I’ll say this for this show: it succeeded. Most of the time, shows this dramatically unsatisfying wind up being flops no matter what their other merits (as witness the fact that Mack and Mabel, despite its phenomenal score, has never had a successful production). I suppose in this case the show’s compensations just collectively overpowered its flaws, or perhaps the seamless integration of every element of the production except the book had something to do with it.
Certainly the score was a huge mark in the show’s favor, with Cy Coleman providing a more legitimate kind of Jazz sound than Broadway usually ever sees, and Dorothy Fields providing some of her sharpest and snazziest lyrics, belying the fact that she was sixty years old at the time. The explosively sexy “Big Spender” and the wildly exuberant “If My Friends Could See Me Now” became rock-solid standards, but about two-thirds of the score is mindblowing, and even the weaker numbers (“Charity’s Soliloquy”, “I’m the Bravest Individual”, “I Love To Cry At Weddings”, the pretty but oddly underpowered title-song) are perfectly pleasant musical-comedy trifles. The snazzy, character-establishing opening, “You Shoud See Yourself”; the thrilling quasi-Rock instrumental “Rich Man’s Frug”; the impossibly lush, over-the-top ballad “Too Many Tomorrows”; the Mariachi fire-spitter “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”; the epic Jazz fugue “Rhythm of Life”; the mocking, then suddenly tender ballad “Baby Dream Your Dream”; the heartwrenching character soliloquy “Where Am I Going?”; and the explosion of sheer exultant joy at the eleven-o’clock number “I’m a Brass Band” represent arguably the finest and fullest realization of the classic Broadway sound’s Jazz influences.
Fosse directed the piece as an utterly seamless, almost cinematic whole, and his choreography for it is some of his most iconic, probably ranking right behind Chicago in that regard. The classy yet almost shockingly risqué “Big Spender” scene, in particular, is etched on the collective memories of multiple generations of people who have never even seen this show. The original production also had the benefit of Gwen Verdon’s legendary star performance in the lead.
But for all these good qualities, no-one has ever been able to make the show satisfying as drama. The original libretto was by famed playwright Neil Simon, and it was oddly detached and uninvolving for such a sentimental story, consisting of little more than an endless string of brittle Neil Simon quips. Worse, the original ending was so stupid and ridiculous that virtually all later productions have felt the need to rewrite it, and while none of them has really worked, it would be pretty hard not to improve upon the original. The movie version manages to fix these problems, thanks to Peter Stone’s far more moving script and Shirley MacLaine’s heartrendingly vulnerable performance, but runs into a new issue: if you actually make the audience care about the action, this is a monumentally depressing, even defeatist story about an idealistic girl who is continually exploited and never seems to learn. This might have worked for the Fellini film on which the musical is loosely based, but it doesn’t fit in well with the musical’s mostly upbeat score and snappy, sophisticated feel.
Every revival has tried to fix these problems, but it hasn’t worked yet and probably never will. The 2004 Christina Applegate revival probably came as close to giving this piece a satisfying ending as anyone ever has, but with its weak cast and with Bob Fosse’s choreography removed to accommodate Applegate’s limited dancing skills, there didn’t seem to be much of a point left. But despite the fact that every audience comes away from this show empty and unsatisfied, it continues to be produced regularly, the film version is still regarded as a minor classic in many circles, and it seems likely to continue to frustrate everyone who comes into contact with it for a long time to come.