ON THE RECORD: The Musicals Carrie, A Christmas Story and Seventeen

By Steven Suskin
28 Oct 2012

Album art

On the first hand, with A Christmas Story, we have a present-day look at pastoral Indiana, post-WWII; on the next hand we have a mid-century look at pre-WWI Indianapolis — "the largest city in the world not on navigable waters," at the time anyway. This via Seventeen, a 1951 summer musical based on the 1916 best-seller by Booth Tarkington. Said novel is a now-faded classic, but pretty charming when last I read it decades ago. It also holds the distinction of being one of the first (or perhaps only) novels to have two thoroughly separate Broadway musical comedy adaptations, both failed. (The first, for those interested in such things, was the 1926 Hello, Lola. And I can't imagine there is anyone around who remembers that.)

Seventeen opened at the Broadhurst in June 1951 — grabbing the theatre from the auspicious flop, Flahooley — and made it through Thanksgiving, clocking in at 182 performances. The personnel list is all but unknown. Walter Kent and Kim Gannon wrote music and lyrics, respectively; no, you probably have never heard of them. But you've heard one of their WWII songs, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Kent also wrote "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover." Sally Benson, of Junior Miss fame, wrote the book. Richard Whorf, who was perhaps better known as an actor, directed the book; the 74-year-old Hassard Short, director of such long-ago hits as The Band Wagon and Lady in the Dark, was credited with the overall staging. The cast featured almost nobody you ever heard of, the main exception being Kenneth Nelson — later prominent in The Fantasticks and The Boys in the Band — as the leading man. Or, rather, the 17-year-old hero.

The wild card in the bunch was first-billed producer Milton Berle, who was just then the most famous man on television. "Mr. Television," in fact; his weekly variety show was so popular that NBC went and signed him to a 30-year contract. (This didn't work out too well for NBC, as the popularity of "Uncle Miltie" started to slip after five years.) In 1951, Berle was on top; I can only guess that the actual producer of Seventeen, former stage manager Sammy Lambert, figured that Berle's name would attract attention. Which it did and does, 'cause we're talking about it now, 60 years later. The presence of Berle's name — presumably in exchange for a slice of the profits, sans investment — certainly helped the show receive attention in the same way that a play "produced" by Oprah Winfrey would today. I don't imagine that fans of the rough and tumble Uncle Miltie found much to like in the nostalgically well-mannered and sweetly pastoral Seventeen. The original cast album reveals a moderately pleasant musical, suitable for general audiences but with a few tasty morsels. Tastiest of all is a song-and-dance for Ann Crowley — as Lola Pratt, the flirtatious visitor from out-of-town who stirs up all the trouble — called "Reciprocity." This has a delicious dance arrangement (by Jesse Meeker) and dance orchestration (credited to Ted Royal, but probably with the vocal by Royal and the pizzicato-plucking dance by some unknown somebody).

Other numbers I turn back to include "This Was Just Another Day," a duet for Nelson and Crowley; and an unusual trio for Nelson and two olde-South servants — one of 'em called "Pappy" — called "I Could Get Married Today." This is, indeed, the first and only authorized CD version of Seventeen, as they say in the release. There was a U.K. release of the album some years back, which I addressed in a column in 2005, although Masterworks gives us a new digital remastering from the original tapes that sounds much better.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)