BY CARY GINELL
When Shirley Jones married actor Jack Cassidy in 1956, it was the beginning of an eighteen-year marriage that included many on-stage collaborations. As Shirley moved primarily into the world of film, she still kept her hand in Broadway, even if they were filmed version of Broadway musicals.
VCOS: When you married Jack, was it a goal of the two of you to work as a team?
SHIRLEY: Oh, yes, of course! He wanted to do that and I did, too. We loved singing together. Jack taught me a lot about singing. He had an incredible voice and an incredible approach to singing, as well as not just getting a beautiful note out, but what he was saying, the lyrics and all of that, which was still kind of new to me. I would just sing a song and sing it well. He gave me the rest of it- “Think about what you’re singing, what the scene is.” So I learned a lot from him that way. We’d go to parties and the minute we’d walk in, we would be asked to sing. And we would sing together for the whole party. He would harmonize; he was good at that, I wasn’t.
VCOS: You did a few albums together for Columbia in the ’50s.
SHIRLEY: Yes, we did. We did two albums of songs and then a studio album of Brigadoon.
VCOS: That was the one with Percy Faith and his orchestra. How did the Brigadoon album come about? That was kind of unusual back then, to have a “studio cast” album recorded.
SHIRLEY: After we did the first two albums, Frank Loesser called us and said he wanted to two of us to do it. And it was great; it’s a wonderful album.
VCOS: Did you ever do the show?
SHIRLEY: No. Never did it. Jack and I had an apartment in New York and we lived there for maybe two years. But then, when I started doing movies, we moved to California. He’d go back to do Broadway and I was still doing movies, so there was no way I could get back to New York and do a show when I had these movies coming up all the time. Jack was the Broadway guy. He got a Tony for “She Loves Me.”
VCOS: Did Richard Rodgers ever consider you for The Sound of Music?
SHIRLEY: Do you know, he never did? And I was surprised, in a way, because I thought, “Wow, that’s a great part for me.” But no, he never even thought of me. And South Pacific, too. The movie. He never thought of me for that either.
VCOS: Yes, he used Mitzi Gaynor for that.
SHIRLEY: I did Sound of the Music on the road several times. I just loved it. We did it in big outdoor theaters. One was in Dallas, one was in Chicago, one was in St. Louis, and I toured with it. I had different co-stars in each, but I can’t remember who they were.
VCOS: I was looking at a Playbill of one of these and noticed that one of the Von Trapp children was played by Sarah Jessica Parker.
SHIRLEY: That’s right. Exactly! My son Patrick played Rolf on one of the tours. I remember him carrying Sarah Jessica Parker on his shoulders when they went out to lunch.
VCOS: Tell me about making The Music Man.
SHIRLEY: What a magnificent show. Of all the things I’ve done, to me, that musical is a perfect musical. It’s the PERFECT musical. It has everything. Meredith Willson wrote about his life, about everything he knew, and it shows. I went to Mason City at least three or four times with him. He was just wonderful. The fact that he could take one song and turn it into two different songs was so amazing to me.
VCOS: You mean “Goodnight, My Someone” and “76 Trombones”?
SHIRLEY: Yes. To my knowledge, that had never been done before. I never heard songs done like that, that way before. He was just phenomenal. At the opening in New York, he came with his then wife and we became very close. I don’t know if you knew this or not, but Warner Bros., who produced Music Man, wanted Frank Sinatra to play Harold Hill. They were about to sign him, but Meredith Willson came in and said, “Listen, unless you use Robert Preston, you don’t do my show.” And that’s how Preston got the part.
VCOS: Very few performances on Broadway can be identified with one performer, but that is one of them.
SHIRLEY: Absolutely. I was so thrilled because I was eager to work with him. I was already cast. I was the first person cast but I was so thrilled when they told me he was going to do it. I had seen him on Broadway in the show and admired him so. Sometimes, when an actor has been doing a show for a long time – and he had been doing it for three years when we made the movie – they come to do the film and do things like “Listen, why don’t we do it this way” – they’ll start directing it themselves. He did none of that. He was so open to anything that the director said or anything the actors wanted to do. He was just so marvelous.
VCOS: What did Robert Preston help you with?
SHIRLEY: The dance parts. The library scene, where we had this big dance number, was really hard for me. I’m not a dancer; I’ve danced in a couple of films, like in Pepe, I did a lot of dancing in that. You rehearse a movie musical a lot like a Broadway show. We rehearsed for months before we did the film, just like when you do Broadway. But I remember going to the choreographer, Onna White, who was sitting in a chair like a great dame, smoking her cigarette. And I went up to her and I said, “I’m so thrilled to be doing this, but I have to tell you up front, I’m not really a dancer.” And she said, “Sweetheart, by the time you finish this film, you’ll BE a damn dancer!” (laughs)
VCOS: I know you were pregnant through the whole thing.
SHIRLEY: Yes, with Patrick. Next year, Patrick and I are taking a concert tour of The Music Man. I’m going to be Mrs. Paroo and he is going to play the lead. And I’m going to tell the story about my pregnancy, with Patrick kicking Robert Preston in the footbridge scene, which I tell all the time when we work together. But we’re going to go out for about four months on that tour.
VCOS: Tell me about the cast for the movie.
SHIRLEY: Pert Kelton was just great. Everybody was wonderful. The actors were superb. Hermione Gingold, Paul Ford, Buddy Hackett.
VCOS: There were two people in that film who you worked with again later on. One was Morton DaCosta, the producer, and the other was Ronnie Howard.
SHIRLEY: Of course. Ronnie was an incredible child. I remember he was so nervous about being able to dance in “Gary, Indiana,” the song that he sang. “I can’t do, it Shirley! I can’t do it!” he would say. And I told him, “Yes, you can do it.” I did two films with him. The other was The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, with Glenn Ford. But he was an amazing child actor. I worked with children a lot, you know, with Partridge Family. But there were parents who would push their kids to such a degree that it was so hard for them, and I hated that. But that never happened with Ronnie. His mother was never on the set. Only his father, Rance. And Rance would sit with him for a few minutes, and just talk to him quietly and nicely, and it was so loving and nice. And I think that’s why he did what he did, because he was such a good kid. And I think that was because he had this kind of parenting.
VCOS: Are you a stage mother?
SHIRLEY: Never. NEVER! I worked with Patrick and then I did a television series with Shaun, and of course, David, my stepson, was in Partridge with me. But I’ve never been a stage mother.
Our interview with Shirley Jones will conclude with our New Year’s Eve edition.