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David Benedict: What’s in a name? The key to a box office hit…

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It was songwriter Irving Berlin who, in 1946 for his Annie Get Your Gun, taught the world that: “There’s no business like showbusiness.” Berlin’s setting of the lyric stresses the word “show”. But there’s no getting around the fact that “business” end is what drives the industry. Indeed, hard-bitten producer Carmen Bernstein in Kander and Ebb’s musical Curtains has an entire (terrific) song on the subject:

You ask me for my motives/ Well, you needn’t be so smart,/ It’s a business./ It isn’t making history,/ It isn’t making art,/ It’s a business.

Keeping costly shows and long careers afloat requires financial acumen and, frankly, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the spat between Ethel “not-to-be-messed-with” Merman and vaudeville wisecracker Jimmy “The Schnozz” Durante (a nickname taken from the Yiddish word for nose and popularised by Durante himself).

In 1936, the two of them were headlining new Cole Porter musical Red, Hot and Blue. If you’ve never heard of it that’s because the show’s book, as was common in the pre-Oklahoma! days, was thinner than thin. Merman was playing ex-manicurist Nails Duquesne while Durante was ex-con ‘Policy’ Pinkle – they really don’t write ’em like that any more.

Suffice it to say that the plot hinged on a lawyer, the object of Nails’ romantic pursuit, who is searching for his lost love who, at the age of six, he accidentally branded with a waffle iron. The show did, however, give birth to Merman’s song Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor plus It’s De-Lovely, which Porter rescued after it was rejected from a movie and turned into a duet for Merman and third-billed Bob Hope.

Merman was cresting her first wave of stardom and Durante was hot in Hollywood and on Broadway. Whose name was going above the title? Their agents spent weeks arguing. She had the bigger role, he had the bigger name… on and on it went until someone smartly came up with the idea of criss-crossing their names so that both (or neither) of them had top billing.

Names and their attendant status have always been vital to survival. Merman certainly knew that since at the start of her career she dropped the first syllable of her last name Zimmerman. (Another famous Zimmerman, Robert, ditched his entire name to become Bob Dylan.)

These days, with producers using anything and everything to sell shows, titles are retained, usually with the dreary suffix “The Musical”. But Pygmalion became My Fair Lady and even the celebrated title All About Eve was replaced when Charles Strouse, Betty Comden and Adolph Green turned it into Applause!

Not all name changes are official. Less-than-kind cast members of a revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Suzi Quatro retitled it ‘Annie Get Your P45’, while the West End bio-musical of Ernest Hemingway that climaxed with his suicide – it may shock you to learn that the show bombed – was dubbed ‘Ernie Get Your Gun’ by some wag. And who can forget the West End Whingers renaming Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies as ‘Paint Never Dries’?

On a more serious note, changing the name of a play has often been a ploy to create something more audience-friendly – a better business proposition. Michael Frayn revamped Chekhov’s Ivanov as Wild Honey with Ian McKellen and Charlotte Cornwell at the National. And, after directing a celebrated stage production of Uncle Vanya with Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Greta Scacchi and Jonathan Pryce, Michael Blakemore imaginatively refashioned Chekhov’s dwindling 19th-century estate as a farm in the Australian outback in 1919 for his film Country Life.

Ibsen, too, has been ceaselessly repackaged, possibly because his name became regarded as being synonymous with boredom and box-office poison. At the National, Samuel Adamson reworked and rethought Little Eyolf as Mrs Affleck. And when Steven Spielberg made his second feature, a film about danger in the local water supply, he rejected Ibsen’s original An Enemy of the People in favour of the title that Peter Benchley used for his own novel adaptation: Jaws. Decades later, David Harrower changed Ibsen’s title again, this time to Public Enemy.

Which brings us to the puzzlement of Rosmersholm. Ian Rickson’s superbly acted (and wonderfully lit) West End production has rightly been garlanded with rave reviews. It hasn’t done badly, but audiences should be queuing round the block. I’d argue the name is at least partly to blame.

Rosmersholm review at Duke of York’s Theatre, London – ‘Hayley Atwell is superb’

Unless you know the play, it’s a terrible title, intimidatingly hard to pronounce and suggestive of absolutely nothing to audiences coming fresh to the play. It cannot be beyond the wit of an adaptor to come up with something more engaging to attract audiences.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

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