For all these positive developments, this 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 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 the more tolerable 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 and also-rans, 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 got 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”.
Oh, Captain also deserves a mention here, though in this case the show is more notorious for its backstage antics and what they inspired than anything about the actual show. The musical in itself is actually quite a bit more respectable than the others I’ve named so far. Yes, it was a silly, vulgar Musical sitcom that was a reductive adaptation of a much classier and more intelligent movie (The Captain’s Paradise), but the score was highly enjoyable, the cast was full of talent, and the show was surprisingly non-sexist by the standards of Fifties Musical sex comedies, even retaining a hint of the forward-looking gender politics of the original movie. What makes the show truly infamous is that it was the inspiration for the plot of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Obviously the show was hardly a Springtime for Hitler-level disaster, but one of the show’s producers was caught selling phony shares of the show’s potential profits, and ultimately wound up in jail for it, something that has been tacitly acknowledged by Broadway insiders as a likely source of inspiration for Brooks’ film and subsequent musical.