It is my absolute favorite thing when the past and present of theatre intersect in such a creative, thrilling way.
I know that there will be no way for the production to encompass all of everybody’s favorite moments from every Harold Prince show. (THAT production would be 3 days long- but I’d go!) With that in mind, I hope that, among other things, the show may stir some love for some of Prince’s lost underappreciated musicals.
Flora The Red Menace was written by Broadway neophyte 30-somethings John Kander and Fred Ebb. (Kander had the short-lived A Family Affair under his belt, and Ebb had written material for a couple of revues, but this was their first big shot, together.)
A 35-year-old Hal Prince set up an audition for Kander and Ebb, with legendary director George Abbott, and they played the first show they ever wrote for him. This was Golden Gate, which remains unproduced to this day.
Prince and Abbott were looking for a team to write a musical they had in mind, based on the book, Love Is Just Around The Corner, by Lester Atwell. Atwell was a World War Two veteran, and the novel, a commentary on communism, had been published very recently, just in 1963. Ever socially and politically conscious, Prince saw this as the perfect next show for him to produce, and Abbott, the matter of musical comedy, would add his trademark zing to the proceedings.
George Abbott really liked “these new boys”, Kander and Ebb, and Prince pushed for them to get the show. The songwriters wrote six songs on spec, and Flora The Red Menace was theirs.
Flora The Red Menace was George Abbott’s 105th Broadway production.
Abbott said to the press, at the time, “I feel the same as I did 40 years ago. It seems to me the important thing is not whether it’s the 105th show, but whether it’s a good show.”
Yes, Mr. Abbott.
Fred Ebb said, in a 2003 interview: “The situation of working on Flora was thrilling, the kind of situation where I wanted to just go off in a corner and cry because I could hardly believe it was really happening, our first Broadway show.”
A friend of Kander and Ebb’s was doing Carnival on Long Island with Liza Minnelli, and recommended her to play the lead, Flora. Ebb said, “Liza eventually came to my apartment to meet us. She was only seventeen. Her hair was long and stringy, and she wore funny- looking clothes, like this red hat with earflaps.”
Liza said about the experience: “George Abbott didn’t want me, and Freddy was the one who had to call and tell me that I didn’t have the part in Flora. Poor Freddy. I said, “Oh that’s okay,” but I was dying inside.
Many actresses were pursued for the role of Flora, including Barbra Streisand and Eydie Gorme.
A few weeks after Liza’s audition, George Abbott was heavily pursuing Gorme to play Flora. One night, he had dinner plans with her. The next morning, Kander and Ebb asked him how it went, and he said, “She never showed.” Prince, Kander and Ebb kept bringing up Liza’s name, and finally Abbott said, “We’re all professionals. Get me that Minnelli girl. And we don’t have to talk about it. Just get her.”
A few weeks of rehearsal went by, and according to Kander, “Abbott fell completely in love with Liza”. He became her devoted slave. He would go back to her dressing room every night. He loved young talent, and she really excited him. On Minnelli’s 19th birthday, during rehearsals, Abbott came waltzing into rehearsal with a cake, which is something he’d never ordinarily do.
Abbott repeatedly praised Minnelli to the press. He told the Times, ““I’m so pleased with her. She has a lot of vitality for someone who has never done a stage play.” Indeed, Flora was Liza’s Broadway debut.
All reporters opened their coverage on Flora The Red Menace, with their thoughts on Judy Garland. Liza had the presence of mind and intelligence to say, “If people want to see my mother in me, they’re going to. If they so desperately want to find her, they will. But I am me. Myself.”
In the show, Flora is a fiercely independent young fashion designer, who is struggling to find a job during the Great Depression. She lands a job, and also lands a guy, Harry (Bob Dishy), a fellow designer, who gets her involved with their union, and tries to convert her to the Communist party. In the end, Flora has to choose between crossing Harry’s picket line and keeping her job, or joining him. Torn between two ideals, the show really drives home the point that there is no black and white in politics.
In Time Magazine’s opinion, “The 1930’s are not close enough for slashing satirical gibes, and not distant enough to be bathed in a glowing forgetfulness of things past. Half the audience is too young to care, and the other half is too old to wish to be reminded of it.”
For the show, the reviews were mixed. For Liza, the reviews were unanimous. She was a star. She won the Tony Award at age 19.
Because Abbott loved Liza so much, and they both knew how important this show was going to be for her, he insisted that she have an 11 o’clock number. So, while out of town, Kander and Ebb wrote a big song for Liza to sing at the end of Flora The Red Menace. The song written was “Sing Happy”. (Broadway star Heidi Blickenstaff sang this tune for us, as our finale, in the first-ever “If It Only Even Runs A Minute” concert.)
Walter Kerr, in the New York Herald Tribune, said, “When, in Flora The Red Menace, [Minnelli] sings her own name, Flora, she belts that final “A” out as though she were mad at it, and the effect couldn’t be less angry, more childlike, or more charming.
In her dressing room at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, where the show tried out, Minnelli said, “I’ve wanted to do [Flora The Red Menace] ever since two years ago when I heard some of the songs. I was told I was too young. I tried to forget it. When I finally auditioned for it later, I wanted it so badly that I didn’t do well. Then Mr. Prince called and asked me to read again, and they explained to me what they wanted, and I just did it, you know? They had to make their minds up quickly because Mr. Prince was going on the road with Baker Street, and the next morning my agent phoned to say I had it. With my roommate Tanya Everett, I just went crazy. We tore around the room, jumping and laughing.” (Tanya, her best friend, was, at the time, in Prince’s Fiddler on the Roof.)
The Los Angeles Times wrote, “[A few blocks] down the street, hundreds jam 7th Avenue, just to get a glimpse of [22-year-old] Barbra Streisand leaving the Winter Garden, [after Funny Girl]. But outside the stage door of the Alvin, they’re beginning to line up too. Not to see Judy Garland’s daughter. To see Liza Minnelli.”
Each generation mentors the next. Once, George Abbott was the old guard, and Prince, Kander, Ebb and Minnelli the new faces. Now Prince, almost 50 years later, is creating a new show with the next generation- and HE is the legend, leading younger Broadway-legends-on-their-way like Susan Stroman and Jason Robert Brown.
Back in 1965, Prince was becoming the Director we know him as today. Indeed, Flora The Red Menace was the last big Broadway musical that he produced, without directing as well. Abbott’s lack of perspective on the politics at play in Flora, was one major problem with the show- and Prince was more sure than ever, of his socio-political and artistic voice- and his vision to intersect these. Although Flora The Red Menace closed after only 87 performances, it changed Prince’s career. He was inspired by his new collaborators, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and would ask them to work on his next new musical: Cabaret.
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