Sixty years ago it was Simply Heaven on Broadway

Simply Heavenly opened Off-Broadway on 21 May 1957 at the 85th Playhouse.  However, after 44 performances, the theatre was closed by the New York Fire Department who condemned the building as being a fire hazard.  A new home had to be found and a downtown Broadway house was chosen.  This was the Playhouse Theatre (the theatre name is a co-incidence, it was on West 48th Street opposite where the Cort Theatre is now) on 20 August 1957 with a programme that high-lighted the New York Fire Commissioner’s Fire Notice showing this was a safe venue. 

It achieved 62 performances after which it re-opened, yet again, Off-Broadway on 8 November at the Renata Theatre where it ran a further 63 performances.  Simply Heavenly’s total New York run was 169 performances.  In 1959 it was seen on American television’s Play of the Week series in an adaptation that featured most of the original cast.

Simply Heavenly crossed the Atlantic and on 15 April 1958, the European premiers took place at the Manchester Palace where it played for two weeks.  The original British production brought over two of the American stars, Melvin Stewart as Simple and John Bouie as Melon.  It also starred Bertice Reading who eventually made her home in Britain.

On 20 May 1958 Simply Heavenly opened in London at the Adelphi Theatre as ‘a new all-Negro Musical’ and not the norm ‘a new musical comedy’ as it had been billed in New York.  There was just one cast change – the policewoman originally played in Manchester by Neville Crabbe was replaced in London by Harry Baird. 

It ran just 16 performances under the production hat of Laurence Harvey and Jack Hylton.  Laurence Harvey was, at the time, one Britain’s hottest stars and was trying his hand at directing.  Harvey, having been taken with the show, persuaded Jack Hylton to let him direct the English production of Simply Heavenly.  Six years later Harvey was to star in Jack Hylton’s production of Camelot.

Simply Heavenly was successfully revived in March 2003 at the Young Vic and was seen again in the West End in October 2004 at the Trafalgar Theatre where it played through to February 2005.

Simply Heavenly is based on Simple takes a Wife and other ‘Simple’ stories by the great black author and poet Langston Hughes.  Hughes’ previous musical theatre credits included two Broadway operas: Street Scene (1947) with music by Kurt Weill and the far less successful The Barrier, which played 4 performances on Broadway in 1950.  It was Hughes’ idea to turn his Simple stories into a musical and not only did he provide the book but also the lyrics to the show which he kept firmly based in Harlem and in particular, Paddy’s Bar, where Jess Simple is a frequent customer.  Simple is an honest easy-going married man but he is not in love with his wife and is saving up for a divorce so he can marry his new love Joyce Lane.  And that is the simple back-ground of the story.

The original recording on Long Play was also released in Britain and since it has been remastered and issued twice on CD.  Firstly by Sepia in London and more recently Sony’s Masterworks Broadway series.               

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive