In 1974, Bette Davis signed for the Broadway-bound musical Miss Moffat, expected to be the great triumph of her spotty stage career. It closed after fifteen performances. BRIAN KELLOW reports.
Diva clutch: Nell Carter, Davis and Marion Ramsey
"I've sung thousands of times. I don't have any voice coaching. They're stuck with the way I sound."
That's how Bette Davis dismissed a reporter's concerns when she was preparing to star in a Broadway-bound musical, Miss Moffat. I read that quote in the summer of 1974, and it marked the beginning of an ongoing fascination with a show I never saw. Not that I had much chance: Miss Moffat opened and closed within two weeks, at Philadelphia's Shubert Theater in October 1974.
Miss Moffat was a musical version of Emlyn Williams's earlier stage success The Corn is Green, about an upright spinster schoolteacher who comes to a Welsh mining town and coaxes forth an uneducated boy's latent genius. The play had starred Ethel Barrymore on Broadway and had been filmed by Warner Bros. in 1945, with Davis in the lead. The musical version had lyrics by Williams and music by Albert Hague (Plain and Fancy) and was directed by Joshua Logan, who cowrote the book with Williams. Logan was looking for a late-career vehicle for Mary Martin, whom he had directed in the landmark South Pacific in 1949. Martin's husband, Richard Halliday, died unexpectedly, and she found herself too grief-stricken to work — though Logan's memoir, Movie Stars, Real People and Me, hints that she turned up her nose at what she heard of the score. Logan then approached Bette Davis, whose attendance record onstage might have prompted a visit from the Broadway Truant Officer, if there were such a thing. But Logan needed Davis for her marquee value; Miss Moffat was facing an expensive one-year U.S. tour before reaching Broadway in 1975, and that required a big name.
Davis also needed Miss Moffat — or thought she did. She hadn't made a decent movie in years, and her biographer, Ed Sikov, wrote that she was eager for a show that would do for her what Coco had done for its equally unmusical star, Katharine Hepburn, in 1969. (Similarly, The Corn Is Green had done much to jump-start Ethel Barrymore's career after a decade of failures and heavy drinking.)
As a musical, Coco wasn't much — but it looked like Gypsy next to Miss Moffat. When preparing to adapt an existing property into a musical, the first question any creative team needs to ask itself is why? Is music going to add another dimension to this play or this novel? In Miss Moffat, the question seems to have gone unanswered. Some attempt to reimagine the material had been made when Williams transposed his play's Welsh setting to the Deep South: Miss Moffat was now trying to teach a group of sharecroppers' children, rather than the offspring of a pack of coal miners. Morgan Evans, the talented Welsh coal miner of the original, became a young black athlete with a spark of literary talent (played by Dorian Harewood). But it wasn't enough: the muffled pirate CD that exists reveals a cotton-candy approach to both the black and white characters that was often condescending. Actor Avon Long's lines as Ole Mr. Pete could easily have been uttered by Stepin Fechit in the 1930s. One example: "I'm gonna be drinkin' ch-ch-ch-cham-cham-wiiiiiiiiiiine." The Corn is Green spoke far more eloquently without the addition of music.
At first, Davis seemed the essence of the confident, old-time star, bringing with her a chair from one of her old movie sets with "BETTE DAVIS" emblazoned on the back. But after a few weeks, the company watched nervously as she began to unravel. For decades, she had been accustomed to shooting two pages of screenplay a day, and at sixty-six (playing a character in her forties), she found learning the lines difficult. It also seems likely that she knew how undistinguished Miss Moffat was. Her opening song, "A Wonderful Game Called Reading," was a creaky establishing number. "You've got to learn to play / A wonderful game called reating" / You'll play it every day / It's just what you've been neeting," intoned Davis, with her odd vocal emphases and bizarre pronunciation that turns ds into ts. "I Shall Experience It Again" was a wan finale, in which the primary suspense came from wondering whether or not Davis would locate the right key.
As the weeks of rehearsal wore on, Davis insisted on having her script with her at all times. Marion Ramsey, who played Morgan Evans's seductress, Bessie Watty, recalls, "Josh Logan had told us never to mention to Bette that he had wanted Mary Martin. One day Bette was holding the script, and Josh said, 'You don't need it.' They had a tug of war over it. And Bette yelled right in his face, 'Why don't you get Mary to do it?' Josh told us all to go to lunch!"
Betty Lynd, a member of the ensemble, recalled, "Every time she came offstage, her assistant would be there with a tray and mirror and lipstick, and she would apply her lipstick. The script was there on the tray, too." The whole show was on Davis's shoulders, and she was increasingly afraid that both she and Miss Moffat might not be good enough.
Initially, the show was to have opened in Boston, but Davis claimed a back injury, and the company rehearsed around her while she recuperated. The opening was reshuffled to Philadelphia.
"Eventually we were going to go into Los Angeles with the show," recalls Lynd. "Some of the gossip was that maybe she developed back problems because she was worried and scared about appearing before her peers in Hollywood. She was worried that she wasn't going to be spectacular."
Kevin Lane Dearinger, who played a small role, recalled, "The show was all very old-fashioned. It was one of Jo Mielziner's last designs. A lot of flats, which by then were already very old-fashioned. No turntables. A flat came in, and there you were." And Logan was starting to panic: Davis wasn't getting any better. Not only did she have trouble with the lines; she performed in a rather remote, starchy manner, offering a one-dimensional characterization of Williams's spinster schoolteacher, minus her wit and humanity. As cast member Dody Goodman told me in a 2004 interview, "She just barreled right through it."
Davis wasn't the only problem: Nell Carter, playing Bessie Watty's mother and only a few years away from stardom in Ain't Misbehavin', could be tricky, too. One day, rehearsing her number, "Peekaboo, Jehovah," with her understudy, Sandra Phillips, Carter kept asking that the song be keyed higher. Phillips took every hurdle until the song wound up so high that she wasn't able to nail the top notes. "That's the key I want it in," said Carter.
On opening night in Philadelphia, on October 7, 1974, Davis gave the cast black carnations with a note, "From Your Yankee Honky Schoolma'arm." The performance was a mess. "A Wonderful Game Called Reading" got derailed when Davis, having stumbled through the A and B sections, missed her cue on the return of the A. She froze, and a child in the ensemble whispered her line. "Don't ever give me that cue again!" Davis snapped. Ben Carbonetto, a New Yorker who attended the performance, confirms Joshua Logan's recollection that Davis was at sea. "She forgot her lines and was blaming it on someone else," said Carbonetto. "Then she turned around and said to the audience, 'Ladies and gentlemen, it's not his fault. It's my fault!' I think the audience wanted to like it, but there was nothing to like. It wasn't musical."
Davis seemed most at home in the moments in which Miss Moffat is at her angriest. When the bigoted Senator (David Sabin) refuses to sell the church to her so she can have her school, Davis spat out the line, "Senator, there where your brains ought to be, God left a gap!" in her old fiery style, and the audience erupted in applause. What Davis later said was true: "They wanted me to be a bitch, not a middle-aged schoolteacher."
The reviews were poor but not vitriolic. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin's Ernest Schier complained that Davis "limits her performance to the frosty, imperious manner that has gotten her through many a role before." Nevertheless, the show had a $150,000 advance in Baltimore and $200,000 in Boston. It seemed likely that with a year's work on the road, Miss Moffat could become a hit. But Davis's fears never left her. "In Philadelphia, we were in costume one night," said Ramsey, "and Nell Carter went to the liquor store to get a fifth for Bette. She told Nell she was afraid."
One night in Philadelphia, Davis seemed on the verge of pulling it together. In her first-act finale, "The Words Unspoken," which she sang holding her bicycle, head down, sobbing, she summoned much of her old magic. But that night, she had told Dearinger, "This is my last performance. People in the theater used to be kind. They aren't kind anymore."
Before the following day's performance, a sign was posted saying the performance was canceled. Logan announced to the cast that Davis was withdrawing, claiming that her back pain made it impossible for her to continue, and that Miss Moffat would close. Davis did not address the company she had just put out of work. Her understudy, Anne Francine (whom Davis referred to as "Butch"), offered to play the part until a star was found — but Logan said there was no time. Betty Lynd recalled the mood onstage at Logan's announcement: "We had a lot of kids in the show, and they were crying. For some of them, it was their first show. At that point on Broadway, there weren't a lot of opportunities for African–Americans, and I'm sure that played into it, too." Ramsey recalled, "I thought it was bullshit about her back. I fell into Nell's arms, crying."
The members of the company, which had been told to expect a year on the road, a year's run on Broadway, then another in London, had sublet their apartments. They came back to New York and tried to get on with their lives. Davis's film legacy suffered no serious harm from Miss Moffat. But the show confirmed what many people who had worked with her onstage already knew: the peculiar gallantry of stage actors — the kind of dedication Katharine Hepburn was known for — was alien to her.
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