Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine named Amy. I offhandedly mentioned how I was sure that throughout her life she's probably been inundated by people singing "Once in Love with Amy" to her. "You have no idea," she said with a laugh, but added that one of her happiest memories was her father singing it to her regularly at bedtime.
But to my surprise, despite her lifelong, non-stop awareness of the song, she didn't know the song's history. Didn't know that it was actually from a Broadway musical. Didn't know that it was written by a renowned songwriter. Didn't know that it was introduced by a beloved performer. And didn't know that the original performance is one of the great "lost song" stories in Broadway history.
With a twist.
Actually, a couple of them.
The song -- long thought to be just one of those obscurities from the mythical "Great American Songbook" -- is actually from a 1948 Broadway musical, Where's Charley?, which is based on the classic play, Charley's Aunt. (Jack Benny starred in the 1941 movie version, which is fairly well-regarded.) The music score was written by Frank Loesser, who also wrote the classic musicals Guys & Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, as well as the wonderful songs in the movie Hans Christian Anderson.
When the musical of Where's Charley? opened on Broadway, its star -- whose character in the show is the one who gets to sing The Song -- was an actor adored the world 'round for playing the 'Scarecrow' in The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger.
The musical did quite well on Broadway, running almost two years for 792 performances, which made it a solid, respectable hit for its day. It has a nice score, not one of Loesser's strongest though with several memorable numbers -- but by far the huge, breakout hit was the song, "Once in Love with Amy." It was particularly made famous when Ray Bolger (in his character's love-struck enthusiasm) would turn to the audience every night and get them to sing along with him, in an extremely long, show-stopping production number that lasted almost six minutes.
After the show closed, Warner Bros. made a movie of the musical in 1952, using most the main stars from the original cast. But -- and here's where the story takes its first twist -- for reasons no one quite knows for absolute certain, the movie never got released. Part of the reason may be because it was made on a low budget, and the studio may have thought the quality wasn't up to the level they wanted. But even after its initial release passed, it still was never put out, except (oddly) an occasional airing on television, which eventually stopped. When videocassettes came out, even then it didn't get a VHS release. And when DVDs arrived and it became commonplace to start releasing old material, there was hope in the theater community for Where's Charley? to finally make it. But -- no go. Apparently the studio wanted to, but (again for reasons unexplained) it was always blocked by Jo Sullivan Loesser, the widow of Frank Loesser, who had partial rights. The explanation seems to be along the lines of "Frank didn't like the movie, and this doesn't present his work in the proper light," or something like that. It's never been completely clear.
Making things more odd, there was never an original Broadway cast album made. At the time an album would normally have been made, there was recording industry strike in New York. And the window passed, and it didn't get done. Why it never got recorded later is another of those "It's not clear" situations. But the result is that the show and Ray Bolger's famous performance of The Song, was lost, as well. The only recording of the stage musical is the British version, which starred a popular British comedian, Norman Wisdom. It's nice to listen to, though not particularly dynamic, nor is it Ray Bolger.
But due to there being no Broadway cast album and no movie release of the completed film, Where's Charley? has largely become obscure in the annals of musicals.
Over the years, when he'd appear on TV variety shows, Ray Bolger would often perform "Once in Love with Amy." But it was always out of context of the show, and he was at least 20-30 years older than when he first did it on Broadway, a song sung by a much younger man. So, there's really been a proper recording of Ray Bolger performing "Once in Love with Amy."
With introductory dialogue leading into the song to set the scene properly, the full, seven-minute version of Ray Bolger singing "Once in Love with Amy," from the movie of Where's Charley? has finally entered the world. (Along with Allyn Ann McLerie reprising her original role of 'Amy.')
And so, for the first time, most of the world gets to see "Once in Love with Amy" as it was meant to be performed by its original star -
And there's a yet another P.S. twist on top of all this -- within the past few months, Jo Sullivan Loesser has said she's finally given permission to have the movie released. From reports, there is a restoration being done of the negative, and it should be out sometime soon, perhaps later this year. Perhaps. But until then, this will have to suffice.
Its style is dated. The production values are thin. The quality is scratchy.
And it's an exuberant joy.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg