“Danny Kaye Stars In Salute to Musical Comedy”

Sarasota Herald-Tribune – Feb. 5, 1981

By: William A. Raidy (New York Times News Service)

NEW YORK – Forty years ago, almost to this very day, a daring new Broadway musical, “Lady in the Dark,” which the sage Brooks Atkinson called “A new centrifugal force,” lit up the Alvin Theatre. It also instantly set ablaze the career of one David Daniel Kominsky, who abbreviated that name to Danny Kaye.

The musical, which has psychoanalysis as its theme, a decidedly offbeat subject for the winter before World War II reached these shores, was all Moss Hart’s idea. He had recently been “on the couch” himself and wanted to write a serious play about his experience, with Katherine Cornell in the central role playing an emotionally disturbed fashion magazine editor. What emerged instead was a musical – and history.

Gertrude Lawrence starred as chic but slightly crazy Liza Elliott, sharing the stage with Bert Lytell and a trio of comparative unknowns. MacDonald Carey, Victor Mature and, last but not least, Danny Kaye. Kurt Weill, who had been hired at first by playwright-director Hart to write incidental musical for the original play, created one of the most sophisticated scores (with Ira Gershwin doing the lyrics) in Broadway’s history.

It was during the second act dream sequence that Brooklyn’s Danny Kaye committed one of the most memorable acts of larceny in the history of musicals by rattling off the names of 53 different Russian composers in 39 seconds in a dizzy song called “Tschaikovsky.” He will repeat this historic feat Feb. 11 at 9 p.m. on a Public Broadcasting System television special, “Sylvia Fine Kaye Presents Musical Comedy Tonight – II.”

Sylvia Fine, who in 1979 won a Peabody Award for her first show in this series, which features the best of American musical comedy, married Danny exactly a year before he stole much of Gertie Lawrence’s “Lady in the Dark” lightning. Mrs. Kaye, internationally known for her incisive wit, took time out recently to talk about some of the “old days” on Broadway, an extravagances she seldom finds time for or the inclination to do.

(“Sylvia Fine Presents…” will take some musical peeks at “South Pacific,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Sweet Charity” as well as a segment of “Lady in the Dark,” in which husband Danny will recreate his role of Russell Paxton, the fey fashion photographer for a vogueish magazine.)

Mrs. Kaye recalled with relish, the openings of the Moss Hart musical. “It was the chicquest first-night audience I’ve ever seen on Broadway,” recalled the writer, producer and television personality. “Danny was practically an unknown when the curtain went up, but by the time he got through singing the tongue-twisting ‘Tchaikovsky,’ he was a star. Tongue-twisting numbers, by the way, were a specialty of his, and Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin came up with this piece especially for him. Right after this number, which shook the theater, Gertrude Lawrence had to go on with the show, singing her own ‘Saga of Jenny,’ which was another show stopper but not very easy to do after Danny’s blockbuster.”

There were rumors at the time of the opening that the great Gertie was jealous of Danny’s coup and wanted the producer to cut the number before the premiere.

Mrs. Kaye denied this, but she had this to say about the famed British star: “Gertie may have sung off-key, but she had a blend of elegance and style that has been unequaled in the theater. Off-stage, she was complex. One moment she treated me like a long-lost sister, the next moment she would walk icily past me like a stranger.”

After Danny’s triumph in “Lady in the Dark,” he was rewarded with the starring role in a Cole Porter Broadway musical called “Let’s Face It.” Mrs. Kaye shuddered when she recalled that particular show.

“Can you imagine,” said the petite, slender Sylvia, “that I actually had the gall to visit Cole Porter in his Waldorf Towers suite to tell him that my husband couldn’t possibly sing some of his lyrics for the show because they were too dirty.”

Mrs. Kaye explained that Porter had written one of his typical, topical tunes, “Farming,” which catalogued the top Who’s Who of America who were indulging in “Farming” as part of the newly declared war effort. Some of the milder lyrics reported that “Dear Mae West is at her best in the hay,” and that George Raft’s bull had never calfed because he was “gay.” Mrs. Kaye explained to the urbane Cole that Danny would not sing some of Porter’s more blue lines. To her astonishment, the composer suggested that she rewrite any lyrics that Danny wouldn’t sing. The composer was so pleased with her rewrites that he asked her to write two additional songs for Danny to sing in “Let’s Face It.” Sylvia and Max Liebman came up with two show stoppers, “Melody in Four F” and “A Fairy Tale” for the hit musical.

Mrs. Kaye first met Danny in the late 1930s when they were both auditioning for an off-Broadway revue. She helped to develop his comedy flair for rapid-fire, “scat” lyrics that made him famous. During their earlier years, Sylvia not only played piano for Danny, but wrote most of his material. One of her numbers, “Pavlova,” which consisted of a series of complex Russian ballet dancers’ names sung rapidly, inspired Ira Gershwin to dig his Russian composers’ number out of his trunk for Danny to sing in “Lady in the Dark.” The Kayes were married in January 1940 and have a daughter, Dena, a contributing editor to Town and Country magazine.

How did Sylvia Kaye get involved in a TV series on American musical comedies? Mrs. Kaye said an uncle took her to see her first Broadway musical, “Good News,” in the late 1920s—and she was hooked. She wrote most of the material for Danny’s first Broadway show, “The Straw Hat Revue” in 1939 and was always an avid musical comedy fan. Her musical comedy library of records, books, films and memorabilia on the subject is valued at $20,000.

In the 1960s, Mrs. Kaye became dissatisfied with the lack of craftsmanship in the musical theater . “There were a few exceptions, like ‘Fiddler On The Roof,’” she said, “but it seemed to me that writers had no place to learn their craft. So, I ended up teaching very successful courses on the subject at the University of Southern California and Yale. I then realized that I could reach a much larger audience on TV. Luckily, the Prudential Insurance Co. underwrote this series for me on PBS.”

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