Remembering Hazel Flagg
Helen Gallagher is an actress who came very close to being one of Broadway musicals’ biggest stars, on a par with Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, or Gwen Verdon. Always one of the standout supporting players in such musicals as High Button Shoes, Make A Wish, and Pal Joey, for which she won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. It was inevitable that she would ultimately land a starring role in a Broadway musical that would launch her career into the stratosphere where it belonged. That vehicle, for all intents and purposes, should have been the 1953 musical Hazel Flagg wherein Gallagher played the title character.
We all know that Hazel Flagg was not a big hit, having run a lackluster 190 performances at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The musical had a score with music by Jule Styne (High Button Shoes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), lyrics by Bob Hilliard (Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland), and a book by Ben Hecht based on the 1937 film Nothing Sacred, itself inspired by a story by James Street.
The plot for Hazel Flagg wasn’t exactly your conventional musical theatre fare. It told the story of a New York City magazine journalist who learns of a woman from a small-town named “Hazel Flagg” who is dying from radium poisoning. He invites Hazel to the Big Apple for an interview where she soon becomes the darling of the media who are all anxious to tell her tragic story. Just one little hitch: before she departs for NYC, she learns that she was misdiagnosed and isn’t dying at all. Hazel makes the trip anyway, anxious to see the world and make the most of this unusual opportunity. The story was really a comedy about a woman looking for some excitement in her life and embracing her chance to live a little, whatever the cost.
What many people might not know about Hazel Flagg is that it was turned into a film... well, sort of. Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the film Nothing Sacred and also reserved the right to make a film of Hazel Flagg if I chose to. Instead of directly adapting the musical for the screen, it was rewritten as a comedy vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, with Hazel swapped out for a male character. The 1954 film was called Living It Up. The one breakout hit from Hazel Flagg, "Every Street's a Boulevard in Old New York," was one of the few songs from the stage show that showed up in the film.
Under the direction of David Alexander, with musical staging by Alton White, Hazel Flagg opened with Helen Gallagher as it’s star on February 11, 1953 where it received mixed notices, and winning one Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical (Thomas Mitchell). The cast also included John Howard, Benay Venuta, Jack Whiting, Ross Martin, Jonathan Harris, Sheree North and John Brascia. The show lasted out the summer then closed on September 19, 1953.
What seemed to be the hardest part for audiences to like about Hazel Flagg was it’s premise. Despite being a joyous adventure, the willingness to remain duplicitous on the part of the title character made it hard for audiences to root for her. Perhaps an attempt to better redeem her in the end might have made a difference, or giving the character a chance to reveal more of a conscience along the way would have endeared her to us more. Gallagher certainly have it her all, but Hazel Flagg as a musical just did not resonate.
Not to worry about Ms. Gallagher, however. She went on to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette then went on to become a mainstay of daytime soap operas.