On Feb. 28, 1966, CBS aired Episode 23 of the fifth and final season of a sitcom it had acquired from NBC the previous year. Titled "Hazel," the show was about a live-in maid, played by Shirley Booth, whose employers were George Baxter (a partner in a law firm), his wife, Dorothy (an interior designer), their kid, Harold, and the family dog, Sport.
"Hazel" was based on a single-panel cartoon series created by Ted Key that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. The idea for "Hazel," he would often say, had come to him in a dream. Key adapted his funny-pages hit for television himself, and he would draw the cartoon, the big hit of his creative life, until 1993.
In 2016, the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace will make Hazel sing for the first time. In fact, Hazel will be the center of a full-blown musical. But in 1966, it would have seemed truly bizarre to base a Broadway-aimed musical on a sitcom, even a very good sitcom by the standards of its time.
It's worth looking at why.
On that late winter night in 1966 "Hazel" was in the middle of its fourth season of being shot in color, even though CBS only began offering regularly scheduled color programming the previous fall ("The Lucy Show" was broadcast in black-and-white through 1965, and, even in 1966, fewer than 10 percent of American homes could watch "Hazel" in color). "Hazel's" final season unfolded amid cast changes and other CBS changes to a show that, more and more, was struggling to attract the coveted younger audience in a rapidly changing cultural landscape.
For the traditional domestic hierarchy on which "Hazel" depended was being upended.
Still, Booth, as Hazel, was on hand. And the episode that night, "But is it Art?," was emblematic of the whole show and, indeed, of Key's central comic premise for his cartoon and his TV show: His heroine, Hazel, functioned as an incongruous marriage counselor dedicated to keeping this nuclear family together and correcting its failures to love and nurture one other.
As a good chunk of America watched on this particular Monday night, they saw Barbara (one of the aforementioned character changes, replacing Dorothy) approach Hazel in some distress.
"I tell you, Hazel, he has forgotten our anniversary," she said.
"Oh, he ain't forgotten it," Hazel replied, smoothly handing the errant husband his coat, even as he insisted it was not cold out. On the inside, she'd already pinned a note that Barbara could not see, but Steve (the "new" George) could.
"It's colder than you think," Hazel said to the man who signs her checks. "Put it on."
A maid being smarter than her bosses hardly was an original line of comedic plotting — clever-servant shtick goes back at least to Shakespeare, Goldoni's Italianate comedy "Servant of Two Masters," P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves" and "Gone with the Wind," and the device was also a feature of "The Jeffersons." But it was the setup that kept giving for "Hazel," and it could sustain countless different comedic scenarios, just as long as Hazel never was a real threat to the established power structure of the family.
Throughout their dramatic history, though, most maids and butlers have been assigned to aristocratic or excessively wealthy families. Key's sweet spot was to tell the story of a family wealthy enough to have a domestic servant, sure, but not so wealthy that the mass audience sitting at home could not identify with its problems. The Baxters did not live on Park Avenue. And, of course, by making Hazel as Caucasian as her employers, Key avoided any themes of racial inequality, even if African-American maids paired with white families were far more common in the America beyond TV land.
But Hazel was the America of TV land.
In "Just 86 Shopping Minutes to Christmas," from 1964, Hazel both protected Harold from receiving boringly practical presents and talked a grumpy George out of dismantling many of the family's holiday traditions. Hazel also was a constant friend to children. In the first episode of the show, which aired in 1961, she got a children's playground built. When Harold became ill in Episode 3 of that first season, Hazel played nurse. She even helped Harold get a dog.
A related common thread in "Hazel" — which often structured its gags like Key's single-panel cartoons — revolved around the comedically fertile notion that this domestic servant actually intimidated her employers, even though she theoretically worked for them. There was nothing that George liked less than hearing, say, "Hazel has a surprise for you."
In the show, Booth's Hazel functioned partly as a truth-teller, able to contravene the striving family's interest in upper-middle-class politeness, and partly as inversion of the class system, a street-smart person who could actually do everything her employers could do, only better than them.
So can Hazel hold down a musical? Beginning March 31, we will find out.
On a recent afternoon in a rehearsal room at the Drury Lane, actress Klea Blackhurst could be seen center stage, belting out Hazel's truisms, almost as if Mama Rose had gone into domestic service. The director and choreographer in the room was Joshua Bergasse, a rising Broadway figure but a young man not unfamiliar with television — he choreographed most of the big numbers on the NBC show "Smash."
"She has really been a wonderful person to write for," said Chuck Steffan, over a late lunch that day in Oak Brook. "She is a guileless character without ulterior motives like Mame or Dolly. She's larger than life but she's an everyday person."
Steffan and his composing partner, Ron Abel (whose idea all of this was), had begun discussions about a Hazel musical while Key was still alive (he died in 2008). In the end, Key's son, Peter, approved the project after reading his late father's enthusiastic notes.
"He told us that he had always wanted Hazel to sing," Abel said of that first meeting with the elder Key.
Once the book writer, Lissa Levin, was on the project, a key decision had to be made as to what the plot of the musical would be, especially since the musical was to be based on the cartoon character, as distinct from the TV series that made it so popular.
Was Hazel the same on television as in the cartoons? Not really. For one thing, the style was not the same, comedically speaking.
"I would say our Hazel is a hybrid between the more acerbic cartoon character and the Shirley Booth version," Levin said. "People remember Booth. They remember her speech and vernacular. But the show is based on the cartoon."
Do young people even remember her? Although "Hazel" has been in a hit in syndication for decades — on superstations WTBS (in the '80s) and WGN, TV Land and Antenna TV — she is not exactly at the center of millennials' world. The creators of the musical say they know this and it will not be so much a problem as an attractive blank slate.
"You want to appeal to people who have never heard of her," Levin said.
So with that in mind, the decision was made to base the musical on something that neither the cartoon nor the TV show ever dealt with — how Hazel arrived at the Baxters in the first place, and what her first day in their home was like.
A prequel, if you will.
The plan is also to construct very much a family musical — the TV show used a lot of different kids, and there are kids in the show.
And there is also an opportunity, the writers all said, to open up a theatrical window on the American family of the era, to look with some comedic detail at what it was like to be a 1960s wife, to add more emotion to the cartoon on a flat piece of newsprint. In particular, Levin said, she wanted to flesh out the character of Dorothy (Summer Naomi Smart), to "give her a personality" and to expand the show beyond the TV show's typical Hazel-versus-George fault lines.
Bergasse said he was tempted to the west suburbs by a script that is "sassy and smart." He said his choreography is drawing on the myriad influences of the period — Motown, pop, jazz. The score, however, is entirely original.
"Every one is an original note," said Abel.
These writers are, in fact, partnering with the Drury Lane on the producing of the project. There is not, as yet, a committed commercial producer nor an opening night on Broadway, even if that's the end goal for this all-new show.
For Kyle DeSantis, who runs Drury Lane, this is a chance to give his audiences something new and comfortingly familiar. "We hope to do at least one new musical a year going forward," DeSantis said, enjoying his entry into the pre-Broadway business, Hazel at his side.
"If you clean up after people, you find out their flaws," said Levin. "You know their inclinations. This is basically 'Downton Abbey' without the costume budget."
Hazel begins performances Thursday at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. For more information go to www.drurylanetheatre.com.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.