Whenever the great 1960s musicals (a/k/a the last gasp of the “Golden Age of Broadway”) are written about, the list is invariably topped by such shows as the leading lady musicals (Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Funny Girl), the groundbreaking shows (Cabaret, Hair), the satiric and/or subversive shows (Bye, Bye Birdie, How to Succeed), the unlikely blockbuster (Fiddler on the Roof).
What’s often missing from these lists is one of my favorite shows that is too easily dismissed: the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joe Masteroff 1963 musical She Loves Me.
Based on the 1936 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Milklos Laszlo, you may know the source material better from its 3 film adaptations: Ernst Lublisch’s sublime 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, starring a perfectly cast James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, MGM’s musical remake for Judy Garland and Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime and, in 1998, Nora Ephron’s re-remake You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart – note the body language
She Loves Me has had 2 major Broadway productions (the original and a revival in 1993), neither of which returned its original investment. Having said that, not every work of art can be judged a failure or success solely on the merits of its box office receipts. Had that been the case, Follies never would have been revived, even though no production (and there have been many of them) of that masterpiece has ever turned a profit.
Playbill from the original 1963 production
Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey in a tense moment from the original production
Jack Cassidy and Barbara Baxley in the original production
As I write this post, a new Broadway production of She Loves Me has just begun previews at Studio 54 and has set March 17th at its opening night. AAC CPA and I were there last week for the 1st preview and by the time you have finished reading this post, I hope you will have already ordered your tickets.
CULTURE TIP: She Loves Me at Studio 54
So, what is it about this story that so captures our fancy and has certainly withstood the test of time, considering its many iterations over the past 80 years? And, in particular, what is it about She Loves Me that casts a spell over its audiences and completely captivates us to such an extent that it is difficult to remove the smile from your face well after you’ve left the theatre?
As with everything, let’s start with the story.
Here comes the BIG SPOILER ALERT, which is revealed within the first 30 minutes of the show: the leading man (Georg, originally played by Daniel Massey) and lady (Amalia, originally played by Barbara Cook) work in a “parfumerie” – a place which no longer exists – where perfume was sold and/or made. Being on the cusp of middle age and still single, they have each entered into a correspondence relationship with someone they believe to be their possible soulmates. Unbeknownst to each of them, they are writing to each other. And, oh yes, at work they cannot stand the sight of each other.
So maybe the plot might seem like boy and girl meet cute, complications ensue, but it all works out in the end – in other words, a formula story with a denouement we all saw coming as soon as were in on the gimmick.
But that’s not what’s going on here. In the finest of the Parfumerie adaptations – and I consider The Shop Around the Corner to be every bit as good as She Loves Me – the story becomes elevated by the material that was written by, respectively, Samuel Raphelson and Ben Hecht for the movie, and by Masteroff, Bock and Harnick for the musical. Put quite simply, the material for both the film and musical is just about perfect on all counts.
Joe Masteroff wrote the books for 2 musicals in the 1960s: She Loves Me and, three years later, Cabaret. Whereas the book for Cabaret is a hard-edged, cynical Brechtian orgy, She Loves Me is its complete opposite: witty, genuinely funny and completely romantic. More importantly, Masteroff has created an ensemble of 7 leading players, each of whom is completely human and completely recognizable to the audience. Simply put, we know these people.
Best of all, while the show is in no way sentimental, the show has great sentiment. By that, I mean that the story plays on to its inevitable conclusion but is in no way sappy or sugar-sweet. Whenever the situation threatens to crossover towards a false note of saccharine, our writers come to the rescue with a quip, a witty lyric or a surprise. In this way, it is almost anti-musical in its intentions and its presentation.
That is, except for its exceptional book and score.
It is at this point that we give a tip-of-the-hat to Mr. Bock and Mr. Harnick. They created, perhaps, their most harmonious, humorous and romantic score. There was so much of it, in fact, that the original cast album ran to 2 discs.
The amazing thing about this score is how, from the very opening number, it draws you in, not only to the story but, more importantly, to the inner lives of the characters. Masteroff’s book gives each character his or her special moment when they take center stage and shine. Because She Loves Me exists in musical comedy land, these moments are almost always musicalized. What’s most striking to me is the imagination inherent in the score: the moments that Bock and Harnick choose to musicalize are, in many cases, so surprising. Right at the top of the evening you have “Sounds While Selling” – a double trio of sorts in which customers are being waited upon by their salesmen in overlapping dialogue. Or our leading lady’s first number “No More Candy”, in which she “auditions” for a job at the parfumerie. Or Sipos’ “Perspective”, in which this nerdy clerk explains how not to lose your job and tells you exactly who this Sipos person is.
I thought you might enjoy Amalia’s “audition” scene in the movie and compare it to the musical moment in the play. In the first clip, Margaret Sullavan makes a sale and, in the second clip, Barbara Cook musicalizes the same scene.
The “second” couple – Ilona and Steven Kodaly (originally played by Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy) get their due as well. In each act, they have back-to-back numbers that, in the first act, totally inform their characters and, in the second, resolve their stories. These numbers are comic but also real. And, in the current revival, one of these numbers – “Ilona” – has an interpolated dance break because Mr. Kodaly and his Ilona are played by the supremely talented Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski, both of whom know a little something about “la danse”.
Our leading couple has ample opportunity to show the various colors of their personalities. When – finally! – the pen pals agree to meet, but still don’t know their real identities, Georg’s “Tonight at Eight” displays the manic combination of fear and joy that an almost blind date inspires. Amalia’s “Will He Like Me?” takes a more touching and introspective look at a woman alone and contemplating what may be her last chance for happiness.
Later, in the second act, they have back-to-back numbers. The ice has now begun to thaw for our lovebirds (he’s figured “it” out, but she doesn’t yet know) and first she, in the showstopping “Ice Cream” and then he, in the show’s title song, invite the audience to share in their newfound joy and surprise. (Notice how, in each song, both Amalia and Georg sing “Will wonders never cease?”)
It’s heady stuff.
And, by the way, let me just mention that the leading lady for this revival of She Loves Me is none other than Laura Benanti. She is one of those performers who, in the old days, Cole, Irving, Alan and Fritz, and Oscar and Dick would be fighting over to cast in their next show. It is a real treat to see Ms. Benanti onstage in a role that fits her like a glove that she might have purchased down the street from that parfumerie.
Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Cavin Creel and Jane Krakowski, now onstage at Studio 54
But mostly, what’s so deeply moving and entertaining about this show is that, for the entire evening, you are confronted by real people going through their lives in full view of the audience. While She Loves Me might be considered light entertainment, the show is played not for laughs but for real (which, by the way, makes the show riotously funny).
I know that there are many more exciting shows on Broadway just now (Hamilton, anyone?).
But in the final analysis, She Loves Me is both a charmed show and a show with great charm. It’s the type of show that is no longer being written and, quite frankly, may never be written again.
She Loves Me is now playing at Studio 54; performances are currently scheduled through Sunday, June 12th.