Industry Salute to A Producer at 90
At one point during the gala evening on Monday honoring producer Cy Feuer on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Peter Stone, librettist and former president of the Dramatists Guild, told a story which summed up Mr. Feuer's approach to producing. It was 1965, and they were out of town with "Skyscraper," a musical based, in part, on Elmer Rice's "Dream Girl," with book by Mr. Stone, music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, and starring Julie Harris and Charles Nelson Reilly. Despite all the talent attached to the show, it was still having problems.
Following the evening's performance, Mr. Feuer went over to the songwriting team and mentioned that a particular ballad was too slow, and asked them to pick up the tempo. "Pick up the tempo?," recalls Mr. Stone. "That was like trimming the nails on a corpse! But," he continued, "they did it, and the next day, the ballad was right, and each day after that, something was worked on and got better. That's how shows get made," indicating that Mr. Feuer and his longtime partner, Ernest H. Martin, knew that special art of producing better than anyone.
And though "Skyscraper" was not one of Mr. Feuer's biggest hits, his attention to detail, his perfectionism, his desire to get things exactly right are what enabled him to create the long list of hits (including "Guys and Dolls" and "Can-Can") that he did in his almost 30 years of actively producing on Broadway. There are lessons to be learned here for all of us.
This benefit evening, "Celebrate Cy!," was presented by the League of American Theatres and Producers, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation to support the Foundation's education programs across the country. There's a mutual respect between Mr. Feuer and SSDC, and not only because the producer himself was a director and staged many of his own productions. Mr. Feuer also happened to sign the very first SSDC contract (in 1962 for "Little Me").
Mr. Stone spoke about the producer, and so did son Jed Feuer, Robert Morse, and executive director of the League, Jed Bernstein. There were also filmed clips of Julie Harris, Neil Simon, Charles Nelson Reilly, Julie Andrews, Jo Loesser, James Burrows, and Isabel Bigley, all sharing anecdotes and making us know and appreciate the man and his work.
It was a fascination with a horn that got a young Cy Feuer on his way to a show business career. He went to Juilliard on a scholarship and, soon after, joined a band that went to California on tour. Deciding to stay there, he hooked up with a record label owned by Republic Pictures, where he eventually became a musical director. He then met Ernie Martin who, at the time, headed up comedy programming at CBS. They may have been opposites in appearance (Feuer was short, Martin tall), and in their personalities (Feuer was more creative-minded, Martin more business minded), but they both loved the theatre, and they soon began a collaboration that would last 46 years.
They hit the jackpot on their first outing, "Where's Charley?" (1948), a musical based on Brandon Thomas' "Charley's Aunt," with a book by George Abbott, words and music by Frank Loesser, starring Ray Bolger. Two years later, they hit an even bigger jackpot with "Guys and Dolls," based on Damon Runyon's story and characters with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, and directed by George S. Kaufman, starring, among others, Stubby Kaye. "Can-Can" was their third big hit (1953), with book by Abe Burrows (who also directed), music and lyrics by Cole Porter, starring Gwen Verdon and French performer Lilo.
They continued on their roll with "The Boy Friend" (1954), a musical comedy written by Sandy Wilson, brought in from London (the only show they produced where they weren't involved in the creative development), and then, one year later, "Silk Stockings," suggested by the movie "Ninotchka," with book by George S. Kaufman, his wife Leueen MacGrath, and Abe Burrows, music by Cole Porter, directed by Cy Feuer, and a cast led by Hildegarde Knef and Don Ameche.
With five hits in a row, the two were now being called "The wonder boys of Broadway." Feuer was 44 at the time, and Martin a mere 35. But their desire for perfectionism, and their desire to be in control of every detail, also earned them a reputation for being a bit callous.
There was an incident with "The Boy Friend" where the producing team locked out both the author, Sandy Wilson, and director, Vida Hope, from their own show, when it was still in rehearsal in New York. Apparently, a scene was put back into the show that was not part of the London production, and the producers had agreed with the London producers to stay true to the original. Hope was dismissed, Feuer took over as director (Hope kept the billing credit), and then, when Wilson became impossible to deal with during rehearsals, the producing team had him barred from the theatre. Wilson got his revenge in an article he wrote for Theatre Arts.
There was another flare-up that happened, this time with George S. Kaufman and his wife during tryouts for "Silk Stockings." Kaufman needed to leave the show due to illness, so Feuer took over the reins as director, and brought in Abe Burrows (with the Kaufmans' approval) to make the inevitable script alterations. But the Kaufmans showed up soon after the show opened in Boston to make some additional changes to the script, and Feuer and Martin refused. The Kaufmans left, but not quietly, and the next day's headlines in Boston announced that the Kaufmans had been thrown out of their own show.
Lyricist Carolyn Leigh was very upset when Feuer decided to cut a number from "Little Me." She refused, and tried to have the producer arrested for his attempt to cut the song, dragging a policeman off the street and into the theatre. Mind you, all of these stories were mentioned in the evening's souvenir journal (in an interview conducted by Pia Lindstrom with Mr. Feuer).None were referred to during the evening.
Feuer and Martin finally did lay an egg with their sixth production in 1958, "Whoop-Up," which Feuer directed and wrote the book for, based on a story by Dan Cushman, with music and lyrics by Moose Charlap and Norman Gimbel, respectively. But three years later, they hit the jackpot once again with "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," with book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, based on a book by Shepherd Mead, with music by Frank Loesser, directed by Burrows, starring Robert Morse.
"Little Me" followed right after, in 1962, and the producing team scored another hit. With a book by Neil Simon, based on the novel by Patrick Dennis, "Little Me" had music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and was directed by Feuer and Bob Fosse. The cast included Sid Caesar and Virginia Martin. "Little Me" was followed by two musicals, "Skyscraper" (1965) and "Walking Happy" (1966), and Herb Gardner's play, "The Goodbye People" (1968), shows that didn't score too well at the box office. But then, "The Act" (1977) brought the team into the spotlight again. The show starred Liza Minnelli, with book by George Furth, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, respectively, and direction by Martin Scorsese (who ultimately was replaced by an unbilled Gower Champion). The pair also produced three films: "Piaf," "A Chorus Line," and "Cabaret," which garnered eight Academy Awards.
The gala was highlighted by performances of songs from some of the Feuer and Martin shows, sung by Karen Ziemba, Veanne Cox, Ellen Foley, Walter Bobbie, Roger Bart, Christine Ebersole, Laura Benanti, and Brent Barrett, among others.
Cy Feuer still shows up for work every day in his position as president of the League of American Theatres and Producers. Said Jed Bernstein, "his everyday presence at the League enables us to constantly learn from him: his passion and love for talent, his ideas of how noble it can be to be a producer. He is the quintessential name of the theatre. Every day when I hear his 'Hi ya, kid,' I know that I do the job just to hear that."