What do you do when you discover the soul mate you’ve been writing to is in fact the co-worker you’ve come to loathe? This is the conflict at the heart of the Huntington’s final show of the season, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me. Not your typical boy-meets-girl love story, the tale behind She Loves Me has a rich production history, from star-studded film adaptations to award-winning musical productions. It all started, however, with a little-known Hungarian play called Parfumerie.
Written in 1937 by Miklos Laszlo (and known as Illatszerar in Hungary), Parfumerie revolves around a shop owner who suspects his wife of infidelity. Though this is the central story, Laszlo gives equal time to the employees who work in the shop. One of the subplots follows two quarrelling employees who find love in anonymous “dear friend” letters, written to each other.
This romantic subplot subsequently inspired German filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. Best known for his romantic comedies and for being a two-time Oscar nominee, Lubitsch adapted the play into the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime, starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson (and introducing Liza Minnelli in her film debut) transplanted the same story to Chicago, and changes the perfume store to a record shop. This film is known for first introducing music into the story, though many believe the songs chosen for Summertime felt oddly tacked-on. The film failed commercially, and the story would not re-emerge until a decade later with the 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me.
Inspired by The Shop Around the Corner, producer Lawrence Kasha approached his friend Sheldon Harnick about adapting the material into a musical. Excited by the idea, a team was quickly assembled, consisting of Harnick (lyrics), Jerry Bock (music), and Joe Masteroff (book). They approached well-known director Gower Champion to direct, but when he rejected the offer, they turned to a young co-producer on the production, Harold Prince. (Little did they know Prince would go on to play a major role in Broadway’s history, directing such hits as Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Candide, Phantom of the Opera, and numerous others.) The production attracted a highly talented cast, with Daniel Massey as Georg, Barbara Baxley as Ilona, Barbara Cook as Amalia, and Jack Cassidy as Kodaly.
The run closed after only 302 performances, and despite a stint in London in 1964, would not see Broadway lights again until the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival in 1994, directed by Scott Ellis (recent director of the Huntington’s Streamers). Ellis’ revival was heralded for its innovative staging and for giving She Loves Me a renewed profile.
The story of She Loves Me has grown far beyond the story of employees in a Hungarian perfume shop, as reflected in the latest film adaptation, 1998’s You’ve Got Mail. Directed by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, this re-telling found a home in the technological era. Instead of exchanging letters, the couple exchanges e-mails, and instead of being co-workers, they are competitors in the bookselling industry.
The story of Georg and Amalia continues to delight romantics and melt hearts, in film and musical form alike. Now, as Nicholas Martin nears the end of his time as the Huntington’s Artistic Director, he has chosen the musical the World-Telegram & Sun called “dear, charming, and wholeheartedly romantic” as the capstone to his tenure. Be sure to discover what this newest production of She Loves Me will bring!
- Brett Marks