April 19, 1963: "The Time When I was Mamadou" is not first musical about the Peace Corps - Read about "Hot Spot" that appeared on Broadway in 1963

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Mauritania: Peace Corps Mauritania : The Peace Corps in Mauritania: January 12, 2005: Headlines: COS - Mauritania: Theatre: Musicals: Hollywood: Backstage: RPCV Matt Gould writes and performs musical about the time he spent living in Mauritania: "The Time When I was Mamadou" : April 19, 1963: "The Time When I was Mamadou" is not first musical about the Peace Corps - Read about "Hot Spot" that appeared on Broadway in 1963

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"The Time When I was Mamadou" is not first musical about the Peace Corps - Read about "Hot Spot" that appeared on Broadway in 1963

The Time When I was Mamadou is not first musical about the Peace Corps - Read about Hot Spot that appeared on Broadway in 1963

"The Time When I was Mamadou" is not first musical about the Peace Corps - Read about "Hot Spot" that appeared on Broadway in 1963

About the play...


The idea for Hot Spot was born out of a real life incident that had occurred two years earlier. On October 13, 1961, Marjorie Michelmore, a young Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Nigeria, wrote a postcard to her boyfriend back in the United States. She described the area as "squalor" and the living conditions of the average Nigerian as "primitive." She also said, "Everyone except us lives in the streets, sells in the streets, and even goes to the bathroom in the streets." She accidentally dropped the postcard on the University College of Ibadan campus before she could mail it. It was found later by a Nigerian student who made copies of the inflammatory remarks and distributed them campus-wide. Tensions escalated to a point where the angry Nigerian students even accused the volunteers of being spies for the American Government. It didn't take long for the international press to pick up on the story. The Peace Corps was still in its infancy at the time, and a scandal like this posed a significant threat to the program's future. What began as an ugly international incident, would end up being resolved in a very positive way. The Peace Corps calmly navigated through its first public relations crisis and the press coverage of the incident focused a great deal of attention on the economic problems of Nigeria.

Music composer Mary Rodgers had been following the newspaper articles about the situation and was inspired to spoof the story as a Broadway musical. She along with lyricist Martin Charnin, and writers Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert began crafting the story in 1962. The plot revolved around a Peace Corps volunteer named "Sally Hopwinder" who is stationed in a mythical third-world country named D'hum. Although the residents of D'hum are quite happy with their lives, Sally still feels compelled to improve their living conditions. She concocts a plan to get more aid for them by misleading the Pentagon to believe that Russia is planning to invade the tiny country. Sally falls in love with an American diplomat (Joseph Campanella) who discovers her deception. The show's quartet of authors had little experience, but each had already tasted success. Mary Rodgers was the daughter of musical legend Richard Rodgers. She began making a name for herself on Broadway in 1959, when she composed the musical score for Once Upon a Mattress, starring Carol Burnett. While Hot Spot would be Martin Charnin's first credit as a Broadway lyricist, he had been a performer in the long-running hit West Side Story. Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert were currently enjoying the spoils of their first Broadway success. They had collaborated with Abe Burrows on the 1961 smash hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It was still playing to packed houses every night as 1962 drew to a close.

Judy Holliday had been in semi-retirement from performing since being diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 1960. Extremely self-conscious, she had always doubted her physical beauty and her subsequent mastectomy only heightened her insecurities. Looking to drop out of the public eye, she began making a transition from performer to song writer, co-writing several tunes with her musician boyfriend, Gerry Mulligan. She purchased an option on the Anita Loos play Happy Birthday with hopes of bringing it to Broadway as a musical. Holliday, Mulligan and Loos spent several weeks together in the Summer of 1962, writing songs for the play's score. Judy was so pleased with the results that she even began to entertain thoughts of playing the lead role herself. Unfortunately, they failed to secure the necessary financial backing, so the project never materialized. Judy's personal finances were also in serious peril. In the late 1950's, Judy invested in a financial deal that backfired on her. The end result of this deal left her staring at a tax debt of $100,000. She also had abundant medical costs associated with her on-going cancer treatment and she was the sole means of support for her aging mother and young son. The mounting bills necessitated that she return to the acting profession as quick as possible. Now in her early 40's, Judy found that her advancing age was working against her and it was limiting her comeback options to just a scant few. Hot Spot seemed to be the best of a bad lot. Despite her urgent need for cash, Judy was leery of the project and reticent to commit. While she thought it over, other actresses including Barbara Streisand were auditioned. Unable to find a better vehicle, Judy took the role. She asked for and received a fairly lucrative deal that guaranteed her a minimum of $3,500 a week. It was at best a financial Band-Aid on a gaping wound, but it was enough to keep her from filing for bankruptcy...at least for the time being.

Hot Spot went into rehearsal in January of 1963. Although this play was nothing more than a "money run" for her, Judy Holliday never approached it like that. She was determined to make it as good as it could possibly be, but she knew it would be an uphill battle the whole way. She had serious reservations about the material and openly questioned the book and the score during the rehearsals. It turned out that she wasn't the only one harboring concerns. Morton Da Costa, who had directed Judy in the 1952 play Dream Girl, had been signed to direct the production. The usually solid director, who had staged several hit shows like No Time For Sergeants, Auntie Mame and The Music Man, seemed at a loss for what to do with the sub-par material. His lack of direction frustrated Judy and cost him the confidence of the rest of the cast. Hostility began to brew between the star and the director. There would be no dramatic incidents of screaming or walkouts, just mutual exchanges of disapproving looks and some subtle mutiny on Judy's part. Adding to Judy's unhappiness was the fact that the steroids she received to treat her cancer made losing any excess weight virtually impossible. Despite the internal turmoil, the show was still slated to open on Broadway in late-March and advanced tickets sales were very strong.

February was ushered in with the first run of tryout performances for the beleaguered show. The production limped into the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. with very little positive energy surrounding it. The performances were not well received and the reviews were largely negative. Some critics felt the play had the potential to improve, but many insiders weren't so sure. As the bad reviews filtered in, Morton Da Costa dropped out of the show citing health problems. The now director-less show staggered into Philadelphia for another run of tryout performances beginning February 28th. Finding a new director wasn't the only thing on the minds of producers Robert Fryer, Lawrence Carr and John Herman. In search of a way to infuse the production with new energy, the trio discussed among themselves the idea of bringing in Carol Channing to replace Judy Holliday. But they eventually decided to stay with Judy rather than throw the production into even more disarray.

As the search for a new director pressed on, lyricist Martin Charnin and producer Robert Fryer took turns filling the void as interim-director. At Judy's urging, Richard Quine was brought in to take over the director position. Quine had forged a great working relationship with Judy while directing her in the films The Solid Gold Cadillac and Full of Life. There was one matter of great concern, however, as he had never directed a Broadway production before. Quine sat through one performance of Hot Spot and upon witnessing the wretched mess before him, promptly quit. Arthur Laurents was the next director brought in. His track record as a playwright was impeccable, having penned both Gypsy and West Side Story. But at the time, he had only directed one Broadway musical, 1962's I Can Get it for You Wholesale. Despite his lack of experience, the announcement of his involvement instilled some measure of hope in the cast and crew. Laurents was hired on Saturday, and quit on Sunday. The reason for his swift departure is unknown, but some theorize that he came to the realization that he and Judy would not work well together. That meant Hot Spot had gone through five different directors in two months...and the position was once again up for grabs.

The chaotic arrivals and departures were not confined to just the directors. Numerous writers were being brought in to fix the severely flawed script. Larry Gelbart, who co-wrote the play A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and later created the hit television series M*A*S*H, was among those brought in. Gelbart made changes to a few scenes, but given the hopelessness of the original material, it was the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Judy Holliday made desperate appeals to several of her friends who were writers like Howard Teichmann (The Solid Gold Cadillac), Herb Gardner (A Thousand Clowns) and Betty Comden & Adolph Green (Bells Are Ringing). Each made suggestions after looking over the script, but informed Judy that there was little they could do to help her. In their professional opinion, Weinstock and Gilbert's script was beyond repair. Any one of these hired guns surely had the ability to take the original premise and fashion a clever comedy around it, but it would have required starting from scratch and that was no longer an option. It was now becoming very apparent that no one would be able to save Hot Spot, not even Judy Holliday.

The musical score that Judy had long-maligned was also being retooled. Many songs were dropped from the show including "Don't Take My Word For It," "From the Red," "(This) Gallant Girl," "Over" and "(Very) Simple People." Veteran Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim (Gypsy and West Side Story) was brought in to work with Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin. Together they wrote the song "Don't Laugh," which would ultimately become the show's opening number and its finale. The trio also wrote a second song called "Who Knows?," but it didn't make it into the show. While certain aspects of the show were certainly improved, the cumulative effect of all these outside influences was like a kitchen with too many cooks. Each new director, writer and composer added their own ingredients to an already bad recipe and it made the finished product unpalatable.

Hot Spot was now just a hodgepodge of elements. With little cohesion and no director, the production crawled into New York City in March of 1963. It was scheduled to play 5 preview performances and then have its official Broadway opening. During the previews, the 6th and final director signed on. Director/Choreographer Herbert Ross took over the production, but did so on the condition of anonymity. His name does not appear in any of the Playbills for the show and officially there is no director of record for the musical. He may of been anonymous, but his efforts were very visible. He quickly won over Judy and the cast and smoothed over some of the play's rough edges. It wasn't a complete turnaround, but it upgraded the play from embarrassing to bad. The 5 preview performances came and went, but Hot Spot was still in no condition to open. Fearing that critics would slaughter the play with their opening night reviews, producers repeatedly pushed back the date of opening night. The show continued to play an unending string of preview performances. By playing the previews without opening, the producers could get as many paying customers as possible before the reviews came out and scared people off. Hot Spot went on to set a record for the most preview performances played on Broadway -- 58!

With the real opening night less than week away, Judy sat down to do an interview with New York Times reporter John Keating. As bad as things were, Judy showed that her sense of humor wasn't lost in the chaos. When quizzed about the daily script and casting changes Herb Ross was making, she replied, "I'm going to insist that we 'freeze' the show at least five minutes before we open." She didn't try to conceal her motivation for doing the play or hype the show with false hope. In a funny, but sadly honest analogy she said, "The other day I was in my dressing room, being made up. Liz, my dresser, was pulling on the waist cincher; Ronnie, the hair stylist, was standing behind me working on my hair, and I had this urge to hold out my hands for my manager to tape them and pull on the gloves. I felt just like an old prizefighter...he's had it and he knows it and they've overmatched him with a tough, fast kid. He knows he's going to get battered and bruised and he's battered and bruised enough already, but he needs the money and so he's going to go out there and take his beating. I had this feeling they were getting me ready to throw me to the lions. And I'm not even Christian."

On April 19, 1963, Hot Spot had its official opening night at the Majestic Theatre. As she had done in the past, Judy Holliday gave it her all and the audience responded very positively to both her performance and the show. The critics, however, were not as generous. After being put off for a month, they had their poison pens uncapped and they didn't hold back. They lambasted the shoddy script and forgettable score. Critics did express compassion and a sense of pity for Judy though. They even called her performance "heroic," in light of the poor material. As expected, the bad reviews led many advanced ticket holders to cancel and request refunds. Still, many realized that seeing Judy perform anything on a stage was a rare treat that was not to be missed. For that, and that reason alone, the show was able linger on for a month. The poor ticket sales finally forced the play to close for good on May 25, 1963. It had played a total of 43 official performances, or 15 less than number of preview performances it had tallied.

When the final curtain came down, it signaled not only the end of the show's run, but the end of Judy Holliday's all too brief career. While Hot Spot was certainly a professional setback, everyone, including Judy, thought that many more triumphs would lay ahead for her. After all, she was just one month shy of her 42nd birthday. Unfortunately, her time was rapidly running out. The cancer that had already claimed her left breast, returned in 1964...and this time it was terminal. She would pass away on June 7, 1965. Hot Spot was an unfitting end for an actress as talented as she was, but it was a microcosm of her later years in show business. Despite a dearth of quality projects, Judy Holliday consistently rose above the material and delivered high quality performances that always left her fans thoroughly entertained.

----By Glenn McMahon

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: WTC Zone

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Broadway; Theatre; COS - Nigeria



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