When finding source material for a musical, the 1949 novel “Three Wishes for Jamie McRuin” seemed as likely a place as any. It had all the right elements: fantasy, whimsy… the Irish. Its plot, as you might so accurately surmise by its title, centers around a man named Jamie McRuin, who… you’d never believe it… has been granted three wishes-- and by a Fairy Queen, no less! Thusly, he uses one wish for travel, another wish to nab himself a smokin’ hot wife, and the last to procure a “wonderful son”. The novel did quite well for its author, too, Charles O’Neal (you may have heard of his progeny: he was father to Ryan O’Neal and, subsequently, grandfather to Tatum). His literary efforts even won him the Christopher Award— a humanitarian honor for which he must have been terribly proud, what considering he managed to have the entire phrase “Based on the Christopher Award Novel by Charles O’Neal” perpetually tied to his theatrical billing.
The producer responsible for acquiescing to that billing was no dummy, either. Albert Louis, born in a Polish shtetl in the late 1800’s before riding in steerage to the new world, had been in the producing racket for some 30 years. Mounting this adaptation of Three Wishes for Jamie McRuin would have been just another show on a long list, too. Only, for this voyage, Albert brought along his son, Arthur, to be first mate. Just think of the publicity: a father and son producing team on Broadway!? That was sure to earn the show some ink!
Now, originally Louis & Son conceived for their stage adaptation of Three Wishes to be a straight play. That idea caught the fancy of renowned director Rouben Mamoulian (Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, Carousel). But when the producers decided the material would translate better to a musical comedy, Mamoulian slipped out the back. The first person to climb through the window Mamoulian had left open was none other than Jed Harris (“The Royal Family”, “Our Town”, “The Crucible”). Unfortunately, his attachment to the project held about as well as scotch tape in water. That’s when producer Albert Louis bought himself another hat. “Okay, fine,” I assume he thought, “I’ll just direct the damn thing myself!” And that’s precisely what he did.
Louis assembled the remainder of the troupe. The aforementioned Christopher-Award-Winning-Novelist Charles O’Neal would co-adapt his own work. The author cum librettist would write alongside Charles Lederer, whose early-career contribution to the screenplay of “The Front Page” earned him some decent clout. Similarly, producer cum director Albert Louis signed himself another set of eyes in Edwin Lester (who later went on to produce Kismet). Ralph Blane (Best Foot Forward) was to compose the score. They landed a first-class star in John Raitt, formerly of “Carousel”.
Opposite Raitt would be second-class actress Marion Bell, formerly of marriage to Alan Jay Lerner.
The supporting players—Minor Watson, Ralph Morgan, Robert Halliday, and William Skipper—had at least 100 other Broadway titles under their belts between them. The show was readied for its world premiere.
As is most often the case, Broadway was the goal. The show was slated to arrive in New York on September 17, 1951. First, however, it would need an out-of-town. Louis secured a booking at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium for four weeks, after which the show would take a little jaunt to The Curran in San Francisco before winding its way back east. According to early reports, the show played no better than “fine” in LA. But when the reception in San Francisco proved even less kind, the producers decided to put the show on ice.
Albert and Arthur Louis told the New York Times their decision for a hiatus was prompted by, “A combination of factors, not the least of which is the inability to line up satisfactory bookings.” They went on to remind the reporter that the musical had, “A generally favorable reception,” but that the show needed to be, “revised and recast considerably.” Who knows? Perhaps the show might have fared better in San Francisco had its audiences not been riding so high from The Curran’s previous tenant, Guys and Dolls. But, then again, maybe that’s what gave producers the solution to their problems...
As if the show was a deli whose refrigerator case was on the blink, it was Abe Burrows to the rescue! The gadabout, Renaissance man, and ham sandwiches destroyer seemed the perfect fit. Not only was he the co-author of the nation’s biggest musical smash, Guys and Dolls, he was a noteworthy director, composer, and show doctor. And somehow he still found time every Wednesday night to make an appearance on the television quiz show “The Name’s the Same”. With one wish remaining, the producers closed their eyes and dreamed.
Burrows replaced Charles Lederer as co-author (Charles O’Neal, of “Based-on-the-Christopher-Award-Winning-Novel-by-Charles-O’Neal was retained in the transition). Finally able to see the forest for the trees, Producer/Director Albert Louis even conceded one of his own hats; Burrows would now direct the show, as well.
And Burrows had a plan: the musical was to take a temporary hiatus for re-writes and re-casting. That would be followed by a short northeastern tour before the show was mounted in New York. In the casting kerfuffle, Anne Jeffreys replaced the show’s original star, Marion Bell. And, boy, did she ever think she was in a smash! “When we opened in New Haven, the critics and everyone were on the floor. They loved the show, and it was a new Oklahoma! and a new Carousel. I couldn’t believe that we had just opened out of town and we actually had a hit.”
Her co-star, John Raitt, offers counterpoint. “The New Haven version was the best the show was ever done. It was about 80 percent. We got to Boston, 70 percent, by the time we got to Philadelphia, 60 percent, and by the time we opened in New York, 49 percent.” Raitt says it was Burrows who moved the needle in the wrong direction. “Burrows just wasn’t right to do it— he didn’t believe the flahooley story. He’s writing gags, he’s writing exit lines— and it’s not that kind of musical. It’s a romantic musical.”
But to say that Burrows didn’t believe in the show is not entirely fair. According to my research, Burrows cared very deeply about how this story was told. During an interview granted to the New York Times just days before the show’s Broadway opening, a reporter transcribed a telephone call that Burrows had placed to his (Christopher Award Winning) co-Author, Charles O’Neal. He confided, “You and I know what we want to tell here and I want to tell it desperately. If I don’t tell it, I’m going to be sick.” Also, during that same interview, the reporter documented that Burrows, “Ate three ham sandwiches prepared by his Filipino man, Frank, and drank a bottle of Coca-Cola; smoked nine cigarettes, telephoned his wife in Boston, told her he loved her and to forget his instructions to the choreographer, costumer and composer, and had his return train reservation to Boston moved back a couple of hours.” Now, that’s taking care of business the Broadway way!
The show finally opened in New York on March 21, 1952-- six months after it had been expected. And the first paragraph of the New York Times review was so promising: “The production, which opened at the Mark Hellinger last evening, is elaborate and expensive, and it is densely populated with young people in gay costumes.” Unfortunately, that wasn't where the critic put down his pen. Brooks Atkinson, on behalf of the Time, damned the show as, “Solemn, sentimental, and unimaginative,” before concluding, “Three Wishes for Jamie descends from Broadway operetta of the second decade of this century, which expired because it became a bundle of clichés.” The only silver lining I can find here is that the show marked the Broadway debut of a young Charlotte Rae.
Audiences were unwilling to take the gamble on Three Wishes, especially when top ticket was going for a whopping $6.60 ($3.60 at the Wednesday matinee). The show played 2 months at the 1500-seat Mark Hellinger Theatre before its producers thought it might fare better in a smaller house. It transferred to the 1080-seat Plymouth Theatre on May 27, 1952. It closed two weeks later. Three Wishes for Jamie had played a total of 92 performances. (Fun Fact: Three Wishes for Jamie had pushed the Bert Lahr revue Two on the Aisle out of the Hellinger, for which Burrows also served as director.) The show did, however, receive a cast recording. Raitt and Jeffreys sound truly lovely. But, otherwise, the album is a surefire cure for insomnia.
Meanwhile, the wittiest of criticisms wasn’t even delivered by a human. It happened when the show was in New Haven. The powers-that-be didn’t think Anne Jeffreys looked sexy enough in her long period gown (the show was set in the late 1800's). So, they swapped that getup out for riding breeches and a crop. They decided she was to make her entrance from atop a REAL horse. As Jeffreys recalls, “In that dialogue before the scene, the horse did what horses do and let fly. The audience was convulsed. I looked over and said, ‘Well, horses will be horses, somebody get the rake.’” She was ready to move on, but the producer wasn't; he stormed the stage— during the performance — and screamed at the horse, “You can’t do that when my leading lady is onstage!” Anne Jeffreys sang while her producer stood in the aisle shaking his first at a horse.
But I’m going to let the Wall Street Journal have the final word. Here's the last line of their review: “Put Three Wishes for Jamie down as pleasant, a bit staid, and highlighted by a couple of good leading players. It won’t make history for you whether you see it or you miss it.”
Judging by that report, it’s no wonder you’ve never heard of it. Until now.