Call Me Madam is based on the life of Washington DC hostess and Democratic fundraiser Perle Mesta, who was named Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1949. Once President Harry S. Truman appointed Mesta, the foundation was laid for a musical comedy that would kid politics-foreign and domestic alike. It is a musical with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Call Me Madam is a satire on politics and foreign policy that spoofs America’s penchant for lending billions of dollars to needy countries. It centers on Sally Adams, a well-meaning but ill-informed socialite widow who is appointed United States Ambassador to the fictional European country of Lichtenburg. It’s not long before her down-to-earth, undiplomatic manner surprises and charms the local gentry, especially the handsome Prime Minister. A second romance is blossoming between her young Ivy League aid and Lichtenburg’s enchanting young Princess. The course of love is threatened by the stuffy opposition, who eventually succeed in wrangling Sally’s recall, but not before all has resolved happily for both pairs of lovers.
Directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the musical premiered at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut on September 11, 1950. Reviews were mixed – Variety said it “inspires warm applause rather than cheer”—and Berlin wrote two new songs to bolster the sagging second act. It opened in Boston on September 19, and while The Boston Record thought it offered “only an occasional flash of inspirational fire”, it played to standing-room-only audiences throughout the run.
With a record advance sale of $2 million, the Broadway production opened on October 12 at the Imperial Theatre, where it ran for 644 performances and grossed more than $4 million. In addition to Ethel Merman and Russell Nype, the cast included Paul Lukas, Pat Harrington, Sr., Galina Talva, Lilia Skala, and Richard Eastham. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times thought it offered one of Berlin’s “most enchanting scores: fresh, light, and beguiling, and fitted to lyrics that fall out of it with grace and humor”, and the New York Post called Merman “indescribably soul-satisfying”, “a comedienne of rare skill”, and “one of the joys of the world.” She remained with the show for the entire run and appeared in the limited four-week engagement staged to celebrate the reopening of the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., but her understudy Elaine Stritch starred in the national tour.
The musical opened in the West End at the London Coliseum on March 15, 1952 where it ran for 486 performances and starred Billie Worth.
The New York City Center Encores! semi-staged concert version starring Tyne Daly, Walter Charles, and Melissa Errico was presented in February 1995. A regional production ran at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey, in April–May 1996 and starred Leslie Uggams. Other major productions have starred Constance Bennett, Joanne Worley and Karen Morrow.
The Union Theatre in London produced Call Me Madam in the fall of 2012. It was staged and directed by Michael Strassen and starred Lucy Williamson, Gavin Kerr, Leo Miles and Natalie Lipin. It received five nominations at the Off West End Awards and was named as one of the productions when the Union won Best Fringe at The Stage Awards in 2013 alongside The Globe (Best Theatre).
While this series of blog posts is focused on “lost” musicals, Call Me Madam has had some very successful runs recently, but it is not a show that has people calling me for backdrops (unfortunately). Unlike some of the other shows, it’s not because the plot is irrelevant or can’t be adjusted to today’s topics. It’s probably because politics is too much of a hot button topic right now for high schools and colleges to want to undertake. Politics is of course a subject with diverse ideas and ideologies where opinions are adamantly argued. But, I think everyone can agree that it can also be the subject of great humor especially of the “shake your head” variety (I don’t know if that’s good or bad) like appointing an unqualified socialite to represent US interests in a foreign country. That idea seems absurd! (sarcasm intended). But looking at today’s political landscape, Call Me Madam may have been ahead of its time (well, maybe Harry Truman was anyway). But I think it’s a story line that’s light-hearted and neutral enough where high schools and colleges could perform it without stirring the political pot. It’s a comedy and a love story. Who doesn’t love those?