Over the course of the 1960s and beyond, the serious musicals (the ‘Musical Plays’, as we designate them in the business), influenced by My Fair Lady, became increasing dense and intellectual, dealing with far more complex sociological and philosophical themes than most of the earlier Musical Plays. Even the greatest Musical Plays of the Forties and Fifties, such as Carousel and West Side Story, deal with fairly simple, easy-to-understand themes. For example, Carousel is a fundamental story of redemption, and even West Side Story, for all its sophisticated playwrighting, is ultimately just the perennial tragedy of love torn apart by violence. For all their emotional power, they had more in common with Classical Opera than with the great “legitimate” plays of the early 20th Century. On the contrary, these new shows dealt with themes like the positive and negative aspects of cultural traditions, the moral compromises that must be made in order to achieve historical change, the wisdom of shutting out reality in favor of an idealistic madness, or the inherent amorality of art and artistic genius.
Apart from the obvious influence of My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Gypsy, there were two other notable forerunners of this development…both shows by the team of Bock and Harnick, still featuring some traditional Musical-Comedy trappings but dealing with serious political issues and based at least to some extent on real events. (There were some Fifties musicals like Call Me Madam that dealt superficially with then-contemporary politics, but in spite of a melodious if oddly generic Irving Berlin score, that show was merely an excuse for an Ethel Merman star turn, and had no interest in actually addressing the subject in any meaningful way.)
The first of these, Fiorello, was a big hit at the time and made a star out of its leading man, Tom Bosley, but is only half-remembered today. This is mostly because, despite a solid and intelligent book telling the story of real-life New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the score just didn’t measure up to those of the other shows that season. There were a couple of nice ballads in “Til Tomorrow” and “When Did I Fall In Love?”, a few amusing comedy numbers (particularly the genuinely witty satire “Little Tin Box” for the show’s villains), and one genuine showstopper, “The Name’s LaGuardia”. But too much of the score was merely ordinary, and today it sounds distinctly disappointing to people who know Bock and Harnick primarily for Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me. This show actually won a joint Best Musical Tony with The Sound of Music, beating out Gypsy in the process, but it is not remotely in the same league with either of those shows, and that particular Tony call is considered one of the ceremony’s most infamous blunders today.
The follow-up to Fiorello, Tenderloin, changed the names associated with its historical source (in this case, religious social reformer Charles Henry Parkhurst), but it too dealt with a mostly true story and focused on real-life issues. The score was actually much better than Fiorello‘s, approaching Bock and Harnick’s best: apart from one embarrassing dud, “Good Clean Fun”, even the numbers for the dull churchgoing characters were valid, and the material for the titular vice district they were trying to shut down was often glorious. But the show made two fatal mistakes. First, they hired a star (Maurice Evans) to play the crusading Reverend, which meant they had to give at least as much stage time to him and his congregation as they did to the far more interesting criminal denizens of the Tenderloin itself. The second mistake was that they tried to paint the Reverend as a hero, but the likable rogues he was trying to stop were far more appealing than he was…indeed, the Reverend mostly came off as a self-righteous “moral guardian” type trying to spoil the enjoyment of people who weren’t hurting anyone just because he personally found it offensive.
But these were merely baby steps in the new direction: in a couple of years, shows would start appearing that made Fiorello and Tenderloin look positively simple-minded by comparison. Camelot and Oliver, two of the first examples of this new breed, are both based on lengthy, complex English novels from the high literary canon, and as a result, both are so stuffed full of plot, character and content that they seem to be bursting at the seams. Camelot’s source, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, is loaded with dozens of secondary characters and subplots relating to them, but the musical has so much to deal with just regarding the central story of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Mordred and the show’s high-minded messages about civilization, that it was initially four hours long during its first tryouts.
The resulting show is an odd mix of genre elements that plays like something of an extremely intellectual Romantic Operetta (as opposed to the extremely intellectual Comic Operetta represented by something like Candide). While the book is certainly flawed, with some rather stodgy attempts at ceremony, some pacing issues, and some of the attempted humor falling flat (not to mention the tone radically shifting between the two acts), the show still plays wonderfully in performance, immensely charming and with a monumental emotional impact. The score is one of the team’s finest, combining the wit and sophistication of My Fair Lady with the beauty and emotional weight of Brigadoon. Particularly admired are the hilarious opening, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, the ravishing siren call “Follow Me”, Lancelot’s introductory showstopper “C’est Moi” and his soaring hit ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You”, Arthur’s deeply touching “How To Handle a Woman”, the quirkily brilliant villain song “Fie on Goodness”, and the title-song, which receives a memorable reprise at one of the most moving final curtains in Musical Theater history.
There are other numbers in the show that tend to be misunderstood, but apart from the ridiculous duet “The Persuasion” (arguably the stupidest song Lerner and Loewe ever wrote), most of them work beautifully once you understand their context. To be honest, as wonderful as Julie Andrews was in the part of Guinevere, she may have contributed to some of these misunderstandings involving Guinevere’s character numbers, as she tended to deliberately deflect the darker elements of the character. Performed as written, songs like the jubilantly decadent “The Lusty Month of May” and the gleefully violent “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” paint Guinevere as a powerfully sexual and rather dangerous character (which, by the by, is exactly how she is portrayed in White’s novel), but Andrews’ delicate delivery makes it sound like her character is being playfully facetious when she spins out fantasies of men killing themselves and each other for her. As a result, “The Lusty Month of May” comes off as little more than a frivolous lark on the cast album, and the placid tune to “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, intended to ironically contrast the shock value of the lyrics, makes it seem almost dull in the Andrews rendition. Vanessa Redgrave in the film version, despite not having a tenth of Andrews’ vocal prowess, probably offered a more honest and accurate portrait of the character.
Oliver, drawn from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, seems simpler on the surface, but it really isn’t…the score is so full of jolly music-hall singalongs that it’s easy to forget that these upbeat tunes mask a deep and disturbing darkness. The show’s author, Lionel Bart, did heavily simplify the process by which Oliver’s true identity is discovered, deleting a number of the novel’s characters in the process, and he did soften the character of Fagin from the monster he was in the novel to an affably lovable rogue (though, given that Dickens’ Fagin was a blatant anti-semitic stereotype, this may have been helpful or even necessary to make audiences accept the show in the post-World War II era.)
But apart from that, Bart was actually much more faithful to Dickens than he is generally given credit for, especially in spirit. While some of the show’s upbeat singalongs seem like pure innocent fun, others, like “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom-Pah-Pah”, have a distinctly seedy side. Dickens’ messages about hypocrisy and social injustice are conveyed beautifully, the portrayal of villain Bill Sykes is absolutely terrifying and not remotely family-friendly, and Bill’s extremely sympathetic girlfriend/slave, Nancy, still gets graphically murdered onstage at the climax of the show.
Bart’s score is fairly simple compared to the other great Sixties Musical Plays, but it is also immensely tuneful and full of feeling. The most iconic numbers are the uptempo showstopper “Consider Yourself” and the gorgeous ballad “As Long as He Needs Me” (which is much darker in the context of the show than most popular renditions let on), but the opening chorus “Food, Glorious Food”, the plaintive “Where Is Love?”, the innocent charm number “I’d Do Anything”, and the sublimely beautiful “Who Will Buy?” are also easily recognizable to most of the general public.
But arguably the most interesting numbers are the more plot-specific ones that are rarely heard outside the show itself, which tend to be either dark and disturbing or funny in a much more twisted way than the show’s hits. The haunting “Boy for Sale” (which is disturbingly pretty for a song about human trafficking), and the terrifying villain song “My Name” are examples of the former category, the morbidly comic “That’s Your Funeral” and the sickeningly coy “love” duet for the villainous couple who run the workhouse, “I Shall Scream” of the latter.
The character of Fagin is given particularly colorful material, perfectly tailored to the role’s originator Ron Moody, such as his wheedling induction of Oliver into a life of crime, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, his quasi-sincere expression of affection for his orphan henchmen, “Be Back Soon”, or his tour-de-force eleven-o’clock number “Reviewing the Situation”.
The next of these densely-written Musical Plays, Fiddler on the Roof, has been described as a Concept Musical by some, and it does have some elements of that in its staging, specifically the title character, who serves as a visual embodiment of the show’s community and culture. But apart from this, it’s staged fairly straightforwardly and realistically, so I don’t think I’d consider it a full-fledged example of the ‘Concept’ show. The show, concept or no concept, was definitely a staging triumph, but like all the Musical-Theatre staging triumphs to survive as top classics decades after their original production, it had the substance in book and score to back up its impressive visual look.
The score’s sound is largely drawn from the sounds of real Jewish Folk music, giving it the authenticity needed for the material. Apart from the bittersweet “Sunrise, Sunset” and the chorus of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” (as detached from its bitterly sardonic verses), the score didn’t produce much in the way of “hits”, in the sense of songs routinely heard outside of the show itself…Bock and Harnick’s work was too tightly integrated for that. But it’s still worth observing that just about everybody seems to know the scene-setting opening “Tradition”, the shout-to-the-heavens showstopper “If I Were a Rich Man”, the joyous drinking song “To Life”, the ecstatic “Miracle of Miracles”, and the heartbreaking ballad “Far From the Home I Love”, wherever they might or might not have heard them.
Much debate has gone into which actor’s interpretation of Tevye was the best, and I have always leaned toward Chaim Topol, the star of the iconic and extraordinarily faithful movie version. Granted, the role’s originator, Zero Mostel, was charismatic and endearing, but I’ve always preferred Topol’s Tevye precisely because he was willing to grapple with the character’s dark side. Yes, it helps that Topol is a much subtler actor than the famously outsized Mostel, but so was Herschel Bernardi, and he quite openly admitted that he saw Tevye as a kind of living saint. Remember that this is a character that disowned his own daughter because she married outside of her race…that’s hardly the action of a saint.
The truth is that Tevye has two sides to his character that are continually in conflict. The first is a progressive and enlightened thinker and loving father. The second…let’s be honest here…is a barbaric tribal savage who hates and fears anyone and anything that threatens his little closed-off cultural bubble. The first two times his traditions are challenged, the philosopher and father wins out, but the third time…when Chava marries a gentile…his better impulses simply can’t overcome his ingrained tribal prejudice against the “other”. When Topol delivers the line “There is no other hand!” just for a moment it looks and sounds like this loving family man has been momentarily replaced by the Devil himself. _That’s_ the proper way to play that scene.
Tevye has these two sides to himself because Judaism, at least at that point in its history, had those two sides. And the reason Judaism had those two sides is that every traditional culture that is going through the process of accommodating social progress grapples with those same two sides and the conflict between them. Hence the famous quote by the producer of Fiddler’s first Japanese production: “Tell me, do they understand this show in America? It’s so Japanese!” It was originally expected that Fiddler would appeal largely to Jewish audiences, but the show’s story turned out to have universal appeal, because the process it describes is pretty much the same in every culture.
Kwamina, the first show by Richard Adler (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees) after the death of his songwriting partner Jerry Ross, was a similar, if less successful, meditation on cultural change. Adler considered Kwamina‘s score to be the greatest of his career, and though it is neither as consistent nor really as enjoyable as The Pajama Game, it does have a level of ambition that none of Adler’s shows before or after it ever approached.
It deals with social change in tribal Africa, as the son of a chief educated in England tries to modernize his tribe’s way of life while dealing with his forbidden feelings for a white female doctor. While the musical idiom is really more faux-African-sounding theatre music than the more authentic sound heard in, say, the African chants included in The Lion King, the numbers for the African characters are still unusual and fascinating. Items like the ensemble showstoppers “The Cocoa Bean Song”, “The Sun is Beginning to Crow”, and “Something Big”, the hauntingly beautiful ballad “Nothing More to Look Forward To”, and the deeply creepy villain song “A Man Can Have No Choice”, however authentically African they may or may not be, certainly sounded like nothing else on Broadway at the time. And the comedy numbers “Seven Sheep, Four Red Shirts, and a Bottle of Gin” and “One Wife” combine this same unique sound with a genuine sense of insight into cultural relativism and reactions to social change.
The songs for Adler’s then-wife Sally Ann Howes as the female lead are more of a mix. Howes did get two devastating torch songs in “What’s Wrong With Me?” and “Another Time, Another Place”, and an extremely clever comedy number where she mocks the title character’s faux-British affectations, “You’re as English As”. But her two duets with Kwamina, the contentious “Did You Hear That?” and the wistful “Ordinary People”, are on the dreary side, and the ballad “What Happened to Me Tonight?” is so cliched that it’s almost painful.
But Kwamina had bigger problems than its slightly uneven score. For one thing, it was essentially The King and I reset in Africa. Like the earlier show, it was a meditation on the benefits and drawbacks of colonial influence symbolically reinforced by a forbidden and unfulfilled romantic attraction. But it never really matched the insight or complexity of The King and I, and its love story was paltry and formulaic compared to the suppressed passions of Anna and the King’s not-quite-love-plot.
But all these issues took a complete backseat to the fact that the show came out in 1961 and featured a romance between a Black man and a white woman. In spite of the fact that the two actors never kissed on stage and the characters ultimately ended their relationship, this still wound up causing so much audience outrage at the time that the show’s artistic quality was essentially irrelevant: it could not possibly have succeeded in that political climate. This is probably a good thing to remember when a show might offend our contemporary political sensibilities…after all, future generations might look back on our objections with as much scorn as we do when we think of the reasons for this show’s failure.
The next real giant of the “legitimate theatre with songs” model came a couple of years later…the immortal masterpiece Man of La Mancha. Given that this show happens to be not only my favorite musical, but my favorite work of art in any medium, I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of assessing its merits with any degree of objectivity, but I intend to do my best.
The thing that most people don’t seem to understand about this piece is that it isn’t intended to be a straightforward adaptation of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. It uses several of the characters and concepts from the novel, but the structure, tone and message are entirely different. Don Quixote was a series of rambling adventures with a largely comedic tone and a rather depressing ultimate end. Man of La Mancha is a tight, focused drama full of serious and high-minded ideals and philosophy, and it climaxes in triumphant ecstasy despite the outwardly tragic circumstances of its ending. Admittedly, many of the themes expressed in Man of La Mancha are also present to some degree in Don Quixote, particularly in the more subdued and philosophical Book Two, but they are much more subtly presented there, given that they are buried under layers of raucous comedy.
But it is exactly these changes that make Man of La Mancha succeed where most stage or film adaptations of Don Quixote have failed. Cervantes’ picaresque structure just doesn’t lend itself to being condensed into a form short enough to be suitable for visual media, so the only way to successfully adapt the material is to entirely abandon the original structure.
More straightforward musical adaptations of Cervantes’ classic novel had been attempted, most famously a lightweight Operatic version by Jules Massenet, but none of these had ever come remotely close to equaling their illustrious subject matter. It’s worth noting that the one that came the closest, Georg Phillip Telemann’s mini-Opera Don Quixote at the Wedding of Camacho, used an approach not terribly different from Man of La Mancha’s…isolating a single incident from the book as its subject, rather than trying to condense the whole story into a single Opera.
Man of La Mancha, on the other hand, has not only succeeded in becoming one of the most beloved and successful musicals in the world, but it has actually managed in some respects to eclipse its source material’s image in popular culture, to the point where most laymen seem to think ‘to dream the impossible dream’ is a quote from the novel.
What makes Man of La Mancha unique among musicals is that it is first and foremost a play. While its music and lyrics are certainly some of the most distinguished in the Musical Theater canon, it’s worth noting that the show’s primary author is almost always regarded to be its librettist, Dale Wasserman. This is almost unheard-of for a musical, but then Wasserman originally wrote the piece as a play. It had been staged on television under the title I, Don Quixote, with famed Broadway actor Lee J. Cobb in the lead. This original draft was flawed and cluttered compared to the more focused second draft that became the Musical’s book, but the gold that would become Man of La Mancha was already there, and even then audiences were deeply affected by it. Mitch Leigh, the Musical’s eventual composer, certainly seems to have reacted that way to the play, for his first words when he met Wasserman were reportedly the words familiar to every star-struck, worshipful fanboy: “You are God!”
The score was based heavily on Flamenco sounds, which was technically anachronistic, given that Flamenco did not really exist yet in Cervantes’ lifetime, but proved to be a better choice than the Renaissance-era music of the actual period, which in Spain mostly involved bagpipes. The show’s best-known numbers are the grandiose, Classical-influenced anthems and ballads given to the legit-voiced leading characters, which are the direct predecessor of the sounds heard such later quasi-Operatic musicals as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. These include the thrilling title-song (which shares its melody with the bitterly caustic cry of anguish “Aldonza”), the moving ballads “Dulcinea”, “What Does He Want of Me?”, and “To Each His Dulcinea”, and, above all else, the monumentally inspiring number known as “The Quest”, better known outside the show as “The Impossible Dream”. Some of the younger and more ignorant listeners out there think of this only as a dull Easy-Listening ballad, and I will admit that the popular versions’ persistent habit of playing it at half its original tempo doesn’t help with that perception. But the profoundly inspirational power of the lyrics is evident even in the slower versions, so that does not really provide a credible excuse for such lazy and shallow listening.
The show’s four comedy numbers are not quite on the sublime level of the lyrical and dramatic passages, but they serve their purpose beautifully within the context of the show. Sancho Panza, the character who delivers two of these numbers, was originally played by Yiddish comedian Irving Jacobson. This was partly because of another Mitch Leigh musical, the disastrous Chinese-Yiddish cultural collision Chu Chem, which was playing in the same theater at the time and shared some cast members with La Mancha, including Jacobson. But on another level, it was actually a massive stroke of inspiration. If you think about it, Sancho Panza’s folksy, ruefully optimistic, survivalist sense of humor in the original novel is a surprisingly apt match for the sensibilities the Yiddish comedy tradition was based on. Sancho’s two solos in the show, “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip”, are sad-clown comedy numbers, ultimately meant to be more touching than humorous, and their Yiddish-comedy sound and feel strikes exactly the right note for the character. In any case, Jacobson, while by no means a great singer, was the sweetest and most heartbreaking Sancho of all time.
The show as a whole has a near-religious inspirational power comparable to that found in Carousel. Given all this, it seems almost bizarre that the show has a surprisingly large number of detractors…more, in fact, than any hit Broadway show from before the Lloyd-Webber era other than The Sound of Music. This is ultimately because this is a show espousing an intensely idealistic philosophy that advocates denial of reality in favor of a noble madness. What makes this an issue is that most musicals that espouse a philosophy don’t actually require you to fully accept that philosophy in order to enjoy them (for example, one can easily appreciate Les Miserables without being a Christian despite its overt religious content). This show, however, requires you to believe in its ideals in order to be moved by it, and if someone is too cynical or rational to accept this philosophy, they will not only fail to appreciate its greatness, but in many cases seem to develop a passionate hatred for it for challenging the security of their worldview. I’d argue that this only proves what a deep chord this musical strikes even in those who reject it.
Another show that followed closely in the footsteps of Man of La Mancha (perhaps a little too closely) in this era was the Anthony Burgess/Michael Jay Lewis musical adaptation of Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. There have been a surprising number of Cyrano musicals, given the concept’s consistent track record of failure and widespread reputation as a quintessential bad idea, but most of them have little importance even within the field of Broadway flops. Of all of them, this is the only one that qualifies as a major cult item, and that alone constitutes a certain achievement within its field.
Granted, part of its importance can be chalked up to Christopher Plummer’s brilliant performance in the lead. Already famous as a nonmusical Cyrano, Plummer gave an acting performance on a level with the all-time greats of the legitimate stage, and while he did not possess much of a singing voice (he was dubbed in The Sound of Music), he managed to incorporate his unique vocal sound into his performance very effectively.
But it’s also an undeniable fact that this show has significantly better music than any of the other Cyrano adaptations. Michael J. Lewis, a film composer best known for his score for the underrated film version of The Madwoman of Chaillot, proved to be as talented at theater composing as he was at film scoring, providing an always tuneful and often ravishingly romantic score. Anthony Burgess, famed author of A Clockwork Orange, who had provided the translation of the play that the the musical was based on, also contributed the lyrics, and the quality of his poetry was often astounding: “Now she knows that I exist/Life’s a rose that she has kissed”, for example.
Approximately half of the score is absolutely glorious. Cyrano has two anthems, the exultant “From Now Till Forever” and the defiant “No Thank You”, that may echo Don Quixote’s numbers from Man of La Mancha, but have a sufficiently distinctive style (especially in their far more ornate lyrics) to stand on their own. He also gets a heartrending ballad near the end of the show called “I Never Loved You”, one of those hopeless-denial-of-love plaints that could honestly rival “If I Loved You” for lyricism and heartbreak. His Roxanne, played in the original cast by a fabulously gifted soprano named Leigh Beery, has three exquisite solos, the ecstatic “You Have Made Me Love”, the painfully honest “Love Is Not Love” and the fatalistic yet optimistic “Autumn Carol”, and a tender, rippling duet with Cyrano about their shared childhood called “Bergerac”.
The other half, of the score, however, particularly the comedy numbers and the music for the supporting characters, does leave something to be desired. “The Nose Song” is simply the famous monologue from the play rewritten into rhyming couplets and set to a kind of sprechstimme, and it does not gain advantage from the adaptation. “Thither Thother Thide of the Moon”, a nonsensical hamfest that borders on the Floppo, is far less interesting than the genuinely creative monologue about travelling to the moon it replaced. “Roxana” is pretty, but it is also a blatant ripoff of “Dulcinea” from Man of La Mancha, even respelling the heroine’s name to support its derivative construction. Christian’s “It’s She and It’s Me” fails to find the poignancy in its inarticulate character, coming off as banal and uninteresting. And “Paris Cuisine” emphasizes the wrong moment from the scene it emerges from—we could have had a plaintive piper’s tune about homesickness (which, as Cyrano observes in the scene, is a nobler pain than hunger), but instead we just get a generic chorus number in which the soldiers grouse about being hungry.
The real problem with the show is that even the wonderful numbers do tend to come off as a little underwhelming when surrounded by Rostand’s poetry, which has a musicality and lyricism that only a Mozart or a Schubert, or at the very least a Sondheim, could possibly hope to live up to. Even if the show had consistently kept up the level of its best numbers, it still would have inevitably come up short in the end. This is the fatal flaw that has sunk several other Cyrano stage musicals as well as at least one opera version. But as I said, this one does have a special status among those failed adaptations, and if that makes it only the best among failures, its virtues still make its sumptuously recorded cast album worth the trouble of seeking out.
The next of our ‘legitimate theatre’ Musicals, 1776, took the “play with songs” approach further, at least in terms of genre models, than any of the examples we’ve discussed so far. The book of 1776 actually has far more in common in terms of content, structure and overall approach with the ‘straight’ plays of its era (e.g. The Lion in Winter) than it does with even the other intellectual Musical Plays of the Sixties. It’s a dialogue-heavy, intellectual, erudite historical drama in what some people would now term the “Masterpiece Theater” vein, and unlike My Fair Lady, which shares some of the same qualities, it actually de-emphasizes its musical elements for the most part. It’s hard to know what else to say about the book, except that it refuses to use strawmen, putting witty lines and persuasive arguments into the mouths of even the show’s antagonists, and that it manages to manufacture suspense where none should be possible. You may think, coming in, that the ending is a foregone conclusion, but believe me, like everyone else who sees the show, you will get so sucked in by the dramatic tension that you’ll completely forget what you know about how it all turned out.
What has kept 1776 from quite reaching the highest tier of Musical Theatre classics is its somewhat disappointing score. There are admittedly three wonderful numbers: the chilling war ballad “Momma, Look Sharp”, the deeply disturbing “Molasses to Rum”, where Southerner Edward Rutledge scathingly points out the hypocrisy of the North trying to abolish slavery when it was still making money off the slave trade itself at the time, and the thrilling eleven-o’clock outburst of hope and defiance “Is Anybody There?” But apart from these three numbers, John Adams’ recurring ‘letter duet’ with his faraway wife “Yours, Yours, Yours”, and the satirical “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”, none of the songs have anything to do with the drama or the main point of the show: they’re mostly lighthearted respites between the intense debate scenes. Worse, many of them have an almost nursery-rhyme-like inanity to their lyrics that sits poorly beside the book’s eloquent, sophisticated dialogue, with “The Egg” in particular being one of the most asinine songs in any enduring Broadway hit.
While speaking of both Fiddler on the Roof and 1776, one must inevitably address the two shows’ bastard offspring, The Rothschilds. Like Fiddler, it is idiomatically Jewish in both subject matter and musical sound, and like 1776, it deals heavily in politics and historical change (also, the song “Stability” is a transparent copy of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”). The thing that sets it apart from both its predecessors is that, while Fiddler is an intimate story about the life of a single family within a small community, and 1776 is a tight, focused piece taking place over a few weeks, The Rothschilds is a grand, sprawling historical epoch spanning more than a hundred years.
The show featured a marvelous performance from Hal Linden as the patriarch of the titular family, in what is generally agreed to be the best stage role of his career. Really, the show might have been a success if the score were a little stronger. Like 1776, the show features a handful of enthralling pieces (Linden’s establishing number “He Tossed a Coin”, the first act finale, and the Eleven-O’clocker “In My Own Lifetime” are all wonderful), but apart from that, most of the score resembles the weaker portions of the 1776 score without the humor. It’s too lightweight to approach the emotional power of Fiddler, and too humorless to even serve as frivolous diversion the way the 1776 songs do.
Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen, the authors of The Rothchilds’ lyrics and book, would attempt a follow-up historical drama in a similar vein that might have taken the “dark and serious” angle a wee bit too far. This was Rex, the first of two different musicals concerning English historical monarch Henry VIII. It actually had a better score than The Rothchilds: Richard Rodgers wrote the music, and while it is not on the level of his heyday work, the score is still often highly attractive, with strong ballads like “No Song More Pleasing”, “As Once I Loved You”, and “Away From You” alternating with ambitious choral numbers like “The Field of Cloth of Gold” and “Christmas in Hampton Court”.
Unfortunately, the show tried to sell the audience entirely too sympathetic a view of Henry’s character: even in the early days of Musical Theater, a man who executes his wives because they give birth to daughters instead of sons would not have made a suitable romantic leading man, and by the standards of the Seventies and beyond, it was hard for audiences to see him as anything but a straight-up monster. The show would probably have been more effective if it had made two major changes: first, giving a darker, more honest appraisal of Henry’s true character, and second, dropping the pointlessly sordid first act and focusing entirely on Henry’s second-act conflict with his daughter, the future Elizabeth I, who was, frankly, a much easier historical figure to root for. Even with these changes, though, the show does seem excessively weighty and humorless for a Musical, even by the “New” standards of the medium: after all, even Sondheim’s Assassins, more than a decade later, would understand the need to leaven its darkness with a bit of fun. Indeed, that was the secret of the second and more successful musical about Henry VIII, Six: not only did it acknowledge Henry as the bastard he was, but it managed to find a way to actually have fun with the subject.
Even more extreme in its audience-unfriendly choice of material (although still probably the best show as a composition that Alan Jay Lerner would write after he split from Loewe) is the 1971 road-closer Lolita, My Love. This show carries a certain mystique among musical theater fans as perhaps the definitive example of a bad idea well-executed. Ken Mandelbaum, the world’s greatest acknowledged authority on Broadway flops, described it as “a grand attempt at the impossible”. The reason it failed should be fairly obvious from the title: it was a musical version of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, a book so scandalous in its subject matter that its title has become a universal byword for pedophilia in multiple cultures.
Of course, the primary basis and appeal of Nabokov’s original novel is the elaborate mind games it plays regarding the nature of fictional narrative. Most of this content is inevitably lost in a visual medium, so no musical (or film, for that matter) could ever fully adapt the novel. However, Camelot is also based on an ultra-complex novel that it had to heavily water down simply to fit its contents into three hours of theater, and it still succeeded, because what was left of the story was still interesting enough to justify the adaptation. And I’d argue the same holds true, at least in theory, for the actual plot of Lolita, which is what is retained for the musical…the story of an ultra-erudite sociopathic pedophile who marries a woman in order to get at her preteen daughter, and his cross-country odyssey with the daughter in tow after her mother’s death. The problem with this story is not that it isn’t interesting enough to carry the musical…it’s that the story is so insanely unappealing, both in its outrageously shocking basic subject matter and in the sheer unpleasantness of its story details, that no matter how brilliant the writing was, no-one wanted to see it.
Most of this has to do with the central character of Humbert Humbert, and not just because of his attraction to underage girls. Humbert is so utterly self-involved and self-deluded, and his supposed “love” for Lolita so devoid of any real concern for her or anyone else, that the age difference is arguably not even the sickest thing about their “relationship”. Humbert describes, in the beautiful ballad “The Broken Promise Land of Fifteen”, his rationale for his perversion (an obsession with the memory of an adolescent crush that fled from him), but that doesn’t really explain everything that’s wrong with him: quite apart from his unlawful sexual proclivities, he is clearly a clinical sociopath, and you don’t get that from a lost love, however traumatic.
It’s a shame, because the show, as gratuitously unpleasant as it is, is an amazing showpiece of theater writing. The book, written by the great Alan Jay Lerner, makes Humbert as vivid and complex in the nuances of his monstrousness as he was in the original novel (it’s worth noting that Nabokov’s entire reason for granting permission to produce the musical, against his better judgment, is that he was himself a huge fan of Lerner’s oeuvre).
The music, by famed film composer John Barry, is extremely accomplished and frequently gorgeous, and Lerner’s lyrics are absolutely dazzling. The numbers for Humbert and his unfortunate wife Charlotte are superb—Humbert’s haunting ballads “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen”, “Tell Me, Tell Me”, and “Lolita”; his dazzling dissertation on his chosen perversion “Dante, Petrarch, and Poe”; Charlotte’s irresistible showstopper “Sur le Quais”; “Farewell, Little Dream, Farewell”, perhaps the most loathsome villain song in Broadway history (all the more so because it’s being sung by the protagonist); and “How Far Is It to the Next Town?”, an extended musical scene for Humbert and Lolita designed to play like a waking nightmare. It might be a controversial statement, but I’d argue these numbers may well represent the best lyrics Lerner ever wrote for anything (and I’m including My Fair Lady in that statement).
Not that the show is perfect. The opening number for Humbert’s rival Clare Quilty, “Going, Going, Gone” is also quite fine (amazingly, it actually got a Pop recording by Shirley Bassey), but the numbers for Lolita herself and the ensemble are less interesting. And given that the show, like any Broadway-bound show that closes on the road, was never properly finished, there is some material (like Quilty’s “March Out of My Life”) that is a total waste of time and would assuredly have been cut had the show completed its journey to Broadway.
There is no official recording of the score (only a live bootleg that was apparently briefly available on the legitimate market before Lerner and co. found out about it), and the show has only seen one revival since its original production closed. And as disappointing as that revival was, it doesn’t seem especially likely there will be another anytime soon, so this show will have to live on as a widely-coveted bootleg recording and a vivid theatrical legend.
And of course, we cannot touch on the intersection between musicals and serious drama without mentioning the late Peter Schaffer, whose two greatest and most enduring masterpieces are probably the most beloved ‘straight’ plays to emerge on Broadway since the heyday of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. The first one was the incredibly disturbing and always controversial exploration of the nature of insanity, Equus. The second, which falls under our purview here, was the no less tragic, but far more lyrical and poetic retelling of the downfall of legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aptly titled Amadeus (which, of course, means ‘loved by God’, a key theme in the story). This work is not usually classified as a “Musical” by the standard critical establishment, but it certainly qualifies as a piece of Musical Drama on the same grounds as, say, the original film version of Saturday Night Fever.
The most famous version of the story of second-rate composer Salieri’s vendetta against Mozart has proven to be the familiar movie version with F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. But while Shaffer did write the screenplay to the movie as well, there are enormous differences between the movie and the stage play, and in many of these differences it is the stage play that comes off better in the comparison. For one thing, the film has gained the show a reputation as an open flouting of historical fact, something that is actually much less true in the stage show. The events of the stage show, while they obviously didn’t really happen, are careful not to contradict any anything we actually know for sure (or at least anything that has made it into the realm of common knowledge), so it’s much easier to imagine that these events could have happened without anyone knowing.
The stage play’s text is, impressively, at once far more eloquent than the film’s script, and far more concise. The film’s dialogue, while fairly literate by film standards, had been pared down from the verbal sophistication and complexity of the play’s original speech, resulting in a somewhat flatter and less nuanced treatment of its themes, as well as the loss of much of the poetic beauty of Shaffer’s language itself. At the same time, the film gets bogged down in heavy, pedantic scenes of discussion and negotiation that the lighter, fleeter stage version manages to avoid…having Salieri narrate the story directly to the audience contributed greatly to an impressive economy of exposition.
Granted, the movie still may have been the most effective version of the property up to that point. It introduced a key element that, while present in the earliest drafts of the show, was virtually lost by the time of its first Broadway engagement: Salieri’s gradually growing pity for the man he has destroyed, and his realization that Mozart might not be as unworthy of God’s favor as he initially thought. The versions of the show prior to the movie, for all their good qualities, were ultimately more in the realm of hiss-the-villain melodrama than the legitimate tragedy to which the film elevated the story. That said, Shaffer’s final draft of the stage show, seen in the 1999 Broadway production and preserved in the current published script, is an enormous improvement even on the movie, finally bringing the material to its full fulfillment and combining the best elements of the movie and the earlier stage productions.
And of course, one cannot begin to discuss this play without talking about the music that inspired it and that permeates its action. The historical facts behind the play may be questionably portrayed at times, but everything the show observes about Mozart’s music is true, with its description of his final Requiem Mass (‘something immortal, and yet stinking of death’) being a particularly apt and pithy observation. Amadeus may not technically be a musical, but its expert use of Mozart’s catalogue elevates it to a level of lyricism beyond the reach of most straight plays, or indeed most musicals. And legendary conductor Sir Neville Marriner, who has become almost synonymous with the show, soundtracking both the film and the 1999 production, was a superb choice, offering renditions of Mozart’s music that in most cases could comfortably compete with almost any other version out there.
These highly intelligent and serious, if still relatively conventionally structured, Musical Plays were instrumental in paving the way for the ultra-sophisticated Concept Musicals that would start showing up in the second half of the Sixties and become a dominant force on Broadway in the Seventies. More on that later.