Our Best Girl: Celebrating 50 Years of MAME
On May 24th, 2016, the 1966 musical Mame celebrated its 50th Anniversary. The original Broadway production worked its magic for 1,508 performances and saw a parade of stars march through the title role: Angela Lansbury originated the part, followed by Celeste Holm, Janis Paige, Jane Morgan, and Ann Miller. Tony Awards were awarded to Lansbury (Best Actress), Beatrice Arthur (Best Featured Actress), Frankie Michaels (the youngest winner of a Tony Award, won for Best Featured Actor) but the Best Musical prize went to Man of La Mancha. Despite having an avid following, Mame has only been revived once on Broadway in 1983 (with Lansbury) but that only ran 41 performances. A much-maligned film version was made in 1974 starring Lucille Ball.
After all these years, why do we so many of us still love Mame as much as we do? Why, in spite of our love, has there not been a successful revival since the original? What is it about this musical that keeps our hopes alive for the perfect revival? Here are my top eight reasons why we never give up that hope and like to speculate who would be the perfect Mame.
Top Eight Reasons Why We Love Mame
1. The Jubilant Jerry Herman Score
It is equal parts bubbly champagne and dry martini. The melodies are fizzy while the lyrics are witty and occasionally acerbic. Songs like "It's Today" and "Open a New Window" put the pep in our step while ditties like "Bosom Buddies" and "Gooch's Song" are brimming with smart and sassy humor.
2. Vera Charles
Has there ever been a better comedic supporting role than the vitriolic, alcoholic actress Vera Charles? Many of us delight in the memory of Bea Arthur's delivery as Vera (or our imagined memory) of such lines as "I have an astronomical discovery for you: the man in the moon is a bitch." She's zany, sarcastic and has memorable one-liners.
3. A Great Motto
"Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death" is the title character's motto. She gives everyone permission to let go of their reservations and embrace life. Don't we all want to be liberated like this? Aren't we just a little jealous of Little Patrick when he is given permission to pull his chair up to said banquet and feast?
4. The Period Clothes
Mame spans several years from the 1920s to the 1930s, and both decades had some pretty amazing clothes. Mame Dennis is wealthy (and so are her friends) so we get to see the best of the best: shiny gold pajamas, turbans, elegant coats and hats, tiny little flapper dresses, riding outfits, and southern belle finery. Mame may be the one musical where the entire costume plot is iconic.
5. Agnes Gooch
Patrick Dennis has a nanny in the form of the dowdy Irish Catholic Agnes Gooch. She's awkward, kind of a nerd, but we love her for both her devotion to the boy and to Auntie Mame herself. Her big second act number "Gooch's Song", an hysterical monologue of the travails of an unwed pregnant woman, makes her all the more vulnerable and lovable.
6. The One-liners and Humor
No other musical has so many great one-liners. In fact, Mame is so packed to the hilt with laughs that it is a built-in part of the show's energy build. Laugh leads to bigger laugh until the show's climax when Mame unleashes her biggest whammy upon Patrick's fiancées snobby family: her plan to build a home for unwed mothers next door to their conservative, Connecticut home. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee had adapted the Patrick Dennis novel for the stage and streamlined it beautifully for the musical stage.
Mame is all things wonderfully cliche about Broadway musicals: a song and dance extravaganza with a larger than life leading lady and breezy chorus numbers. These ingredients recall a period in musical theatre where pure joy onstage was celebrated and regularly a part of the landscape. Many of us feel a bit nostalgic for this kind of musical.
8. Mame Herself
Mame is a vivacious woman with a thirst for adventure and an indomitable spirit. Nothing keeps her down. A character of such epic proportions is perfect fodder for dream casting speculation. We love to envision our favorite divas, past and present, in this role. Who do you think would be the perfect Mame if we were casting a revival today?