Mrs. McThing…Behind the Scenes
Hello Theater Lovers,
Michael Colby’s had a unique childhood growing up at the Algonquin Hotel, owned by his grandparents Ben and Mary Bodne. He wrote a book about it entitled “The Algonquin Kid” that went on to great acclaim further resulting in an audio book. Yes, Michael knew every stage and screen star because they all stayed at the Algonquin when they were in town.
Now, Michael has gone on to write this no-holds-barred, tell all reveal about how his hit musical Mrs. McThing (book & lyrics by Michael Colby, with music by Jack Urbont), came to be – – The trials and tribulations, the pitfalls and the many stars involved.
You will have the opportunity to see Mrs. McThing as a benefit performance for AMAS at TADA! Youth Center on Halloween, October 31 at a 2 pm or 7 pm performance. Tickets are now on sale (all info. Below) Enjoy the story of this bewitching musical based on a play by Mary Chase.
Doin’ What I’d Wished For: A History of the Musical Mrs. McThing
By Michael Colby…
Part I: I’d known the playwright Mary Chase since I was a kid and she gave this Jewish boy white chocolate bunnies for Easter (The chocolates were reminiscent of her famous character, “Harvey” the pooka). Mary Coyle Chase, a native of Denver, Colorado, grew up there poor, but worked her way up as a reporter on the Rocky Mountain News. It was on that paper that she met fellow Denver reporter Robert Chase, whom she married, raising three sons. Among other important figures in her life was Algonquin Roundtabler Dorothy Parker, who briefly lived in Denver and befriended Mary. According to Chase biographer, Mimi Pockross, Dorothy Parker called Mary “the greatest undiscovered wit.” Through connections and after one flop Broadway play NOW YOU’VE DONE IT. Mary became the toast of New York in 1944. That’s when her fantasy play, HARVEY opened, running more than 4 years, winning her the Pulitzer Prize (over THE GLASS MENAGERIE), and ultimately was made into a smash movie starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (who won an Oscar for it). MRS. McTHING (1954), starring Helen Hayes, was another big hit for Mary. All in all, she penned 14 plays and 2 children’s books. Mary was no longer an “undiscovered wit.”
Mary always stayed at the Algonquin, working on both HARVEY and MRS. McTHING there. Since the hotel was owned by my grandparents, Ben and Mary Bodne, from 1946-1987, she was a good family friend (The two Marys were especially close).
Years later, when I started writing musicals, I auditioned the first musical I wrote with Gerald Jay Markoe (later the composer of CHARLOTE SWEET) for Mary and another Algonquin guest, Jack Cassidy. The show was an adaptation of TIME REMEBERED: a play which, like MRS. McTHING, had been a successful Broadway vehicle for Helen Hayes. Both Mary and Jack were enthusiastic—to the point that a few days later Mary asked if I would take a crack at writing songs for MRS. McTHING. Mary had turned down offers for a musicalization of HARVEY; she didn’t want to mess with her prize-winning play. But she thought MRS. McTHING had the makings of a musical and had approached lyricist/librettist E.Y. Harburg about doing a treatment. He eventually declined. Yet it just so happened that Harburg (along with Lorenz Hart) was my lyricist idol. I brought in composer Jack Urbont, with whom I’d just worked on a musical with librettist Dale Wasserman (another mentor of mine; librettist of MAN OF LA MANCHA). Jack was also the two-time Emmy winner known for, among other credits, writing the famous theme songs for many Marvel Comic characters.
Mary loved the songs Jack and I wrote for MRS. McTHING. Soon, we started our adventure: Mary adapting the libretto with her friend Henry Ephron (co-playwright of TAKE HER, SHE’S MINE); me doing the lyrics, and Jack writing the music.
Part II: THE RICHEST KID IN TOWN: that was the working title of the new musical script by Mary Chase and Henry Ephron (I was never sure what Henry was contributing). The title was based on a song I wrote for Howay Larue III, the son of the richest woman in a town not unlike Denver, where Mary Chase lived. These roles were originally played by Helen Hayes and Brandon DeWilde (popular as the child star of the movies, MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and SHANE, the latter for which he was Oscar-nominated). Others in the cast included Jules Munshin, Fred Gwynne, Irwin Corey, Lydia Reed (“Little Hassie on TV’s The Real McCoys), Iggie Wolfington (Robert Preston’s original sidekick “Marcellus” in THE MUSIC MAN), Enid Markey (the screen’s first “Jane” to Elmo Lincoln’s “Tarzan”), and Ernest Borgnine. The play itself was a big hit; and—with its fantasy plot involving witches, spoiled rich people, and comic gangsters—it was a first Broadway show for many children.
The play MRS. McTHING had a huge cast and a complicated storyline. Mary compounded those issues by adding new characters and settings to the musical adaptation. Nonetheless, when Jack Urbont and I visited her at her beautiful home in Denver, Mary reported there was already interest in the musical. We continued work sessions. I expected that Mary’s libretto problems would be ironed out if we were picked up by a regional theatre. Such a tryout was Mary’s plan. But it was not to be. Mary suddenly died of a heart attack in 1981. At the time, she’d also permitted HARVEY to be turned into a musical—SAY HELLO TO HARVEY (with Donald O’Connor)—but its premiere was not well received. Still, it was MRS. McTHING that Mary thought was her show most worthy of musicalization.
Graciously, Mary’s agent and relatives allowed me to take over as librettist. It helped that my reputation as a musical theatre writer was largely enhanced in 1982 by the off-Broadway musical, CHARLOTTE SWEET, which I’d developed on my own, receiving a Drama Desk Award nomination. The first things I did were streamline the cast and reinstate the title MRS. McTHING. I removed Mary’s added characters and combined many roles. I otherwise adhered closely to Mary Chase’s play. Helping me was Edward Stone, who had directed CHARLOTTE SWEET. Favorable reactions led to more than one offer. One occurred after we were invited to audition for the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam CT, where ANNIE and MAN OF LA MANCHA had originated. Headed by artistic director, Michael Price, Goodspeed was about to open a second space, The Norma Terris Theatre, for the exclusive development of new musicals. The audition was an adventure in itself.
Part III: It was Goodspeed Ho! We traveled in two cars, conveying three collaborators (composer Jack Urbont, director Edward Stone, me) and 4 actors who had recently recorded a demo of the MRS. McTHING: Polly Pen and Christopher Seppe (alumni of CHARLOTTE SWEET), plus Stephen Berger and Jeanne Lehman (other actors with whom I’d worked). In fact, Jeanne Lehman had been the leading lady in the first show I ever saw at Goodspeed, a delightful revival of Rodgers & Hart’s DEAREST ENEMY.
After the two-and-a-half hour drive to Goodspeed, we were ushered into an audition space. Our brilliant actors performed a fabulous audition, accompanied by Jack Urbont, for Michael Price, associate producer Gerald A. Davis, and casting director Warren Pincus. The actors beautifully evoked the assortment of characters that Mary Chase created, and Jack Urbont (a 2-time Emmy winner who had accompanied Julie Andrews in the movie STAR) was an inspiration.
After the enthusiastic reception, Gerald and Warren took us on a tour of the new theatre at Chester, still under construction. There was talk about this new space being the breeding ground of “the future of musical theatre.” Ed and I, who had forged such a strong partnership on CHARLOTTE SWEET, were especially psyched. Within a week or so, the actual offer came—including the offer for Ed to direct the show. MRS. McTHING would be among 4 new musicals in the inaugural season at the Goodspeed-at-Chester. The other 3 were:
(1) HARRIGAN ‘N HART, spearheaded by Michael Stewart, the Tony-winning librettist of HELLO DOLLY!, BYE BYE BYE BIRDIE and 42ND STREET among other Broadway smashes.
2) A BROADWAY BABY, co-produced by television producers Sid and Marty Krofft.
3) THE DREAM TEAM, a pet project of Goodspeed’s resident choreographer, Dan Siretta.
In other words, of all the random musicals submitted for this new theatre’s first season, MRS. McTHING was the one selected independent of outside financing or special connections. Michael Price kept saying we could be “the next ANNIE.” Coincidentally, after Mary Chase died, Thomas Meehan [of ANNIE] was the one librettist with whom Jack Urbont and I met about taking over as book-writer—but he wasn’t available and I decided to do it myself.
Everyone was over the moon about our future plans. Then came the eclipse.
Part IV: We were like show biz mischpoke (That’s Yiddish for family). Edward Stone and I weren’t the only carry-overs from CHARLOTTE SWEET on MRS. McTHING. Likewise, there was lighting designer Jason Kantrowitz and choreographer Dennis Dennehy. Dennis and I had the longest history together. I knew of his acclaimed work on the short-lived yet Tony-nominated Broadway musical THE LIEUTENANT. That’s why I recruited Dennis to be the choreographer of my first full-length, off-off Broadway musical NORTH ATLANTIC, a valentine to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. NORTH ATLANTIC was co-produced by me and the Gene Frankel Media Center. It was so well received, we could have extended. But the space had been booked with another show. The highlight of highlights was Dennis’ hilarious mash-up of Agnes DeMille Dream Ballets (It’s a crime we didn’t videotape it—this was falling-down funny, as a cowpoke dancing with a pig somehow led to crossing Alpine mountains with a fast-fading married nun). Allan Albert, a director I knew, was so tickled by the ballet, he asked Dennis to be his collaborator. This led to Allan’s making Dennis the resident choreographer when the two of them—Allan as artistic director—created the popular summer show program at Hershey Park, PA.
Instead I went with a producer who had neither the same clout or resources, but who would keep my mischpoke together. And, as someone who had grown up in a very turbulent and divisive household, keeping my theatre family together meant the world to me.
Everything was going like gangbusters on MRS. McTHING. But then there was an unexpected turn. Goodspeed’s HARRIGAN ‘N HART lost its slated director, the Tony winning Tommy Walsh, who decided instead to do their Sid and Marty Krofft-backed show, A BROADWAY BABY. That’s when Gerry Davis, the co-producer of the season at Norma Terris, recommended Ed for HARRIGAN ‘N HART too. Gerry got the idea because he was so impressed (deservedly) after seeing Ed’s remarkable work on CHARLOTTE SWEET (which was Ed’s first major job as a NY theatre director—his cousin in-law Murray Horwitz [co-creator of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’] had introduced us).
Not surprisingly, Ed did a spectacular job directing HARRIGAN ‘N HART—where it was a critically acclaimed smash. In fact, it was almost immediately optioned for Broadway. What I later learned was that Ed’s Broadway position was on the line, as there was pressure to replace him with a better known director and make him associate director (Tony winner Joe Layton got the job, Ed was ultimately dismissed, and the show ruined). These pressures would have an indelible effect on MRS. McTHING.
Oh the starry names that were proposed for MRS. McTHING! Goodspeed had scored a bullseye in securing Mark Hamill of STAR WARS to topline HARRIGAN ‘N HART. It not only meant they’d found a surprisingly gifted, musical theatre lead, but that their ticket sales would go through the roof (even before the show got great local reviews). Our casting director Warren Pincus attempted to make lightning strike twice. Warren pursued Carol Burnett for the Helen Hayes role, Mrs. Belle Larue, a spoiled rich woman dissatisfied with her mischievous kid. Carol Burnett was contemplating a return to theatre after the completion of her classic TV show. Months before, I myself had approached Jane Powell. I’d already written special material for Jane: the narration when she hosted a concert version of Victor Herbert’s SWEETHEARTS. She was genial and receptive. But I couldn’t follow through until we heard about Carol Burnett. Carol eventually declined, at which point Jane was no longer interested. On the basis of a terrific audition, we cast Jill O’Hara, who’d been Tony nominated as the original leading lady of PROMISES, PROMISES.
One actor who was immediately cast was Lynn Eldredge from CHARLOTTE SWEET. We’d done an early reading and Lynn was a standout playing the title role of a spell-casting witch with an adopted young daughter. I’d expanded that role from Mary Chase’s play, in which the witch only appears at the end, played by two different actresses: one an “Ugly Witch,” one a “Beautiful Witch”. In a 1958 TV version of the play, on the Omnibus series, the witches were played by a menacing Beatrice Arthur and by the former Miss America, Lee Meriwether. The dual casting was meant by Mary Chase as a metaphor for the different sides of one’s mother—as perceived by a child—sometimes frightening and fierce, sometimes lovely and comforting. In the adaptation—for economical as well as other reasons—a single actress played both sides of the coin.
The role that was most fun to cast was Poison Eddie Schellenbach, a goofy gangster originally played by Jules Munshin. Lots of Broadway veterans were submitted by agents. My first idea was Tony nominee Bob Dishy, who was tempted but busy. Ruth Webb, the agent for Frank Gorshin (TV’s “The Riddler” on BATMAN) contacted me, persistently pitching for him. Eventually, we chose an actor who gave one of the best performances in any of my musicals, the late Ray Gill. Ray is best known today for originating the role of the son, “Boolie Werthan” in DRIVING MISS DAISY. He also played “The Baker” in the original workshop of INTO THE WOODS, then on tour. He was pure joy to work with and watch.
Once fully cast, we started rehearsals under the direction of Edward Stone. Midway through, our producer Michael Price attended and was critical. He ordered some major rewrites from me, which included the removal of two songs (One of which, “When I Come In” has been reinstated for our upcoming presentation). For various reasons, such as Michael Price putting tremendous pressure on us, there was a lot of tension among the collaborators, especially between Ed Stone and Dennis Dennehy, and Ed and me. Ed had the additional onus of making himself available for HARRIGAN ‘N HART plans. Somehow we got through the hurdles in time for a last tech run-through—where the house was filled with a Goodspeed audience. As often happens with final run-throughs, the performance was shaky. There and then, Michael Price made a snap decision. He told me and Ed that he intended to replace our leading lady. Ed and I were baffled because we enjoyed the performance of Jill O’Hara; she has one of the most mellifluous singing voices I’ve ever heard. But there was no talking Price out of his decision.
So there we were, the night before our first scheduled public preview. And we had no leading lady. Ed and I made late-night calls to several of the best musical theatre actresses with whom we’d worked. It looked like no one was available. Then, something of a miracle happened.
About a week before the shocking dismissal of Jill O’Hara, there came a day I’ll never forget. The Goodspeed publicist had set up two major interviews with newspaper reporters. Both would serve as advance publicity for MRS. McTHING. One was for a planned article wherein journalist Robert Viagas interviewed me and Ed Stone—as a musical theatre team. The other article was an interview with Jill O’Hara by the critic Markland Taylor (who wrote for Variety as well as a local Connecticut paper).
In the past, I relished being interviewed with Ed as a team. This time, it wasn’t so easy. Ed had privately vented to me about Michael Price’s negativity. In turn, Michael Price would take me aside to complain about Ed. Thus, at this interview, I felt I was walking a tightrope lined with eggshells. As we proceeded, Ed thought I was cutting him off. I thought he was cutting me off. In any case, we weren’t cut out for times like this. Meanwhile, from what I could hear, Markland Taylor was rightfully praising Jill O’Hara for her Broadway work, then wishing her well in times to come. This obviously wasn’t a gypsy tearoom.
Both articles came out just before our final rehearsals—and before Price replaced Jill. Ed and I did bond together again to tell Jill how sorry we were. Yet the play was still the McThing, and our fortunes improved. Jeanne Lehman, who played Mrs. Larue during our initial audition for Goodspeed, took an Amtrack train to Connecticut and took over the lead. She learned the role—lines, songs, choreography—almost immediately. She could have given Marilu Henner lessons in memory retention. MRS. McTHING was magically coming back to life, Sure, there were still improvements to be made. But, all considered, audiences were finding it a very lovable show. Best of all, the first two reviews were enthusiastic:
“PERFECT ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE ENTIRE FAMILY. Magical, tuneful fun show. Further along the road to success than ‘ANNIE’ was in its early stages at Goodspeed.” – Henry E. Josten, The Old Saybrook Pictorial
“A BRIGHT, TOUCHING, RAFFISH MUSICAL. COMBINES THE BEST OF ‘ANNIE’ AND ‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.’ Could become the new ‘ANNIE’ on Broadway. Tuneful music. Lyrics sometimes romantic, sometimes rippling with rhyming wit. Delightful.” – Malcolm L. Johnson, The Hartford Courant
Notwithstanding, I still had a gut feeling something was very wrong. Then, on the eve of my 33rd birthday, Markland Taylor’s review came out in his local newspaper. It was a blistering pan, stating how fortunate Jill O’Hara was to be out of it. I reacted in a profound way.
Oh, who hasn’t had a bad review? During its tryout at Goodspeed, ANNIE was panned by Walter Kerr, covering for The New York Times (He did admit being wrong when it reached Broadway). When FIDDLER ON THE ROOF tried out in Detroit, its first review—(where else?) in Variety—declared it had no memorable songs and a slim chance at success. Now Variety could be kind too (Its critics praised my shows North Atlantic and Charlotte Sweet). But I was devastated, knowing this would be the one review read in New York. I felt chances were torpedoed for the show’s future and that I’d personally let down Mary Chase’s faith in me. Conspicuously, “McThing” had no support system (e.g. a cash reserve or dedicated producers) unlike with some other shows. I obsessed about how, with my luck, the stinker review would augur even nastier disaster ahead. I was incapable of foreseeing the actual outcome: the reviews were generally favorable and the show popular with audiences. But I was right about one thing—commercial interest in the show was nipped in the bud.
Not that I was in the best shape to scan Markland Taylor’s vitriol, anyway. I was still shellshocked from our shaky rehearsals and Michael Price’s replacement of our leading lady. Worse, the invaluable theatre family I’d assembled on CHARLOTTE SWEET—Edward Stone, Dennehy and I—had been pitted against each other and would never be the same. Then, there was the specter of Goodspeed pouring its energies into moving HARRIGAN ‘N HART to Broadway, leaving MRS. McTHING as the neglected other child (Years later, Michael Price would admit and apologize to me for this). But there was also a déjà vu cloud over me. I was reminded of how CHARLOTTE SWEET had been overshadowed, opening back-to-back with LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Except the big difference was that while Ed and I fought together to keep “Charlotte” afloat, he had to straddle the fence between “McThing” and “Harrigan”—while battling for the right to remain with the Broadway-bound show.
I became increasingly withdrawn. The negative aspects of my life engulfed me. Except for theatre talents, I’d never been much of an achiever in anything—the last kid picked on the sports team, someone considered a wimp at school—with people unaware of how turbulent my homelife was (I faced constantly combatting parents, my father falling and dying after a big fight with my bi-polar mother).
On top of that, the opportunity to keep a foothold in theatre—and establish myself as someone other than “The Algonquin Kid”—was fading fast. It was the eve of my 33rd birthday and I never felt so alone in my life.
What I’m going to write next is something I’ve never publicly acknowledged. But I think it’s important to reveal during this pandemic time when depression is so prevalent. Anticipating failure, I had purchased a bottle of Sominex. That night, the eve of my 33rd birthday, I swallowed it all, plus any other medication in the cabinet. Today I think of all the shows and songs—and the book about the Algonquin—that I would never have written had I been better at picking pills.
I woke the next day, feeling like Marley’s Ghost and groggily dragged myself downstairs. I had been staying on the second floor of a Goodspeed guest cottage and, at the bottom of the stairs, I told the first person I saw (as it happened a stranger) to call for an ambulance. I was soon off to the local hospital. This would, indeed, be an unusual day.
The expression—“I’m really pumped”—didn’t quite have the same meaning, at Middletown Hospital, as when I’d started rehearsals on MRS. McTHING. There I was, purged of pills and perched on my Connecticut hospital bed. A quote from playwright Larry Gelbart raced through my mind, “If Hitler is still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.” However, I was soon to cheer up. My attendant doctor lifted my spirit in an unexpected way. Asked about the reasons behind my depression and hospitalization, I confessed that I was a playwright. I then told the doctor about my show at Goodspeed. His eyes opened wide, as he stated, “You mean, MRS. McTHING? That’s where my wife and I were last night—we loved it!”
That was probably the best therapy I could have received. Later, two hospital visitors further bolstered me. They’d travelled to Connecticut from New York: my grandmother, Mary Bodne from the Algonquin, and my Uncle Andrew, who managed the hotel. I was so happy to see them, even when my grandmother decreed, “Maybe it’s time for you to get out of theatre.” Though not always apt in what she said, my grandmother always looked out for everyone. Years before, she let me move into the Algonquin when I no longer could bear the fighting at home. She was the first to rush to my hospital bed, when I was injured on the street by a NY truck. She always made up the difference, when I was short on financing for an off-off Broadway project. But sometimes she overdid things. As kind and consoling as she was to me at the Middletown Hospital, she had a concern beyond my health. She knew that her daughter, my mother, would be seeing MRS. McTHING the next day—on Halloween. And she did not want my mother to get upset, learning what happened to me.
My mother was one of the reasons I so identified with the allegorical aspects of MRS. McTHING. In the play, via both the characters of Mrs. Larue (the Helen Hayes part) and Mrs. McThing (the witch)—Mary Chase portrayed how contradictory a mother can seem to her child. One mother, Mrs. Larue, is critical and unaccepting of her son—even while lavishing luxuries on him—then finally learns to appreciate him for who he is. The play’s other mother, Mrs. McThing, alters from a frightening witch to a beautiful and loving parental figure. My bipolar mother was like that. Her moods could turn on a dime from raging to adoring. Yes, there were many sides to Renee Mae Bodne Colby Landis Chubet (She was married three times; when I was asked if she was widowed or divorced, I’d answer “You name it”). She was a beauty with looks somewhere between movie star Ella Raines and Scarlett O’Hara. Her Southern accent just grew thicker when her parents (the Bodnes) moved from Charleston to NYC. And she was the least typical Jewish mother you could ever meet.
My grandmother dearly loved Renee Mae and tried to cover up her problems (thereby compounding them). So I was speeded out of the hospital to spare my mother the upset of knowing my condition. Fortunately, I’m generally resilient, so all was relatively well by Halloween. And, you know what? MRS. McTHING turned out to be my late mother’s favorite among all the shows I wrote.
MRS. McTHING played at Goodspeed at Chester from October 9-November 4, 1984. Michael Price told me there was enough demand for tickets to have extended the run. But the theatre had to be cleared for rehearsals of their next show, A BROADWAY BABY (the show that Thommie Walsh decided to direct instead of HARRIGAN ‘N HART, paving the way for Edward Stone to replace him). At the same time, composer Jack Urbont placed a large ad in Variety, hoping to reverse the impact of their critic Markland Taylor. It featured quotes from all our good reviews, including the full rave by Malcolm L. Johnson (the highly respected critic for The Hartford Courant, who stayed in touch with me—mentioning that he was trying to get a local high school to do it). But there was no substantial interest, so MRS. McTHING was shelved.
Of the members of the CHARLOTTE SWEET carryovers, I collaborated in future years with both choreographer Dennis Dennehy and lighting designer Jason Kantrowitz. My biggest regret is that, though we kept in touch, I never again worked with director Edward Stone. Between my depression and his unfair treatment when HARRIGAN ‘N HART moved to Broadway, there was just too much of a strain. That changed several years later. I was at an AIDS benefit for the ailing Christopher Seppe, the extraordinary actor who’d originated the role of “Ludlow Ladd” in CHARLOTTE SWEET (and who was one of the four performers who triumphantly auditioned MRS. McTHING for Goodspeed). That decade was one of the worst times of the AIDS epidemic. In the reception room, after the benefit, Ed and I saw each other. Then, without saying a word, we approached each other and hugged for more than a minute. I told him I loved him like a brother and he held on, as if telling me the same. All the tension between us completely dissolved. It was such a sweet moment. But there was something I didn’t know—the secret that Ed was keeping from most people. About a month later, I received a phone call that Ed was in the hospital, dying of AIDS. He passed on December 1st, the same day that now commemorates “World AIDS Day.” He was much too young: a brilliant talent was lost forever to the theatre. It was the toughest death I’ve ever experienced—a far bigger shock than anything I experienced on MRS. McTHING.
I put away MRS. McTHING for a long while. Instead, as therapy, I wrote my next musical, TALES OF TINSELTOWN, in collaboration with composer Paul Katz. It was loosely based on my Goodspeed experience filtered through my love of classic movie musicals. But I re-set the plot to 1930s Hollywood Babylon. The final scene is reminiscent of the last scene in SHE LOVES ME, where the hero and heroine, both wounded by movie careers, are rejoined at the “Shop Around the Corner.” The difference is that in TALES OF TINSELTOWN the two leads (one a writer like me) are reunited at the Hollywood Sign, both about to jump. Suddenly, they decide they have too much to live for—they’re going make their big splash after all…on the Broadway stage. TALES OF TINSELTOWN is among my favorite shows ever.
As I moved on to other shows, it seemed to be the end for MRS. McTHING. Then something happened that made me want to return to that musical after all.
Even though the musical MRS. McTHING has been dormant, its songs have frequently been heard. No fewer than four of them were sung in the revues of AStageKindly, a London group (founded by Katy Lipson and Giles Howe) that promoted new musicals. Broadway actress Carolyn Mignini sang the show’s title song at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Michael Feinstein himself has performed “How Do You Make Magic?”
For a long time, the idea of reviving the show was difficult for me. Beyond the painful memories, there was the crucial consideration of re-acquiring rights. Unlike most of my musicals, which are deliberately originals (and co-owned by me), the rights to the play MRS. McTHING were retained by Mary Chase’s agents and estate.
A turning point was my reading the biography of Mary Chase by Mimi Pockross, Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase. It stirred up many recollections. I felt the presence of Mary Chase, the sociable and quick-witted former journalist, who delighted in Gaelic and other folklore (mirrored in her plays). I remembered how Mary told me she wrote HARVEY to cheer up soldiers returning after World War II. And I well know how her plays have brightened the lives of millions during trying times. I also learned something I didn’t know. Pockross writes about the deep disappointment Mary felt when SAY HELLO TO HARVEY, the musical version, failed in its tryout:
“it was hard for her [Mary Chase] to put into perspective this setback even after her past phenomenal success. … On October 20, 1981, four days after her return to Denver [Mary’s home] from the Toronto opening, Chase suffered a heart attack and died. She was seventy-four years old. She had given life her best, and it was time to say ‘enough.’”
After reading that, how could I not try to bring back the musical that Mary had lovingly entrusted to me? I revisited the score and script. To my elation, I found not only had I been true to Mary Chase’s whimsical spirit, but Jack Urbont’s entire score was captivating—in the style of Harold Arlen and Jule Styne. Given the objective overview that time allows, I realized some minor rewrites were needed. I made several textual tweaks and changes (For example, Mary Chase’s jokes about beating up old ladies no longer seemed funny to me). Plus, I added some lyrical winks to E.Y. Harburg (the lyricist who inspired much of my style on this show).
Thereby, I fell in love with the musical all over again. But I faced a few major concerns. Concern One was that, in this age of contemporary and rock musicals, there might not be an audience for MRS. McTHING. After all, a glorious 2009 revival of the Harburg/Burton Lane classic, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, only lasted a couple of months (and the second time I saw it, I overheard a young couple who were walking out—because fantasy and classic Broadway music didn’t appeal to them). On the other hand, I weighed the fact that the unmusicalized play HARVEY continues to be a national treasure. For instance, not long ago, there was wildly successful revival starring Jim Parsons at the Roundabout Theatre.
Concern Two was the issue of rights. Fortunately, Robert A. Freedman, the continuing agent for Mary Chase, has been kind and encouraging—knowing how much the musical and Mary Chase have meant to me.
Then there was Concern Three—a little item called financing. Nonetheless, an angel intervened. Incredibly, it was my mother. She had passed away several years back. But before that, circumstance had softened her. Indeed, she’d become more like the nurturing side of Mrs. McThing. The reason was that she’d finally reached an equilibrium—after my brothers Douglas and David and I got her the therapeutic treatment she’d needed all along. When she peacefully passed at the age of 91, I was left just enough funds to one day arrange for the upcoming staged reading of MRS. McTHING. What better way to please my mother than by arranging a presentation of her favorite of my musicals? And what better place to donate the funds than TADA! Youth Theater, where I’ve been on the Advisory Board since their inception. Moreover, its artistic director Janine Nina Trevens is the daughter of the late great press agent, Francine L. Trevens, who was one of this musical’s biggest champions (Early on, she heard the score and interested a producer in optioning it; the writers chose the offer from Goodspeed instead).
So, like magic, MRS. McTHING returns. TADA! Youth Theater will celebrate the show with two performances of a staged reading on (when else?) Halloween. Yes, for the first time in years, the public will see Mary Chase’s story of two mothers, one rich, the other a witch, mixing with goblins and goofy gangsters and mischievous children.
Of course, I realize there are dozens of worthy musicals whose writers don’t have the advantages I do. I also realize the odds that there will be any future life for MRS. McTHING are astronomical, especially in today’s economy—with the added threat of COVID ramifications. But at least I’m fulfilling a promise to Mary Chase and, as another theatre writer poeticized, dream “The Impossible Dream.”
Composed by Jack Urbont, with book/lyrics by Michael Colby, Mrs. McThing (a bewitching musical based on a play by Mary Chase), directed by Karen Carpenter, is a benefit for TADA! (15 West 28 Street) taking place on Halloween, Sunday October 31 at 2 and 7 pm. Tickets for the benefit are $50 ($30 for students), and are available online at: tinyurl.com/ypajkts3
Casting continues, however, the following actors are committed to appear:
Donna English (Drama Desk Award nominee for Ruthless, standby for Renée Fleming in Living on Love) will play the role of Mrs. Howard V. Larue III, a fabulously rich woman with a particularly mischievous son. This role was originated by Helen Hayes, in the play by Mary Chase.
Leah Hocking (All Shook Up, Billy Elliot) will play the title role of Mrs. McThing.
Others in the standout cast include:
Ben Eakeley (She Loves Me, Sweeney Todd)
Michael Farina (Fiddler on the Roof, Seussical the Musical)
Trisha Jeffrey (Rent, Little Shop of Horrors)
Bart Shatto (Les Miserables, The Civil War)
Parker Dzuba, Emily Isabel, Zack Krajnyak, and Beth Siegling.
The box office is now open for MRS. McTHING. Here’s the link.