It’s surprising that no one has ever republished Don Dunn’s 1972 book “The Making of No, No, Nanette” (The Citadel Press) because it’s one of the best behind-the-scenes accounts of how a musical gets to Broadway ever published.
I tracked down a copy of the book on Amazon last week and read it from cover to cover in just a few sittings. Dunn shows both the creativity and chaos involved in one of the biggest fluke hits in the history of Broadway – a revival of a 40-year-old show that appeared to have very little going for it other than nostalgia.
In what almost seems like a replay of “The Producers,” the show had the wrong producer, the wrong director, and the wrong stars, but from the first out of town try-out performance in Boston, the old musical was a huge hit. It was the hottest ticket of the 1970-71 season that also included the legendary Stephen Sondheim show “Follies” (which pleased critics but lost its entire investment). The success of “Nanette” played a major role in the nostalgia boom of the 1970s that would include “Grease” on Broadway and “That’s Entertainment!” in movie theaters.
“No, No, Nanette” also proved that a canny revival could be as big a hit as any new musical. 47 years ago Broadway musical revivals were a relatively rare occurrence. Now there are so many of them that they have their own Tony Award category.
The book works as a good example of the New Journalism that was so popular in the early 1970s. Dunn gives us a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the hiring and brutal firing of actors. The original ingenue, Carole Demas, is fired by director Burt Shevelove the morning after he warmly greets the young woman’s mother at a rehearsal, but he doesn’t have the guts to do it himself.
The first-time producer Cyma Rubin wouldn’t have been able to pull the show together without the assistance of the somewhat flaky and down-on-his-luck theater insider Harry Rigby, but as soon as it became clear “No No Nanette” was a hit, she started plotting to oust him.
Rubin loathed the 1930s musical star Rigby convinced to come out of retirement – Ruby Keeler (above) – and treated the woman shabbily. But when Keeler’s spectacular tap routine in “I Want to Be Happy” became the show’s centerpiece, a reader can delight in Rubin having to eat a lot of crow (and pay through the nose to keep her star happy). Keeler’s anti-star behavior, and old-fashioned professionalism, is the glue that held the show together and that gives this book a delightfully offbeat main character.
It was only after I received a used copy of this terrific book that I noticed a manuscript is available for no payment online if you Google the book’s title. Not sure if it’s legal, and the type-setting leaves a lot to be desired, but the book is there for the reading if you can’t locate a physical copy.
“The Making of No, No, Nanette” is a must-read for theatergoers and deserves a spot on the Broadway bookshelf next to William Goldman’s “The Season” and Ted Chapin’s “Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies.”