But alas, I haven't been able to find any footage of the two of them doing their soft shoe. And have I searched. (I've even looked for any production of Take Me Along to find the soft shoe...) It gnaws at me every time I hear the song on the cast album, but happily the song is so charming enough that it wins me over on its town. But in the end, we have to make do with that original cast recording. It's a thoroughly charming performance, and when they stop singing and it goes into the musical bridge, that's where one's imagination takes over.
To assist your imagination just a touch though, here's a photo.
And here's the song. You supply the imagination at the music break.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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