The origins of Me and Juliet can be traced to the early days of the relationship between Rodgers and Hammerstein. The musical Oklahoma! opened in 1943; it was Rodgers and Hammerstein's first work together and a massive hit. Soon after Oklahoma! opened, Rodgers began considering the idea of a musical set backstage at a theatre staging a musical. The production could explore different areas of the backstage world. Rodgers also saw it as the opportunity to write a pure musical comedy, without the serious themes which had marked their early works—such as the attacks on racism in South Pacific, and the cultural tolerance in The King and I.
Hammerstein was initially unenthusiastic, thinking the subject matter trivial, but Rodgers pressed the matter. It was Hammerstein's turn to give in to his partner; Rodgers had agreed to the project that became the 1947 musical, Allegro, their initial failure, under pressure from Hammerstein, who had long dreamed of doing a serious musical about an ordinary man. According to Stephen Sondheim, a protégé of Hammerstein, "Oscar was able to keep the partnership together by taking Dick's suggestion [for a backstage musical], which he did not want to take." As the two discussed the backstage idea, Hammerstein became more enthusiastic, suggesting that the show start with the stage entirely bare, as if the audience had come in not at performance time but at another time during the day. Such effects are today well-known following the success of other "backstagers" such as A Chorus Line; in the early 1950s they were unrealized and novel.
The two discussed the matter at a meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, in early 1952, where Rodgers was vacationing as he worked on melodic sketches for the television program Victory at Sea. Rodgers suggested dispensing with the overture, reserving that for the overture of the show-within-the-show. Following another meeting in mid-1952, they called in long-time Rodgers and Hammerstein stage designer Jo Mielziner and hired him to design the sets. Mielziner confirmed that a scene could be played part onstage and part in the backstage world, but that this would be expensive. In August 1952, Hammerstein began a sketch of the plot; by early October he had a near-complete first draft. As the show was to be musical comedy, the pair hired one of the top musical comedy directors, George Abbott, who accepted the position without reading the script. He regretted the haste of this decision as soon as he read the script, finding it sentimental and melodramatic. He confided his concerns to the pair; in response, Hammerstein told him to make whatever changes in the script he thought best. With Hammerstein's permission, Abbott made major changes to the plot.
Hammerstein had only briefly described the show-within-the-show. Fearing the show would be uninteresting, Abbott hoped that some highlights would be furnished when the show-within-the-show, as yet only briefly described by Hammerstein, was fleshed out. According to author and composer Ethan Mordden in his book about the duo's works, Hammerstein thought the show-within-the-show was to be: something bizarre, to stand out and amaze us, the better to set off the plain life of the actor ... We shall imagine some rather advanced musical of the near future, something beyond even Allegro, with archetypical characters—a simple hero and his lovable Juliet, the rapacious Don Juan and his volatile Carmen. Then the audience will always know where it is. Contrast is the key. The show-within must look and sound, at every moment, as far from real life as possible.
Hammerstein included an incident he had seen when he was a neophyte assistant stage manager: a chorus boy came up to a chorus girl and asked to use some of her mascara—to disguise a hole in the boy's black socks. Hammerstein stated, "we were religious in keeping away from the trite things—the kindly old stage door man named Pop, the pretty little understudy who replaces the star on opening night. We steered clear, too, of the backstage story of a company putting on a new show, with all the anxieties of the actors and producers ... It seemed right to focus on a show which is already running because we wanted to tell a story about a community, the backstage community, and this community becomes settled and established after a show opens."
In addition to Abbott, the duo recruited other professionals experienced in musical comedy. Choreographer Robert Alton had worked in such hits as Panama Hattie and in movie musicals. Don Walker was hired to do the orchestrations; his would be simpler than those of Robert Russell Bennett, who usually performed that function in the pair's musicals but who was not available. Irene Sharaff was engaged to design the more than 300 costumes which would be needed. The show was originally named Hercules and Juliet, but they soon changed it to Me and Juliet. The Majestic Theatre, which Rodgers and Hammerstein desired to have for Me and Juliet, was currently occupied by their South Pacific, four years into its run. Arrangements were made to shift South Pacific to the Broadway Theatre, though due to schedule conflicts, this meant moving that show to Boston for five weeks.
Rehearsals and tryouts
The cast consisted mostly of unknowns, though Isabel Bigley, who had just originated Sister Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, was given the leading role of chorus girl Jeanie. For Larry, the assistant stage manager who falls in love with Jeanie, they cast Bill Hayes, a well-known stage and television actor. William Tabbert, the original Lt. Joe Cable in South Pacific was considered for the part of Larry, but lost out because he was thought to be too tall to be afraid of Mark Dawson, hired as the towering bully Bob.
Chorus auditions began March 10, 1953, at Broadway's Majestic Theatre; Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Abbott listened to more than 1,000 people. Rehearsals opened at the Majestic for principals and the Alvin Theatre for dancers. According to Saul Pett, a freelance reporter who was allowed to observe the rehearsals, "everyone seems relaxed except Hammerstein." The lyricist's son James served as second assistant stage manager. James Hammerstein remembered having a difficult relationship with Rodgers; the composer suggested James do his work from front of house, rather than from backstage. "I think he thought it was his show and his bailiwick. Why should a Hammerstein be back there?" James Hammerstein found the lead female dancer attractive, and asked her out. Just before the date, Rodgers fired her, telling James Hammerstein to break the news.
Pett recorded the technical problems which had to be solved to accomplish the complex staging: "A number of key scenes required the audience to both see the play-within-the-play and at the same time observe the realism of the stage manager's operations in the wings. To achieve this result and to make both elements simultaneous, the major part of the production had to hang on specially-constructed overhead steel tracks. Synchronized electric motors slowly moved the stage pictures off into the wings far enough to expose the stage manager's desk and actors and stagehands offstage awaiting their cues."
During the rehearsals, the duo took out two production numbers, "Wake Up, Little Theatre" and "Dance", concerned that the show was running long. The actress playing Juliet in the internal play proved to be a fine singer but a poor actress; she was replaced by Helena Scott. Abbott had few negative comments after the final New York run-through, and the company entrained for Cleveland, where the first tryouts were to be, in high spirits, sleeping little on the train ride. RCA Records put up the $350,000 cost of the production in exchange for a fifty-percent interest and rights to the original cast recording.
The tryouts in Cleveland were at the Hanna Theatre. The dress rehearsal the night before the initial performance revealed a number of problems with the show; during the first act alone, Hammerstein dictated eight pages of notes. The sandbag which falls from the light bridge near the end of Act 1 dropped off-cue, nearly striking Isabel Bigley, who played Jeanie. Pett remembered that the rehearsal was stopped often, as Rodgers sought to work out each problem as it arose, and the rehearsal, which began at 8 p.m. did not end until 2 a.m.
The Cleveland premiere on the evening of April 20, 1953, saw a distinguished crowd turn out. When the stage backdrop failed to come down on time, Hammerstein was heard to mutter, "Damn and damn and damn! This is a new way: they saved it for the performance!" Nevertheless, the crowd gave the show a rousing welcome. The Cleveland critics thought well of the show, but were concerned about the weak story. After the Cleveland reactions and problems, according to Rodgers biographer Meryle Secrest, "what had seemed to be a show needing minor adjustments became a musical in serious trouble". Bigley remembered that she had just come from a hit and "there just wasn't the same energy". Hammerstein had intended to omit the overture, with the audience to watch, after the curtain rose, a blank stage on which the play-within-the-play performers and crew drifted in and began their preparations. Expecting the orchestra to begin the evening, the audience talked throughout the initial scenes before being quieted by the internal show's overture; in response, the duo abandoned Hammerstein's concept and opened with an overture.
In contrast to the levity on their first train ride, the company was downcast and exhausted en route from Cleveland to Boston for the final tryouts. The show opened in Boston on May 6. A majority of the Boston critics liked the show, and expressed confidence that Rodgers and Hammerstein could fix the problems with the plot. The pair took out one song, "Meat and Potatoes", which was felt to be too raunchy. After watching it performed by Joan McCracken, who played Betty (Carmen in the play-within-the-play), the pair decided it had too many double entendres and cut it. It was replaced by "We Deserve Each Other", which the pair had written in a Cleveland hotel room. Another cut song, "You Never Had It So Good", included lyrics which satirized the duo's own earlier efforts. Its lyrics, "I'll sew, I'll bake / I'll try to make your evenings all enchanted. / My honeycake, / I'm yours to take, but don't take me for granted", alluded to two songs from South Pacific, "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Honey Bun". Audiences continued to greet the show warmly.
During the Boston previews, the duo heard the audience praise the sets, a reaction which usually augered ill for the show itself. Hammerstein wrote to The King and I director John van Druten: "Me and Juliet looks like a great big hit. It is a change of pace for us and in some quarters we may be criticized because it is not as high-falutin' as our most recent efforts. It is in fact an out and out musical comedy. If this be treason, make the most of it."
The musical opened on Broadway on May 28, 1953 at the Majestic Theatre. Large advance sales guaranteed a considerable run; by the start of November, it had paid back its advance, and closed after 358 performances, paying a small profit to RCA. Thomas Hischak, in his The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia, suggests that business fell off after the advance was exhausted "because audiences had come to expect more from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical". According to Frederick W. Nolan in his book about the duo's works, "despite a $500,000 advance sale, despite a ten-month run (which, for anyone except Rodgers and Hammerstein, would have represented a major success), and despite an eventual profit in excess of $100,000, Me and Juliet has to be classed as a failure".
The backstage drama portrayed in the musical was matched by actual difficulties among the cast. McCracken, who played Betty, was the wife of choreographer Bob Fosse and became pregnant during the run. Bill Hayes later wrote that she lost her baby through miscarriage about the same time she lost her husband to Gwen Verdon. Hayes noted that in the fifteen months he played Larry, he did not recall ever having a conversation with Isabel Bigley, who was supposedly his love interest and wife: "I doubt that the audience ever believed we were deeply in love." The show received no Tony Award nominations. During the run, Hammerstein followed his usual practice of visiting the theatre now and again to ensure that the performers were not taking liberties with his book. Upon his return, Hammerstein's secretary asked him how the show was going. The lyricist thought for a second, then said only "I hate that show."
No national tour was attempted, but the show did have a six-week run in Chicago in 1954. Among those who played in the chorus during the New York run was future star Shirley MacLaine; Shirley Jones was a chorus girl in the Chicago performances. Subsequent productions include one by Kansas City's Starlight Theatre in 1955. Equity Library Theatre produced it in New York in 1970; it returned to that city, though not to Broadway, in 2002 with the York Theatre. A London production was presented by the Finborough Theatre in 2010 in a fifty-seat theatre; the production was billed as the show's European premiere.