Sunday, September 29, 2013


Jane Connell missed her 84th birthday by a month (October 27, 1925-September 23, 2013). I missed her entirely. Jane who? She was a Broadway actress who, early in her career, appeared in nightclubs and cabaret shows. Back in the late 50's, comic artistes such as Bea Lillie, Noel Coward and Hermoine Gingold, to name three ladies, thrived via sophisticated and often silly songs. Phyllis Diller actually started with a similar act, waving a cigarette in a long holder and singing chi-chi arch tunes including "I'd Rather Cha Cha Than Eat," which is on her obscure first album for Mirrosonic.

The sophisticates who came to Julius Monk's "Upstairs at the Downstairs" revue expected to hear new wry and witty songs from the cast members, and like "Saturday Night Live," new talent would turn up every year as the older performers moved on to Broadway or films. Jane and her pianist husband Gordon reached their peak with one year's show, "Demi-Dozen." A highlight was Jane's solo on "The Race of the Lexington Express."

You can almost imagine, from her improbable whooping (a visual variation on Bea Lillie's wild hula-hooping of her pearl necklace) and expressive singing (this was the era of Mary Martin) how vividly this song went over live on stage. And a stage was all that was needed, as long as the talent was given good music and lyrics and a pianist doing more than playing chord changes.

The song still sounds pretty fresh. You don't need much background. The IRT was an older subway line running up and down Lexington Avenue, with much more rickety trains than the BMT (or the IND, which actually runs parallel to the Lexington Avenue line as it reaches its end in the Bronx).

There are some references to particular subway stops. The "race" begins at Union Square (14th Street, an arbitrary choice). The IRT express actually begins many stops further down, past Chinatown and closer to City Hall. As it hurtles uptown to the Bronx, there's 59th Street (the stop where chi-chi folk would get off to shop at Bloomingdale's), express stops at 86th and 125th and ultimately fresh air and sunlight at 161st in the Bronx where the IRT is now on elevated track. At one time, people waiting for the downtown train at the 161st Street elevated platform had an unobstructed view from center field on into Yankee Stadium. And so "from the Stadium for Yankees," the train hurtles "to the park called Moshulu." That's Moshulu Parkway, the stop where upper-class Bronx golfers could enjoy a full 18 course game at the nearby course. And yes, the last stop on the IRT is what she says it is.

The song was written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, alias Schmidt and Jones, who would go on to write "The Fantastiks," off-Broadway's biggest hit of all time, featuring that dreary classic, "Try to Remember." As Schmidt and Jones moved on to write shows, Jane Connell left Julius Monk with a prestigious credit, good reviews...and offers both here and in the U.K. In London she took the lead in "Once Upon a Mattress," which starred Carol Burnett in the original Broadway production. In 1966 she was Agnes Gooch in "Mame," and reprised her role in the movie version replacing Madeline Kahn, who was canned by star Lucille Ball. Jane also played Gooch in the Broadway revival of "Mame" starring Angela Lansbury in 1983. Another important role for Jane in the 80's was her Tony-nominated turn in "Me and My Girl," and in the 90's she co-starred with Carol Burnett in "Moon Over Buffalo."

Connell was simply one of those performers who loved the theater and had the good luck to keep getting stage work. It didn't seem to bother her that she didn't have the fame-name she might've gotten from more television or film work. It also didn't mean that she was free of ego. My father met her once, and told her how much he liked her performance of "Lexington Avenue." My parents had indeed seen it live, and had the original cast album at home. Mentioning this obscure song was quite a compliment, right? It was at least 20 years since she recorded it. But after 20 years, my father made a little memory mistake and called the train engineer "Merwyn." Madame Connell pointedly glared and corrected, "MERRRVIN! "

I nearly met Connell. After 9/11, when Mayor Giuliani was urging people to support the city and go shopping or see a Broadway show, I attended, among others, the musical version of "The Full Monty." There in the Playbill was Jane Connell. But only in the Playbill. She was already elderly at the time, and her understudy would usually handle a few of the shows each week. Better safe than sorry; Jane had replaced the great Kathleen Freeman, who died during the show's run! I would've liked to get an autograph on my Playbill and tell her how much I enjoyed her work in "The Full Morty." Just to hear her icily entone, "THE FULL MONNNNNTY!"

All is forgiven, Jane. And may you never be forgotten…as long as there's a Lexington Avenue Express…

JANE CONNNELL Race of the Lexington Avenue Express

No comments: