Excerpt from “Underfoot In Show Business” by Helene Hanff ~~Away We Go~~

picture-UnderfootInShowBusiness-HanffThe show opened in Boston to fair notices – not nearly as good as those Boston had given some of our other flops and certainly not notices you could get last-minute financing on. So we still didn’t know how the show was to open in New York till Jack tossed us the news casually with our mail the next morning: Terry and Lawrence had sold the Guild Theatre and building to a radio network.  Away We Go would open on March 31, as scheduled.

Joe phoned from Boston with instructions about the opening-night press release to be sent to 10,000 Guild subscribers. He said that the whole second act had been thrown out, and that the company was working round the clock on a new second act. With a new second act, Joe felt, it would really be a great show.

For the next few days, Lois and I were busy addressing envelopes and grinding out 10,000 copies of the press release on the mimeograph machine to tell the world about the new American Folk Opera, Away We Go. We had about 8,000 mimeographed when Joe came back from Boston and broke the news to us that we’d have to throw them all away and start over. There had been a title change.

Nobody, it seemed, liked the title Away We Go. The composer had wanted to change it to Yessirree, but Joe was thankful to report he’d been talked out of it. The title finally agreed upon – thanks largely to Armina Marshall, Lawrence’s wife, who came from out that way – was Oklahoma.

It sounds fine to you; you’re used to it. But do me a favor and imagine you’re working in a theatre and somebody tells you your new musical is to be called “New Jersey.” Or “Maine.” To us, “Oklahoma” remained the name of a state, even after we’d mimeographed 10,000 new releases and despite the fact that “Oklahoma” appeared three times on each one.

We had folded several hundred of them when the call came from Boston. Joe picked up the phone and we heard him say, “Yes, Terry,” and “All right, dear,” and then he hung up. And then he looked at us, in the dazed way people who worked at the Guild frequently looked at each other.

“They want,” he said in a faraway voice, “an exclamation point after ‘Oklahoma.’”

Which is how it happened that, far into the night, Lois and I, bundled in our winter coats, sat in the outer office putting 30,000 exclamation points on 10,000 press releases, while Joe, in the inner office, bundled in his overcoat, phoned all over town hunting down and waking up various printing firms and sign painters. We were bundled in our coats because the heat had been turned off by an economy-minded management now happily engaged in spending several thousand dollars to alter houseboards, playbills, ads, three-sheet posters and souvenir booklets, to put an exclamation point after “Oklahoma.”

We were not sold out for the opening, New York subscribers having dwindled to a handful after sixteen flops. Nor did we get any help from the weather. When I woke on the morning of March 31, with a cold, it was snowing.

By six that evening, the snow had turned to sleet and my cold included a cough. As I left the office to go home and climb into a drafty evening dress, Joe took pity on me.

“I don’t need you there, dear,” he said. “Don’t come unless you feel like it.”

I felt guilty about not going as I ate a quick dinner in a cafeteria. But by the time I’d fought my way home through the sleet guilt had given way to self-preservation. I undressed and crawled thankfully into bed. In bed, I reached for the wet newspaper I’d brought home and opened it to the theatre page. Our big opening-night ad leaped out at me: “Oklahoma!

Slowly, surely, with that foggy bewilderment you were bound to feel sooner or later if you worked at the Theatre Guild long enough, I saw that Terry and Lawrence were right. About the exclamation point.

I did not allow myself to speculate on the insane possibility that they might also be right about such brainwaves as a clean corn-fed musical with no legs and no jokes and with a score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who’d never collaborated before; a full-blown ballet by an unknown young choreographer named Agnes de Mille; and a cast of unknowns, including Celeste Holm, the ingénue from Papa Is All.

I switched off the lamp, thinking how typical it was of both this epic and the Guild that the notices would appear on the morning of April Fool’s Day. I coughed, pulled up the blankets and, as I drifted off to sleep, said a silent Good Luck to Alfred Drake, the juvenile from Yesterday’s Magic, who was at that moment strolling out onto the stage of the St. James Theatre, singing:

Oh, what a beautiful morning!



Filed under Literature, Non-Fiction

2 responses to “Excerpt from “Underfoot In Show Business” by Helene Hanff ~~Away We Go~~

  1. Helene Hanff was born in Philadelphia, USA on 15 April 1916, and died in New York on 9 April 1997, aged 80 years.
    The original Broadway production of ‘Oklahoma!’ opened on 31 March 1943. It was a box-office smash running for an unprecedented 2,212 performances, and later became an Academy Award-winning 1955 film adaptation. It is the first musical written by the team of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II.
    The author mentions the following people:
    Lawrence Langner was a founder of the Theatre Guild, which was a theatrical society founded in New York City. He and Theresa Helburn were the Administrative Directors of the Guild.
    Joseph Heidt was the Press Agent for the Theatre Guild.

  2. Hi Luke: Fyi, for you and for those admirers of Helene Hanff’s writings and in particular her comic memoir, UNDERFOOT IN SHOW BUSINESS, there is now a stage adaptation of this wonderful work. It is receiving its U.S. premiere this July 2016 at the Deertrees Theatre in Harrison, Maine. More information at https://newplayexchange.org/plays/35512/underfoot-show-business. Best, Charles

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