How Stephen Fry helped jazz up a dated Broadway musical

The comedy in “musical comedy” started to go missing in the 1980s as shows about felines seeking redemption (“Cats”) and students manning the barricades (“Les Misérables”) steamrolled Broadway and the West End.

And then out of the past came a revival of Noel Gay’s “Me and My Girl,” which had all of London doing the “The Lambeth Walk” in 1937.

The revival, a surprise smash in the West End in 1984, opened in New York in 1986, made a star of leading man Robert Lindsay and won three Tony Awards.

“Me and My Girl” is back in town this weekend at City Center’s Encores! in a snappy production starring Christian Borle as Bill Snibson, a cockney working stiff who discovers he’s heir to an earldom.

Stephen Fry, the celebrated British actor and writer, was part of the team that blew the cobwebs off “Me and My Girl” in the 1980s. His agent back then was Richard Armitage, who was Gay’s son. (Gay came from a rich British family who wanted him to be a classical organist. He changed his name so he could write pop tunes without embarrassing his snooty parents.)

“I happened to be staying the weekend at Richard’s marvelous country house,” Fry recalls, “and just before bedtime, he put down this smudged carbon copy script of ‘Me and My Girl’ and asked me to read it.

Fry thought the script was “hokey but charming” but he had never heard of the show.

“That was my father’s musical,” Armitage told him, “and it was the longest running show in England until that Andrew Lloyd Webber came along.”

Fry and director Mike Ockrent rewrote the script, dropping old jokes, trimming a long second act and adding songs from Gay’s catalog that would catch on during the show’s runs in London and New York: “Leaning on a Lamp-post,” “The Sun Has Got His Hat On” and the lovely ballad “Once You Lose Your Heart.”

Armitage, who was producing the show, cast Lindsay, who danced like a musical-hall performer from the 1930s. For the leading lady, Fry suggested his Cambridge pal Emma Thompson. Armitage was her agent.

“Richard was very funny about it,” says Fry. “He said, ‘As the producer, I very much welcome her. But as her agent, I am going to ask for more money than as a producer I am willing to pay.’ But he went off and wrestled himself splendidly to the ground.”
(Thompson had a television commitment and couldn’t make the move to Broadway. Maryann Plunkett took the part in New York and was nominated for a Tony. Lindsay won one.)

“Me and My Girl” was an instant hit in London. Jimmy Nederlander snapped it up for New York, where it opened his new theater, the Marriott Marquis.

“Jimmy was marvelous,” says Fry. “He said he loved our show because ‘it’s got heart, it’s got f - - king heart.’ But he said we needed more chorus girls. He said women buy the tickets and drag their husbands, who don’t want to be there. ‘You gotta give ’em thighs!’”

On opening night in New York, Fry and Ockrent stood at the back of the house “peeping over the back row like Bialystock and Bloom,” he says. Someone slipped them an early copy of the Times at intermission, and once they read the rave, “we hit the bar and got hammered on gin and tonics. We could barely stand up during the second act.”

“Me and My Girl” was the hottest show in New York that season, so hot that one day Fry popped backstage to find Michael Jackson in the theater. The King of Pop wanted to follow Lindsay in the leading role.

“I’m not sure how he would have handled the comedy,” says Fry, “but he would have sold a lot of tickets.”

Broadway’s Jerad Bortz and his husband, Steven Skeels, were in a car accident in February that left Bortz paralyzed. His theater friends, including members of the casts of “Wicked, “Kinky Boots” and “Beautiful,” are putting on a show, “Heels on Wheels,” Monday at Stage 48 to raise money for his care. Tickets are available at Stage48.com.

You can hear Michael Riedel every weekday morning on “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on 710 WOR radio.

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