This show bears an uncanny resemblance in many ways to another, more famous classic musical, Kiss Me Kate. Think about it: both shows feature love and war between two larger-than-life personalities whose past love affair will undoubtedly be reignited if they don’t manage to kill each other first. Both deal with the behind-the-scenes process of Broadway theater, and feature flamboyant show business types as their main characters. Both feature ambitious but lighthearted comic-operetta scores with extremely sophisticated lyrics.
And while On the Twentieth Century’s score isn’t equal to that of Kate (to be fair, what musical’s is?), it still ranks as one of the best things composer Cy Coleman ever wrote. Highlights include the gorgeous title-song, a hymn to the luxury train the show takes place on; the leading man’s triumphant establishing number “I Rise Again”; the tour-de-force showstoppers for the leading lady, “Veronique” and “Babette”; the brilliantly biting satire of religious fundamentalism “Repent”; the gloriously demented silent-film chase number “She’s a Nut”; and the magnificent hat-and-cane eleven-O’clock number “The Legacy”.
Some numbers even seem to correspond to Kiss Me Kate songs—the gorgeous “Our Private World” sounds a bit like “So In Love”, and the fire-spitting “Never” bears more than a little resemblance to “I Hate Men”. Even the show’s one misstep, the Act Two opener “Life Is Like a Train”, seems to be a deliberate attempt to imitate Kate’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. That song was one of theater’s greatest achievements in harnessing deliberate awfulness into comic greatness, but “Life Is Like a Train” falls short of that kind of glorious ridiculousness, and is merely a garden-variety embarrassing dud.
If this description makes the show seem like a redundant copy of a theater classic, it’s worth noting that Twentieth Century has one thing that Kiss Me Kate, let’s be honest, never really had: a strong libretto. The book of this show is far tighter, far more organic, and far better at bringing out its lead characters’ outsized, self-dramatizing personalities in the actual dialogue than Kate’s ever was, and it didn’t even need to rip a third of its dialogue from Shakespeare to do it. There are no extraneous supporting roles here as there are in Kate…everything we see is completely necessary and focused on the main point, and the show has a flawlessly consistent sense of style that completely outshines Kiss Me Kate’s messy stew of incompatible elements, at least when the characters aren’t singing.
Sadly, for all this show’s virtues, it’s not seen a lot today, partly because it requires a set so expensive and tricky that it makes Phantom’s chandelier look like a cheap painted backdrop, but partly because the original cast of John Cullum, Madeleine Kahn, Imogene Coca and Kevin Kline (and later Judy Kaye in Kahn’s part), has essentially proved irreplaceable. Even the one Broadway revival the show has seen, in 2015 with Kristen Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher, left something lacking. Chenoweth was luminous, and the production was certainly entertaining, but while Gallagher had the thespian class and strong baritone the role required, he was dominated by Chenoweth’s stage charisma, and that, combined with Adolph Green’s daughter rewriting his character’s big showstopper “The Legacy” into the underwhelming “Because of Her”, threw the show’s balance off. For the show to work properly, the protagonists need to be roughly evenly matched in their duel of wits and passions, and turning the show into a star vehicle for Chenoweth, while still highly enjoyable theater, isn’t really what the show was meant to be about, and didn’t have nearly the impact of the original production.
This was one of those shows that was really only fully realized for one brief moment, but it left behind a stunning original cast album, and if that album can’t capture Kevin Kline’s star-making physical comedy or the mad genius of Harold Prince’s staging, it still ranks as one of the most essential cast albums from the ‘shows most people have never heard of’ category.