This show, despite a tongue-in-cheek joke that it makes in its first scene, wasn’t an ambitious drama with serious themes like the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, nor was it even a more subtly ambitious stylistic tour-de-force like Guys and Dolls. It was, essentially, just a standard potboiler musical comedy of the period, yet it became a Broadway classic that remains surprisingly popular more than sixty years after its debut just by being such a well-made piece of product that it transcended its potboiler status, proving that you don’t need to be trying to create great art in order to do so.
Granted, the book is not the primary reason for this continued success, and in fact has done more to hamper it over the years. It’s still funny in a trashy sort of way, and it provides some memorably colorful and likable characters, including a genuinely compelling leading man who masks his deep insecurities with false bravado and provided a marvelous opportunity to original leading man John Raitt. Even so, the book has also dated severely in a number of ways. Not only has the show’s setting…labor vs. management at a pajama factory complicated by a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance…consigned it to being played as a period piece, since business practices have altered out of recognition multiple times since then, but its sexual politics have a very Fifties feel to them, and several scenes can feel a little uncomfortable to modern audiences.
What makes the show a classic is the two things musical comedy lives for…the songs and the dances. The choreography was Bob Fosse’s first work for Broadway and remains some of his most iconic even today, especially the sexy trio number “Steam Heat” and the mock tango “Hernando’s Hideaway”. In addition to Fosse’s contribution, the show’s other claim to fame is the score, which, while it may never reach the heights achieved by the top-level Broadway classics, is notable for its sheer degree of consistency and enjoyment value. This score was written by co-songwriters Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and while the team would go on to score one more hit and Adler would write three more shows after Ross’ death (including the beloved cult flop Kwamina), neither of them would ever write anything this good again (it helps that a couple of the songs have some co-writing contributions from the team’s mentor, Frank Loesser).
The melodies sparkle, especially on the immortal ballad “Hey There”, the exquisitely lilting waltz “I’m Not At All In Love”, the driving Country-flavored showstopper “There Once Was a Man”, and the pop-tango sound of “Hernando’s Hideaway”. As for the lyrics, they are frequently superb, especially on the numbers for Hines, the show’s comic relief figure, such as the riotously risque “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” or the gloriously absurd “Think of the Time I Save”.
Even the songs added for later revivals are uniformly delightful, with “The World Around Us”, “The Three of Us”, and “If You Win, You Lose” basically living up to the level of the original score (“The World Around Us” was actually written for the original production and was even present in the show on opening night, but it was cut immediately thereafter and not used again until much later revivals). Hell, even the song Adler and Ross wrote to be added to the movie version, “The Man Who Invented Love”, which wound up being cut at the last minute, became surprisingly popular in its own right, with Doris Day’s rendition even making it onto at least one of her greatest hits albums…not at all bad for a cut song from a musical. Richard Adler was not the most consistent of songwriters…even his score for Damn Yankees contained several seriously weak songs…but somehow everything he added to this particular score over the years seems to have turned to gold.
This score is unambitious, unashamedly pop-friendly, at times blatantly derivative (I’m not the first person to notice how much “A New Town Is a Blue Town” sounds like “Lonely Town” from On the Town in both music and lyrics), and one of the finest scores of the decade, a decade that, it’s worth noting, did not lack for competition in terms of great theater music. I have to acknowledge that most of the musical-theater classics that have shown this level of endurance are actually more artistically interesting than this one, but I also have to acknowledge that precious few of them are as much fun to see or hear, so I’m not entirely sure this show doesn’t come out on top in that particular contest.