The (Grand) Prince of Grand Street

Well, who expected this more than 40 years after the fact?

But here’s a studio cast album of THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET, a 1978 musical that didn’t come to Broadway as planned.

Before we talk about the recording (for which – full disclosure — I wrote liner notes), you may need some information about the show itself.

THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET was a musical à clef about early 20th century Yiddish director-producer-and-star Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939).

Stories are legion about this Russian immigrant turned theatrical entrepreneur who played fast-‘n’-loose with Shakespeare in his Second Avenue productions.



King Hamlet died from a coronary thrombosis after Gertrude had run off with his brother. Once young Hamlet, a rabbi-in-training, discovered what had happened, he followed in his father’s deathsteps and died of a broken heart.

A colorful character is always ripe for musicalization, and composer-lyricist Bob Merrill knew that Thomashefsky qualified. Thus in the late ‘70s he began creating a fictionalized Thomashefsky, calling him Nathan Rashumsky and dubbing him THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET.

You know you’ll be dealing with traditional Broadway show music right from the bouncy title song. Merrill had written music and lyrics to Golden Age hits (NEW GIRL IN TOWN, CARNIVAL), almost-hits (TAKE ME ALONG), flops (HENRY, SWEET HENRY) and disasters (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S).

When he solely wrote lyrics to Jule Styne’s music, he also had hits (FUNNY GIRL; SUGAR) and an out-of-town closing (PRETTYBELLE).

So by the late ‘70s with his successes well behind him, Merrill may not have been able to interest anyone to write the libretto for THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET.

And original musicals are the hardest to write.

Undaunted, Merrill forged ahead and penned the book as well as music and lyrics. The man born Henry Robert Merrill Levan would return to his Jewish roots and write mostly in minor keys for what was expected to be a major musical of the season.

Merrill certainly created the requisite Big Character in Nathan. “I’m a Star!” he proclaims in song, and he indeed is in his Second Avenue fiefdom. His audience flocks to productions where he plays that famous Jew Abraham Lincoln.

(Well, look at that first name.)

Nathan made Huckleberry Finn Jewish, too, singing more di-di-di-di-di’s than Tevye has digga-digga-dums. All this rankles theater critic Julius Pritkin who also hates seeing Nathan play parts much too young for him. A sexagenarian isn’t sexy enough to play Romeo (in, incidentally, a version where he and Juliet live happily ever after).

Merrill’s dialogue played fair with each adversary. Nathan argues that if he changes his repertoire he could well lose his audience, and that his Tivoli Theatre “might become a factory.” Pritkin’s dry retort: “It’s already a factory.”

Then Merrill added a conflict found in many musicals: Love vs. Career. (c.f. Fanny and Nick; Annie Oakley and Frank Butler; Sid Sorokin and Babe Williams.) Nathan becomes smitten with Leah, whom he meets under atypical circumstances. Jewish culture of the day expected a new widow or widower to hire professional mourners to express his or her grief at the death of a spouse. Nathan’s wife from an arranged marriage isn’t anyone he’ll miss, so we’re not surprised that he’s ready to move on – with Leah, who’s quite the town cryer.

Their age difference can be measured in decades rather than years. Nathan is aware that in a time not far off, he’ll be trading in that stylish walking stick for a cane. But that bothers him for only a few moments. This vainglorious actor who occasionally refers to himself in the third person knows he can still get any woman because women will bed him “for the honor — and the tickets.”

Because this Leah has (to paraphrase an earlier Merrill lyric) the music that makes him dance, Nathan promises to marry her.

“When?” she wants to know. And with complete confidence that he’s giving her a satisfactory answer, Nathan says “Eventually.”

No, that’s not good enough. So only six weeks after Nathan has buried his wife, he refuses to wait the accepted and expected year of mourning and marries. Nathan knows that if he breaks that tradition – a word important to at least one other Jewish-tinged musical – he might lose his rabid public.

Love vs. Career!

Robert Preston, then Broadway’s most beloved leading man, would be Nathan. He’d be reunited with director Gene Saks; four years earlier, Preston was Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside in Saks’ film version of MAME.

(Chances are that during their time together on PRINCE that they didn’t talk very much about this movie …)

By the late ‘70s, musicals were more often eschewing out-of-town tryouts in favor of playing New York previews. But PRINCE’s lead producers — Robert Whitehead and Roger L. Stevens – were both of the Old Guard and still believed that breaking in a show many miles from the city was vital. Previews were attended by New York insiders and civilians who could send out poisonous word to potential ticket buyers.

So the Forrest in Philadelphia was booked for March 7-25, 1978 and the Shubert in Boston for March 29-April 29, 1978.

The Philadelphia engagement wasn’t well-received; the Boston run did even worse and closed two weeks early. Gone was $900,000 as well as the chance to play The Palace starting on May 11th.

Preston seemed out of place around characters named Zweigman, Schumacher, Teitelbaum, Ginsburg, Metzger, Goldman, Gittelson and Schwartz. He didn’t offer much Semitic flavor when dealing with the Leah of Neva Small, who’d played one of Tevye’s daughters in the FIDDLER ON THE ROOF film or the esteemed Sam Levene who played her grandfather.

No, Preston wasn’t in River City, Iowa anymore.

Actually, THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET might have fared better if it had played New York previews. At the time, much of the Broadway audience consisted of middle-to-late aged Jews who could have actually seen some Yiddish theater in the ‘20s. Failing that, they might have been at least aware of it thanks to nostalgic parents and grandparents.

Philadelphia and Boston each had Jewish populations circling the 200,000 mark; in New York the number was 1.5 million. So the show might have been, as the saying goes, “too Jewish” for the City of Brotherly Love and The Hub.

But now those who weren’t around or in those two cities at the time can hear Bob Merrill’s tuneful score. This recording (with modest instrumentation) is based on a 2003 revisal that multi-MAC-winner Barry Kleinbort adapted and staged as a concert at The Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Mike Burstyn – who certainly has a Jewish pedigree — portrays Nathan. Many saw him in BARNUM (and a few in AIN’T BROADWAY GRAND). He has the requisite snazzy and confident delivery in “I’m a Star!” as well as the tenderness when he sincerely asks Leah “Do I Make You Happy?”

Brooke Sunny Moriber is an excellent Leah. In “I’m a Girl with Too Much Heart” she shows she certainly has enough voice.

THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET may make you wish that time machine could take you back not only to its original production, but also Thomashefsky’s uber-revisals. We’ll never know how well Merrill was able to evoke those Second Avenue shows in the recording’s three “Grand Street Tivoli Presentations.” But aren’t you just aching to hear YOUNG AVROM LINCOLN?