Me and My Girl Opens the Marquis Theatre
Updated: Aug 12
The next episode of Closing Night showcases a British musical import that starts the Marquis off on the right foot–almost. Here is the transcript of that episode and sources used...
In August of 1986, a 50-year-old British musical opened at the Marquis Theatre. Me and My Girl was a huge hit in London and had come to America with its leading man, Robert Lindsay. The musical is part Pygmalion/part Cinderella and tells the tale of Bill Snibson, a cockney ne’er-do-well who turns out to be an earl and is pressured to forsake his Lambeth girlfriend, Sally Smith, in order to inherit his title and estate. Well, hilarity and of course dancing ensue.
“When somebody asks me, what show has delighted me more? What show did I leave the theater just having the feeling of pure joy? Me and My Girl is the show that comes to mind immediately anytime anyone asks me that. I smiled, I laughed. I had such a good time in that musical. And I just loved Me and My Girl.”
- Mark Robinson (theater historian and writer)
And Robinson wasn’t alone—critics and audiences alike loved the musical. But behind the scenes there were problems almost from the start…not so much with the show but with the theater itself. As we discussed in the previous episode, five historic theater buildings had been demolished to make way for this grand hotel/theater complex, and the troubles and controversies that led up to its construction, continued to plague the Marriott Hotel and Marquis Theatre.
“It wasn't meeting city plans. They had to keep redoing the plans for this theater. There wasn't enough wing space, there weren't accommodations made for a bathroom somewhere near the theater. People were gonna have to go to the lobby. Even as the building was going up, they had to rethink the layout of how that theater was going. So there was a lot of problems with that along the way.” - Mark Robinson
In fact, it was reported that there were no dressing rooms in the building initially and were only added as an afterthought. Then there were constant issues with the heating and sewer systems during the run of the show, which led Actors Equity to threaten a walkout. But it wasn’t these problems that led to the closing of Me and My Girl. Because this award-winning musical had one of the highest box office grosses on Broadway in the late 1980s. Yet the show was ended by theater owners who were banking on an even more successful show to take its place.
The story of Me and My Girl begins in 1937—well, technically two years earlier if you want to be exact. You see, the lead character of the show, Bill Snibson, first appeared in another musical called Twenty to One that opened on the West End in 1935, starring English comedian and silent film star Lupino Lane. It was set in the world of horseracing with Bill joining an anti-gambling organization. Twenty to One was written by Louis Arthur Rose and Frank Eyton with music composed by Billy Mayerl. After more than 1000 performances on the West End and in various tours, that show’s success led Rose to revive the character in Me and My Girl, bringing back Lupino Lane of course, who not only took on the lead role again but directed and produced the show as well.
But this time Rose brought in new collaborators: co-writing the book and lyrics with Douglas Furber and leaving the score to composer Noel Gay, who has been called the closest Britain ever came to having their own Irving Berlin. In fact, at one point Gay had four shows running simultaneously on the West End, a feat only ever repeated by Andrew Lloyd Webber. And so the original production of Me and My Girl opened on the West End in December of 1937 but was not an immediate hit. It actually didn’t attract much attention until a matinee performance in early 1938 was broadcast live on BBC radio following the cancellation of a sporting event. Then, the show really took off.
One of the more popular songs from the show, “The Lambeth Walk” went on to become a favorite dance style of the day. The Times of London even ran a story in October 1938 claiming: “While dictators rage and statesmen talk, all Europe dances—to the Lambeth Walk.” The following year, BBC television broadcast the entire production of Me and My Girl live from Victoria Palace Theatre. It was actually the very first time a full musical had ever been shown on live television. Then later in 1939, MGM adapted the musical into a film called The Lambeth Walk. All the while, that original London stage production played through the early years of World War II and ultimately ran for 1,646 performances.
The show’s popularity has led to multiple revivals on the West End—most notably a newly revised production in 1985, produced by Richard Armitage. He brought in actor and writer Stephen Fry to dust the cobwebs off the old script with help from director Mike Ockrent. But first, they had to find the original book and lyrics, which according to New York Magazine “required detective work almost as thrilling as the show itself.” Actor Tim Curry, who played the lead role in the US national tour of Me and My Girl, describes the long and arduous process of reconstructing the script:
“When they went to revive it, there were various pieces of the script missing. So a lot of it has been reconstructed from memory. The producer who revived it was in fact the son of the composer. And he had to do an enormous amount of research to find everything and try and piece it all together. One song was found in the family attic, one song was found in the archives of the BBC. And the script is a kind of huge bunch of old jokes really. So where there weren't any old jokes, we just remembered some others.”
Once all the pieces were assembled, Fry and Ockrent went about revising the script: dropping some of the outdated jokes, condensing a long second act, and adding songs from Gay’s catalog of other musicals, including “Leaning on a Lamp-post” and the lovely ballad “Once You Lose Your Heart.” The lead role of Bill Snibson was offered to Robert Lindsay, an actor who had made his reputation in Shakespeare as well as BBC dramas and sitcoms. Initially, he turned down the offer two or three times, thinking the show too old and outdated, but once they persuaded him to listen to the newly revised score, he finally accepted.
Playing opposite him as Sally was a relatively unknown actress, Emma Thompson. Yep, that Emma Thompson. Though best known for her film work now, back in the 1980s she was just getting her start doing sketch comedy on television, mostly with the comedic team of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. He was the one who actually recommended Thompson for what turned out to be a breakthrough role, establishing her as a respected performer.
In fact, this revised version of Me and My Girl made stars of both Thompson and Lindsay as it became a huge hit on the West End, being nominated for two Olivier Awards in 1985 and winning both of them—the first for Outstanding Performance by its lead actor Robert Lindsay, who beat out Colm Wilkinson from Les Misérables, and their second win was for Musical of the Year, once again beating out Les Misérables for the top honor.
However, despite all the accolades and success, there was one actress who was ready to move on. Emma Thompson told The Telegraph in 2010 that she had her first bout with clinical depression during that West End production, saying that she really didn’t change her clothes or answer the phone much, but went into the theatre every night, was cheerful, and sang the Lambeth Walk. “That’s what actors do.” Still, she ended up leaving the show after 15 months.
British audiences and critics, on the other hand, felt quite differently and couldn’t get enough of the show, leading the producers and creative team to feel the show was finally ready to transfer to Broadway.
James M. Nederlander and his organization were not only producing Me and My Girl, they owned and operated the Adelphi Theatre in London where it was playing. In addition, they operated the soon-to-be-opened Marquis Theatre in New York as well, so it was only fitting that they would choose their new Broadway house as the American debut for this highly successful show. However, controversy and resentment still plagued the Marriott Marquis Hotel as it opened to guests in September of 1985.
Many actors and other artists were still bitter over the demolition of those historic theaters that made way for the Marquis, so they refusing to take part in any activities at the hotel. The management at the Marriott was painfully aware of this sentiment. Thomas D. Reese, the general manager, told Newsday: “Theater is our primary product. Our object is to re-establish our relationship with the theater community. It just takes time to heal these old wounds.”
And so one such effort to re-establish that relationship was made on October 1985 when the Actors Fund of America was set to hold a benefit cocktail party as part of the grand-opening festivities for the Marriott Marquis. However, leaders at Actors Equity formally asked the Actors Fund to cancel their event. Actress Colleen Dewhurst, who was now the president of Actors Equity, was one of the performers most actively involved in fighting the demolition. But Vincent Vitelli, the secretary and general manager of the Actors Fund, said that the organization would stand by its commitment: “We have been booked there and we didn't feel there was sufficient time for a change. Besides, we can't take a stance on a political issue. We're not a political organization. We didn't take a stand when those theaters were coming down and we won't take a stand now.”
As it turns out their cocktail party was paid for by the hotel, which also made a five-figure donation toward the construction of an Actors Fund nursing home in Englewood, N.J. “If an organization comes along and offers you funds, you don't turn them down,” said Vitelli. Still, actors themselves had mixed feelings about the Marquis. In that previously mentioned Newsday article, one actress who wanted to remain anonymous said, “Among theater people, it’s called the Penitentiary.” Jack Klugman, star of The Odd Couple, said’ “What do I do? I would rather these hotels not be built. I was here when they were tearing down the Morosco. I have two bricks I saved—I’ll never forget. I don’t know who to get angry with. They’ve been very nice to me here.” Another actress, Carole Shelley, who had starred in The Norman Conquests at Morosco Theatre, was a bit more diplomatic. “It’s a beautiful hotel. I think it’s more beautiful on the inside than the outside. I just wish they had put it somewhere else.”
Now, if you listened to the previous episode, then it will come as no surprise that Helen Hayes herself appeared at events in the same hotel that had torn down the old theater bearing her name. To Hayes this was just progress in motion. So it begs the question that if Helen Hayes, the first lady of the American Theatre and the first woman to achieve EGOT status, if she could make peace with new hotel/theater complex, why couldn’t others do the same? A viewpoint that some actors like Jon Ehrlich from Big River agreed with as well as Lee Roy Reams from 42nd Street, who simply didn’t understand all the fuss:
“The theater is only as good as whatever's playing in it. No one was using those theaters. All the stars who protested, why didn't they put a disco in one of them. They didn't. The area around it was always dark, always unclean, there were always undesirables around. Now, the area is safer. We've brought a lot more people into the theater.”
Across the pond, Me and My Girl was preparing for its transfer to Broadway, it was going to be without leading lady Emma Thompson, who not surprisingly decided to go back to television instead. In fact, its lead actor, Robert Lindsay, was also resistant at first to be a part of the Broadway run: “I had terrible doubts when they first asked me to come to Broadway with it because the whole thing seemed so terribly English and London-based, so I said no again, and it wasn’t until they pointed out to me that half the audiences we played to in the West End last summer were in fact American tourists that I realized maybe Americans were understanding it after all.”
Now in order for a British actor to come to New York, there has to be what’s called reciprocation. You see, there’s an agreement between the American Actors Equity and British Equity for a swap of sorts, which means in order for Lindsay to come to Broadway with Me and My Girl, an American actor had to be sent to the West End to perform. And in this case it appears to be Ron Holgate, Tony winner from the musical 1776, who went to London in this swap to originate the role of Tito Merelli in Lend Me a Tenor.
Before arriving on Broadway, though, Me and My Girl had an out-of-town run in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. While there, Robert Lindsay and the show’s new leading lady, American actress Maryann Plunkett, stopped by the Merv Griffin Show.
Meanwhile in New York City at the Marquis, workmen were still busy with wiring, plaster, carpets, and other fittings in early July 1986. “The audience won’t know there’s any more work to do,” said Arthur Rubin, general manager of the Nederlander Organization, but he added, “there will still be odds and ends, a little electrical thing here, something else there.” And all this was in preparation for the official grand opening of the Marquis Theatre with a series of concerts by British singer and pop music icon Shirley Bassey.
Jeremy Gerard with Newsday had this to say about the entertainer’s opening night performance: “Bassey and her brassy orchestral backup led off with "All That Jazz,” and the irony of a Broadway show-stopper opening a revue that has more in common with Las Vegas than with New York, in a theater that also has more in common with Las Vegas than with New York, could not have been lost on those in the audience, who recall that three older theaters were razed to make way for the Marquis. Bassey’s style is not so much tasteless as it is taste-free, another quality shared with the theater itself…”
So as you can see, much like New York actors, some critics as well just couldn’t let go of their disdain for this theater monstrosity that had been built on the rumble of beloved historic theaters. But Gerard eventually focuses his assault directly on Bassey’s vocals:
“Bassey had some pitch problems at the official opening Wednesday night, which can be painful when a big voice is magnified a thousandfold, but she generally found the note she was aiming for…after not too painful an interval.”
That may have been one critic’s opinion, but not exactly the best start for a theater already in an unfavorable position with many in the theater community. The hope, though, was that Me and My Girl would change all that. Yes, it was a hit on the West End, but that’s never a sure fire thing on Broadway. NY City Center Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel, who oversaw their own revival in 2018, explains what makes Me and My Girl so different: "Me and My Girl is a real English show, it's like a music hall show. It's a kind of musical comedy that is just so identified with that kind of musical entertainment. That's the hallmark of what the British do that is kind of the equivalent to Vaudeville in the United States."
And so on opening night August 10, 1986, Stephen Fry and Mike Ockrent stood cautiously at the back of the house “peeping over the back row like Bialystock and Bloom” from The Producers. But then at intermission, someone slipped them an early copy of the review from New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, who did have a few critiques for the music and the updated book, but ultimately he said, “One finds oneself wishing that the title song of 'Me and My Girl' would never end…Few musicals of any kind on either side of the Atlantic have had a star to match Robert Lindsay.”
Once they read this stamp of approval from the NY Times, they were elated and according to Fry, they went to the bar and got hammered on gin and tonics and could barely stand up during the second act. And Frank Rich wasn’t alone in his praise as other critics called the show “lovable” and “thrilling” and "sheer happiness.” Sure, there were still some critics who mentioned the beautiful theaters that had been knocked down for this more sterile-looking theater, but overall they were ecstatic about this very British musical and its leading man.
It was so funny. It was tuneful. Robert Lindsay was giving a career-defining performance as far as I'm concerned. The amount of energy that he needed to navigate that role and just be on all the time. Like it was a tour de force—every minute of what he did on that stage was calculated, but calculated with comedy at its heart. - Mark Robinson
And so several months later in 1987, Me and My Girl was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, compared to only 10 nominations for the other big show that year, Les Miserables.
Me and My Girl ended up with a total of three Tonys Awards—one for Lindsay, another for Maryann Plunkett who won Best Actress, and Gillian Gregory won for Best Choreography. Unlike the Olivier Awards, however, Les Mis did walk away with the top prize of Best Musical this time around, as well as 7 other Tony Awards. But I don’t think that mattered much to Robert Lindsay…
It was producer Richard Armitage who helped persuade Lindsay to stay with the show as it transferred to Broadway. I think it’s safe to say that decision paid off for both gentlemen. Now, while Les Mis may have won more Tonys that night, Me and My Girl was king of the box office for 1987, beating out the big mega-musicals like Cats, Starlight Express, and of course Les Mis.
At that time on Broadway we were dealing with a lot of the big mega-musicals. Musical theater in the 80s had gone to the pop operas and the dark subject matter. Musical comedy was the kind of thin throughout the 1980s. There weren't a whole lot of them. And the few that opened up prior to Me and My Girl, most of them didn't really run that long. It wasn't like nowadays where you could get your good comedy musicals in a season that make you feel good and make you leave the theater with a big smile on your face. I think sometimes people underestimate the need for escapist entertainment just as much as we need serious, thoughtful entertainment. And Me and My Girl gave that in spades. - Mark Robinson
With any long running show, there always comes a time when replacements start taking over for the original cast. One of the biggest changes came when Jim Dale took over the lead role from Lindsay shortly after the Tony Awards. One of those nominees for Best Supporting Actress was Jane Summerhays, who played Lady Jacqueline, a noble woman who pursues Bill after breaking off her engagement to another suitor. Summerhays continued on with the show after Lindsay left, and sometime later she joined a roundtable discussion of actors for the American Theatre Wing, where she talked about the differences between the two men.
“W ell, their timing is different. I mean, they're two different people. That was one of the challenges for me for working with Jim. And that is to try, after doing it for over a year with Robert, to make that adjustment, and it's very interesting. I've learned a lot. It's not something you can sit down and say, ‘well, I'll make this adjustment.’ It just happens and it's instinctive, and it happens like that or it doesn't. I think when you're playing comedic scenes like this, you don't have time to talk or to think about it. You just do it.”
Frank Rich from the NY Times was back again to weigh in, calling Dale “puckishly amusing” and comparing him to Fred Astaire. But he went on to say, “It would be preposterous to pretend it is the same show with Mr. Dale that it was with Mr. Lindsay. Let the invidious comparisons fall where they may: in place of the red-hot comet that once streaked across the Marquis stage, one now finds a fixed, slightly frosty star.” Nonetheless, audiences flocked to see Me and My Girl with or without Robert Lindsay. It remained one of the top five box office draws on Broadway every year of its run.
But while the show was finding great success onstage, the Marquis Theater itself was a mess backstage. There were some minor issues like the one encountered by Ed Joffe, who played in the orchestra. He recalled that the designers neglected to provide steps to get into the pit. But then there were bigger problems like those described by the show’s wardrobe supervisor, Linda Berry, to the NY Times: “By the nature of our job, we spend as many as 14 working hours in this atmosphere. We’ve had to work with a lack of heat, with a lack of drainage. We're getting headaches and nausea, people don't get over them.”
The nausea was a result of the theater’s air intake being located next to the exterior vent of the hotel's sewer system. So this meant that whatever odors or particles the hotel’s sewage was pumping out, the theater’s air vent was bringing in. Berry continued: “We smell smells that we can't identify the source for. We have been working in conditions which are at best questionable since moving in in July ‘86, and which are sometimes intolerable.”
Additionally, the sewer system would back up into the bathroom toilets as well as the drain pipes in the theater's floor. And on top of all the sewage issues, the backstage and onstage areas were always cold. That’s because the stage area didn’t have its own heating system, and despite partial fixes here and there it was reported that cast members could even see their own breath during particularly cold days.
Me and My Girl was no small production, it employed a cast and crew of about 160 people. And in 1988, Actors' Equity and the wardrobe union threatened to pull their members out of the show unless the heating and ventilation systems were improved and something was done about the plumbing “We’ve been here a long time,” Berry said. “Our concern at this point is that management is sufficiently impressed with these conditions that they take them seriously, which I think they do.”
The Nederlanders eventually agreed that the plumbing and ventilation systems were problematic (needless to say), and this prompted Marriott to spend $500,000 on dedicated heating, ventilation, and plumbing systems for the Marquis Theatre. I guess there’s the old saying “better late than never.” But Arturo Porazzi, stage manager for Me and My Girl, summed it up this way: “This was a new house, what was done for the first time could have been done right.”
But while it seems that minimal construction efforts were made toward the cast and crew experience, much more thought, however, went into the audience experience. Architect John Portman designed the theater so that no seat was father than 80 feet from the stage. Director Mike Ockrent noted that this 1600-seat theater had the feel of 1200 seats and was surprised at the intimacy of the space. Yet architectural critic for the NY Times wrote that the overall design is “not a theater environment but that of a hotel, of homogenized hospitality, better suited to a convention than a chorus line.”
You know, some people will call it sterile. I kinda like the art deco look. There's something, feels like you're going into a different world to see a show, and I like that about any theater where it kind of feels special. And even though it's a little more convention center when you're going into the building itself. It feels a little McMansion, you know what I'm saying? McMansions are nice, clean new houses, but there's nothing all that special about the architecture or any detail work in the houses. I felt the same way about that theater. - Mark Robinson
However, despite all these maintenance and design issues, Me and My Girl was an unquestionable hit. Its combination of a tuneful score, British wit and physical comedy, infectious dancing, and a strong cast made it a favorite among theatergoers and critics alike, whether on Broadway or the national tour. A local TV theater critic said, “There’s nothing sensational about Me and My Gal [sic], except the excellent cast led by Tim Curry and Donna Bullock, and it’s just plain, good ol’ musical fun.”
Curry played Bill for one year of that US tour that began in October 1987 and finished in May of 1989. While the New York production went through December of that same year, giving it a total of three and half years on Broadway, with 11 previews and 1,420 performances.
Me and My Girl cost $4 million to produce initially on Broadway and returned about 150 percent in profit to its investors, after payment of production costs, according to Ralph Roseman, the show’s general manager. That’s a payout of $2,500 for every $1,000 invested going into its final year of shows, which is a pretty darn good return by Broadway standards.
So you’re probably wondering, as I did, with such a big hit production on their hands, why would Me and My Girl close at the Marquis Theatre in December of 1989? Well, it wasn’t because of maintenance issues or losing Robert Lindsay in the lead role, and it certainly wasn’t due to low ticket sales, cause the show had great box office returns week after week.
No, I think it was nervousness on the part of the Nederlander Organization. You see, except for Me and My Girl, they had few hits among the 9 theaters they owned, with most of them sitting empty in 1989. They got so desperate for revenue, they even leased one their theaters, the Mark Hellinger (former home of My Fair Lady), to a church for five years just for some guaranteed income—and the Times Square Church is still there today. So maybe by closing Me and My Girl at the Marquis Theatre, the Nederlanders were hedging their bets on a new musical that they thought would bring in even bigger ticket sales in 1990—and that show they put all their hopes on was a musical continuation of another hit show from years earlier: Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge.
Have you not heard of Annie 2…? Well, that might be because this much anticipated and highly advertised Annie sequel never opened on Broadway. Never went into previews. Never even made it past its out-of-town tryout in Washington, DC. The full story of this musical’s tumultuous journey will be the subject of a future episode. But suffice it to say, that musical sequels rarely work, yet Annie 2 carried a lot of expectations. But in the end, it simply couldn’t live up to the hype.
“I never thought it was a good idea personally, but I liked Annie, but I thought, okay, that story's done. We don't need to continue now. Because much of what worked for Annie, the original Annie, was the fact that there was this poor little orphan kid, who we wanted her to succeed, have her happy ever after. It's a Cinderella story. We love that. You know, she got somebody good to take care of her. That's enough. Okay, like we don't need to know more. I also think there was something campy in the title: Miss Hannigan's Revenge. It just sounded a little too, like sci-fi movie for me.” - Mark Robinson
So who knows how long Me and My Girl could’ve lasted on Broadway. Certainly longer than the 11 months the Marquis sat empty, waiting for its next show. I mean, had they slotted Annie 2 for one of their empty theaters rather than the Marquis, the Nederlanders could’ve held on to Me and My Girl for another year or two…maybe longer. I mean, the London production kept going till 1993 with more than 3000 performances.
With such a successful show like Me and My Girl closing prematurely, maybe that’s the "Curse of the Marquis Theatre" or maybe just the curse of bad management and decision-making. Either way, to this date, no other show in the history of the Marquis has lasted as long nor played as many performances as Me and My Girl.
I remember when the Marquis first opened and I was in high school. One of our teacher's aide was going to New York, and she was very excited that she was going to see Me and My Girl. She brought me back a playbill from it—very early on in the run—and she was like, “Oh, it was so great. We got to stay in our hotel room, we ate there, and we went into the theater. And the only time we had to really leave was when we went to the bus station to take the bus back home.” So for some people there is an intimidation factor about New York. So the Marquis does lend itself to an easy theater trip for someone who wants to experience theater, but not New York.
- Mark Robinson
Closing Night is a production of WINMI Media with Patrick Oliver Jones as host and executive producer. Dan Delgado is the editor and co-producer, not only for this podcast but also for his own movie podcast as well called The Industry, which I highly recommend. Maria Clara Ribeiro is co-producer. Thank you to those who contributed to this episode: George Livings, Gabrielle Ruiz, historian Mark Robinson, and our very own Dan Delgado. Join us next time as another production makes its way to closing night.
Other sources cited and used for this episode:
Basic Background & History
The Marquis Theatre
The Leading Men
Videos and audio
Original production TV filming, 1939 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrpHer66DBQ
NYC Encores - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuCrKjATnYg
Jane Summerhays - https://tv.cuny.edu/show/atwworkinginthetheatre/PR1002035
Merv Griffin Show - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSpHXQc_dKw