10 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Sweet Charity’

Sweet Charity Broadway, Sweet Charity Musical, Theatre Nerds

Subtitled “The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved,” “Sweet Charity” follows the misadventures of the aptly named Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer looking for love in all the wrong places in 1960s New York City.

Directed and choreographed by the one-and-only Bob Fosse and starring his equally talented wife and muse, Gwen Verdon, “Sweet Charity” opened at the Palace Theatre on Jan. 29, 1966. A modest hit, it played 608 performances and closed on July 15, 1967. A movie version was released in 1969, and Broadway revivals occurred in 1986 and 2005.

The show has now returned to New York — this time off-Broadway — in a pared-down version presented by The New Group and starring beloved triple threat Sutton Foster. To celebrate the new revival’s opening night on Nov. 13, here are 10 things you might not know about “Sweet Charity”:

1. It’s Based on a Film

“Sweet Charity” is based on “Nights of Cabiria,” a 1957 Academy Award-winning film directed by famed Italian director Federico Fellini. Besides the obvious major change of resetting the story from Rome to New York, the biggest change is Cabiria/Charity’s occupation — Cabiria is a “hooker with a heart of gold.” This had to be softened for American musical audiences in 1966, so Charity works instead as a taxi dancer at the Fandango Ballroom.

*Sidebar question: What the heck is a taxi dancer?

In the early 20th century, men could go to dance halls and pay to dance with the woman of their choice, usually for 10 cents a song (thus the famous Rodgers & Hart song “Ten Cents a Dance.”) However, by the 1960s, taxi dance halls were not nearly as common. It’s suggested, at least in “Sweet Charity,” that most of the women who were still taxi dancers were willing to do more than just dance, if the price is right.

2. It Was Originally Going to Be Only One Act

It was initially reported in 1964 that Fosse and Verdon were working on a new show consisting of two one-acts. Besides the Fellini adaptation, the other one-act was to be an original straight play written by Elaine May. Verdon was to play a cat burglar who robbed apartments by wearing suction cups on her hands and feet and climbing straight up building walls.

3. The Book Spurred Potential Legal Drama

While Fosse wanted to be involved in the book writing, he knew he needed a collaborator and turned to Martin Charnin. The two turned out a 60-page first draft for their one-act musical. Then, according to Charnin, he never heard from Fosse again. On advice from his lawyer, Charnin attended opening night of “Sweet Charity” with a stenographer, who wrote down every word of the show as it was being said so Charnin could compare the finished script with the original first draft. However, he eventually decided against any legal action.

4. Bob Fosse Begged Neil Simon to Write the Book

Once it was decided to develop “Sweet Charity” into a full show, Fosse wrote a draft of the new script by himself. Knowing he needed help, he begged his friend, author Neil Simon, to help him and sent him the script. Simon made a few notes but said he wasn’t able to help him any more than that because he was in Rome to film his screenplay “After the Fox” and was writing the screenplay for “Barefoot in the Park” at the same time.

However, after reading Simon’s notes, Fosse wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He immediately flew out to Rome to try to convince Simon and his wife. As Fosse began to explain the show in detail, he played a recording of one of the songs for the new show called “Big Spender.” Simon and his wife were hooked, and Simon agreed to write the book.

5. Early Drafts List the Book Author as ‘Bert Lewis’

If you happen to look at an early piece of sheet music for “Sweet Charity,” you might be surprised to find the book’s author is listed as Bert Lewis. Who is Bert Lewis? Well, because Simon came aboard so late (rehearsals began only a few weeks after Simon agreed to write the book), early sheet music had to be printed with Fosse still listed as the book writer, under the pen name “Bert Lewis.” This was a play on his full name, Robert Louis Fosse.  

6. Sweet Charity’ Opened at The Palace, and Vice-Versa

The Palace Theatre on Broadway and 47th Street, right in the middle of Times Square, is a legendary theatre. It was the be-all and end-all for the vaudeville circuit. There was no greater honor than getting to “play the Palace.” The likes of Charlie Chaplin, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, Weber and Fields and so many others graced the stage of the Palace. Over the years, however, vaudeville started to die out and the theatre began showing movies. In the face of poor upkeep and waning interest, the theatre was purchased by the Nederlanders, who renovated it and reopened it as Broadway’s newest legitimate theatre with the opening of “Sweet Charity.”

7. Gwen Verdon Got a Frog — Er, a Boa — in Her Throat

During the show’s pre-Broadway engagement in Philadelphia, Verdon began to complain of a sore throat. As she continued to perform, the pain got worse and she started having trouble breathing. She was convinced something was stuck in her throat. As it turned out, she was right. Verdon had inhaled a feather from a prop feather boa, and it was wrapped around the star’s vocal chords. Verdon continued to perform until no sound would come out of her mouth and the pain was unbearable. She took a week off the show to get it surgically removed.

8. Verdon Paid for an Ill-Timed Singing Break

Late in the Broadway run, Verdon started to get tired. So, to give herself a break if need be, she would sometimes cut the Act 2 ballad, “Where Am I Going?” which she’d never liked singing in the first place. At one performance, a gentleman noticed the song had suddenly been cut and expressed his unhappiness by writing a letter to Verdon complaining about the missing song. He claimed he spent hard-earned money to see her perform and felt cheated. Verdon decided to find out how much time the song took to perform and factored that against the price of a ticket. She sent the man a check for the prorated amount he’d lost.

9. Tragedy Struck the 1986 Revival

The 1986 revival of “Sweet Charity” had won four Tony Awards, including Best Revival. The national tour of the revival was set to launch in Washington, D.C. and star Donna McKechnie as Charity. After the final rehearsal, Fosse and Verdon decided to walk back to their hotel to change for opening night. Tragedy struck when Fosse suffered a heart attack. He died soon afterward at George Washington University Hospital with Verdon by his side.

10. There Were Seven Charitys For One Revival

The latest Broadway revival of “Sweet Charity” opened on May 4, 2005 and starred Christina Applegate as Charity. However, before then, a slew of actresses had been named to be the titular dance hall hostess with the mostest.

In early 2000, it was rumored that Paula Abdul would star in a revival and choreograph it. Later, when the Weisslers got involved, it was announced that Jenna Elfman of “Dharma & Greg” fame would star, with the production aiming for spring 2003. However, Elfman backed out and it was announced that Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei would make her Broadway musical debut in the lead role. Sadly, the workshops had not been going well, and Tomei was told she would not continue with the production.

The producers announced that workshops would continue, now with Jane Krakowski, who was hot off her Tony win for the 2003 revival of “Nine.” Things hit another roadblock when Krakowski wanted rewrites and a more modern approach to Charity’s characterization. She also majorly clashed with Simon. After another search, Applegate was announced and the dates were set.

But things are never so easy.

The star broke a bone in her foot while performing in the pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. Her standby was the well-loved Charlotte d’Amboise, and it was announced she would open the show in the next tryout city, Boston, while the producers decided how to proceed.

It seemed like a 1930s backstage movie in which the understudy was about to get her big break. But, as this was real life, the producers decided to close the show out of town instead. Injured star Applegate would not hear of it. She vowed to recover in time for opening night on Broadway and, having convinced the Weisslers to proceed, she delivered.

Late in the Broadway run, a wild rumor spread through the theatre world that Applegate would be leaving and would be replaced by pop icon Britney Spears. It seemed like that might actually happen when Playbill reported Spears was in negotiations to join the cast and move the show to the bigger Hilton (now Lyric) Theatre. Talks fell through, of course, and the revival closed on Dec. 31, 2005.

The latest revival of “Sweet Charity” will play through Jan. 8th at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Who knows how many fun facts will come out of this production!

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  1. Wow! So many things I never knew! Thanks for the great insight…Especially liked the one about Martin Charnin. What a crazy business. I’m working on my pen name!

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