Who's Who in Musicals: We To Z
by John Kenrick
Actor, producer, director
b. Aug. 11, 1867 (New York City) - d. May 10, 1942 (Los Angeles)
After Joseph Weber and Lew Fields met as schoolboys on Manhattan's impoverished Lower East Side, they formed a comedy act and toured in variety, developing a series of roughhouse ethnic routines. In time, they perfected the characters "Myer" (the taller Fields) and "Mike" (the diminutive Weber), a pair of German immigrants with broad accents, bristling whiskers and garish clothes. The trim Weber padded himself to an enormous girth, and wore a loud checkered suit -- the better to contrast with the lean and more plainly dressed Fields. In their skits, the not-too-clever "Myer" invariably tried to swindle the gullible "Mike," always resulting in a knockabout physical battle. Weber and Fields became vaudeville's definitive "Dutch" act (a common slang corruption of "Deutsch"). Weber later said, "All the public wanted to see was Fields knock the hell out of me." They became one of the most widely imitated vaudeville acts, but no other team matched them.
By 1896, Weber and Fields established an all-star Broadway troupe, producing a popular series of variety shows that mixed one-act musical burlesques with assorted sketches and vaudeville acts. With nonsensical titles like Whirl-i-gig (1899), Hoity Toity (1901) and Higgeldy Piggledy (1904), these shows offered Weber and Fields in their trademark slapstick routines while also showcasing such top musical comedy talents as Fay Templeton, Lillian Russell and DeWolf Hopper. These productions eventually evolved into full-length burlesques spoofing current theatrical hits, celebrities and events. These send-ups included Cyranose de Bricabrac (1899), Quo Vass Iss, and a lavish parody of The Merry Widow (1908).
After Weber & Fields dissolved their active partnership in 1904, Weber stuck to producing and starring in more knockabout burlesques, while Fields concentrated on developing musical comedies. The duo reunited for Hokey Pokey (1912), and continued to make occasional joint appearances on stage, screen and radio until Fields died in 1941. Weber survived him by less than a year. Both men had enjoyed marriages that lasted over half a century, but Weber died childless. For more on this team, see From the Bowery to Broadway: Lew Fields and the Roots of American Popular Theater (Fields, Armond & L. Marc Fields, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993). You can also see our transcript of a Weber & Fields vaudeville skit.
(b. Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck)
Actor, singer, dancer
b. Nov. 19, 1891 (Indianapolis, Ind.) - d. Oct. 13, 1966 (Beverly Hills)
Although his clipped accent and refined manner seemed British, this actor was born & raised in Indianapolis. Privately tutored, Webb made his stage debut at age 7, appearing in some two dozen operas before reaching Broadway as "Bosco" in The Purple Road (1913). He was featured in eighteen Broadway musicals between 1913 and 1938, working his way from chorus dancer to leading man. Six feet tall and lean, Webb cut an elegant figure on stage and had a clear, gentle tenor voice. After appearing with Marilyn Miller in Sunny (1925), he introduced George and Ira Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" in Treasure Girl (1928), Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz's "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" in The Little Show (1929), and Irving Berlin's "Not for All the Rice in China" in As Thousands Cheer (1933).
Despite his impressive musical credentials, Hollywood would only use Webb as a non-musical character actor, playing waspish, elitist roles in such memorable films as Laura, The Razor's Edge and Three Coins in the Fountain. He also starred in the popular Mr. Belvedere film series. His only appearance in a musical film was as a non-singing John Philip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever (1952). On Hollywood's best-dressed lists for decades, Webb's flagrantly effeminate behavior both off and on screen flaunted his homosexuality, but a scrupulous private life kept him free of any scandal during a closeted era. He was certainly honest with himself. When a belligerent director asked if Webb was "a homo," the actor unhesitatingly replied, "Devout!"
Clifton's formidable mother Mabelle Webb dismissed any questions about her son's unseen father by saying, "We never speak of him; he didn't care for the theatre." Webb showed extreme and lasting devotion to his mother until her death at age 92. When Webb's mourning for Maybelle dragged on for months, longtime friend Noel Coward remarked with exasperation, "It must be tough to be orphaned at seventy-one."
b. March 2, 1900 (Dessau, Germany) - d. April 3, 1950 (New York City)
A leading composer of modern opera, Weill created several extraordinary scores for the popular musical stage. In his native Germany, he collaborated with Marxist playwright Bertold Brecht on the opera Mahagonny and the acclaimed musical satire Threepenny Opera (1933) -- a contemporary work (inspired by The Beggar's Opera) that included the popular ballad "Mack the Knife." The latter enjoyed tremendous success in Europe, but flopped on Broadway. To avoid persecution, Weill (who was Jewish) emigrated to the US with his gentile wife Lotte Lenya in 1935. His gift for combining irresistible melody with the dramatic needs of serious theater soon drew him to Broadway. With playwright Maxwell Anderson providing libretto & lyrics, Weill composed the score for Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), a scathing parody of dictatorships that included the bittersweet hit "September Song." Moss Hart provided the book and Ira Gershwin penned the lyrics for Weill's Lady In the Dark (1941), a landmark success in which Gertrude Lawrence introduced "Jenny" and "My Ship."
Weill worked with poet Ogden Nash on One Touch of Venus (1943), in which Mary Martin sang "Speak Low." Weill then composed the opera Street Scene (1947) with poet Langston Hughes, the musical Love Life (1948) with Alan Jay Lerner and and the neo-operatic Lost in the Stars (1949) with Maxwell Anderson. At the time of Weill's death at age 50, he was working on a stage version of Huckleberry Finn which was left unfinished. Lenya remained a tireless champion of her husband's work, starring in a long-running 1954 Off-Broadway production of Threepenny Opera that did much to reinforce Weill's reputation.
Producer, director, dancer
b. 1890 (New York City) - d. Oct. 11, 1968 (Hollywood, CA)
This handsome vaudeville hoofer danced in several Broadway revues, including Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies. When White suggested that Ziegfeld could improve the quality of the dances in his shows, Ziegfeld promptly fired him. Undaunted, White soon began producing a series of lavish revues called "Scandals," giving Ziegfeld his most serious competition. White directed and produced more than a dozen editions between 1919 and 1939, putting the accent on music, comedy and top notch dancing. White's songwriters included George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and the team of DeSylva, Henderson and Brown. His stars included Ed Wynn, Rudy Vallee, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, comedians Willie and Eugene Howard, and Ethel Merman who introduced "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" in the 1931 edition. Selecting his showgirls for talent as well as beauty, White discovered future screen stars Alice Faye and Eleanor Powell. He eventually produced several screen versions of the Scandals, but times and tastes changed, and he faded into obscurity after the 1940s.
b. July 27, 1914 (Oakland, CA) ' d. Feb 17, 2000 (New York City)
This versatile designer made his mark creating atmospheric costumes for the original Broadway productions of Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945) and Bloomer Girl (1947). He received Tony Awards for Bless You All (1951) and Hazel Flagg (1953), and his costumes were also seen in Two's Company (1952), Take Me Along (1959) and Bye, Bye, Birdie (1960), among many others. White worked on many Hollywood films, including the musicals Up In Arms (1944) and There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). Some of his most fanciful designs appeared in producer Michael Todd's all-star screen epic Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). Many of White's original costume sketches are preserved in the Museum of the City of New York's theatre collection.
b. Mar. 24, 1922 (Nova Scotia, Canada) - April 8, 2005 (West Hollywood, CA)
A sickly child, Ms. White began to dance at the suggestion of her family doctor. She made her Broadway debut as a replacement ensemble dancer in Finian's Rainbow (1947), then appeared in Regina (1949), Arms and the Girl (1950) and the New York and London casts of Guys and Dolls (1950). After working as assistant to Michael Kidd, White choreographed the London production of Fanny (1956), then stunned Broadway with her energetic dances in Meredith Willson's The Music Man (1957). She went on to choreograph a dozen more Broadway musicals, including Take Me Along (1959), the New York version of Half a Sixpence (1965), Mame (1966), 1776 (1969), Gigi (1973), Goodtime Charley (1975), I Love My Wife (1977) and Working (1978). Although nominated eight times, White never received the Tony Award.
White's hallmark was making dance routines seem like believable, spontaneous extensions of everyday movement, whether for one or two dancers ("Take Me Along") or a massive ensemble ("Mame"). White adapted her stage dances for the screen versions of The Music Man (1962), 1776 (1972) and Mame (1974). She also choreographed the screen version of Bye, Bye Birdie (1963), and won raves (and a special Academy Award citation) for her magnificent dance sequences in Oliver (1968). Her last screen work was for Disney's screen musical Pete's Dragon (1977). After a prolonged retirement, she died of natural causes at age 83.
Singer, dancer, comedian
b. Nov. 12, 1874 (New Providence, Nassau) - d. Mar. 4, 1922 (New York City)
Walker, George W.
Singer, dancer, comedian
b. 18?? (Lawrence, KS) - d. Jan. 6, 1911 (Central Islip, NY)
This African American song and dance team was among the first performers to achieve stardom in popular entertainment. Williams learned his craft in minstrel shows and always worked in black face makeup, but eventually refused to perform material that demeaned his race. He teamed up with Walker in the 1890s, forming a ragtime musical comedy act that worked its way to vaudeville stardom. They developed and starred in several full length musicals, most notably In Dahomey (1903), which had a brief run in New York but enjoyed great success in London. Williams and Walker found themselves giving royal command performances at a time when many American hotels and restaurants would not have accepted their patronage.
When illness (probably advanced syphilis) forced Walker to retire from the stage in 1909, Williams was forced to re-define himself as a solo performer. He was invited by Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in the 1910 Follies, becoming the first African American to co-star with whites in a major Broadway production. An audience favorite, he starred in every annual edition of the Follies through 1919. His songs included "You Got the Right Church But the Wrong Pew," and the signature comic ballad "Nobody." A favorite in big time vaudeville, Williams became the first black headliner on the Keith-Albee circuit.
Despite his extraordinary success, Williams was often confronted by bigotry. On one occasion, when he stepped up to the bar in New York's elegant Astor Hotel and ordered a drink, a white bartender tried to scare him off by saying the charge would be $50. Williams took a thick roll of hundred dollar bills out of his pocket, placed it on the bar and ordered a round for everyone in the room.
Williams appeared in several silent films that bear mute testimony to his comic genius, including one which preserves his acclaimed poker game pantomime routine. Never willing to rest, he ignored ominous symptoms while touring for the Shubert Brothers in 1922, and collapsed during a performance in Detroit. Rushed back to his Manhattan home, the much-loved Williams died a few days later at age 48.
(b. Robert Meredith Reiniger)
Composer, lyricist, librettists
b. May 18, 1902 (Mason City, Iowa) - d. June 15, 1984 (Santa Monica, Ca)
At 17, Willson played flute and piccolo in John Phillip Sousa's legendary concert band, and at age 23 joined the NY Philharmonic. He became one of the most sought after musical directors on network radio, and penned the hit song "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You." Willson composed the background scores for several feature films, including The Little Foxes (1941). He made his Broadway debut writing the book, music and lyrics for The Music Man (1957), which included "Seventy-Six Trombones" and the moving "Till There Was You." This surprise hit swept the Tony's, beating out West Side Story for Best Musical, made Robert Preston and Barbara Cook top musical stars, ran for several years, and became a popular film starring Preston and Shirley Jones.
Willson was never able to match this mega-hit, but had a solid success with The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960) starring Tammy Grimes. Willson's musical version of Miracle on 34th Street called Here's Love (1963) had a decent Broadway run, but has not proved a lasting favorite. After 1491 (1969) his musical about Christopher Columbus closed on the road, Willson retired from composing for the stage.
b. May 26, 1884 (Athens, Wisconsin) - d. Jan. 19, 1969 (Palm Springs, CA)
This ebullient comic quit school at age 9 to join his family's vaudeville act, later working in stock and touring theatrical troupes. Winninger made his Broadway musical debut in The Yankee Girl (1910), where his blustery persona and nimble footwork made him an immediate audience favorite. He appeared in several more revues including The Cohan Revue (1916 & 1918), the Shubert's Passing Show (1919) and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920. As the original Jimmy Smith in No, No, Nanette (1925), he introduced "I Want to Be Happy," which he finished with a nimble back flip. Winninger then took on the most memorable role of his career, Captain Andy Hawks in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat (1927). Winninger repeated his heartwarming performance (and his merry cries of "HAPP-eee New Year!!") in the 1932 Broadway revival, the 1936 film version, and a radio variety series.
Winninger's genial persona made him a popular character actor in Hollywood, where he appeared in such screen musicals as Babes in Arms (1939), Little Nellie Kelly (1940) and Coney Island (1943). Perhaps his most memorable film role was Abel Frake, the farmer who takes his family to Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair (1945). His long (and often acrimonious) marriage to musical comedy star Blanche Ring ended after years of separation in 1951. Subsequent to his final Broadway bow in a short-lived revival of Music in the Air (1951), Winninger made occasional film appearances into the early 1960s.
Wodehouse, Pelham Grenville (P.G.)
b. Oct. 15, 1881 (Guildford, UK) - d. Feb. 14, 1975 (Southampton, NY)
One of the most famous comic novelists of the early 20th Century, Wodehouse played an important role in the development of the Broadway musical. Frequently teamed with fellow librettist Guy Bolton, Wodehouse collaborated with such composers as Victor Herbert, Rudolph Friml, Ivan Caryll, Ivor Novello and Sigmund Romberg. Wodehouse and Bolton made history when they worked with composer Jerome Kern on a series of intimate musicals for Broadway's smallest house, The Princess Theatre. This series included several of the most distinctive American hits of that era, including Oh Boy! (1917), Leave It to Jane (1917) and Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918). Few realize that Wodehouse wrote the original lyric for Jerome Kern's "Bill," which was first written for (but deleted from) Oh Lady! Lady! When Kern later used the song in Show Boat (1927), lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II always made a point of crediting Wodehouse for writing most of the fine lyric.
Wodehouse had a knack for writing naturalistic, believable dialogue, and for creating characters that were eccentric yet likeable. He and Bolton contributed the libretto for the George and Ira Gershwin hit Oh Kay! (1926) and wrote the first (and partially discarded) script for Cole Porter's Anything Goes (1934). Wodehouse remained in France during the Nazi occupation, causing some to question his loyalties. Although the British government ultimately concluded that he was naive and not a traitor, Wodehouse relocated to the United States and devoted his later years to non-theatrical writing. His wit remained sharp. Confronted by a long-haired protestor in the 1960s, he quipped, "You look like a chrysanthemum." Woodhouse received a knighthood a few weeks before his death at age 93. His well-known Jeeves stories would eventually inspire the ill-fated Andrew Lloyd Webber musical By Jeeves (2001).
Wood, Peggy (Margaret)
b. Feb. 9, 1892 (Brooklyn, NY) - d. Mar. 18, 1978 (Stamford, CT)
This gifted actress was a descendant of American folk legend Daniel Boone. Wood's father encouraged her musical ambitions, and as a teenager she studied with the famed soprano Calve. At age 16, she made her Broadway debut in the chorus of Victor Herbert's Naughty Marrietta (1910). Wood won raves creating the lead role of Ottilie in Sigmund Romberg's hit operetta Maytime (1917), in which she and co-star Charles Purcell introduced "Will You Remember?" ("Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart!") Five foot six with a porcelain complexion and striking blue eyes, Wood's versatility and solid professionalism led to starring roles in many musicals and straight plays in both London and New York.
Noel Coward selected Wood to create the lead role of Sarah Millick in the original London production of Bitter Sweet (1929), where she introduced "Zigeuner" and "The Bitter Sweet Waltz" ("I'll See You Again"). She later starred in the first Broadway cast of Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit, and won nationwide fame as the mother in the long-running American TV series I Remember Mama (1949-1957). Wood is best remembered as the indomitable Mother Abbess in the film version of The Sound of Music (1965), a performance which brought her an Academy Award nomination. Ironically, her once-glorious voice was no longer up to the demands of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," and her singing had to be dubbed by soprano Margery McKay. After several appearances as a doctor on the US television soap opera One Life to Live in 1968, Wood enjoyed an extended retirement before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 86.
b. Oct. 23, 1945 (Jersey City, NJ)
Yeston was a noted musicologist and an associate professor at Yale University when his musical adaptation of Fellini's film 8 1/2 (with libretto by playwright Arthur Kopit) was picked up by Broadway director Tommy Tune. Nine (1982) won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score. Yeston's haunting "In a Very Unusual Way" became a favorite with cabaret singers, and the show enjoyed a profitable two year run. ( A long-delayed film version in 2009 did not do nearly as well.) Yeston and Kopit also collaborated on a musical version of Phantom of the Opera. Although Andrew Lloyd Webber's version beat theirs to Broadway, the Yeston-Kopit Phantom has enjoyed numerous regional productions in the US.
Yeston molds his songs to fit the dramatic needs of shows, composing in a variety of styles. When Tune's production of Grand Hotel (1989) was in trouble, he called in Yeston to provide additional songs, including the show-stopping "Love Can't Happen." With librettist Peter Stone, Yeston next took on the daunting task of creating a musical inspired by the sinking of the Titanic (1997). With a score that echoed ragtime, protestant hymnody and Gilbert and Sullivan, the show became a surprise hit, winning Yeston a second set of Tonys for Best Score and Best Musical. His latest project is a musical adaptation of the play Death Takes a Holiday (2011). His classical compositions include Goya - A Life in Song and An American Cantata.
b. Sept. 27, 1898 (New York City) - d. April 5, 1946 (Denver, CO)
Youmans was a runner for a Wall Street brokerage house when he was drafted to fight in World War I. While producing troop shows for the Navy, he fell in love with the theatre. After postwar stints as a Tin Pan Alley song-plugger and rehearsal pianist, he collaborated with lyricist Ira Gershwin on the score for the now-forgotten Broadway musical Two Little Girls in Blue (1921). Youmans' next show was Wildflower (1923), a 477 performance hit with lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II. No, No, Nanette (1925) was Youmans' most lasting success, written with lyricist Irving Caesar. The score included the hit songs "Tea For Two" and "I Want to Be Happy." The fresh and often ambitious melodies in Hit the Deck (1927), Rainbow (1928) and Take a Chance (1932) gave Youmans a reputation second only to George Gershwin's, but tuberculosis and heavy drinking abbreviated his career. He attempted a comeback with a ballet revue in 1943, but its failure helped to bring on his final emotional and physical decline.
Ziegfeld, Florenz, Jr.
b. March 15 or 21, 1867 (Chicago) - d. July 22, 1932 (New York City)
The most famous producer in theatrical history began his career as manager for the strongman Sandow, transforming a sideshow performer into a major vaudeville star. Ziegfeld made his first splash on Broadway producing a series of musicals starring French music hall star Anna Held who also became his common law wife. In 1907, Ziegfeld introduced his Follies, a popular series of revues that eventually had more than twenty editions.
The Follies had one stated goal "Glorifying the American Girl," and for many years Ziegfeld's chorus girls set the standard for beauty and glamour. Ziegfeld spared no expense on the Follies, bringing together many of the finest composers and comic talents in the business. Victor Herbert and George Gershwin contributed songs to various editions, and Irving Berlin wrote the series anthem "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody." Performers Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Nora Bayes, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and Bert Williams did some of their finest work in the Follies. Ziegfeld also produced several outstanding book musicals, including Rio Rita (1927), Show Boat (1927), Smiles (1928), and the Broadway staging of Noel Coward's Bittersweet (1929).
Ziegfeld's personal life was as colorful as any of his shows. When his frequent affairs drove away Anna Held, he married comedienne Billie Burke. His affairs with various Follies beauties made frequent headlines, most notably a torrid romance with Lillian Lorraine, but Burke often looked the other way. It should be noted that most of Ziegfeld's chorines insisted that their boss was a perfect gentleman who was always ready to assist them and their families with no expectation of sexual favors. When the Great Depression struck in 1930, ill-advised investments and a lifetime of profligate spending left Ziegfeld bankrupt. Seven decades after Ziegfeld's death, his name remains a synonym for Broadway at its most glamorous. For more on this extraordinary man, see Ziegfeld 101.