Bridge on Broadway

By Ray LeeTheatre icon

Originally published on 2008-02-14

I’m a big fan of Broadway, and it’s always bugged me that chess has its own show but bridge doesn’t. But as you’d expect from such a popular game, bridge has put in its appearances in film and theatre.

The best known is Grand Slam, a 1933 Hollywood production starring Paul Lukas and Loretta Young, which can still be seen on late night television from time to time. Based on the novel of the same name by Russell Herts (I would dearly love to own a copy of that, if anyone reading this knows where I can get one) it parodies Culbertson and the Culbertson-Lenz match, among other aspects of the game.

The plot goes as follows. After waiter Peter Stanislavsky marries Marcia, he learns to play bridge to please his wife. Her friends all play, although their games frequently end in arguments. One evening Peter is a waiter at a high society bridge party and is asked to fill in at the table where eminent bridge expert Cedric Van Dorn (the Culbertson character) is seated. Peter is a big winner, and when asked about his methods, he jokingly says the Stanislavsky method — a method which has no rules for bidding or play. The idea catches fire: a best-selling book is written for him followed by a national tour with Marcia as his partner. But Peter begins to criticize Marcia’s play, violating the only rule in his system. And when he starts giving private lessons to a wealthy socialite, Marcia leaves him thinking there is an affair going on. His public reputation collapses with his marriage, but Peter eventually devises a plan to turn things around…

It’s not the greatest movie you’ve ever seen, but bridge players will find it fascinating, even 75 years later. They don’t get everything about the bridge scenes right, but it’s still a lot of fun.

But back to Broadway, because the show I wanted to make better known is a personal favorite. The 1966 made-for-TV Evening Primrose has a score by Stephen Sondheim; Sondheim’s long-time friend Anthony Perkins (yes, Psycho) plays the romantic lead (!).

Evening Primrose is based on a short story by John Collier. It starts with a sensitive would-be poet retreating from the world by moving into a department store. He plans to hide and sleep while the store is open, coming out only after closing for food and writing materials from the store stock. But he soon learns that the store is populated by a bizarre group who spend their daylight hours disguised as mannequins. Among them is a beautiful girl (Ella) who got separated from her mother in the store as an infant and has lived there ever since. The others use her as a very convenient maid-of-all-work. The young man falls in love with her and tries to rescue her … and I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you more.

There are a number of good songs along the way, which can be found on CD in a double album with Nathan Hale’s recent recording of another brilliant early Sondheim work, The Frogs.

However, my favorite is the one which revolves around a bridge game. The hero has been coerced into playing bridge; he would much rather be with Ella, who is in the background cleaning and fetching coffee for the players. The way Sondheim weaves the auction into their unspoken dialogue is nothing short of brilliant. Here’s a sample:


Ella look at me
This way, Ella
Ella, concentrate hard.
Ella hear me
And turn before I deal another card.
‘It’s your bid dear’


‘Oh, I pass?. I pass? I pass the hours
Planning things to teach you


I pass the hours
Planning things to teach you
‘Charles, we’re waiting for you’


‘Oh sorry, one heart
One heart, one heart is beating wildly,
Can she hear it?


One heart is beating wildly,
Charles is near it

and so on…

It’s incorrect to call this 1-hour show a TV special. It was an episode of ABC’s 1966-67 anthology series Stage 67, which featured plays by writers like Truman Capote and also included another musical by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Unfortunately, as far as I know this show isn’t available on commercial video, although I do own a bootleg videotape that I bought on eBay. If you can find a copy, it’s well worth watching (the 1960s commercials are fun too!).