Cass Elliot & The Musical Theater Connection

It was musical theater that prompted Cass Elliot to pursue an entertainment career.  And the connection with musical theater was evident throughout her career.  Only imagination can offer us a glimpse at what might have been.  

Always interested in performing, and growing up in a home filled with music—particularly opera-- Cass decided that a show business career was for her after she acted in a summer stock production of The Boyfriend in 1959.  Dropping out of high school two weeks shy of graduation, she trekked to New York from her Baltimore home to try her hand at musical theater auditions.  Some of these auditions juxtaposed her to another up and coming Jewish female performer—named Barbra Streisand.  They both tried for the role of Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.”  Success did not come readily for Cass, but she did land a role in a traveling production of The Music Man.  That too eventually faded and she ended up back at home in the Washington DC area where she got into the folk craze of the early 1960's. 

Cass' affinity for musical theater and show songs manifested itself throughout her career. With The Big 3, she recorded “Another Autumn” from “Paint Your Wagon” but the track was scrapped and never released.  During Cass’ tenure with The Mamas and The Papas, some of their standout tracks are those Rodgers and Hart tunes which John Phillips' arrangement and Cass' vocal treatment gave a new turn.  "Sing For Your Supper," "Glad To Be Unhappy," "My Heart Stood Still" and "Here In My Arms" (television only) all bear the earmarks of Cass' special love for show music.  This is evident in the group's 1966 performances of all these songs on the hit television special RODGERS AND HART TODAY, broadcast in March 1967. 

Cass' turn with old tunes truly proved itself in her mastery with the standard, "Dream A Little Dream of Me" which served as the embarkation point for her own solo career in 1968.  While not strictly a show tune, this song came out of the same genre as theater music and Cass was nothing but tastefully theatrical in her audio and television performances of the melody. 

About the same time “Dream…” was recorded, Cass produced a single by the standard singer, Roberta Sherwood, a headlining torch singer and entertainer, who had performed with the likes of Mickey Rooney, Don Rickles, Joey Bishop and Milton Berle.  

Cass’ first special in 1969 had its own Broadway elements.  Veteran vaudevillian Buddy Hackett (“The Music Man,” I Had a Ball”) was one of Cass’ guests, and they joined Barbara Bain and Martin Landau in a performance of “Meeskite” from the Tony award winning musical “Cabaret” during the show.  

In fall 1969, she talked to London’s Record Mirror, about her “upcoming project” as a lead in a stage musical.  “If the money is forthcoming, I’ll be doing it. It’s called ‘The Yellow Drum’ and it’s a great play from a Truman Capote short story, ‘The Grass Harp’ and in it I’ll be playing Babylove, who has six illegitimate children by six different fathers, and she’s a traveling evangelist, trying to earn just enough to keep her children alive.”  

The play did hit Broadway two years later, and Karen Morrow filled the part, but listening to the cast recording now, one can only imagine what Cass would have done with the part.  

Cass’ theatricality demonstrated itself in 1970 in her “Special Star” role in the feature film “Pufnstuf” in which performed the song “Different.”  This anthem of individuality fit Cass and contributed to the sense of the movie’s “musical” characteristics.  

That same year, she appeared in a tremendous tribute to Broadway legend Richard Rodgers at the Hollywood Bowl, singing “My Favorite Things,” from “The Sound of Music” with Johnny Mathis.  

In 1972, she and Dinah Shore sang “Two Lost Souls” from “Damn Yankees” while Cass was on “Dinah’s Place.”  Later that year, Cass and Carol Burnett sang a medley of love songs from Broadway on Carol’s show, on which Cass was a semi-regular.  In another appearance she held her own in a trio with Burnett and another Broadway legend, Bernadette Peters.  And she and Julie Andrews did their own treatment of “It’s Today” from Mame, among other musical theater collaborations on Andrews’ prime time series, in two episodes that same year. 

Cass spoke again of doing musical theater in the Spring of 1973 when she told Skitch Henderson she would play the Ethel Merman part of Reno Sweeney in a traveling company of Anything Goes.  But this never materialized.   

What did materialize was the central character in an hour-long special tribute to Harold Arlen (Get Happy-A Tribute to Harold Arlen) in which she sang such musical theater mainstays as “The Man That Got Away” (with Diahann Carroll) and “Over the Rainbow.”  

In September 1973, Cass enjoyed starring in her second prime time special, “Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore.”  The opening number was an adaptation of “Extraordinary” from the musical “Pippin.”  Cass was joined on her special by musical theater performers, Joel Grey (“Cabaret”), Dick Van Dyke (“Bye Bye Birdie”), and Mary McCarty (“Chicago,” “Irene,” “Follies,” “Miss Liberty”).  

In the final year of her life, Cass prepared for the ultimate stage experience in Britain with concerts at the legendary Palladium Theater in central London .  She had come a long way from singing Cole Porter at The Hippodrome in Baltimore .  One of the constants during the journey was her love and exuberant performance of musical theater.  

Copyright © 2004 - Richard Barton Campbell.  All Rights Reserved.