STOP THE WORLD - I WANT TO GET OFF: "A Comprehensive History of the Incomprehensible"

STOP THE WORLD - I WANT TO GET OFF: "A Comprehensive History of the Incomprehensible"
Littlechap.jpg

As far as American audiences were concerned, Anthony Newley was born onstage at Broadway’s Shubert Theater on October 3, 1962. No one seemed to notice that this newborn learning to walk before their very eyes was actually 30-years old. He seemed so impish, so spritely in his galvanizing turn as ‘Littlechap’, the star of his own creation— the strange little show with the strange little title: Stop the World— I Want to Get Off.  By then, New Yorkers had already heard tale of Newley’s brilliance. After all, this production was a transplant from London's West End where it had played a boffo 14 months. But, for all we Americans care, it’s not until we have discovered a performer for ourselves-- not until they they have proven their talents upon our own red, white, blue and brown soil that we can acknowledge they have been born. And due to the experimental nature of the show they were seeing him in, the audience even watched said birth happen as proof. 
 
Maybe they didn't recognize the bloke under all that mime paint, but Anthony Newley had been in the business for fourteen years. As a lad, he had dropped out of school and taken work as an office boy in a London drama school where he received a salary plus free tuition. “Three weeks later,” Newley recalled, “a film producer came in looking for a Cockney kid to appear in a film series. I was serving tea. He looked at me. It’s a joke, but he hired me. I didn’t even know how to walk through a door.” His most well-known credit of that era was the 1948 film adaptation of "Oliver Twist" where he played the 'Artful Dodger'. Hell, Stop the World wasn’t even Newley's Broadway debut. But who on earth could be expected to remember the show that actually was? That was back in 1956 when he appeared as one of four actors in some flash-in-the-pan British revue titled Cranks (so named for its creator, John Cranko). Brooks Atkinson was fairly glib in regards to the Anglophilic affair: “Four agreeable young actors have come a long way with a light cargo.” But Atkinson seemed to spend a great deal of time trying to pin down Newley. Here is an entire paragraph from his review wherein he seems to grapple with whether he is attracted to or repelled by the performer:
 
“This column finds itself drawn closest to Mr. Newley. For Mr. Newley, with a shaggy haircut and disinterested expression, looks as if he did not altogether trust the material. His smile is halfway between a sneer and a smile... Something about him suggests that he knows better.”
 
One can hardly blame Newley for not having made an impression with that show. After all, Cranks only managed a measly 40 performances. And, anyways, Brooks Atkinson was right— Anthony Newley did know better. Maybe that’s why in 1961 he began to work with the composer Leslie Bricusse on a new musical for which he would not only serve as author, but also direct and star. They completed the project in one month's time while Bricusse was in New York authoring additional material for the comedienne Bea Lillie.

The show’s plot was almost nonexistent: A man is born, he grows up but does not mature, he falls in love with several women, and then he dies. The show’s concept, on the other-hand, was as subtle as a lighthouse: set in the center ring of a circus, ’Littlechap’ (Newley) pantomimes his way through an ordinary life while painted up as a comic mime. Every woman he falls in love with is played by the same actress who changes nothing in each encounter but her accent. Occasionally, the main character brings the mise-en-scène to a halt when he hollers, "Stop the world!" and then directly addresses the audience in an aside that may or may not have anything to do with what's happening. 

Now, while I feel pretty secure that I could spend several decades pondering the dramaturgical reasoning behind these bizarre conceptual choices, Newley says I needn’t bother:
 
“The show has no plot. It’s a charade. Don’t look for hidden significance. It’s about a band of wandering circus people, perhaps, but we never say so. It takes place in what appears to be a circus tent, but, again, we don’t say so. Our central character lives on the stage from his birth to his death. It’s the seven ages of man roughly and sketchily put inside a tent. It’s a mere sketch.”
 
And what’s the deal with that title, anyway? Newley said there’s no wizard behind that curtain either. “We had a list of fifty titles. We didn’t know what to call it. We thought it might be ‘Ynohtna Yelwen,’ which is Anthony Newley spelled backward, but decided against it. I was on a bus once, and somebody would say, ‘Would you stop the bus, please? I want to get off.’ That was the germ of the idea.”
 
Meanwhile, critics were quick to declare how ineffectually transparent they found the show’s pseudo intellectual conceit. A particularly annoyed critic from the Baltimore Sun classified the show as, “a work whose substance never justifies its artistic pretentions. Had Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley been content to write a conventional musical, STW-IWTGO would have been a satisfying show. Instead, they went arty, dressed their middle-class English hero as a white-faced clown, and made all his incidental associates into a chorus of jabbering acrobats.”
 
Howard Taubman from the New York Times dismissed the show as “commonplace and repetitious.”  Still, the show had many defenders (as high-concept shows often tend to do). One such fan was Arnold M. Brockman of Brooklyn, NY. He wrote a letter to the editor in response to Taubman’s review:
 
“I am sorry to see that your critic’s responsiveness to Stop the World, I Want to Get Off was a negative one. I have a strong feeling that the public in this case will have the last word and the show will be a big hit in spite of him. Then his only defense will be echoed in one of the hit songs from the show— “What Kind of Fool Am I?”  
 
The letter to the editor immediately following happened to agree with Taubman's critique and said they, too, thought the show a total bore.
 
So, how was it that this strange show that not too many people ever really seemed to love managed a successful run of 555 performances? Well, the answer, in short, is "David Merrick". The producer's biographer Howard Kissel attributes the show’s unexpected success to the theory that Stop the World… “traded on intellectual vagueness, a commodity that, for a few years at least, had surprising marketability.” But Merrick’s intuitions with this show were right on the money. It turned him and his investors a healthy profit— thanks, in part, to its minimal sets and costumes, and its considerably low weekly nut. And it’s a good thing, too; at the time of the show's production, the usually temperamental Merrick had been in an even worse mood than usual. As Kissel explains in his sensational book “David Merrick: The Abominable Showman”, Merrick had sent his wife to Switzerland to have an abortion. When she came back to New York, she was still pregnant and chose to continuously drink herself into a stupor. (If you haven't read Kissel's book yet, I honestly don't know what you're waiting for.)
 
After a short stint in Philadelphia, the show opened (relatively) cold in New York. The company offered one public preview on Broadway before the critics came. And you’d think by the sight of 44th Street the morning after that it had received naught but love letters and roses the night before. A line of ticket buyers stretched down the block outside the theater. Merrick was delighted, but not surprised. After all, that line was a strategic cause of his own invention; he’d told the box office to close one of their two service windows. That way it would take customers twice as long to purchase seats. That way there would assuredly be a line outside the theater all day. That way everyone who walked by would have proof that Stop the World was a hit.
 
Merrick’s other idea to improve the audience’s perception of the show involved a few men who had recently stopped the world after they got back on: the astronauts. A trip to New York for a customary ticker tape parade was, naturally, on the docket for their whistle-stop tour (at least I hope they got to travel by a train; hadn't they already done enough flying?) While the astronauts were in town, they were to be treated with tickets to a Broadway show. But which show would they see? Astronaut Walter M. Schirra, Jr. wanted to see Little Me starring Sid Caesar while his wife was hoping to take in A Funny Think Happened on the Way to the Forum. Meanwhile, Merrick’s new lackey Alan Delynn just so happened to be friendly with the Kennedy clan. I’m sure that helped twist the necessary arms and on May 24, 1963, the capacity crowd at the Shubert Theatre cheered the astronauts' arrival while Merrick personally escorted Gordon “Gordo” Cooper and his wife Trudy to their seats.

The show went on to be nominated for five Tony Awards in 1963. It competed for “Best Musical” against another Merrick show he’d brought over from London, Oliver! They both lost to Hal Prince’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. At the end of the evening, the only win for Stop the World... was for Newley’s co-star Anna Quayle (“Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical”). You might remember her from the 1968 film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" where she played the ‘Baroness Bomburst'.

Proving yet again that Stop the World... could not be stopped, the show was later adapted into a film. It’s available to rent on iTunes and proves to be a real curiosity (read: I’m not recommending it, but it exists). Newley was not available to star, so a newcomer called Tony Tanner was brought in to block out his brows and bring the foibled fable of Littlechap to life. Several changes were made for the film. For example, they changed the German fraulein to a Japanese geisha. Also, Littlechap does not die... (Don't even get me started on this one; what's the point of sitting through the story of a sad clown if it's going to end happily?)

When the show was revived in London in 1989, it was again directed by and starred Anthony Newley. As always, he was disheartened by the show’s bad reviews.

Today, I think it’s best to view this show as a product of its time. It seemed to be written at a moment in our history when theatre took itself more seriously than it should (for context, it did premiere in the same season as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). But, when it comes down to it, Stop the World... seemed to be saying something so loud that it couldn’t much hear itself speak. Then again, maybe it didn’t have that much to say at all.