For all the positive developments in Musical Theater during the Forties and Fifties, the era was far from perfect. Theater snobs like to imagine these decades (particularly the Fifties) as some kind of theoretically perfect alternative to the supposed tawdriness of modern Broadway, to the point where calling this era “The Golden Age of Broadway” has become common parlance even among people who aren’t theater snobs. It does look like more was being accomplished in terms of producing classic shows, but that’s mostly due to the tempo of production being much faster in those days…they were producing far more shows each season back then, so of course they had five or six major titles in a year as opposed to one or two. The difference was economic, not artistic…and what the theater snobs don’t want to remember is that the tempo for producing absolute garbage was just as quick in comparison to today.
Six shows in particular prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, and are fun to bring up when you encounter a theater snob gushing about the Fifties “Golden Age”…Buttrio Square, Hit the Trail, Portofino, Happy Town, Ankles Aweigh, and Whoop-Up. The first four are known to today’s theatergoers only by reputation, but they are widely agreed by the experts in the subject to be the four worst musicals of all time…yes, worse than any of the modern disasters that theater snobs routinely point to as signs of Broadway’s artistic apocalypse. According to the unlucky few who saw them, the first two were perhaps the stodgiest, most blatantly inept Operettas of all time, while the latter two were basically just an insane string of random nonsense.
As for Ankles Aweigh and Whoop-Up, they actually lasted long enough for cast albums to be made, and between them they represent the Gold standard of hilariously awful Broadway fun-trash, sending generations of listeners into hysterics with their garishly horrible numbers. Ankles Aweigh, with a score by composer Sammy Fain (who had a fine career in Hollywood but never had much luck with stage musicals), features an indescribably cheesy opening, “Italy” (‘where the air is filled with pizza pie perfume’). This is followed by “Headin’ For the Bottom Blues” (which sounds for all the world like a drag-queen showcase), what may be the stupidest drinking song of all time, “Here’s to Dear Old Us”, and an Eleven-O’Clock song (literally called “An Eleven-O’Clock Song”) that cuts itself off before it climaxes. True, the tunes themselves are catchy, which helps explain the show’s value as an immortally terrible gem, but even items like the bouncy “Walk Like a Sailor” and the double-entendre comedy song “Nothing Can Replace a Man” can’t really be considered ‘good songs’ in the classic sense of the word.
Whoop-Up, based on the same novel as the equally terrible Elvis vehicle Stay Away Joe from the Sixties, had a somewhat classier team of songwriters. Composer Moose Charlap wrote several of the classic tunes in the Mary Martin Peter Pan musical, including “I Won’t Grow Up”, “I Gotta Crow”, and “I’m Flying”. His lyricist, Normal Gimbel, would go on to pen the lyrics to several enduring Pop standards, including “The Girl from Ipanema”, “Killing Me Softly with His Song”, and “I Will Wait for You”. And the score they contributed to Whoop-Up has its moments, with songs like “When the Tall Man Talks” and “Quarrel-Tet” actually being halfway decent. The show even produced a minor semi-standard with the overlapping charm duet “Flattery”. But there’s enough material in the score that makes you wonder what kind of drugs the writers were taking to doom the entire enterprise. “Nobody Throw Those Bull” and “Til the Big Fat Moon Falls Down” in particular defy description, and numbers like “Chief Rocky Boy” and “The Best of What This Country’s Got (was taken from the Indians)” are politically incorrect enough to shock even the most devoted historical relativist. One of the numbers, the crass redneck come-on “Love Eyes”, even seems to have pioneered the “Bro-Country” genre a good fifty years before it became the scourge of Country radio.
And lest you think all the terrible shows of this “Golden Age” were just bottom-dwelling flops written by nobodies, there was plenty of embarrassing trash back then that involved major and even legendary names. Take, for example, the only Ethel Merman flop to actually come to Broadway with her in it, Happy Hunting (Merman normally had a near-infallible nose for sniffing out doomed shows and had quit more than one of them during rehearsals or tryouts, but her instincts seem to have failed her this time).
The book, basically a happy-ending version of the plot of Stella Dallas set at a then-topical royal wedding, was one of the worst of the decade, and the score, by a pair of amateur songwriters who never did anything else of consequence, was so weak that even Merman couldn’t do much with it.
Merman did get three good numbers…the opening showstopper “Gee, But It’s Good to be Here”, the clever “Mr. Livingstone (I Presume)”, and the minor Pop hit “Mutual Admiration Society”…and one passable number (the generic but inoffensive “This is What I Call Love”). But the rest of her numbers constitute the worst material of her career…the maudlin ballads “The Game of Love” and “I’m a Funny Dame”, the flat-out bizarre “A New-Fangled Tango”, and the corny title-song. The numbers for the other characters were even worse, such as “If’n”, which sounds like a filler song from a bad Elvis movie, or “Everyone Who’s Who’s Who”, which plays like an Abbott and Costello routine without the punchline. On top of that, Merman and her leading man, Fernando Lamas, hated each other so much that they proved utterly incapable of hiding it in their performances.
By the Beautiful Sea, a star vehicle for legendary comic actress Shirley Booth, wasn’t much better. In addition to its empty, unfunny and inconsistently-written book, it features a score even more barren than that of Happy Hunting. This is particularly disappointing given that, unlike that show, it was scored by a top-level composer and lyricist. Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields were both seasoned and distinguished veterans of the Musical-Theater canon, and they had written a perfectly lovely score for an earlier Shirley Booth vehicle, the musical adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but their work here is vapid and inane.
The score featured four completely irrelevant production numbers, three of them utterly generic and the fourth (“Hooray for George the Third”) downright bizarre. It also included a groan-inducing comic set piece for Booth, “I’d Rather Wake Up by Myself”, two overripe romantic ballads for the leading man, and a pair of tacky novelty numbers for a Black housekeeper whose racial sensitivity could be questioned even by Fifties standards. The only decent song in the show was “Old Enough to Love”, and that’s only because its tune was taken from a cut song from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn called “Tuscaloosa”.
Frankly, even some of the hits of this era weren’t significantly more substantial than those of the Twenties and Thirties. Take the Judy Holliday vehicle Bells Are Ringing: it had a luminous star performance and an excellent score by Jule Styne and Comden and Green, but its plot was implausible nonsense, and worse, totally devoid of any real content. Call Me Madam was even weaker, with a plot that, while topical at the time, was ultimately little more than an excuse for an Ethel Merman star turn, and a pleasant but not especially distinguished score from Irving Berlin in his declining years (although it did produce three still-recognizable songs: “The Hostess With the Mostes’”, “You’re Just In Love”, and the campaign song for President Eisenhower, “They Like Ike”). These shows aren’t worthless by any means, but they bear more of a resemblance to many of the modern shows that theater snobs are inclined to turn up their noses at than those theater snobs would care to admit, even to themselves.
Slightly more respectable, but still not immune to this phenomenon, is the work of the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Both their shows were masterminded by director George Abbott, who had been the dean of old-style Musical Comedy but was becoming increasingly irrelevant in this new era.
Granted, The Pajama Game, the first and better of the two, is so uniformly delightful throughout that despite its lack of ambition it’s hard to generate a plausible complaint against it (though it’s worth noting that hasn’t stopped theater snobs from coming up with complaints about equally accomplished lightweight comedies from the modern era). However, the second hit for the team of Abbott, Adler and Ross, Damn Yankees, was quite a bit weaker.
On paper, it had a much more interesting story than The Pajama Game…a middle-aged man makes a deal with the Devil (here going by the name of Mr. Applegate) in order to enable his favorite baseball team to win the Pennant, and is transformed into a young, unstoppably gifted baseball player. Despite the aid of Lola, a Satanic temptress who is sent to seduce him but instead falls in love with him, he very nearly loses his soul, but is ultimately saved by his genuine love for the wife he left behind.
Unfortunately, this colorful story was told by way of a cluttered, sloppily-written book that made it seem far more conventional and mundane than it actually was. And the score was much more uneven than that of The Pajama Game. There were gems, to be sure…the irresistible cheer-up ditty “You’ve Gotta Have Heart” was a massive hit for a reason. And Lola’s signature numbers “A Little Brains, a Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants” represent some of the best Musical Comedy writing of their time, as does Applegate’s deadpan villain song “Those Were the Good Old Days”.
But the ballads were on the dull side, with “A Man Doesn’t Know” in particular being stiffer and more stilted than any Operetta ballad. This impression was only enhanced by the casting of Stephen Douglas as Joe’s younger self…Douglas, a popular leading man of the era, had a fine voice but was so stodgy that he made Nelson Eddy look like Carol Channing. Even worse, Bob Fosse’s two big dance numbers, while splendid as choreography, were attached to some of the weakest songs he would ever be offered, with “Who’s Got the Pain?” in particular ranking as one of the worst songs to be found in any enduring hit musical. Damn Yankees serves as a good reminder that even many of the canonized classics of the so-called “Golden Age” are not really as perfect as some people like to remember.
So do Cole Porter’s last two stage musicals, Can-Can and Silk Stockings. Porter’s two previous scores at this point, for Kiss Me, Kate and Out of This World, may have shown an unusual level of ambition and consistency, but here he went back to his old formulas from the Twenties and Thirties—implausible, borderline nonsensical plots musicalized with a handful of hit Pop tunes surrounded by a bunch of undistinguished filler.
The book of Can-Can started off as first-rate Abe Burrows, a very funny and nicely pointed satire of censorship. Unfortunately, by the second act, the plot had completely disintegrated into random insanity, so that no-one in the audience had the slightest idea what was going on. That technique can be harnessed for deliberate artistic purposes, as it was in Yip Harburg’s Flahooley!, but here it just seemed the result of sloppy craftsmanship.
The score also caught Porter at less than his best. There were about a half-dozen songs in the show that were hits to some degree, but only two of them (“I Love Paris” and “It’s All Right with Me”) really qualify as top-rank Porter classics, although the title-song, more obscure today, does feature some of his wittiest rhyming stunts. Still, the filler numbers were extremely weak even by Porter filler standards, particularly “Every Man is a Stupid Man” and “Never, Never Be an Artist”. Even a few of the hits seem slightly questionable, with the uninspired “Ce’st Magnifique” in particular not having aged well.
Silk Stockings, Porter’s last show for Broadway, was even weaker: it featured superficially topical subject matter, a good cast, a few fine ballads, and virtually nothing else. The attempts at satirical humor regarding Stalinist Russia were so inappropriately light-hearted as to be arguably offensive to both then-contemporary and modern sensibilities, and the score was perhaps the most uneven of Porter’s entire career, with “Satin and Silk” and the tasteless “Siberia” being among the worst songs he ever wrote. Like all the show in this discussion, it persists as an inescapable reminder that, if I may quote Billy Joel, “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”.