Andy Hardy Grows Up- Mickey Rooney in SUGAR BABIES
Sugar Babies wasn't supposed to be a hit. The 1979 Broadway insiders "knew" no one wanted to see two has-been movie stars doing hokey jokes from a long-dead low-brow genre. Yet, it was, a big, fat, lines-around-the-box-office smash. And why? Two words: Mickey Rooney.
The show was, however, a disaster in rehearsals. Directors came and went, songs rehearsed in the afternoon were in the trash by 5 PM, the producers kept bringing executives from the movie studio trying to hook them up with the chorus girls instead of paying attention to the show. But most importantly and disastrously, the sketches, those traditional stalwarts of any Burlesque show (meet ya round the corner in a haaaaalf an hour) weren't funny. To make matters worse, Mickey barely showed up at rehearsal. He'd come in for a few hours, torture whoever was directing the show that day, then simply vanish. Ann Miller would be diligently rehearsing her tap numbers but Mickey was nowhere to be found.
The show tried out in San Francisco at the Curran Theater and the technical rehearsals fared no better than rehearsals in New York. Sets weren't finished, costumes didn't arrive, the old comics hired couldn't remember their lines and of course, Mickey was usually MIA.
It was with great trepidation that we started the first preview. I conducted the temporary overture and it received tepid applause. Then the curtain went up, a spotlight hit this 5 foot, bald, fat, little old man, but the audience went bananas.
They wanted to see him. The needed to see him. The timing of the show seemed to be perfect. The audience remembered him like he was their long lost brother. He wasn't trying to be young, he wasn't trying to be a movie star, he was just Mickey Rooney. And that was wonderful.
He stood there and the applause was defining. It kept building and building and building. I could see Mickey's face: he was overwhelmed with the love. Here was a washed up movie star (at 16, the biggest box office draw in the world) whose recent career consisted of doing sex comedies at dinner theater in towns nobody heard of; now he was in a Broadway bound musical and the audience was loving him, without him doing a thing. He couldn't believe it. I saw it on his face
The opening number, where gorgeous chorus girls pulled every old gag in the book (busty nurses wielding enormous hypodermic needs, pants suspenders being cut) was choreographed around Mickey, since he never came to rehearsals; he just had to stand there and the number happened around him. But with this opening applause and his confidence soaring, Mickey took over the number. He was a star reborn and wasn't going to stand still. He chased the chorus girls, he flirted with them, he looked completely amazed when chorus girls bumped him from the rear, and bumped him again! He did take after take, double take after double take, and the audience was with him completely. That was just the opening number.
Then came the first sketch. And miracle of miracles, it was funny. Because of Mickey. He was a natural clown, in the old fashioned sense of the word. His timing was impeccable, his ad libs, hysterical and his facial expressions, priceless. Burlesque is really about dirty old men being lecherous towards pretty young, but busty, girls. Maybe because the audience remember Mickey as Andy Hardy, and we all knew how innocent the judge's son was, his leering's didn't seem all that lascivious. (Remember this was 1979!) He worked the comics on stage, the chorus girls and especially the audience. The old jokes were getting belly laughs. And Mickey was having the time of his life. In a flash, life had turned around. He was a star again. He was in a hit.
I have my personal theories about why Mickey was so brilliant in this part. Before he was Andy Hardy, before he was Mickey McGuire, he was Joe Yule, Jr., son of a famous Burlesque comedian whose work has been lost to the sands of time. Mickey wasn't playing a fictional character who would romp with Judy, he was channeling his father. He was a father (of six) paying tribute to his own father.
He was also, in my opinion, a true genius. As he began participating more in the shows development, the entire cast and creative team were stunned as he revealed more and more skills: he could play drums like Buddy Rich, play jazz piano like Gershwin, and of course, could sing and dance with more grace, style and energy, than performers half his age. Perhaps because he was so small, all his talent couldn't be bottled up in his pint sized body. It had to be released and when it was, it exploded with the energy of an atomic bomb.
The creative staff was as shocked by the audience's reaction as Mickey was. They all thought the show would be Ann's, probably because she actually had come to rehearsals. But it was clear from the first moment who the real star was and they acted accordingly. All sketches that didn't involve Mickey were cut, as was a very sweet roller-skating number. The producers thought it wasn't perhaps the best idea to have their star (and their meal ticket) sliding around on skates when with one wrong bump he could end up on top of the Tuba player in the pit.
The biggest change in the show in San Francisco was the addition of the medley of Jimmy McHugh songs. For the first time, Mickey and Ann would come out together and sing. We tried to rehearse this number in NYC (in the toilet of 890 Broadway because there were no walls up yet at the studio) but Mickey never came to rehearsal so we just let it slide. The producers knew that the audience needed Ann and Mickey to do something together.
It was still a challenge to get him to rehearsal. He was slated to sing, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." Hugh Martin, the legendary MGM songwriter/arranger was brought in to help. Hugh, who wrote "The Trolley Song" was one of the music coaches at the Little Red School House on the MGM lot where Judy, Elizabeth, Jane, Mickey and Ann all grew up, so he was almost a father figure to Mickey. Around Hugh, Mickey immediately reverted to his fifteen year old self, naughty yes, but respectful. It was Hugh who, trying to get Mickey to focus, (and Hugh told me he had the same problem at MGM), suggested Mickey play the piano and accompany himself.
Our stars were terrified at the technical and orchestra rehearsal of the medley. It was finally going into the show and Ann and Mickey felt under-rehearsed. I remember Mickey watching me for all he was worth during that rehearsal, hoping to remember the lyrics, hoping I could prompt him if he didn't, hoping he'd hear the drums, all those things that go through a performers head when they are nervous.
Of course, they had nothing to worry about. The audience went crazy as two legends came out dancing and singing. Together. Although I knew they were still anxious, the rousing applause that began then number gave them the needed shot of adrenaline. I call it "Doctor Footlights."
Mickey broke people's hearts as he sing "Anything but Love." The audience (and the orchestra) couldn't believe he played so beautifully and sensatively, using the most sophisticated jazz chords imaginable. (Who knows who taught him jazz? Ellington?) For the first time in the show, he was introspective and subdued as he quietly serenaded Ann.
Annie, channeling Ethel Merman, belted "Ridin' High" to the last note in the balcony. But, it was the two of them cavorting during "Sunny Side of the Street" that catapulted the audience into show biz heaven. Mickey and Ann were suddenly 17 years old, and the entire audience was transported back to their own childhood movie palaces where they first encountered Mickey and Ann. Of course, everyone knew Mickey and Ann (and the audiences themselves) were much older. But Ann and Mickey could still deliver. They weren't merely survivors. That still could stop a show. That first performance of the Medley was the best it was ever done.
The sound man forgot to turn off Mickey's mike after they took their bows (and bows and bows) and the whole audience heard Mickey say, "Hey, how about that, Ann. They liked us!"
Glen Roven is an Emmy winner who's new musical, The 5,000 Fingers of Doctor T opens on Broadway next season.
-by Glen Roven