- Call Me Madam Backdrop
Who knew one of Lyric’s most talked about shows this season would be a new production of the rarely revived Irving Berlin musical CALL ME MADAM? I was hoping it would catch the public’s interest as much as it has mine own. Here are a few reasons why I chose it. First, I’m a huge fan of lost or rarely produced musicals. Especially one like CALL ME MADAM which was quite successful in its initial run but for some reason isn’t revived regularly today. Most of the songs in this show everyone knows as part of the musical theatre canon, but it’s such a delight to read how they work into a very funny book musical (and this musical has a great book – by the playwriting team of Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, who also wrote the dialogue to such Broadway classics as ANYTHING GOES and THE SOUND OF MUSIC). Bringing it all to the stage in a fully-produced production is turning out to be quite a special event.
Second, the show has strong Oklahoma and DC ties- both places I’ve considered home. I especially thought that Lyric audiences would get a kick out of seeing one of their most famous homegrown heroes paid tribute to in a classic Irving Berlin musical comedy. When I first moved to Oklahoma two years ago from DC to become the artistic director of Lyric, I drove through Mesta Park- a beautiful neighborhood near downtown. As a history buff and wanting to know more about my new hometown, I discovered it was named after Perle Mesta- “the hostess with the mostes”. She was from Oklahoma City and her father built the historic Skirvin Hotel where Lyric has its annual gala. She then married George Mesta, a wealthy Pittsburg industrialist, and after becoming a widow she took over his business and moved to DC. She became famous for her political campaigning-especially for women’s rights- and gave regular parties where politicians from both side of the aisle would meet and discuss the latest political news. She was then appointed Minister to Luxembourg by President Truman. Many thought it was just a political favor, but in reality Truman and soon the world realized she was not just a hostess but a savvy diplomat with a strong background in business and manufacturing. (There is yet another connection between CALL ME MADAM, its setting and one of its creators that is almost hard to believe: as noted, the musical was inspired by our diplomatic presence in Luxembourg. In a case of reciprocal art-imitates-life, today the Consulate for the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in New York, and that nation’s UN Embassy, is located on Manhattan’s grand Beekman Place in a soaring townhouse that had been Irving Berlin’s home for the latter half of his century-long life!)
Third, Lyric is paying tribute to the legendary career of Chita Rivera this summer and this show was her first professional job. Chita went with a friend to audition for the national tour starring Elaine Stritch. In typical show business style, the friend didn’t get the part but Chita did, launching one of the most successful careers in musical theatre ever.
The idea for CALL ME MADAM came from co-author Howard Lindsay, and the inspiration was ripped from the day’s headlines. In the summer of 1949, Lindsay and his wife Dorothy were on vacation at a Colorado resort. Sitting poolside one afternoon, Lindsay read a Life Magazine article about Perle Mesta’s appointment as the first US Minister to Luxembourg. When he put the magazine down, he happened to look across the pool and there, on the other side, sunning herself, was the great Broadway star Ethel Merman. You can almost see the light bulb that went off over Lindsay’s head. He fired off a letter to his longtime playwriting partner, Russel Crouse. “I have been studying Ethel Merman,” he wrote. “She seems so raucously American, good naturedly, almost vulgarly American. I got to wondering how we could spot her in a foreign setting. And I thought of Perle Mesta. How about making her Madame Ambassadress? She would be very funny as an American Ambassador...The title could be called CALL ME MADAME or is that terrible?”Well, the idea was anything but terrible. Russel Crouse signed on right away, and so did Merman, and so did Irving Berlin. CALL ME MADAM became quite a success in NYC and London. Even Winston Churchill, when meeting Perle for the first time, said to her “Call me , Madam!” She asked, “Have you seen the show?” Churchill said, “Twice!” Everyone who was anyone wanted to be at Perle’s parties and if they weren’t invited they could always buy a ticket to the show and enjoy the party from the audience.
The process of reviving this show has been nothing but a blast. My scenic designer, Adam Koch, has created a fantastic DC ballroom where Sally Adams (the character inspired by Perle) sings “Hostess With The Mostes” and invites everyone- Democrats and Republicans- to the “Washington Square Dance”. Grand staircases, a grand piano, and a grand mural of an Oklahoma landscape painted on the ceiling reminds Sally of her Oklahoma roots and is stunning eye-candy for the audience. Then scenically we are transported to the fictitious and romantic alpine country of Lichtenberg Lichtenburg where she is sent to serve as the American Ambassador- filled with rustic town squares, steep mountain vistas, and elegant embassy sitting rooms. The book by Howard Lindsay (who visited Perle in Luxembourg to research the show) and Russel Crouse is hysterical and provides its leading lady lots of one-liners and sharp dialogue to sink her teeth into as she shakes things up a bit and eventually falls in love.
- Beth Leavel
But CALL ME MADAM was and is still a star vehicle in the most wonderful way and I feel that Beth Leavel’s has the comic timing, acting chops, and stellar singing to make this show fresh, sexy, and fun again. Beth played Miss Hannigan at Lyric before I got here, but everyone who saw her performance and worked with her can’t sing her praises enough. Now that she’s a Tony winner, it’s an especially great honor that she is coming back to Lyric and work with us again. And with the dashing Steve Blanchard as her co-star I’m hoping this production is a bit more romantic than in previous versions. Sally Adams is a fabulous character inspired by a real American original and I’m hoping this production brings about more interest this great show and Perle Mesta for years to come.
Learn more about the Lyric Theater of Oklahoma's production of CALL ME MADAM.