Strouse Struts His Stuff

Dishing the divas and his gay debt, FIT ladies, pizza perfecto.

By: DAVID NOH | At age 80, composer Charles Strouse (“Annie,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause,” the theme song for “All in the Family”) is busier than ever. He's just written his first book, “Put on a Happy Face: A Broadway Memoir” (Sterling Publishing), a true insider's view of Broadway, as well as a deeply personal remembrance of family and personal struggles.

In the book, Strouse confronts his own alter ego, “Buddy,” a childhood nickname that represented his personality before he achieved real success with “Bye Bye Birdie” and which he described to me as highlighted “a dichotomy in my life. My brother invented the nickname — my real name is Charles and when I married after 'Birdie,' and my name became somewhat known, my wife said, 'From now on you're going to be known as Charles.' While I was typing away on this first book it occurred to me that that dichotomy had a value, for as Buddy I was so timid and frightened, and as Charles, I started to gain through experience.

“I was so timid by nature that when people hit me or put me down in this business, part of me felt I deserved it, like when [producer] George White would say, 'I don't want to hear any of that fag shit!' Lauren Bacall, however. taught me a great lesson when we had a very down opening of 'Applause' in Baltimore. Louis Botto, a prominent Look magazine writer came to interview her afterwards and she asked him, 'Well, what do you think?' He said, 'Well, I thought it was very interesting,' and she said, 'Go fuck yourself!' I wished I'd had those balls.”

Bacall is just one of the fabulous Broadway broads Strouse encountered: “My first show had Chita Rivera, Bea Arthur, Dorothy Greener, and Dody Goodman, and I never heard women curse like that. Everybody was a cunt!”

Maureen Stapleton, who played in the film version of “Birdie,” remarked at a cast party, “I'm the only one here who hasn't fucked Ann-Margret!” and Strouse agreed with me that when Ann-Margret is onstage, she has a sexiness that approaches porno: “Although it means nothing to me, she's a good Christian woman, but when she gets on stage, Ohmigod!

“We were against her originally, because the role called for a total innocent, but our director was in love with her and thank God he insisted, because she made it into a hit movie. Everyone wanted to hear her sing the title song, which I hated writing. But so many people like it, I've gotten to like it, too. The Roundabout is bringing it back to Broadway and they're using that number with the wind machine and it's terrific. Bill Irwin will play the father.”

Paul Lynde, who was Daddy in the original, was another tough customer: “A bitchy, really mean tongue, who told me, 'You are so lucky. They don't like your music — it's all Gower Champion's work,' which really hurt. Once I was drinking from a water fountain and he kissed me on the lips but whether it was a joke, I don't know.

“Alice Ghostley told me he bought Errol Flynn's house and spent nights cruising the streets looking for a partner, the most popular, wealthy comedian of his time, and it was just awful.”

Early on, Strouse discovered the talents of Sarah Jessica Parker: “She was in a revue of mine when she was nine years old, playing an immigrant girl and was just brilliant. Then I recommended her for 'Annie,' and I fought for her because everybody said she was too dark and gloomy. Sarah was hired as one of the orphans and when it came time to replace Annie, I stood up for her very strongly and won everyone over who thought she was too gloomy, but she transcended that. But I never could have seen this kind of success for her.”

I have never read an autobiography by any heterosexual that is as respectful, compassionate, or grateful to gay men as Strouse's: “I grew up with gays. When I went to college at 15, scared, unpopular, and lonesome, they were the people who took care of me, and at the end of her life when my mother became a very lonesome, bleached blonde widow, she worked in a department store where everybody behind the counter was gay, and they took care of her. I thought isn't that ironic — they took care of me as a kid, because my father was not very attentive, and they took care of her at her greatest need.”

Strouse affectionately recalled composer/writer William Flanagan: “He was brilliant, thrown out of school for a gay incident and came to New York where, his first week, a guy made a pass at him in the Astor Bar. They went outside and Bill was arrested — entrapment — and spent the night in the Tombs and never called me to bail him out because he was so ashamed.

“He was the Tribune music critic and wrote incidental music for Edward Albee's 'Ballad of the Sad Café.' Edward became world famous, which amazed us all, and when he did, he dumped Bill. That happens in any relationship but I was particularly aware of that because I was jealous of him in the first place. When I came to New York, Bill was it in my personal life — my mentor — because I wasn't going with any girl and we always spent time together at his apartment. I even imitated his sophisticated — I guess you'd now call it 'gay' — way of smoking [three fingers holding the butt aloft]. Then Edward moved in, which was only appropriate. I like Edward now, but I was intensely jealous of him.”

Coming up is “The Night They Raided Minsky's,” a theatrical version of the 1968 film for which Strouse wrote the score: “The producers are very pleased with our two readings with Kelli O'Hara and Norbert Leo Butz. The book is by 'Drowsy Chaperone''s Bob Martin and Casey Nicholaw, who is directing — seven spectacular numbers. I emailed him, saying, 'You've got a kind of genius, but I hope people recognize there are some tunes there too, because the dancing is so spectacular.”

On Fire Island, I caught Brandon Cutrell's “Broadway Night” at the Ice Palace on July 28, and found him to be an utter delight, possessed of a wonderfully versatile voice, and a hilariously funny emcee. He sang terrific renditions of “Let's Misbehave” and “Hand in My Pocket,” and affectionately teased “Mr. Fire Island 2001,” Bruce-Michael Gelbert about his ubiquitous leather shorts (“Don't you ever wash them? Aren't they all crusty?”)

Special guests included Kevin Chamberlin, who sang an endearing song about a dog and Robin De Jesus (“In the Heights”), thrilled to be making his first visit to Fire Island with his cast-mate boyfriend, sweetly singing “Corner of the Sky,” which didn't come off as cheesy at all, which he'd feared.

If rubber slippers and short-shorts are making you sartorially crazed, head for Fashion Institute of Technology's exhibit, “Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion” (through November 8), a survey of four centuries of female-driven garb. Usual suspects Chanel, Lanvin, and Claire McCardell, as well as present-day designers Betsey Johnson, Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood, and Donna Karan are represented, but it was a thrill to see the little-known Muriel King (1900-77) featured.

Possessed of a distinctive, very American eye and flair worthy of any European, she was a favorite of Katharine Hepburn, who brought her to Hollywood to design her timelessly elegant wardrobes in “Sylvia Scarlett” and “Stage Door.” A severe, tres Hepburn evening gown is on exhibit, as well as sketches for Rita Hayworth in that cinematic fashion orgy, “Cover Girl.”

Pizza is my favorite summer food, and I have never had better in my life than at the unique South Brooklyn Pizza (718-852-6018) in Carroll Gardens. Pure Siciliano — baked in coal brick ovens — was the one choice on the menu, and none other was needed, as the four cheese blend and crisp crust proved utterly orgasmic. Washed down with the perfect Martini and topped with the most sublimely gooey, warm chocolate chip cookies imaginable, this was the ideal, light hot weather repast.

Contact David Noh: Inthenoh@aol.com.

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