Broadway Blip: Henry, Sweet Henry
Of all of Bob Merrill’s projects that should probably have been a hit, but somehow never got the accolades (and ticket sales) that it deserved, was the 1967 comedy Henry, Sweet Henry. Based on Nora Johnson’s novel and the subsequent film adaptation The World of Henry Orient, Henry, Sweet Henry featured both music and lyrics by Merrill and a book by Nunnally Johnson (Nora’s father), all of the puzzle pieces were in place for success. Author William Goldman chronicled the story of Henry, Sweet Henry as part of his book The Seasonand asserted that audiences loved the piece as much as any of the other big hits on Broadway. A bad review from the all-powerful Clive Barnes, the critic for The New York Times, was all it took to make a crowd-pleaser shutter after a few months.
Henry, Sweet Henry is set in New York in the 1960s where two high school girls, Val and Gil, enjoy pranking their way around the city. One day, they happen upon composer/philanderer Henry Orient while he is in Central Park seducing a married woman from Scarsdale. They decide, for a lark, to follow Henry around all day, admiring his hapless ways and getting caught-up in his shenanigans.The chief highlight of the production was the critically lauded and scene-stealing performance of Alice Playten, playing the hysterically dogged and conniving Kafritz. Kafritz is a wheeling and dealing tough girl who has arranged (for a cost) for Val and Gil to be the dates of a pair of boys from a local military academy. When the two girls seem more-interested in Henry, Kafritz is not above blackmail to make sure the deal is sealed. Playten played Kafritz with gumption and comic villainy, milking every last laugh out of her two big numbers “Nobody Steps on Kafritz” and “Poor Little Person.”
Opening on October 23, 1967 at Broadway’s Palace Theatre, Henry, Sweet Henryreceived mostly good notices, but closed after a mere 80 performances thanks to the damage done by Barnes’ review. What is most disappointing is that the 67-68 season was a lackluster one to begin with no real standout hit. This was the season of Hallelujah Baby!, Illya Darling, The Happy Time, How Now Dow Jones?, and Golden Rainbow, none of which were exactly knocking audience’s socks off. If what William Goldman says about the show is true, surely there could have been room for a crowd pleaser to win the day. Henry, Sweet Henry was Tony nominated for Best Choreography (Michael Bennett) and Best Featured Actress (Alice Playten). Fortunately, Henry, Sweet Henry received an original cast recording and its musical merits can still be enjoyed today.