A NYCHEA Players Production, March 2009 @ Wings Theatre. LeCee Johnson (director) and Dan Radzikowski (musical director). Costumes by Janet Mervin. Choreography by LeCee Johnson and Ben Watts. Set design by Yves Mervin-Leroy. Photography by Lili Montemarano and Janet Mervin.
from our program notes…
In 1953, at the suggestion of a friend, the management of the London Player’s Theatre Club approached Sandy Wilson about writing an hour-long entertainment, to be performed in two acts. Since Sandy was especially fond of what he referred to (in 1953) as “the age of the cloche hat and the short skirt”, he suggested something in the style of the 1920’s, which they agreed to. He was paid 25 pounds, with an additional 25 pounds to be paid at the time of performance. He began working immediately and was finished with the script in a few days. He named it The Boy Friend in tribute to the 1926 Rodgers & Hart musical, The Girl Friend. He talked about his creative process in his autobiography, “If I Could Be Happy”:
“It would probably sound more convincing, and certainly more traditional, if I described the creation of The Boy Friend as a tortured struggle, with numerous false starts, constant re-writes, agonized re-appraisals and all the other problems attendant on a primum opus. The truth is that it was by far the easiest thing I have ever done. From the moment I began it the whole show seemed to come tumbling out of me as if it had been waiting years to be born — which, I suppose, it had. I wrote the script through from beginning to end in a matter of days, and, with the alteration of the odd word here and there, that is how it finally appeared.”
Sandy was introduced to director Vida Hope in 1951 and they soon became close friends. When she was offered the opportunity to direct the show, she read the script, listened to the music and fell in love with it. She absolutely agreed that it was necessary to direct The Boy Friend “as a serious reproduction of a period and not as a burlesque”. Later, Vida made a speech to the cast following the first read-through:
“She told them very firmly that there was no intention of doing a burlesque or a send-up of the 1920’s, and any tendency in that direction would be fiercely discouraged; she instructed them to think of The Boy Friend not as a re-hash of something old but as a beautiful, new show which they were rehearsing for the first time in 1926. It was to be ‘witty, elegant, charming and tender’ and if she caught anyone overplaying or making fun of it, she would ‘smack their bottoms’. ‘They listened politely’, as she puts it, ‘then went away and had their lunch, when no doubt they expounded on the lunacy of their producer and crack-brained author.’ But in fact what she said had made a deep impression on everybody”.
The Boy Friend was first performed in London at the Players’ Theatre Club beginning on April 14, 1953, ran for three weeks, and reopened on October 13 after having been lengthened into the full-length, three-act musical that we know today. It transferred to the Embassy Theatre for the 1953 Christmas season and opened soon afterwards at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End on January 14, 1954. It became immensely popular with the British public and ran for more than five years, a total of 2,082 performances.
The Boy Friend opened on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on September 30, 1954 and closed on November 26, 1955 after 14 months and 485 performances. Starring was 19-year-old newcomer Julie Andrews in her Broadway debut as Polly, with a cast including John Hewer, Geoffrey Hibbert, Dilys Laye, Bob Scheerer, Anne Wakefield, Millicent Martin, and Moyna MacGill. Julie Andrews received the Theatre World Award.
After the first dress rehearsal at the Royale, producers Feuer and Martin became very upset because that the show was not creating any “magic”. The London production they saw had the magic and they wanted to know why there was no magic here. Vida Hope tried to assure them that it would come together — it was, after all, the first dress rehearsal and few shows had any magic at that point. Apparently Feuer and Martin were afraid they might be producing a flop — and the producers of Guys and Dolls and Can-Can had never flopped. The producers fired Vida, and Feuer took over as director of the show. Sandy himself was barred from rehearsals, escorted from the theatre and was not allowed back in until opening night. On opening night, what Sandy and Vida saw horrified them. They saw a show that was very unlike the warm and tender romantic comedy they had so lovingly created in London:
“It had been transformed into a mocking burlesque. As the show progressed, I understood what Cy Feuer had done since Vida had been dispensed with: he kept her physical production down to the last gesture and inflection, but he had removed the heart from it. What was left was a strident, graceless parody, without a trace of the truth and sincerity which Vida had gone to such pains to create from the moment of the very first reading at the Players.”
The Boy Friend was a hit on Broadway. Audiences loved it, and critics praised it — Julie Andrews’ performance in particular — but as far as Sandy Wilson was concerned it was a disaster and no amount of money could ever compensate for the damage that had been done to it.
Two years after the close of the Broadway run, on January 25th, 1958 a revival opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York City. This production was directed by Gus Schirmer, and ran for 763 performances. This off-Broadway production was reputed to be much closer in spirit to the original Players’ Theatre production of 1953.
A revival opened on Broadway at the Ambassador Theatre on April 14, 1970, and ran for 111 performances. Starring were Judy Carne as Polly, Sandy Duncan as Maisie and Ronald Young as Tony. Duncan received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance as well as a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
In 1995, on its 40th anniversary, the musical returned to The Players’ Theatre in London in a new production that was as near a reproduction of the original as possible. Many of the original cast members were involved in the production. Following its success at the Players’ it went on a nationwide tour and was very successful.
In 2003, Julie Andrews made her directorial debut with the production of The Boy Friend at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, NY, starring Meredith Patterson as Polly Browne and Sean Palmer as Tony Brockhurst. This production was transferred to the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, with Julie Andrews directing. It ran from July 2005 through September 2005, at which point it toured the United States and Canada, playing eleven cities.