BWW Exclusive: Read a Chapter from Kenny Solms' BITS Memoir!
If variety is the spice of life, Kenny Solms has tasted great success. Touted in his hometown newspaper as "Philadelphia's funniest person," he began his career in New York, where he teamed up with New York University classmate Gail Parent to create material for Leonard Sillman's last Broadway revue "New Faces," and sketches for New York's famed Upstairs at the Downstairs. His collaboration with Ms. Parent climaxed with their co-creation of the now legendary Emmy award winning "The Carol Burnett Show."
Following the runaway success of three comedy albums, including the hilarious spoof of the Luci Baines Johnson Wedding, "Our Wedding Album," and a season of "Steve Allen's Comedy Hour," Solms co-created and wrote the first four seasons of the classic Burnett show, for which he also received the Writer's Guild of America Award.
He wrote numerous specials, including those for Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret, Danny Thomas, The Osmonds, Mary Tyler Moore, Bing Crosby, Second City, Lily Tomlin, Dick Van Dyke, Anne Bancroft, Joan Rivers, and Bill Cosby.
Television, however, has never been Solms' sole domain. "Lorelei," starring Carol Channing, lured Kenny and Gail back to Broadway to write the new book for the Jule Styne / Comden & Green musical based on "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." During "Lorelei's" two-year Broadway run, he collaborated with Parent on the screenplay for her novel "Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York" starring Roy Scheider and Jeannie Berlin.
Solms also conceived and wrote, "Perfectly Frank," a Frank Loesser revue, which enjoyed a successful run at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles before its Broadway run. A year later, he produced it for Showtime starring Cloris Leachman. He conceived and wrote "What the World Needs Now," the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which had its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and recently workshopped "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," based on the songs of Sammy Cahn.
In 2010, "It Must Be Him," his play, premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. A year later, it had a successful run at the Edgemar Center For The Arts in Santa Monica.
Most recently, Kenny released his memoir, "Bits," where he recalls his hysterically funny journey through his days of writing jokes for comedians, his trip through the golden age of television and his risky travels down Broadway. He subtitles both the book and album "a comedy writer's screams of consciousness," which will have you screaming too.
The "Bits" Bundle is now available exclusively at KennySolms.myshopify.com. Now through December 15, use discount code broadwayworld for 15% off all orders. Below, we are excited to bring you an exclusive excerpt from the 'BACK TO BROADWAY (OR SHOULD I HAVE STAYED HOME?)' Chapter.
In the mid-1980s, my good friend director Fritz Holt asked me if I'd be interested in writing a revue for Broadway. I said yes instantly because I was dying to get away from these TV specials. His idea was to celebrate the music and lyrics of Frank Loesser. I loved the idea. I idolized Loesser and I immediately came up with a title: Loesser Is More. Fritz liked it. Mrs. Loesser didn't. This begins my saga on "when the wife is still alive, she's gonna hate everything." Loesser's wife, the lovely Jo Sullivan, was actually a delight. Sweet. Funny. But very hands-on. While she was well aware that some of Frank's lyrics were very funny, she took him very seriously. This didn't fuse that well with my concept of the show, which I then called Perfectly Frank. I didn't want to write one of those "sit-around-the-piano-and-talk-about-the-guy" kind of shows.
The eras in Frank's short-lived life laid themselves out perfectly as departments...The Army, Tin-Pan Alley, Hollywood Musicals, and Broadway Musicals. It gave me a chance to write sketches, spoofing all these eras and of course including his hit songs. Hollywood's USO, The Brill Building, The Piano Bar, The Soundstage, and Broadway Backstage. Jo was also in the show. This was an advantage and a disadvantage. While she sang brilliantly, the running gag featured her trying to talk about Frank, the man, the husband, the father, but I would never let her finish the sentence. Jo would say, "Few people knew that Frank liked to draw." Pam Myers would then interrupt her saying, "Few people care. Come along, dear," and drag her off the stage. Every time, Jo was interrupted. The audience loved the joke, but a few of her insiders were uncomfortable with the running gag.
I knew we were in a little trouble the night Mr. and Mrs. Danny Kaye came to see a preview in Los Angeles. Despite a sold-out and howling audience, the Kayes convinced Jo that the show was too irreverent, which was exactly what we all wanted. Everyone, that is, but the Kayes and now Mrs. Loesser. As in most pre-Broadway tryouts, suddenly all hell broke loose. The director was fired, cast members were replaced, and I was numb. Gail tried to cheer me up. Every time she came to rehearsals, she'd just turn to me and say, "Freeze it."
But chaos reigned. The new director, Ron Field, suddenly wanted all the sketches taken out of the show. He wanted to do a revered and refined Bell Telephone Hour type of show, rather than an original and funny kind of stage revue. While he didn't dare cut the show-stopping "I Believe in You," a backstage sketch where everyone was falling in love with themselves in the dressing room mirror, everything else was fair game. He even colored Jo's hair, as if a new shade of red would suddenly make the show a hit.
I had no choice but to go to the Dramatists Guild, which isn't even a union. I was helpless. They were hapless. They gave me only one choice: If I wanted the show to continue, I could take my name off it. This was a show I conceived and spent a good part of a year writing, so it was a difficult choice. As usual, I summoned the troops from Philadelphia. I'd let it be their decision. I'll never forget my father's words at intermission: "It's not that bad. What's it gonna hurt you to keep your name on it?"
By the dreary curtain call, his mind had changed, signaled by a "thumbs down" gesture in my face. The only thing I remember my mother saying was, "Where's the car?" They had cleared the Holland Tunnel before I was out of my seat. A year later, Fritz and I sold the original show to Showtime. It was without Jo and starred Cloris Leachman. It was a return to a happier time, but nothing erased that pre-Broadway pain. You hear these stories all the time about Broadway, but when you're in the story, it's not fun. Genius Larry Gelbart said it all: "If Hitler's still alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."
Why didn't I learn? I should have listened to Larry Gelbart. Well, who shouldn't listen to Larry Gelbart? And Woody Allen? And Neil Simon? And Nichols and May? And Mel Brooks? Not only are all of them geniuses, and all idols of mine, but all of them have been there and spoofed the out-of-town troubled musical. And yet, here I was again, with an out-of-town troubled musical. Whom was I listening to then? My agent. He thought this would be a smash. He was the only one. The place...San Diego. The show, What The World Needs Now, yet another musical revue, based on the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and directed by Gillian Lynne, the hugely successful choreographer of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.
This time I used the songs to tell a love story. I wanted to take the conventional boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-and-girl-end-up-together dynamic: a mini-book musical, avoiding singing songs with no emotional through line. We had two wonderful leads, both unknowns who would soon become "knowns" - Sutton Foster and Patrick Wilson.
The first bad news came early. We lost Patrick Wilson in the middle of rehearsal. It isn't easy to find a replacement, and we had to just settle. Before we even left New York, our excitement level dropped. But we persevered. We were doing the show at the famous Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Some of the not-too-bright actors thought it was England's original Old Globe Theatre. So did many of the locals, aiming their cameras to the building with reverence, as if Shakespeare had worked there. Although in her eighties, Gillian is a Broadway baby. She's used to big budgets, big sets, and big money. She could never address herself to the rules and regulations of being a LORT show.
LORT (League of Resident Theaters) is a contract for regional theatres, and Gillian could never deal with those realities. Once she saw the set, she didn't like it. Well, there was no money to change it. The same with the costumes. Neither of us realized until we were in San Diego and running that there was no money even for rehearsals. Basically, we never had time to work on the show and make changes. Bacharach and David didn't help, either. Having seen the show only once and not collaborating with us in the beginning, their criticisms were too late to deal with as well. While they may sing, "What the World needs now Is Love," I knew what I needed: a plane ticket out of San Diego and not another musical revue.
UH-OH. ANOTHER MUSICAL REVUE.
I have always adored hit-maker lyricist Sammy Cahn. He was one of composer Jule Styne's best friends as well as a collaborator of his. They had won an Oscar for "Three Coins in the Fountain." I'd see him when Jule came into town. The late Sammy was a cheerful and funny guy who even wrote a parody of Jule's "Bye Bye Baby" for my fiftieth birthday.
MY BOY KENNY
REALLY STANDS OUT FROM THE MANY
HE IS RARER THAT RARE
MAY I SUGGEST, HE'S THE BEST
OF THE TALENTS I'VE MET
YOU CAN CHECK THIS WITH HIS DEAR FRIEND
AND I DAREN'T
EVEN MENTION DEAR MISS PARENT
AS YOU MAY BE AWARE
BUT KENNY'S ONE OF A KIND
WITH A MIND THAT'S SHOW-BIZ TOTALLY
SOMETIMES I THINK, HE THINKS, HE'S ME!!!
SOMETIMES I THINK, HE THINKS, HE'S ME!!!
I also knew Sammy's wife, Tita Cahn, from around town. So here I was again, developing a show with the wife of the late lyricist one more time. It was called, Ain't That a Kick in the Head. Chet Walker, a Fosse veteran, was choreographing and directing the workshop in New York. We had a terrific cast, and once again I was looking for an angle to keep the revue form fresh and new. Maybe one day I should just try to do the normal elements of a revue, first song, song, song, song, last song. This was a workshop, different from my two previous endeavors. For a limited amount of money, you do the show in a rehearsal hall without sets and costumes. You do two performances in one day. You invite producers and investors. This one was star-studded: Lauren Bacall, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera, etc.
I loved that they were there and they were supportive, but they had no intention of investing in a Broadway Show. While it went well, I'm still waiting for those checks. Otherwise, no show.
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