Remembering Subways Are For Sleeping
Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were frequent collaborators in creating Broadway musicals. Sometimes there partnerships yielded hits like Bells Are Ringing, sometimes the product was a cheerful “also ran” like Do Re Mi, and sometimes the show simply struggled to find an audience. One of these musicals that failed to ignite, despite offering a delightful score and a compelling premise, was the 1961 Subways Are For Sleeping.
Subways Are For Sleeping came about when an article in a March 1956 Harper’s issue tackled the issue of homelessness. The piece was written by Edmund G. Love who rode New York’s subway system, documenting his experiences meeting the unique and colorful individuals who populated the city’s complex and extensive transportation system. Love eventually wrote a book that explored his adventures in greater depth. The article and the book would become the basis for Subways Are For Sleeping.
The story for Subways Are for Sleeping mirrored that of Love’s. A magazine journalist named Angie McKay is given an assignment: to explore the world of the New York subway system and investigate the population of well-dressed homeless people who were using the cars as their nighttime place of slumber. Angie goes undercover, pretending to be an out-of-towner who is stranded in the Big Apple, with no money and no place to stay. She soon finds out that the homeless have a leader, a man named Tom Bailey who secures odd jobs and places to sleep for his followers. Angie must try to research her story and remain undetected, but things become more complicated when Tom figures out who she is and what she is up to.
Directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd, Subways Are for Sleepingopened at Broadway’s St. James Theatre on December 27, 1961. Thanks to mixed-to-negative reviews, the musical only lasted for 205 performances. In the cast: Orson Bean, Sydney Chaplin, Carol Lawrence, Gordon Connell, Grayson Hall, and Phyllis Newman(The wife of Adolph Green). Newman won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, playing a character who spent the entire performance in nothing but a towel. The chorus also featured two performers who would go on to make an impression: Michael Bennett and Valerie Harper.
Subways Are for Sleeping yielded one song that got some play, “Be a Santa,” which was a fun holiday take on the myriad Santa Clauses ringing bells all over the city for the yuletide. The number was even utilized as the opening of The Dean Martin Christmas television special in 1968. Despite its joyous melody and holiday cheeriness, the song’s popularity has faded over the years, but it remains a jolly standout in an agreeable score.
One of the things that might have hindered a greater success for Subways Are For Sleeping, was the New York Transit Authority’s refusal to post advertisements for the show on the city’s busses and subway trains. It was their fear that posters reading “Subways Are For Sleeping” might be misconstrued as an invitation to vagrants to use their transports as regular sleeping quarters. As most of us know, the public transportation of NYC has always been an essential part of the promotion of the city’s theatre offerings. Subways Are For Sleeping just didn’t get the visibility of other plays and musicals running at the time. Of course, the show’s premise itself did little to help the musical’s success. How do you create a musical comedy out of the plight of the homeless? Homelessness was (and still is) a real problem and perhaps the subject matter walked the fine line of good taste for some?
Arguably the most noteworthy anecdote about Subways Are For Sleeping is the David Merrick-initiated publicity stunt attached to the production. The critics were generally nonplussed by Subways Are For Sleeping, and Merrick, who was producing the show, would not concede to the show failing at the words of a group of newspapermen for which he generally felt contempt (unless they were giving his shows rave reviews, of course). Merrick took the list of names of New York’s top critics and searched the phone book for people with the same names. He invited these people with identical monikers to see the show and gathered their comments, which were mostly enthusiastic, and then created an ad that touted the likes of Walter Kerr and Richard Watts, Jr. praising the show. The clever scheme worked, at least in the short run, when the ad ran in an early edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Eventually, the ruse was discovered and the advertisement removed, but not before it yielded a slight boost in ticket sales that propelled the show into the black.