In this delayed State of the Union week, we’ve all heard more than once about God blessing America. It was Irving Berlin, of course, who articulated the national wish, and perhaps handed Jerome Kern some of the reason behind his declaring that Irving Berlin is American music.
Well, don’t you know the sly tunesmith found a way to work the beloved anthem into his 1950 Call Me Madam a couple of times in a score written to accompany the political jabs that bookwriters Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay aimed, mild as they could be, at the country from the Broadway stage. That was in days that just about 70 years on were as different as they can be—this, despite a pithy manuscript reference to an investigation.
As importantly—maybe more importantly—as its satirical agenda, Call Me Madam was written to be a vehicle for Ethel Merman, who could be termed inimitable and often was. That might explain why the tuner has never been revived on Broadway, though it’s now in a second go-round in the New York City Center Encores! 2019 series. (It’s also part of the institution’s 75th anniversary celebration.)
A smart revival notion, too, and welcome as what could be called a second and delightfully tuneful rebuttal to the current president’s State of the Union address. Call Me Madam is its own celebration of American unifying post-World War II Marshall Plan instincts, as it tells the cute but hardly trenchant tale of Sally Adams (Carmen Cusack this time out, and mighty impressive, too), who’s contributed so much money to prexy Harry S. Truman that he rewards her with an ambassador post to the tiny duchy of Lichtenburg.
It would take quite a fabricator to wax excessively enthusiastic about the Crouse-Lindsay script. (The team was riding high after their record-making Life With Father.) Indeed, now more than ever Call Me Madam exposes its operetta roots for its placement in a fictional European spot as well as for its primary love-interest twists, with Sally wooed and eventually won by high official Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis), Sally’s earnest secretary Kenneth Gibson (Jason Gotay) falling for Lichtenburg princess Maria (Lauren Worsham), and Maria’s returning the favor.
What Call Me Madam has in carloads is the Berlin score, undoubtedly tossed off in green-apple-quick time when—unlike today’s scores too often—melodic scores were expected and delivered. Berlin had no time for the so-so song. So there are none here. What he was able to do was take the most easily rhymed words—“me,” “day,” “you”—and turn them into songs that seem as if they’ve been around forever.
Here we get “It’s a Lovely Day Today” and “The Best Thing for You (Would Be Me).” We get possibly the most adored contrapuntal number of all Broadway time in “You’re Just in Love,” and we get it with much-appreciated encore. We’re also granted, as Berlin’s only bow to political commentary “They Like Ike,” performed by three elected officials, two Democrats and a Republican (Adam Heller, Brad Oscar, and Stanley Wayne Mathis). Did Berlin come up with the ditty in 1950 so that presidential candidate Ike Eisenhower could appropriate it for his 1952 campaign? It certainly seems that way.
With Cusack energetically leading the way, under Casey Hushion’s smart direction and in any number of smart Jen Caprio outfits (were those capri pants?), the cast does an outstanding Call Me Madam reprise. Davis, Gotay, and Worsham show off hot pipes throughout. Because Berlin supplied “The Washington Square Dance” and “The Ocarina” (with the lyric “Dance to the music of the ocarina”), choreographer Denis Jones has two numbers that demand agile terpsichore and does well with there and elsewhere. The reliable Rob Berman enhances Berlin with his 29-piece (!) orchestra.
Yes, Call Me Madam pokes fun at the political times, but—aside from one or two lines that sound surprisingly prescient—they’re gentle pokes. They are nudges, really. For instance, hostess with the mostes’ Adams, on the phone several times with Truman, reports that Margaret Truman isn’t being well reviewed for her concertizing. Thanks are due the Encores! folks for not updating such Call Me Madam dialogue. (Bill Russell and Charles Repole are credited with the concert adaptation.)
On the other hand, who Margaret Truman was and the fact that she attempted to have a singing career is more and more a footnote to history—an increasingly obscure one, at that. Also all but forgotten is President’s Truman habit of sitting at the piano to play “The Missouri Waltz.” At the audience I attended, the Margaret Truman lines got laughs; the allusion to “The Missouri Waltz” didn’t.
For those and other reasons, it could be said that Call Me Madam is a period piece. It also could, and can, be said that, in this incarnation at least, it remains a joyfully entertaining piece.
Call Me Madam opened Wednesday, February 6, at City Center and runs through February 11. Tickets and information: nycitycenter.org