There are a number of musicals that never got made, or made with Hollywood casting which meant the original classic performance was lost forever, which fill musical fans with angst. At the top of the list are probably using Audrey Hepburn rather than Julie Andrews for My Fair Lady and Barbra Streisand instead of Carol Channing for Hello, Dolly!
But there's another "if only" that probably trumps those, because it's a movie that was supposed to be made, that was cast (and cast brilliantly), had a director and was set to go -- but didn't. And the story that this didn't happen is close to unknown. If you're impressionable and given to writhing on the ground, you might want to avert your eyes. I was reminded of this in a reader exchange here the other day telling Douglass Abramson the tale, and I've since found out a little more about it.
In 1969, MGM was planning to make a movie version of the wonderful musical, She Loves Me. The show is based on the classic film, The Shop Around the Corner, that starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (which in turned was based on a Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo) -- all of which were the source for the more recent film, You've Got Mail.
The music and lyrics for She Loves Me are by the legendary Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree and the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Tony Award-winning Best Musical) Fiorello!, among many others. It's a glorious score -- one of the best in Broadway history, for my taste. In fact, when it was released as an LP, the record company did rare: they put it out as a 2-album set. The score is that great.
It tells the story of a middle-aged, withdrawn man who deeply dislikes the pretty free-spirited new employee at the parfumerie store he manages, and she detests him in return -- neither of the two realizing that they're actually pen pals and in love with each other.
(In fact, I embedded the TV version of She Loves Me that the BBC did. If you want to see it, it's here.)
Okay, and here's the kicker. Buckle your seat belts.
The movie was going to star Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Re-teaming for the first time since Mary Poppins.
The thing is, not only is this perfect casting for audiences, seeing that pair back together again after the beloved film four years earlier -- but this isn't just "Hollywood casting," this is spot-on perfect casting for the two roles. All around, it's hard to imagine casting for any movie much better for all the various reasons.
Further, Blake Edwards was set to direct.
And the movie got dropped by the studio. Never made. Gone forever. We will now pause to let the screams of disbelief and agony escape, and for people to regain their equilibrium.
What I've subsequently found out in recent days, from checking with Sheldon Harnick, is that he'd flown to Los Angeles to meet with everyone -- yes, that's how close it was to being done, this wasn't one of those "Let's talk about it) -- and he asked Blake Edwards if he was sure it was going to be made, not something that would fall apart. Edwards was dead-on certain, most especially since Julie Andrews was attached. No way the studio wouldn't go forward. "Not a chance" was his answer.
Harnick flew back to New York, and just days later read that Kirk Kerkorian had bought MGM. He brought in James Aubrey, whose nickname was "The Smiling Cobra," to run the studio. At that point, Easy Rider was the big phenomenon, so studios began looking for the Youth Culture. (And MGM began Kerkorkian's cost-stripping, which eventually destroyed the studio.) They dropped a great many movies, and started instead making such counter-culture oriented disasters as The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart and The Strawberry Statement.
And one of those movies dropped was She Loves Me -- to star Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, directed by Blake Edwards.
It will not shock you that after 40 years, Sheldon Harnick was still heart-broken about this. I admired his restraint.
And after all that, this leads to today's remarkable find, and at least a nod towards a happy-ish ending.
It turns out that Julie Andrews recorded one of what would have been her character's song, the beautiful Dear Friend, and released it as a single. (The song comes in the scene when Amalia -- or Meg Ryan, for those of you who've only seen You've Got Mail -- has finally set up a date with her pen pal, and he hasn't shown up. "Dear Friend," you will recall, is how they address one another in their anonymous pen letters to each other.)
This is a tremendous vocal performance and an absolutely gorgeous arrangement. Interestingly, Sheldon Harnick had never heard it, and was blown away by the recording. On the one hand, this is difficult to listen to, knowing what might have been. On the other hand, it is such a great treat to have at least this -- and heard what almost was.
Here is what almost was.
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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