There was also a certain trend toward more emotional, subdued Musical Romantic Comedies (generally dubbed “Charm Shows”), but few of them ever succeeded. This may be because they were going against the overall trend of Musical Comedy at the time, which, as I stated, was generally going in the direction of greater and greater bombast and craziness. These shows also tended to have very ambitious, almost Operetta-like scores, and maybe they were just too close to that outdated genre for Broadway audiences’ comfort.
Indeed, these shows were essentially where the lighter, happy-ending Romantic Operettas went after Operetta itself had become thoroughly discredited. In the Forties and Fifties, the lighter forms of Romantic Operetta could reinvent themselves as Musical Plays, but after the Musical Play genre started becoming more serious and intellectual, as I discussed above, that option pretty much went out the window.
Carnival was probably the most successful of these shows to actually play Broadway, thanks to strong source material (the classic movie Lili), a ravishing score by Bob Merrill (including the massive hit tune “Love Makes the World Go Round”), and an exquisite staging by future Hello Dolly director Gower Champion. In spite of this, the show makes some modern audiences uncomfortable, to the point of pillorying the leading man as an “abuser” and speculating that the female lead is “retarded” (they don’t use the word, of course, but that’s definitely what they’re implying). In reality, Paul (the show’s male lead) is not really abusive or cruel so much as bitter and negative, and his tragic past as a former star dancer crippled in a war makes that attitude fairly understandable. As for Lili, his leading lady, she does have a tendency to get so sucked into her interactions with Paul’s puppets that she temporarily forgets they’re not real, but she’s not stupid: despite her naive crush on the predatory stage magician “Marco the Magnificent”, she eventually figures out (entirely on her own, by the way) that he really only wants her as one of his many conquests. And Paul does show Lili a great deal of affection and tenderness —it’s just that because of his emotional scars, he feels he can only express those feelings through the personas of his puppets (at least until the very end of the show). It’s certainly an odd love story, but then, the best ones always are.
No Strings, which featured Richard Rodgers first and only solo score (writing lyrics as well as music), was also a hit despite its depressing, go-nowhere story, mostly thanks to an interesting score and some innovative staging tricks by Joe Layton. But most of the shows in this field were essentially failures, commercially if not artistically.
Rodgers’ follow-up to No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz? flopped too, despite a score and lyrics (the latter contributed here by none other than Stephen Sondheim) on a par with those in that show, and a much more interesting and satisfying book. A lot of Sondheim fanatics seem to think they’re not allowed to like this show because Sondheim himself didn’t like it, and so they come up with all sorts of ridiculous reasons why it isn’t the lovely show that it obviously is…basically the same thing they do with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, only here they’re always very careful to blame the concept for any fundamental problems, not the authors. In reality, as far as anyone can tell, Sondheim only hated this show because he had a bad time working with Richard Rodgers and had a whole bunch of irrational negative associations it.
In fact, this was a wonderful show…maybe not as substantive a masterpiece as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or most of the stuff Sondheim would do after 1970, but certainly much better in every aspect than his previous cult flop Anyone Can Whistle. The source material is one of Arthur Laurents’ own plays, The Time of the Cuckoo, which had also been adapted into a Katharine Hepburn movie under the name Summertime. It is a sophisticated and characterful piece, richly romantic but with a strong undercurrent of subtle darkness.
The score is glorious—Richard Rodgers would write three more shows after this, but this is the last really top-drawer work he would ever do. “Someone Like You” is a striking ballad, “Take the Moment” could stand up to “Some Enchanted Evening” in the melody department, and the title-song is elegant and sophisticated, with the lyrics deliberately not laying perfectly on the music to create an impression that the singer is not as confident in her sentiments as she seems. Also notable are the gorgeous ensemble sequence “Here We Are Again”, where a lushly romantic chorus number is set against the heroine’s rueful solo, and the quietly heartbreaking final duet, “Thank You So Much”.
As for the lyrics, Sondheim is in even better form here than Rodgers, contributing pretty much the best work he had done up to that point. The comedy numbers are exceptionally clever, particularly the dazzling catalogue of the perils of air travel “What Do We Do? We Fly!”, but even better is the wry wistfulness he brings to “Moon in My Window” or the penetrating honesty of “Stay” (‘I am not the dream come true/but stay/not perfection, nor are you/but stay’). Then, of course, there is the show’s greatest gem, heavily bowdlerized in the Broadway production but thankfully restored in the current edition, “We’re Gonna Be All Right”, which has the rare honor of being possibly the most cynical song that Sondheim, the bard of cynicism himself, ever wrote.
I can’t say for sure why the original production failed despite all of this, but I imagine it had something to do with the seriously miscast leads in that production. Leading lady Leona is supposed to be a neurotic, socially awkward wounded-bird type, and while Elizabeth Allen played her abrasive and obnoxious qualities much more honestly than Shirley Booth in the original play or Katherine Hepburn in its film version, without the necessary vulnerability and helplessness to make her sympathetic, her Leona just came across as a self-centered bitch. Meanwhile, Renato Di Rossi, the Italian man she falls for, is supposed to be an older, fairly ordinary man (his age is established in an important dialogue scene, as is the fact that he is not the exceptional specimen of man Leona fantasized about), and while Sergio Franchi sang the part gloriously, his youth and ultra-masculine good looks made no sense in the role.
Fortunately, later productions have featured much more suitable leads, and while the show was not done much for many years due to its creators’ lack of interest in revisiting it, it is now slowly becoming more popular. And given who wrote it and its relative lack of compositional problems, I have high hopes that history will eventually vindicate this overlooked gem of a show.
Speaking of overlooked gems, the main competitor to The Golden Apple for the title of ‘best Broadway flop of all time’ was part of this movement, too…the never-successful but always-beloved She Loves Me. Based on the classic film The Shop Around the Corner, which had already been turned into the middling Judy Garland-Van Johnson film musical In the Good Old Summertime, the show was already dealing with one of the all-time great romantic comedy plots, and it did that premise full justice.
I think the real reason this show is so beloved is that it really tells a rather sad story about two lonely, desperate, socially awkward nobodies, but ends with the message that even people like that can ultimately find true happiness with someone. Remember, this doesn’t take place in the era of The Shop Around the Corner’s Nineties remake You’ve Got Mail; corresponding with people you’ve never met in person was not yet something one did casually. These characters are doing it because they placed Lonely Hearts Club ads, which is not exactly a sign of outgoing self-confidence. This insecurity also explains their reaction when they first meet in person without knowing who each other are; it gradually becomes clear that they were just as spontaneously attracted to each other then as in their letters, and their reaction to these feelings they didn’t know how to handle was to bicker and trade insults.
I think what gives the show its appeal is this deep, bittersweet humanity and hope, combined with the very old-world-sounding, endlessly melodic and emotionally expressive score, which perfectly gives voice to these heartbreakingly beautiful characters. This is the only Bock and Harnick score that is routinely suggested to be even better than Fiddler on the Roof, and some have even proclaimed it the best theater score of the 1960s (please note that this is the decade when The Fantasticks, Camelot, Man of La Mancha, and the aforementioned Fiddler on the Roof, to name just a few, came out; that title does not lack for competition).
The showpiece part is Amalia, the female half of the corresponding couple. Originally played by Musical Theater legend Barbara Cook, this is the character who gets to sing the incredibly beautiful and moving ballads “Will He Like Me?” and “Dear Friend”, and the aria-like soprano showpiece “Vanilla Ice Cream”. Her vis-à-vis, lovable nebbish Georg, gets the show’s ‘hit’ tune, the explosively giddy title-song, which was recorded by the likes of Jack Jones. Even the villain of the piece, Kodaly, originally played by the great Jack Cassidy, is irresistible. He doesn’t have a single real redeeming feature, but he’s so charming that you almost forget what a heartless cad he really is. His villainous exit, “Grand Knowing You”, ranks among Broadway’s greatest villain songs, with a bitingly witty lyric and a perfect sense of self-possession even in defeat.
Part of the reason this show has never actually made money on a previous outing is that its special candy-box intimacy works best when it’s staged in a tiny theater (too tiny to actually pay for the cost of staging it) and most revivals feel the need to respect that. It’s the kind of piece that gets revived not for profit but out of a love of theater, and that’s certainly a distinguished mark of honor.
Amazingly enough, even the man most behind the transformation of the Musical Comedy into a splashy cartoon, Jerry Herman himself, attempted this more delicate form of the genre twice…though, unsurprisingly, he failed both times. The first of these attempts was actually his first Broadway show, a sort of Israeli Operetta called Milk and Honey. A soap-opera book with a defeatist ending meant that the show, despite having one of the longest runs for a flop up till that point (with 500+ performances), was still a conclusive failure that lost money and essentially vanished afterward apart from a cult cast album.
The score, impressive as it was, probably wasn’t a good fit for the times either, given the reception Broadway operettas generally got in the Sixties (and it certainly sounds almost nothing like any of Herman’s later work). There was one of Herman’s best opening numbers, “Shalom” (“if your voice has ‘I don’t want to go’ in it/say goodbye with a little hello in it”), several lovely if excessively weighty ballads like “There’s No Reason in the World”, “Let’s Not Waste a Moment”, “As Simple as That”, and “I Will Follow You”, and some excellent dance music drawn from actual Jewish Folk sounds. There is even a comedy number, “Hymn to Hymie”, that features a woman asking her dead husband’s blessing to marry again…presumably a massive coincidence, given that Herman did not yet know at the time that his next show would be Hello Dolly, which features the exact same plot device. Interestingly, this show almost kept him from getting hired for Hello, Dolly, as superproducer David Merrick naturally assumed that this Jewish-flavored near-Opera is what a typical Jerry Herman composition sounded like!
The other one was his ill-advised follow-up to Mame, Dear World. An adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s delicately whimsical play The Madwoman of Chaillot, it featured a stunning star turn by Angela Lansbury and a mostly exquisite score that found Herman reaching out of his comfort zone into almost arthouse-level fare. The touchingly simple “And I Was Beautiful” is apparently Herman’s favorite of his own songs, and the desperately defiant “I Don’t Want to Know”, the deeply haunting “Kiss Her Now”, and the elaborate counterpoint musical scene “The Tea Party” also rank with his all-time greatest work. Herman was a lifelong admirer of the source play, and apart from the show’s heavy-handed title-song (which was apparently written under duress from his producer anyway), his score is actually quite well-suited to the play in and of itself. Even the anthemic march “One Person” isn’t as out-of-place as some have claimed…it deals with a major theme of the original play, and its soft-to-shouting dramatic intensity doesn’t clash with the play’s tone nearly as severely as the title-song’s brassy Hello, Dolly formula.
Unfortunately, producer Alexander Cohen was determined to turn the show into another Mame, and he destroyed the delicate material in the process. The book (by Mame playwrights and librettists Lawrence and Lee) was a shallow adaptation that flattened out the complex central character into a clone of Mame Dennis, and that, combined with Cohen’s attempt to blow up every number into a Mame-sized production showpiece, made what could and should have been an exquisite chamber musical into a garish disaster. It also caused many people to unfairly blame the show’s failure on Herman himself, since his gossamer-delicate score, which sounds lovely on the show’s cast album, just sounded like typical Hello, Dolly-style bombast once Cohen finished pumping up the numbers.
Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow was also a flop, despite having one of the very finest scores by one of Musical Theatre all-time top giants, mostly because it took the delicacy of the “Charm Show” model just a little bit too far. The novel the show was based on, about life in a quaint little parochial village, never actually told us where the village of Greenwillow was located, leaving that for the readers to decide for themselves. What was most impressive about the show was how Loesser matched the novel with a score that was not only gorgeous and charming, but somehow impossible to pin down to any one idiom despite vaguely suggesting several. Is it Irish? Scottish? Old English? Victorian? Colonial New England? There are even places that might or might not offer just a faint hint of a Country-and-Western sound. And yet all of these sonic traces carry with them the distinct possibility that they might just be products of your imagination.
But the show may have matched its source material too well. Apart from two clever satirical numbers about religion, “The Sermon” (where the town’s two reverends preach wildly contrasting sermons in counterpoint) and “What a Blessing (to know there’s a devil)”, the show features none of the sophisticated elements included in its near cousin Brigadoon, and its book and lyrics go more than a little overboard on the twee (sample line: “Any flimsy-dimsy looking for true love better smile me no good-dearie-good-day”). This, combined with a paper-thin plot with weak attempts at artificial conflict and a severely anti-climactic ending, made the show so tedious and irritatingly precious that no score could have saved it.
There were also a few dying gasps of actual old-school Operetta around this time, though none of them were remotely successful. Anya, perhaps the very last completely straightforward example of the old Romberg-Friml Operetta formula to play Broadway, was based on Marcelle Maurette’s play about a mysterious woman who may or may not be the lost Grand Duchess of the Romanov Dynasty. This play, Anastasia, would also provide the primary inspiration for the mediocre animated film that shares its name and the vastly superior Broadway show loosely adapted from that film.
Now that we have that show, this work, already outdated when it was new, seems more irrelevant than ever, but frankly, even the Don Bluth movie had a more interesting take on this story than Anya. Its music was a Wright and Forrest Pasticcio score based on the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, so the score was suitably lush and romantic-sounding (although the formulaic song models and weak lyrics still made it far less interesting than Flaherty and Ahrens’ score for the later Anastasia musical).
Nonetheless, it watered down an intelligent and fairly complex play by adding a formulaic love-triangle plot and a great deal of irrelevant and frankly rather stupid comic relief (much like the Don Bluth movie, actually, except that Bluth’s comedy-relief characters were actually more amusing). And at least Bluth’s movie was working with the cliches of a model that was popular at the time (Disney- Renaissance animated musicals) rather than one that had already been out of vogue for twenty years.
There was a later revised draft, successively retitled The Anastasia Game and then The Anastasia Affair, that tried to fix these problems with massive revisions to the book and score, but frankly, even these never did justice to the theatrical mind games that made the original play so special. And after the Flaherty and Ahrens musical, which did succeed in equaling and even improving on the play’s art of the unanswered question, I doubt we’ll ever be hearing from this misbegotten project again in any form.
Predating Anya by a few years, but even more mired in outdated Operetta traditions, was Christine, another all-time embarrassment from the composer of Ankles Aweigh, Sammy Fain. This show blatantly attempted to copy the formula introduced by The King and I without any real understanding of the earlier show’s content. There would be another King and I derivant around the same time in Richard Adler’s Kwamina, but at least that show understood that the show it was copying was a serious cultural study and not just an exotic romance with cute children’s songs.
Christine’s problems went beyond its shallow attempt at near-plagiarism. The story made no sense whatsoever, the characterizations were completely arbitrary, and the development of the central romance was announced rather than dramatized. It concerns an Irish widow who comes to India to visit her daughter, only to find that her daughter is dead and to subsequently fall in love with her daughter’s widower, a Hindu medical doctor. They ultimately end their romance on the grounds of not wanting to face the racial prejudice that might stem from it: I can think of many other reasons why their relationship is a terrible idea, but this one is blatantly nonsensical, given that this man was already married to Christine’s equally white daughter and had five kids with her!
The score to Christine has some good moments, particularly the duets “My Little Lost Girl” and “I Never Meant to Fall in Love” and the second half of a musical soliloquy for the leading man, which starts out downright embarrassing but builds to a sweeping climax featuring the show’s most memorable melody. But there are also plenty of humiliating clinkers, particularly the tooth-rotting songs for the children and some incredibly unfortunate attempts to be “exotic”, so the score can’t really save this one.
But the most successful example of this more delicate and romantic brand of Musical Comedy was strictly an off-Broadway phenomenon…the quietly legendary The Fantasticks. It’s amazing that this tiny little Musical-Comedy trifle is both the longest-running and most widely-performed show in the whole history of the Musical-Theater genre, but it isn’t really all that surprising given its quality. Because it opened off-Broadway, in a totally different market from the Hello Dollys and Funny Girls of the world, it didn’t really have to compete with “big Broadway”, because it was a fundamentally different thing. The show works best in small theaters and features extremely minimal sets and props, and it suggests far more than it actually portrays, but it has one of the richest and most evocative atmospheres of any stage production in existence.
The tricky thing about these tiny, ‘intimate’ musicals with minimal scenery and a cast of less than ten is that they require a much higher level of quality in the writing, since anything that might bolster or distract from the composition has essentially been stripped away. Do these shows right, with an extremely high level of invention and artistry, and you can get a Next to Normal, or at the very least a <Title of Show>. But there are hundreds of dreary failures that serve as cautionary examples of what happens when you do them wrong. Without something really special in the writing, a show this small, even one that might have seemed moderately pleasant with a bigger production budget, will inevitably come across as underwhelming, even amateurish. There are markets where you can pass this off, as many of the low-budget ‘spoof’ musicals now cluttering up off-Broadway theaters attest, but in any serious Musical-Theatre setting, be it Broadway or elsewhere, shows like that would get eaten alive.
Based on a play by Edmund Rostand called La Romanesques (a title which roughly translates as The Romantics), the musical was by all accounts originally intended as a huge expansion of Rostand’s delicate play, a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romantic epic that sounds something like West Side Story with a happy ending. But in what might be the ultimate blessing in disguise, they couldn’t raise enough money for this proposed project, so they stripped down their idea to its essentials; an intimate, low-budget theatre piece about two young lovers and their fathers that, interestingly, much more closely resembled Rostand’s original play. And thanks to its extremely low running costs, the show was able to hold out for a few losing months until word of mouth got out and it ended up becoming an outright craze. The original New York run wound up lasting forty-one years.
The show’s book is almost bizarrely brilliant, swinging between quirky comedy and rich, beautifully written poetry (including several spoken set pieces underscored by rich music that are almost songs in their own right) that really is reminiscent of Rostand. The characters are limited to the lovers, their fathers (two secret friends who are savvy enough to know that the only way to get their kids together is to pretend they disapprove of the union), the agent-of-change romantic bandit El Gallo (who doubles as a narrator), two comic-relief Shakespearean clowns, and an eighth actor who never speaks and is mostly there to embody the majority of the props and sets.
Some scenes are bathed in moonlit, intoxicating romance, such as the lovers’ secret meeting in the first act. But in the first scene of Act Two, the show captures the burning glare of unromantic daylight and the reality that comes with it, as the characters are forced to face not only the truth behind their fanciful ‘happy ending’ in Act One, but also the fact that life always goes on. By the final curtain, the lovers have grown into a far deeper and more real love for each other, one that can actually survive the realities of day-to-day life. Watching over all this is El Gallo, who reluctantly does some pretty cruel things to both of the kids because, in his partly-outside-the-story role, he knows this is what they need in order to find that mature love. This “first-act-fanciful, second-act-realistic” structure would prove to be quite influential…to cite one example, the two acts of Sondheim’s Into the Woods feature almost exactly the same device.
The score is the central key to all this atmosphere and emotional development. The bulk of the score is pure romantic melody, almost impossibly lush in feeling despite its spare piano accompaniment and the surprising simplicity of the melodies. Out of context the songs, lovely as they are, might sound generic, because by and large they emphasize the universality of the story and characters. A few of them follow the strangeness of the book, such as the outrageous and often controversial “It Depends On What You Pay” or the disturbing “Round and Round”. But generally, they focus on a beautiful simplicity, as in the show’s haunting introduction with the legendary “Try To Remember”, or the yearning, ultra-romantic ballad for the female lead, “Much More”, or the shimmering love duets “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You”. Likewise, the lyrics on such songs as “Metaphor” would probably be dismissed as cliches if they did not capture such penetrating universal truths about love and life.
The more cynical numbers, like the brassy, almost stringent “This Plum Is Too Ripe” and “I Can See It”, or the two comic duets in which the lovers’ fathers philosophize on the trials of parenting, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish”, utilize an even more simplistic (though irresistibly catchy) sound, something of a predecessor to Annie’s “It’s the Hard Knock Life”, but with more bite to it. Throughout, the melodies are tuneful and timeless, with a unique sound that was only heard elsewhere in the later scores by this team, and even then never with quite the same degree of purity. This is truly one of the greatest musicals ever written, which I suppose it would have to be to have attained its special status, and it has more than earned all the records it’s set.