Flopping on Broadway doesn't necessarily keep a musician from having a successful and interesting career. A case in point is conductor Sherman Frank. He is not, by any means, a failure. But he cheerfully admits that his big attempts on Broadway were flops.

Maybe his leaving the Great White Way led to more varied adventures. Also, as we will see in a moment, Frank's brief Broadway career included contact with one of the nastiest controversies in theater history.

Frank conducted six shows on Broadway during the late 1950s and 1960s. He describes it this way: "I had two Broadway flops, and then I moved away to Toms River, NJ, where no one pays any attention to the New York theater scene." Conductors don't get their jobs at auditions, as actors and dancers do. Instead, they're hired based on past reputation, and Frank in 1966 thought that his reputation had been damaged. No show ever failed because of the way it was conducted, of course, but the new musicals that Frank conducted were such disasters, he felt his reputation was tarnished. So for a while Frank gave up the business entirely. Then he came back and his adventures in some of the less-publicized segments of the business are fascinating.

In his youth in Philadelphia, Sherman Frank was a concert pianist. In World War II he was a combat soldier at the Battle of the Bulge, coming home to resume his education at the Curtis Institute of Music. During his thirties he worked on Broadway with Bob Fosse, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Vernon Duke and Leonard Bernstein. Later, he was music director for celebrities in theaters and supper clubs. The most lucrative work of his life was leading industrial musicals -- those extravaganzas that use Broadway music and talent to sell products.

Since 1994 Frank has been the conductor for all the musicals at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, his native city, the nation's oldest continually-functioning theater. When Frank came to the Walnut, the house did only one musical a year. His work was so successful that the company now produces three musicals a year. The 2001-2002 season includes My Fair Lady, Damn Yankees and the world premiere of Camilla.

Like music directors at other regional theaters, he performs four jobs on each show. He hires the musicians, conducts, plays piano and re-orchestrates the music for pit bands that usually number only nine players plus the conductor at his keyboard. This is a challenge because the composers conceived their music for roughly 25 players. Economics prevents that size band anymore, especially at regional houses. In my review of My Fair Lady I commented that the music at the Walnut sounds better than at any recent revival of that classic show, including the new London production. (In London they tinkered with the score, and the last Broadway revival used an orchestration that Frank calls "tinny.") Frank went back to the original 1956 Robert Russell Bennett charts for 25 players and adapted them for 14 players, including a string quartet, a synthesizer and himself on piano. The Walnut's artistic director, Bernard Havard, allowed a bigger-than-usual budget for this expanded orchestra.

"The trick," Frank says, "is to understand the classic nature of the music and to use your talents to recapture the original sound." Even when he's limited to nine players, Frank gets impressive results. "I used a full brass section for Mame which really revved up the sound."

His knowledge of instruments was gained when he was a student at the Curtis Institute in the 1940s. Frank was a piano prodigy at age three. At Curtis he was a student of keyboard legend Rudolph Serkin. Later, Frank soloed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Dimitri Mitropoulos and at Gershwin concerts in New York led by the man who commissioned Gershwin to write "Rhapsody in Blue," Paul Whiteman. He also conducted Menotti's operas The Medium and The Telephone.

In 1951, newly married to singer Lillian Shelby, he put the classical side of his career on hold and took a steady job as assistant conductor at the nation's first summer tent, the Lambertville Music Circus, in Lambertville, NJ. He used that experience to get the job of music director for three years at Candlelight Theatre in Kansas City and three more years at Atlanta's Theatre Under the Stars. He also led shows at the Music Fairs -- a chain of tents that later were enclosed in solid structures as theaters-in-the-round. Shelley Gross, Lee Guber and Frank Ford ran such houses in Valley Forge, PA, Westbury, NY, Camden, NJ, Painters Mill, MD, and elsewhere. Theaters in the round were becoming as popular in the theater community as drive-ins were in the world of movies.

"Those days were interesting," says Frank. "You had to rearrange music to cover the singers' entrances and exits, because it took a long time for them to come down the aisles to the stage and to go back up the aisles at the end of their scene." How did he do it? "I'd reprise part of the last song we heard, or I'd take other themes from the overture. Sometimes I'd compose my own music in the spirit of the songwriter."

From 1953 to 1964 Frank was music director for Oldsmobile's dealer shows. He adapted Broadway hit shows (South Pacific, Kismet, Pajama Game) into 90-minute versions with new lyrics by Max Hodge that touted the virtues of the car manufacturer. Singing and dancing in these shows were Bob Fosse, Florence Henderson, Bill Hayes, Jack Gilford, Enzo Stuarti, Frank Gorshin and Frank Fontaine. "Chita Rivera was a dancer in one of them. She didn't sing yet. It paid very, very well and they were glad to get the work. We used to do the show live in Lansing, Michigan, to introduce the new models, then we toured on a private train of 15 or 20 cars -- the cast and musicians and the new automobiles, and we'd travel across the country and play for the car dealers in all the cities and we'd wind up in Los Angeles. I remember the Kismet tour in El Paso, Texas, where Marty Balsam jumped off the train and told us he'd see us again in LA. He was going across the border to Mexico to get a quickie divorce."

At the New York Worlds Fair of 1967 Frank orchestrated and conducted for the Borden Dairy and Clairol exhibits. The original music for both of those exhibits was by Kay Swift, a composer who is best known for her close friendship and romance with George Gershwin. In old age, Swift said that her husband had been very jealous about her relationship with Gershwin, "and justifiably so."

Frank also played piano in recitals with such opera stars as Roberta Peters, Jerome Hines, Frank Guarrera and a baritone named Lawrence Winters who got more bookings in Europe than in the United States because he was black. Winters introduced Frank to his good friend Lena Horne.

This personal acquaintance with Horne got Frank his Broadway break, when Lena's new show, Jamaica, was having conductor troubles in 1957. Jamaica's problems were among the most convoluted and bitter in Broadway history. First of all, producer David Merrick changed the leading character from male (Harry Belafonte) to female (Lena Horne), so Belafonte left and Ricardo Montalban was brought in to play Horne's boyfriend and look nice. Merrick hated the book by Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy, but they refused to let anyone doctor with their words, until Merrick threatened to close the show and insisted that Joseph Stein re-write their script.

In addition, Merrick asked Lehman Engel to conduct the musical (Engel had done the successful Fanny for Merrick in 1954.) Merrick gave approval rights of the conductor to Horne, director Robert Lewis, choreographer Jack Cole and composer Harold Arlen. All of them approved of Engel except Arlen who insisted that his brother Jerry conduct. Jerry Arlen had conducted brother Harold's House of Flowers on Broadway in 1954 but his reputation was so insignificant that Frank never heard of him. According to writer Steven Suskin, nobody dealt with the situation until three weeks before rehearsal started, when Horne refused to work with Jerry Arlen. Harold Arlen was forced to take the job away from his brother but, apparently for spite, wouldn't allow Engel, and everyone settled temporarily on veteran conductor Jay Blackton who led the rehearsals and the Philadelphia tryout. Blackton was in a no-win situation. Maybe he did a poor job, or maybe Horne just needed to be in charge. Sherman Frank says: "Lena's flexibility with tempo was on a collision course with Jay's discipline." In any event, Blackton was fired and Engel rushed in for the Boston tryout and the Broadway opening of Jamaica.

Frank says "Lehman was an easy guy to get along with, but she gave him problems too." Arlen continued to resent the presence of Engel, who wanted to do another show anyway, Goldilocks, starring Elaine Stritch and Don Ameche, with a score by Leroy Anderson, and that's when Horne proposed that Sherman Frank take over the conducting of her musical.

"Lena was a dynamic personality," says Frank. "But she came from nightclubs and was used to a lot of freedom. I led a 25-piece orchestra which included four of Lena's personal musicians. She told them they should follow her. Her, instead of me. We had clashes over that. Sometimes I was summoned to her dressing room, where she and her husband, Lenny Hayton, told me what I should do differently. He was a Hollywood conductor, you know. But I adapted, and I stayed with the show for a year, and Lena and I remain friends."

Frank is not the conductor on the original cast album; Engel is. It is one of Frank's few regrets that he never recorded a Broadway show album. The first musical that Frank helmed during its preparation for a Broadway opening was Pink Jungle with a score by Vernon Duke, starring Ginger Rogers and Lief Erickson. "We started in Los Angeles and played Chicago but never made it to New York. Great talent, but a bad show and a total flop." Frank and the composer became good friends. "Vladimir Dukelsky was his real name and he lived two lives. As Dukelsky he was a classical composer and as Vernon Duke he wrote pop hits and Broadway shows. He was loquacious and friendly, volatile, excitable, a sweetheart."

In 1960 Frank took over from the original pit director, Elliot Lawrence, during the Broadway run of Bye Bye Birdie and later did the same thing with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Frank also led Redhead with Gwen Verdon for the last part of its Broadway run and on the road. "Gwen was a doll. It was she who recommended me to her then-husband, Bob Fosse, to do his next show, Conquering Hero that was directed by Fosse, had a book by Larry Gelbart, a score by Moose Charlap, the original composer of Peter Pan, and lyrics by Norman Gimbel. It starred Tom Poston and Lionel Stander, neither of whom had a singing voice. The score was good but they couldn't sing it, and the show had a weak book. Also, Fosse's direction wasn't very good. In fact, the producers, Robert Whitehead and Roger L. Stevens, fired Fosse before the opening. We ran four or five days on Broadway. RCA Victor announced that they were going to record a cast album but then they cancelled the project."

Frank says that Fosse was hyper and energetic. "He was not an easy guy to work with. He and Moose were at daggers. Fosse hated Moose, and I of course worked closely with the composer, so Fosse's hatred extended to me. Bob had attacks of epilepsy and several times collapsed in front of everyone. Gwen was right there to take care of him. She was a wonderful woman."

He was musical director for Josephine Baker's one-woman show on Broadway. "A real lady. A gentle soul. Very refined. She had a strange diet, consisting of only one meal a day, which was at 11 o'clock after the show. It must have been good for her, because she had the body of a 20-year old."

Frank conducted a revival of Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock with Jerry Orbach in 1964. "The production was supervised by Leonard Bernstein, who loved the piece and who championed everything by Blitzstein. Lenny was dynamic and arrogant and somewhat aloof to the musicians."

"My last show on Broadway was in 1966, an adaptation of The Blue Angel re-set in New Orleans and called Pousse Cafe. It starred Theo Bikel and Lilo and was directed by Jose Quintero. Good people. The problem was that the score was by Duke Ellington, and Duke wrote only five pieces of music and then went on a tour of Europe. I never got to meet the man. We needed more music and we hired Mickey Leonard, who had written a nice score for The Yearling and who wrote a beautiful song called `Why Did I Choose You?' that my wife sang in her nightclub act. He wrote most of the score, and Marshall Barer wrote lyrics, but it didn't sound like Ellington. Pousse is a wonderful three layered French drink. You should try it sometime. But the show wasn't as good as the drink. We played half a week on Broadway."

Smarting from his recent flop, Frank bumped into singer Enzo Stuarti on Seventh Avenue, who offered him a long-running gig as his conductor in hotel supper club rooms. For a decade starting in 1966, Frank toured the world with Stuarti and other headliners such as Carol Lawrence, Robert Goulet, Lana Cantrell and a pop sensation of the time named Oliver whose big hits were "Jean, Jean" and Hair's "Good Morning Starshine."

Lawrence and Goulet, who were married to each other, did a club act together. Frank could see that their marriage was doomed: "They were exact opposites. He was easygoing and relaxed. She was a compulsive perfectionist. I'd get 45 minutes of notes from her after each performance about what I should have done and what I could have done. When I conducted them in I Do, I Do at the Music Fairs, he ad-libbed and it really got on her nerves. They came off stage fighting like tigers, and she told the company manager, `I want that man fired!' She was asking that her own husband be fired."

In the 1970s, hotels started closing their club rooms. That part of the music business dried up. Frank became music director at the Paramus Playhouse, located in a former shoe store at a shopping mall in northern Jersey. The playhouse's manager was Robert Ludlum, whose wife kept telling him to give up the theater and devote his time to writing a novel, which he always talked about doing.

Ludlum then was 40 years old. He was an actor who appeared in television dramas in the 1950s. He founded the Playhouse-On-The-Mall, where he produced The Owl and the Pussycat, featuring then-unknown actor Alan Alda. Ludlum's first successful espionage thriller, "The Osterman Weekend," was published in 1972, and Ludlum closed the theater.

In the late 1970s Frank was hired to lead the international company of A Chorus Line, a tour that lasted 5 1/2 years. Following that, Frank was music director of Sugar Babies. Frank was impressed by Mickey Rooney's great talent for improvisation: "He pulled things out of the material that you didn't know were there. He did crazy, unpredictable stunts on stage. He has so much talent, as an actor, singer, dancer, comedian, and he played several instruments. On stage he's crazy bananas, off-the-wall. He's like an uncontrollable horse. You have to ride him easily, which I did, and we got along fine for three years, first in Sugar Babies then in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum."

Sherman and Lillian, now married 50 years, moved to Florida in the 1990s and lead a less active life except for his work at the Walnut Street Theater. This easy-going man is upset, however, by what he calls the ignorance of most of today's theater critics: "They are uneducated and untrained about music, and their reviews talk more about the sets, costumes and dancing than they do about the music. They don't analyze the score, or the interpretation of the music. Sometimes they don't even mention the conductor and orchestra, as in the Philadelphia Inquirer's review of My Fair Lady. But the music clearly is one of the crucial elements in a musical. Otherwise we would just do Pygmalion."


Key Subjects: 
Sherman Frank, Walnut Street Theater, My Fair Lady, Jamaica, Lena Horne, Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, Mickey Rooney
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
November 2001
How Sherman Frank Went From Flop to Flop and Did Just Fine