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Hazel Flagg

The great Ben Hecht screenplay for the classic screwball comedy, “Nothing Sacred,” makes a minor musical with unfamiliar songs by Jule Styne.

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Jody Cook as Doc Downer and Savannah Frazier as Hazel in a scene from Musical Tonight!’s revival of  Hazel Flagg (Photo credit: Michael Portantiere)

Jody Cook as Doc Downer and Savannah Frazier as Hazel in a scene from Musicals Tonight!’s revival of  Hazel Flagg (Photo credit: Michael Portantiere)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Two-time Academy Award-winner Ben Hecht was one of Hollywood’s most admired screenwriters (Wuthering Heights, Spellbound, Notorious) and one of Broadway’s most successful playwrights (The Front Page, Twentieth Century). What he wasn’t was a librettist of musical comedies. With long-time partner Charles MacArthur, he co-wrote the Rodgers and Hart circus musical spectacle, Jumbo, in 1935 and then didn’t write another libretto until 1953, adapting solo his classic screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred. The resulting Hazel Flagg, with a score by Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Hilliard, proved to be a minor Broadway musical remembered today simply for its one hit song, “Every Street’s A Boulevard in Old New York.”

Musicals Tonight! is giving this forgotten show its first New York revival in a concert version directed by Thomas Sabella-Mills. While the stage musical lifts the plot of the movie, it leaves out most of the elements that made it a classic example of screwball comedy. It also doesn’t script the wonderful gags of that consummate comedienne Carole Lombard who created the role of Hazel Flagg, a young woman incorrectly diagnosed with radium poisoning. It misses the satire, cynicism and the pungency of the movie which ironically are the exact elements which make the 1975 musical Chicago (thought to have been ahead of its time) work so well all these many years later. Even underrated comedian Frederic March brought more layers to his role as Wallace Cook than are written into Hecht’s musical which flattens and deflates what should be a hilarious role of the unscrupulous journalist who will do anything for a story. The other problem with the show is that the songs do not advance the plot but bring it to a standstill and the lyrics by Hilliard (previously a writer of pop songs) tend to be repetitious and serviceable rather than witty or clever.

Hazel Flagg follows fairly faithfully the plot of the 1937 film Nothing Sacred, but with its deletions and lack of stage business it diminishes the original. (The hilarious scene with the team of eccentric European doctors is missing.) When Hazel Flagg of Stoneyhead, Vermont, is told by Doc Downer that she is dying of radium poisoning from her job at the watch factory, she is thrilled that she will be able to finally have her long-awaited three-week trip to New York with her bonus. After she becomes a heroine to the whole town, the doc discovers that he has made a mistake and that she is fine. When Everywhere Magazine sends ace reporter Wallace Cook to offer her a deluxe all-expenses paid trip to New York in order to get an exclusive on the story, she decides to keep mum about her true condition and have some fun.

When she becomes the darling of New York, Wallace decides to bring in experts to see if something can be done about her “condition.” Fearing exposure for herself and Doc Downer who has accompanied her, she reveals the truth to Wallace with whom she has fallen in love. She then has to find a way to keep all of them including Wallace’s boss, publisher Laura Carew, from being indicted for fraud. Hazel Flagg’s happy ending is much more upbeat than the cynical ending of the movie but less satiric.

Brandon Timmons, Bradlee Laight, William Mulligan, Annie Edgerton, Alan Gillespie and Warren Curtis in a scene from Musical Tonight!’s revival of  Hazel Flagg (Photo credit: Michael Portantiere)

Brandon Timmons, Bradlee Laight, William Mulligan, Annie Edgerton, Alan Gillespie and Warren Curtis in a scene from Musicals Tonight!’s revival of  “Hazel Flagg” (Photo credit: Michael Portantiere)

The trouble with dramatic properties written around uniquely talented stars (Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, Barbra Streisand, etc.,) is that it is very hard to find someone to step into their shoes for revivals. Mimicking their performances doesn’t usually work either. Kristin Chenoweth may have just proved herself to be the new Carole Lombard in the musical revival based on Hecht and MacArthur’s Twentieth Century, but there is only one such star a generation. While Savannah Frazier demonstrates she is a versatile actress, as acted and directed her Hazel does not have the zaniness it needs for this outrageous plot. So too Jason Mills as ace reporter Wallace Cook is too bland and nondescript to make much of an impression as a political reporter rather than the movie’s perpetrator of many frauds. Annie Edgerton throws herself into the role of the publisher, but without the blusteriness that made Walter Connolly so much fun, it doesn’t work as well. However, in all three cases the libretto doesn’t give them much help or guidance.

In the event, some of the minor roles come to the fore to pick up the slack. In the role of Doc Downer that won Thomas Mitchell a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, Jody Cook is expansive, wry and quick-witted as the rural doctor suddenly up against the city slickers. Chaz Jackson steals the show with his hilarious western routine in the production number “Salomee” performed as a night club act at the Mayor’s luncheon. Chuck Ragsdale’s comic Parisian – and chic – couturier Maximilian Levian is a delightful parody. Alan Gillespie makes a good deal out of Laura Carew’s assistant Oleander. Rob Lorey is an elegant Mayor of New York City but fails to make the role his own.

The score is second-rate Styne but does have its charms. Aside from the immortal, “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” the score includes the melodic “The World Is Beautiful Today,” “How Do You Speak to an Angel” and “I Feel Like I’m Gonna Live Forever,” all lacking in memorable lyrics. Frazier’s Hazel lets it rip with the show-stopping, “Laura de Maupassant” which sounds like a Cole Porter song cut from Silk Stockings or Can Can. Mills shows what he can do with a song with the restored numbers, “Money Burns A Hole in My Pocket” and “Something in the Wind,” both cut from the show before opening night. Musical director and vocal arranger David B. Bishop does yeoman service trying to give the score an upbeat tempo.

Sometimes stage properties that have been forgotten are lost for a good reason. Hazel Flagg is one of those shows. Jule Styne completists, however, will be glad for an opportunity to at last see this 1953 show. The one thing this show will do is send you back to the classic movie to see what all the fuss was about.

Hazel Flagg (through March 29, 2015)

Musicals Tonight!

Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.musicalstonight.org

Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (656 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

1 Comment on Hazel Flagg

  1. Avatar Kathleen Bavaar Cobb // April 12, 2018 at 8:28 am // Reply

    My father, Tony Bavaar, was in the cast of the original Broadway production that was reopened (after a summer hiatus)in September of 1953. He passed away in 2000, and I never knew until recently the song that Jule Styne wrote for my Dad to sing in the reopening of the show. I discovered the song title when researching the show, and remember now my Dad telling me it’s name years ago. The trouble is that I’ve never even heard the song and cannot find any sheet music for it. It the song or even the score still in print?

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