Isabel Bigley

Musical star who created Sarah in 'Guys and Dolls' but was slapped for her pains by the composer

Thursday 05 October 2006 00:00

Isabel Bigley, actress: born New York 23 February 1926; married 1953 Lawrence Barnett (four sons, two daughters); died Los Angeles 30 September 2006.

The American musical comedy star Isabel Bigley played her first leading role on the stage in London, when she succeeded Betty Jane Watson as Laurie in Oklahoma!, playing opposite Howard (then Harold) Keel. On Broadway, she originated the role of missionary Sarah Brown in one of the masterworks of the musical theatre, Guys and Dolls, for which she won a Tony Award. Her name is also part of Broadway folklore as probably the only leading lady to have been slapped by the composer during rehearsals.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1926, the only child of Joseph Bigley, a salesman, and Isabel Press Bigley, she was encouraged by her mother, a concert singer, to pursue a musical career. After excelling in music studies at Walton High School in the Bronx, she successfully auditioned for a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music, and later attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but she was working as a secretary for a firm of lawyers on Wall Street in 1946 when she took an extended lunch break and attended an audition for chorus replacements in Oklahoma!, which had opened in 1943.

Signed both to sing in the chorus and to understudy Joan Roberts as Laurie, she did not get a chance to perform the role in New York, but five months later she joined the London company at the Drury Lane Theatre, where she eventually took over the part of Laurie and played it for nearly three years.

While in London Bigley appeared in BBC television's first transmitted musical, Gay Rosalinda (1950). Produced by Henry Caldwell, it was an adaptation of the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, with Jack Buchanan and Tara Barry as the von Eisensteins and Bigley as Adele. She also performed a cabaret act at the Bagatelle night-club, which elicited such enthusiastic reviews, notably in Time magazine, that Howard Hughes flew her to Los Angeles for a screen test.

Hughes failed to sign her, but she was cast by the producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin in their show Guys and Dolls (1950), which was largely based on one of Damon Runyon's short stories about the denizens of Broadway, "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown". Cast in the key role of Sarah, a prim officer of the faltering "Save-a-Soul" mission, Bigley was given only featured billing as she was still little-known -the film stars Robert Alda and Vivian Blaine, plus the veteran actor Sam Levene, were above the title. She won plaudits, though, for her bright, melodic voice and winning personality as the repressed missionary who falls in love with worldly gambler Sky Masterson, and won a Tony Award for her performance. (The role of Sarah was also to win accolades for Lizabeth Webb in the London production, and Jean Simmons in the screen version.)

It was during rehearsals for Guys and Dolls that the composer, Frank Loesser, declared himself unhappy with Bigley's major solo number, "If I Were a Bell", in which Sarah sings of her liberation from her "quiet upbringing" and her newfound ability to flaunt her emotions - "If I were a bell, I'd be ringing." Loesser felt Bigley was not conveying the joyful abandon necessary, and, after countless attempts to rectify her approach with no luck, he slapped her in the face.

Loesser's daughter Susan recalled:

Everything stopped. Everyone, including my father, was horrified. Isabel went home. Some people remember that my father sent her flowers with his contrite note. Others remember a diamond bracelet. In either case, she returned, but she kept her distance from him, and "If I Were a Bell" still wasn't coming off right.

The song was briefly given to Vivian Blaine to sing, but it was unsuitable for her character, a seasoned night-club performer, so Loesser agreed to coach Bigley in the number, with a promise of no violence. Finally, the song worked and the couple became friends, though, when the posters and programmes were printed, Loesser could not resist commenting, "I'm billed smaller than Isabel Bigley." Cy Feuer said, "Loesser was a genius with a bad but erratic temper", adding, "It was not a big slap."

In Bigley's next Broadway musical, it was the composers, the already legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who received prime billing, though Bigley's name came first among the cast. Me and Juliet (1953) was the result of Richard Rodgers's desire to write "a Valentine to the theatre", in which he could incorporate popular dance rhythms, and brassier sounds than shows like The King and I had permitted him. It was going to be fun, he promised (said Hammerstein, "It is the first of our plays in which nobody dies"), but Hammerstein's libretto was not very funny.

Rodgers had envisaged the show's taking place entirely in one theatre, and the designer Jo Mielziner fulfilled that dream with superb sets that depicted every part of the building, from the dressing rooms and flies to the stage itself on which a show-within-a-show is performed. "As the scenery moves," he said, "the audience will get the sensation that the auditorium is turning while the stage is standing still."

It was the scenery that audiences left the theatre talking about, rather than the score or the story of a mousy ingénue (Bigley) who is loved by both a shy stage manager and a bullying electrician who has murderous thoughts about his rival.

Bigley had a personal success - Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times called her "a belle that is still ringing beautifully" - and with Bill Hayes she sang the show's hit number, "No Other Love", a beautiful, languid tango which Rodgers had composed the previous year as part of his landmark score for the splendid television documentary about the Second World War, Victory at Sea. Bigley also shared with the dancer-comedienne Joan McCracken another of the show's highlights, a duet about fame entitled "It's Me".

Me and Juliet (which included Shirley MacLaine as one of the "dance ensemble") ran for 10 months and made a small profit, but, by the writer's standards, it was a disappointment.

Bigley was also one of the pioneer performers of early television, and in June 1951 she and Robert Alda were among the stars of Premiere, a 60-minute CBS special that inaugurated network colour television.

In 1953 she married Lawrence R. Barnett, the president of the powerful agency Music Corporation of America (MCA) and in 1958 she retired to bring up their six children. She and her husband became noted philanthropists, and established a graduate programme in arts policy and administration at the Ohio State University as well as funding the Lawrence and Isabel Barnett Fellowships.

They were also strongly involved in fund-raising for an organisation devoted to finding a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Tom Vallance

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