Traditional Musical Comedy in the Sixties, on the other hand, became so outsized and over-the-top that it basically burned itself out, leading to the genre’s near-death for three full decades before The Producers rescusitated it. This trend had roots at least as far back as the mid-Fifties, as you’ll see, but it really kicked into high gear after a certain maniacally splashy show became the biggest hit in Broadway history. I am, of course, referring to Hello, Dolly.
Not that Hello, Dolly is by any means a bad show. It often gets underrated because of overexposure, but it still ranks as one of Broadway’s greatest musical comedies, with a hilarious and endlessly quotable libretto, a fantastic score featuring some of the biggest showstoppers in Broadway history, and the warm heart of its Thorton Wilder source material underneath the farce. The role of Dolly Levi is one of the most coveted star parts in Broadway history, surpassed only by Rose in Gypsy, and has been played by every great Broadway diva from Mary Martin to Pearl Bailey.
Jerry Herman’s next show, Mame, while certainly a huge success in its own right, followed essentially the same formula as Dolly!: a book based on an extremely popular sentimental farce at the time, an irresistible star diva, and a score that was essentially a string of explosive showstoppers. That said, Mame was slightly more grounded in reality than Dolly!, and the score was more consistent and characterful than its predecessor, even if no one number stood out as much as Dolly’s title-song or “Before the Parade Passes By”.
Jerry Herman was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day (something that people like Michael Feinstein who adore Herman but disdain Webber might do well to remember). He was, for at least a few years, the most successful composer in Broadway history, but he was sneered at in his day for being too accessible and entertaining to qualify as a “real artist”, just like Webber after him. In many cases, this stance was merely a mask for personal jealousy: In William Goldman’s wildly overrated book The Season, every sentence he writes about Herman just screams “How dare you, Jerry Herman! How dare you have two smash hits in a row when I can’t even have one!” I know some people unironically refer to that book as “the bible of Broadway”, but Goldman was ultimately just a bitter failure railing about the people who succeeded on Broadway when he couldn’t, and Jerry Herman happened to be his Number One Target.
Herman also wrote very Pop-friendly, “hummable” melody even by the standards of his peers at the time, and like Webber, this caused him to be constantly dogged by accusations of plagiarism. These ranged from the perceived resemblance between the intro verse to “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Roll Out the Barrel” to the lawsuit by the writers of the Country song “Sunflower”, the first ten notes of which are identical to Hello, Dolly‘s title-song. Herman always claimed he had never heard “Sunflower” and that the resemblance was pure coincidence, and the Broadway critical community tends to support him on this claim, but that same community insists that every time a Webber song bears a resemblance to an existing piece of music, it must be an act of deliberate theft. This generational double standard is one of the many aspects of theatre snobbery that simply don’t stand up to any kind of intellectual scrutiny.
Another obvious example of the splashy “big lady” star vehicle phenomenon was 1964’s Funny Girl. This show has a reputation as a classic largely because of Barbra Streisand’s career-making star turn in the original production and movie version. But the truth is that, as a composition, it’s not really all that interesting. The book is a dull soap opera that is half formulaic rise-and-fall backstager and half sappy romantic drama. Even the much-vaunted score isn’t exactly consistent in its quality. There are certainly some classic songs (“I’m the Greatest Star”, “People”, “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, “The Music That Makes Me Dance”), but apart from the pithy opening number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty”, all the numbers for characters other than Fanny are so much filler, basically designed to fill time during Streisand’s costume changes. Then there are numbers like “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” that are more setups for sight gags than actual songs in their own right. Even a couple of Fanny’s solos are duds…”Sadie, Sadie”, for example, is nobody’s favorite song.
And the irony is that the show’s subject, singer-commedienne Fanny Brice, had a fascinating life that might have made for a wonderful musical. But the show was masterminded by Brice’s daughter and son-in-law, who insisted on jettisoning anything that might reflect badly on Brice’s character. And as is generally the case with just about any biography, when you remove everything that could make the subject look bad, you also remove anything potentially interesting about their story.
There had actually been an earlier musical about Fanny Brice’s life…the 1939 musical film Rose of Washington Square. This version was unauthorized, which meant they had to change the name of the character, but it was transparently meant to be about Brice, even using several of her signature songs like “My Man” or the movie’s title number. Alice Faye, who played the lead, didn’t bear anything close to the uncanny resemblance to Brice herself that Streisand did, but the film, while it still somewhat whitewashed the Brice character’s involvement in her husband Nick Arnstein’s criminal career, was significantly closer to the truth than Funny Girl, and consequently far more interesting as drama (which is probably why it wound up getting 20th Century Fox sued by the then-still-living real Fanny Brice).
Much less vividly remembered, but actually much better, as least from a compositional standpoint, is Meredith Wilson’s follow-up to The Music Man, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Wilson’s score is often held up as inferior to that of The Music Man, but that’s hardly a fair standard by which to judge any musical: by the standards of mere mortal shows, Molly‘s score is outstanding, every bit as good as those of the three more remembered hits mentioned above. It shows a fine balance of feisty showstoppers like “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” for the title character and soaring ballads like “Colorado, My Home” and “I’ll Never Say No” for her leading man, played in both the original production and the movie version by one of Broadway’s greatest male vocalists, Harve Presnell. It also features a star part that, unlike the one in Funny Girl, is readily amenable to varied interpretations, as can be seen by the very different but equally effective star turns it provided Tammy Grimes (in the Broadway show) and Debbie Reynolds (in the film version).
But arguably more significant, in the big scheme of things, is the show’s book, which is intelligent and sensitive and surprisingly deep for a Musical Comedy. Molly goes through an enormous amount of character growth in the course of the show, ultimately ending up as an entirely different person than she was at the beginning. This kind of character transformation could only be conceivably argued for one of the other hits in this subgenre, Mame (and even there, you’d really be pushing it). For all the reputation it’s somehow gained as a fluffy “good-time” show, Molly Brown is a musical with real heart and spirit.
These were the biggest successes (and indeed, pretty much the only real successes) the “Big Lady Show” (as critic Ethan Mordden once dubbed this subgenre) would produce, but there were no shortage of B-list titles following in their wake. For those who complain about the number of formulaic adaptations of movies seen on Broadway in the last few decades, and imply that nothing like that ever went on in their precious “Golden Age”, I’d like to remind you of the practice that Ken Mandelbaum dubbed “chop and drop”. Granted, it was usually done with existing plays back then rather than movies, but it was essentially the same phenomenon. It consisted of taking an already successful play, cutting just enough dialogue to make room for a Musical score, and awkwardly plopping mediocre songs that added nothing to the story into the play’s script. It reached a particular level of severity after Hello, Dolly and Mame had outrageous success adapting hit stage comedies, and everyone thought “Oh, that’s easy. I can do that!” And, as usual in these matters, they were wrong.
Granted, most of these shows were flops, like Sherry (based on Kaufmann and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner), Hot September (based on William Inge’s Picnic), or Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (based on John Patrick’s Teahouse of the August Moon), but every now and then one of them would fluke into a hit, usually on the strength of the original play it was based on. A perfect example is I Do, I Do, basically a production of Jan de Hartog’s The Fourposter starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston, but with the least interesting score of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s career inserted into what was left of the play. Jones and Schmidt had already written a sublime score for The Fantasticks, and a highly impressive one for 110 in the Shade, but their work here is largely lightweight and uninteresting, and adds nothing to the original play (if you listen to the cut numbers from the show preserved on the Lost in Boston album series, you’ll realize that most of the best material in the score was cut before the show opened).
Probably the most prominent among the lesser lights of the “Big Lady” subgenre is the first show Alan Jay Lerner wrote after splitting from Frederick Loewe…a vehicle for once-promising Broadway starlet Barbara Harris. It wasn’t exactly a hit, but it did win enough attention to receive a movie version, winding up as the first real dud in Barbra Streisand’s musical film career (granted, it’s still nowhere near as bad as the Funny Girl sequel Funny Lady…but that’s a whole other can of worms).
In addition to showcasing a then-up-and-coming star, it had the novelty of being about what was apparently something of a hot-button topic back then (or at least more interesting than anyone finds it today): ESP and psychic phenomena. The show allowed Harris to play two parts, a young New York woman undergoing hypnosis therapy and her “past self” from 18th century England. Unfortunately, the “past life” sequences were significantly less interesting than the scenes set in the present (and those weren’t all that interesting to begin with!), the leading man, who was supposed to be a likable Henry Higgins type, instead came off as deeply creepy, and the second act disintegrated altogether into incomprehensible chaos. The film version rewrote the script almost from the ground up and somehow managed to improve absolutely nothing in the process. This is one of the shows that demonstrates why, however brilliant he may have been as a lyricist, Lerner ran into so much trouble as a playwright, especially when working with an original story.
Frankly, the only reason the show is so vividly remembered is that the score (with music by Finian’s Rainbow composer Burton Lane) is one of the greatest ever heard in a cult flop. Starting with an utterly charming opening, “Hurry It’s Lovely Up Here”, we get gorgeous lyrical ballads like “Melinda” and “She Wasn’t You”, a bona fide showstopper in “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?”, and some of Lerner’s funniest comedy numbers like “Wait Til We’re Sixty-Five” (not the mention the sublimely evocative title song or the grandiose final number “Come Back To Me”). In short, the score is infinitely more interesting than anything else about the show. Beloved Musical-Theatre cult flops (or “Heartbreaker Flops”, as writer Ken Mandelbaum once dubbed them) come in several varieties, and this is a quintessential example of the simplest, “bad-show-with-great-songs” variety of Heartbreaker Flop.
In addition to these over-the-top star vehicles, around this time another trend that promoted the exaggeration of musical comedy was emerging. For the first time, Broadway was beginning to feature pure screwball comedies…shows that made no pretense of caring about the romantic or dramatic stakes, and existed purely to draw laughs, much like a Marx Brothers movie.
One of the first shows to bring this formula to the Broadway stage was Once Upon a Mattress. Today, while this show is still a regional-theatre staple, it’s mostly remembered in Broadway circles for being legendary commedienne Carol Burnett’s big break. That said, you have to admire how this show took The Princess and the Pea, possibly the slightest plot in the entire fairy tale canon, and managed by dint of sheer creativity to turn it into a full-length musical that never bores or feels like it’s straining to fill time.
Burnett got two comic showstoppers, “Shy” and “Happily Ever After”, that were perfectly suited to her style and gave her a marvelous opportunity to prove herself. But the truth is that the two funniest numbers as _compositions_ went to her hapless beau Prince Dauntless—his declaration of his admiration toward his unconventional fairy-tale princess “Song of Love” (probably better known to most people as “I’m In Love With a Girl Named Fred”), and “Man to Man Talk”, where Dauntless’ father, the mute, henpecked King, tries to communicate a ‘birds and the bees’ talk to his grown son in mime.
Surprisingly for what is essentially an old-style burlesque, the score also features quite a number of beautiful and rhapsodic romantic passages. The opening, “Many Moons Ago”, deliberately sets a false tone to be broken by the next scene, but it is nonetheless ravishing. So are the ecstatic trio “Normandy” and the exquisitely delicate soft-shoe number aptly titled “Very Soft Shoes”. Most romantic of all is “Yesterday I Loved You”, one of the sweetest love songs ever heard in a Broadway show (the title line finishes “But today, I love you even more”). Mary Rodgers had a tendency to deprecate her own composing talent compared to her father Richard Rodgers or her son Adam Guettel, but this score really makes you wish she had written more music for the theatre.
Another important entry in the “pure comedy” Musical vein (indeed, some would argue the most important) was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This is a highly popular show (indeed, it was Sondheim’s most popular effort as a composer before Into the Woods overtook it), but still a rather misunderstood one. The show’s book is probably the best-written farce plot in musical-theatre history, amazingly tight and controlled in spite of its ultra-complex permutations. The dialogue doesn’t offer many quotable lines, since most of it loses its humor value when taken out of context, but that just shows how well the authors integrated the comedy into the overall story, with flowing comic scenes instead of extractable quips. The pace of the action never flags for a second, constantly throwing new situations and shenanigans at the audience.
Based loosely on the formulas of ancient Roman playwright Plautus (though not on any specific Plautus play), it uses character types familiar from the Commedia dell’arte legacy, but it does a fine job of relating those types to actual real-life situations, reminding us that they were originally based on the foibles of real people. Written by screenwriting legend Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove (who would later write the book to Forum’s companion piece The Frogs), the book to this show has been widely proclaimed to be the funniest libretto ever written for a Broadway musical.
The show’s score, on the other hand, doesn’t receive the same respect as most of Sondheim’s other work. Indeed, it has a reputation for being so incidental to the action that you could remove it completely and not notice the difference. This is actually only true of two individual numbers, the bubbly charm song “Pretty Little Picture” and the burlesque-influenced showstopper “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”.
The rest of the score, as the movie version inadvertently proved when it cut all but five of the songs, serves a vital purpose…it makes us care about the characters. The book, for all its hilarity, is so relentlessly paced that it never gets a chance to explore the characters’ feelings, so the score serves to flesh out the cast, making them more than the mere Commedia dell’arte archetypes they seem at first glance. This is particularly important because, let’s face it, the actions of our main character don’t make him seem very likable. Pseudolus is, after all, an unscrupulous trickster who uses and manipulates everyone around him. The reason we sympathize with him in spite of this is that we feel his motivation (to win his freedom) is a worthy one, and the reason we feel that way is largely because of his irresistible song of yearning “Free”. Without the songs, the story becomes far more one-dimensional, the audiences’ emotional involvement is all but lost, and Pseudolus comes off as a much more cynical antihero than he’s supposed to be…less of an Arleccino and more of a Brighella, to put it in the language of the Commedia dell’arte.
Granted, the score isn’t the equal of Sondheim’s work in the Seventies and beyond: the lyrics, as clever as they are, have a self-consciously showy quality, in contrast to the effortless feel of his later work, and a few of the melodies really are fairly forgettable. But the show also offers several sparkling tunes and even a few of Sondheim’s finest melodic creations, particularly the famous opening, “Comedy Tonight”, the gently lyrical “Love I Hear”, the aforementioned “Free”, and the best of the show’s plethora of cut numbers, “Your Eyes Are Blue”, which was later used in the Sondheim revue Marry Me a Little. Often the comedic context of the songs seems to obscure the beauty of Sondheim’s melodies, distracting the audience with humor to the point where they don’t notice some of the show’s most beautiful music (a perfect example being the slower sections of the song “I’m Calm”, which are absolutely gorgeous even though no-one ever says so). As stated, the book gets well-deserved plaudits, but despite the show’s popularity, the score remains rather underrated. Fortunately (or not so fortunately), we have the disappointing movie version as an abject lesson in why this show works better with its songs intact.
Another pure-comedy show, Frank Loesser’s corporate satire How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, has a score as sophisticated and deceptively complex as Forum’s, but more conventionally commercial, even producing two still-recognizable hit songs (although both mean something very different in the context of the show). “I Believe in You”, for example, sounds like a love song, but is delivered by the narcissistic main character to his own face in the mirror. Likewise, “Brotherhood of Man” sounds like a kind of secular gospel song, an inspirational ode to human camraderie, but in context it is nakedly insincere (granted, so is another Frank Loesser mock-gospel eleven-o’clock showstopper, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”, but this one is played as a biting satire of its own hypocrisy rather than as an innocent lark like its predecessor).
How to Succeed is presumably why no-one ever tried to adapt the hit comic strip Dilbert into a musical, even at the peak of its popularity and relevance. Despite some superficial changes in technology and (to a much lesser extent) in corporate culture, the office satire in How to Succeed has remained so relevant over the years that a Dilbert music would have just seemed a redundant and unnecessary copy of it. After all, back-stabbing and Machiavellian scheming in order to climb to corporate ladder will never go out of style, executives still have affairs with their secretaries left and right (even if they’re marginally more furtive about acknowledging it these days), and the treatment of women in the workplace hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think: lines like “At least (at the strip club), when I got pinched, I got tipped” still resonate. Hell, the heyday of Dilbert was over twenty years ago, and this satire is still completely relevant today.
The other really notable Musical farce from around the same time as Forum and How to Succeed, Little Me, featured Bob Fosse direction and choreography, a tuneful score full of adroit genre parodies by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, and a comic star turn to end all comic star turns by the great Sid Caeser, playing no less than seven separate parts (essentially, all the men in the heroine’s life). But ultimately, it lacks the substance of its pure-comedy peers at the time. It isn’t a cogent satire of the real world like How to Succeed, nor is it a carefully constructed classical farce plot like Forum. It’s essentially a string of sketches in the vein of The Carol Burnett Show or Sid Caesar’s own TV program bound together by the presence of one recurring character. This might explain why it wasn’t nearly as successful as its two aforementioned peers: it was just too anarchic, too much like a Twenties or Thirties musical comedy, just with the zaniness factor cranked up to ten. I know the Marx Brothers movies got away with that formula in spades, but by the Sixties, it was just hard to get audiences to frequent a show without any real substance, even as a pure comedy. Old-style fluff, no matter how funny or well-executed, just didn’t play anymore.
Two other shows from this era illustrate that point even more clearly. One was the previous project by the same team that did Little Me, Wildcat. Wildcat was a vehicle for legendary TV comedienne Lucille Ball, and its creators were so confident that audiences would buy tickets purely to see her in person that they put almost no effort into the show’s composition. As a result, the show had a silly, shallow and highly derivative book that basically recycled Ball’s characterization from I Love Lucy. The score was quite a bit better than the book, but even it was really only lifted into greatness on one showstopping hit, “Hey, Look Me Over”.
This, combined with the fact that Ball, while certainly a superb comic actress, proved to be an absolutely dreadful singer (her earlier roles in musical movies like Best Foot Forward had invariably been dubbed, and now we got to see why) meant that the show was essentially a star-spotting exercise with little or no merit beyond that. What they didn’t count on was that their star had spent her entire career in Hollywood and was simply not up to the eight-performances-a-week work schedule of Broadway, and she swiftly departed, taking the show’s entire appeal with her.
Sail Away was much sadder failure than Wildcat, because it actually had a fair amount going for it. It was initially conceived as a kind of downbeat Romantic Operetta (which would have probably gone over even worse than the finished show did), but wound up a vehicle for legendary comedienne Elaine Stritch, who started as the show’s comedy relief and soon took over as its raison d’etre. This show quite arguably gave Stritch her best role…I know her performance in Company is justly lauded, but she was ultimately just a very memorable spear-carrier in that show, whereas here, she had a total of six numbers all to herself, and the cast album makes it clear that she knocked it out of the park with each and every one.
What ultimately did the show in, though, was that Coward deliberately conceived of it as a work with absolutely no dramatic substance, and the kind of featherweight, revue-with-a-pretense-of-plot fluff that Coward had been writing in the Twenties and Thirties just didn’t interest Broadway audiences anymore. (The show also had several elements that were blatantly derivative of Anything Goes, which received a high-profile revival off-Broadway about the same time Sail Away came out. I don’t imagine that helped the show’s case any).
It’s a shame, because despite its lack of substance, the show was actually a lot of fun. The dialogue was at least possessed of that familiar Coward wit, and the score was much more consistent than most of the Twenties or Thirties “classics” (indeed, it was more consistent than the version of Anything Goes generally performed today). The high points included the soaring, thrilling title-song (which was actually “borrowed” from an earlier Coward flop called Ace of Clubs), Stritch’s hilariously deadpan comedy number “Useless Useful Phrases” and her riotous eleven-o’clock showstopper “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”, and even two genuinely moving ballads left over from the show’s original draft, “Later Than Spring” and “Something Very Strange”. Granted, the two “youth” numbers, “Beatnik Love Affair” and “When You Want Me”, don’t sound remotely like the expressions of real young people of the Sixties and are mildly embarrassing, but they know this, and turn their awkwardness and artificiality into part of their charm.
Milton Schafer, a now-forgotten but very talented composer of the day, also contributed music to two more “throwback” shows, albeit with even less success than Wildcat or Sail Away. The first of these, Bravo Giovanni, despite a fine cast including Opera singer Giorgio Siepi, Michele Lee and Maria Karnilova and some good moments in the score (particularly the opening ballad “Rome” for Siepi and the raucous dance showstopper “The Kangaroo”), would probably have flopped even in the Twenties or Thirties. The plot was beyond absurd, approaching the level of a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, and poor George S. Irving as the show’s villain was saddled with some of the worst material of his career. It probably says something that today this show’s name primarily comes up in the context of its having received the Best Score Tony nomination that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum deserved.
Drat! The Cat!, on the other hand, deserves far more success than it ever received. A tongue-in-cheek spoof of old-style melodramas about Alice Van Gilder, a teenaged heiress who deals with the pressures of her adolescence by committing grand larceny dressed as a cat and Bob Purefoy, the bumbling policeman she can’t admit to herself she likes, it featured superb choreography and a wonderful score that even threw off a hit tune in “She Touched Me” (recorded by Barbra Streisand as the gender-flipped “He Touched Me”). “She’s Roses”, “Deep In Your Heart”, and “I Like Him” were equally lush and sumptuous ballads, “Holmes and Watson” captured the flavor of the Sherlock Holmes stories better than anything in the actual Sherlock Holmes musical from around this time, Baker Street, and the rousing “Today Is A Day For A Band To Play” ironically punctuates the story’s tensest moment (when Alice is about to leave Bob to take the fall for her crimes), then more straightforwardly celebrates the show’s ultimate happy ending.
Really, in spite of its satirical overall tone, the show has more emotion reality than the aforementioned featherweight throwbacks. Alice is actually quite an interesting character, an intelligent and likable young woman whose career as a thief is merely an outlet for the stress created by her well-meaning but overbearing parents and the pressures and expectations caused by herb position in society. She’s obviously in love with Bob, but is in denial about her feelings (even when she gets him to run off with her in the seductive “Let’s Go”, she’s careful to insist “It’s not that I like you or anything…I just don’t want to go to prison, that’s all”). When she comes to terms with her feelings in the Eleven-O’Clock ballad “I Like Him”, it doubles as a breakthrough of self-acceptance (the last line of the song is “…and I like me!”).
In fact, the show might well have succeeded if it hadn’t lacked a good box-office draw: its leads, Elliot Gould and Leslie Ann Warren (both of whom were excellent) would both go on to fame and glory, but at the time they were, if not exactly unknown, certainly not the stars they would eventually become. The fact that vastly inferior shows involving bigger names like Ilya Darling, Subways Are For Sleeping, and Skyscraper managed much longer runs in spite of their total lack of merit while this gem was lost to history is one of those injustices that still makes theatre lovers’ blood boil.
Among this succession of Musical cartoons were a handful of titles that were literally based on comic strips. Lil Abner, the first of these comic strip adaptations, was an early example of this overall trend, coming out in 1956 when most Musical Comedies were still comparatively normal and subdued. This show featured a brilliantly inventive staging by the great Michael Kidd, perfectly capturing the appropriate atmosphere for a staged comic strip and showcasing some of Kidd’s most athletic and distinctive choreography. It also featured what are probably the best lyrics legendary Great American Songbook wordsmith Johnny Mercer ever wrote for anything.
Unfortunately, the show’s satire was extremely topical, which means most of it is completely irrelevant now, and apart from the laid-back blues of “If I Had My Druthers”, the galvanizing showstopper “Jubilation T. Cornpone”, and two lovely ballads, “Namely You” and “Love in a Home”, the actual tunes themselves (by Gene de Paul, who was also Mercer’s songwriting partner on the hit musical film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) are mostly pretty forgettable. The show played well on stage at the time, and the very faithful film version makes for a fascinating watch if you get the chance, but it isn’t much more than an interesting curiosity these days.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown has weathered the years much better, as it turned out to be as timeless as its source, Charles Schultz’ classic comic strip Peanuts. The book and lyrics are extremely clever and perfectly capture the tone and spirit of the original strip; the only problem is the music, which apart from one beautiful song, “Happiness”, is rather dull and childish and completely lacks the sophistication of the words to which it’s set. There’s a reason the iconic television specials based on the strip were scored with Jazz—this is self-consciously sophisticated material that no real child would ever say (that’s one of the fundamental jokes behind the franchise), and it requires music that matches that tone. Granted, there are certainly worse ways to musicalize this franchise…Larry Grossman’s musical Snoopy was even more childish, and let’s not even talk about the bargain-basement Eighties knockoff of the TV specials Flash Beagle, which consisted of a bizarrely out-of-place Flashdance parody and a bunch of standard-issue kids’-song schlock as filler.
There was also a Superman musical back in the Sixties, and while it had a book by the two men who would later write the screenplay for the iconic film version, it did not display their future talent or promise in any discernable form. It did have a pleasant score that threw off one enduring hit in “You’ve Got Possibilities”, some very amusing performances from Jack Cassidy and Linda Lavin in extraneous comic relief parts, and some creative set design, but that’s about all it had. It has gained a reputation in some circles as being worse than it actually is, due to a TV adaptation from the Seventies that was about ten times more terrible than the stage version ever was, but the show was still utterly lacking in emotional involvement (odd, given that even in that era, the entire premise of the Superman comics was kind of built on character drama and audience identification), and was built around one of the stupidest Musical-Comedy plots of its era. Even worse, it did absolutely nothing with the possibilities of its source medium…apart from a few stunts in the set design, this was simply a conventional, formulaic Musical Comedy that happened to star a comic book superhero. Give Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark some credit; at least it wasn’t afraid to be weird. I mean, why do a superhero musical in the first place if you’re not going to deviate from Musical Theatre norms?
There are two shows from this era, seldom revived but immensely important from a historical perspective, that failed largely because they couldn’t seem to make up their minds which model they were going for: outsized cartoonish farce or the more traditional, comparatively subdued forms of Musical Comedy. These are A Family Affair and Flora the Red Menace, which between them introduced the careers of legendary composer-lyricist team John Kander and Fred Ebb.
A Family Affair had two fairly significant things going for it. One was a star-studded, personality-rich cast that included Eileen Heckart, Shelley Berman, Morris Carnovsky, Larry Kert (West Side Story’s original Tony), Rita Gardner (the original Luisa from The Fantasticks), and the wildly underrated Bibi Osterwald, a marvelous performer who sadly spent most of her career as an understudy for bigger names.
The second is the score, with music by Kander (his first score for Broadway) and lyrics provided by Kander and playwright James Goldman. The music itself is generally excellent and clearly displays Kander’s enormous talent, with lovely ballads (“Anything for You”, “Beautiful”, “There’s a Room in My House”, “Summer is Over”) alternating with raucous, toe-tapping uptunes like “My Son, the Lawyer”, “Football Game” and “Harmony”. Even so, there are some lesser moments. The unintentionally disturbing “Every Girl Wants to Get Married” for the bride and the brutally dominant “What I Say Goes” for the groom apply an unfortunate spotlight to the show’s dated gender politics…think of them as the Musical Theatre equivalents of songs like Burt Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers”.
But what was more of a problem at the time was that, at this point in his career, Kander really needed an Ebb. There are two clever comedy numbers, “Revenge” and “I’m Worse Than Anybody”, but otherwise the lyrics are somewhat less than top-drawer, and there are some downright embarrassing moments like “Right Girls” and “Kalua Bay”.
Still, the show could have survived this. Co-librettist William Goldman apparently blamed director Harold Prince for the show’s failure, judging from the not very complimentary (and frankly rather ridiculous) things he said about Prince’s directorial skills in The Season. But what really did the show in was that its subject…a typical wedding and the typical conflicts and family squabbles that accompany one…was ultimately too mundane to support the raucous, over-the-top farce it was trying to be. Even with all the outsized personalities in the cast, it just wasn’t interesting or colorful enough for a splashy Sixties-style Musical Comedy. It might have survived if it had taken the charm show approach, like The Fantasticks or She Loves Me, and made a virtue of the mundane scale of its story, but that wasn’t the route it was trying to take.
Flora the Red Menace, Kander’s first score written with Ebb and Liza Minnelli’s first star vehicle in any medium, was arguably even less successful, because it brought up some potentially edgy subject matter for its era (a young Depression-era woman seriously considering joining the American Communist Party) and then proceeded to duck every implication that came with that premise.
This is mostly because of the show’s director and co-librettist George Abbott, a once-legendary director of Musical Comedies who in addition to being increasingly out-of-place in the Broadway of the Sixties, was so staunchly anti-Communist that he could not bring himself to contemplate their real motivations even for the space of a single show, preferring to portray them all as moustache-twirling cartoon villains. And without offering at least lip service to the arguments both for and against the Communist platform, the kind of provocative political commentary the show was theoretically going for simply cannot work. As a result, the show became little more than a generic romantic comedy with an unsympathetic leading man and a few slogans about individuality thrown in.
The score was much better than the book, with a nice mix of delicate ballads like “A Quiet Thing” and “Dear Love” and belted anthems like “Sing Happy” and “You Are You” that showed off Minnelli’s famous pipes in their absolute prime, but it was far from perfect. In particular, it contains perhaps the three worst songs of Kander and Ebb’s career…the terminally corny “Palomino Pal”, the asinine performance piece “Hello, Waves”, and “Knock Knock” (which quite literally consists of two characters trading knock-knock jokes in song).
There was eventually a ‘revisal’ version that did what should have been done in the first place (examined and even sympathized somewhat with the Communists’ motives and made the leading man a committed and well-intentioned idealist). This version also deleted the aforementioned three terrible songs, but the songs it added to replace them weren’t all that much better (especially the incredibly annoying “Mister, Just Give Me a Job”, which, in an unfortunate move, gets continually repeated throughout the show until the audience gets PTSD from it). This, combined with the fact that said revisal tried to perform a show with dozens of characters using a cast of nine, meant that the result still came off as distinctly underwhelming. Also, Veanne Cox (who played Flora in the revival), while a much less raw and more sophisticated actress than Minnelli had been when she played the role, had neither Minnelli’s sheer vocal power nor her star charisma, and as a result, a lot of numbers that had been showstoppers in the Minnelli version just came off as ordinary, even forgettable, in the revival.
Another George Abbott show, New Girl in Town, suffered from the same problem to an even greater degree. It was an awkward attempt to turn a typically tragic Eugene O’Neill play into a George Abbott-style Musical Comedy, and was one of the first really clear signs that Abbott’s approach was no longer working in the new Musical-Theatre environment. The parts of Bob Merrill’s score (his first for Broadway) that actually had something to do with the story had their moments, particularly the lovely duet “Did You Close Your Eyes?” and the strikingly bitter “On the Farm”, but since half the score consists of empty, generic Musical-Comedy filler numbers designed to “lighten” the show, there was only so much Merrill could do. Bob Fosse’s muse and future wife Gwen Verdon was marvelous in the lead, and Fosse did contribute an impressively racy and disturbing dream ballet (even if Abbott had done his damnedest to get the ballet cut from the show), but the whole thing was far less interesting than a musical based on an O’Neill drama should have been.
Another prime example of the loudness and flashiness of the Sixties Musical Comedy, but one which nonetheless stands apart from the splashy diva salutes and farcical cartoons we’ve discussed so far, is the trend toward darker, more cynical Musical-Comedy satires that started emerging in the Sixties…belated follow-ups to Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, if you will. I’m not thinking of How to Succeed here…that show somewhat veiled its biting satire under a superficial veneer of conventional Musical-Comedy cheer, while these shows wore their black, unfeeling hearts on their sleeves for all to see. Frankly, most of them are forgotten now, and for good reason. Ervin Drake’s two musicals, a shallow Hollywood satire starring Steve Lawrence called What Makes Sammy Run? and an incredibly ill-conceived and misguided adaptation of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra called Her First Roman, have virtually no redeeming qualities whatsoever, either in book or score.
I Can Get It for You Wholesale was slightly more respectable, mostly because it featured the Broadway debut of future legend Barbra Streisand, but a tacked-on happy ending spoiled the impact of its satire, and Harold Rome’s score, apart from a couple of Streisand’s numbers and one genuinely disturbing character piece called “Eat a Little Something”, was generally of the second rank and not especially memorable.
Much more notable in the long run, despite having never achieved anything close to success, is the much-vaunted cult flop Anyone Can Whistle. This show is, to be frank, nowhere near as good as most people make it out to be. To be fair, while the late Stephen Sondheim composed the score and is generally the name most associated with the show in the public consciousness, I don’t think the blame for this can really be laid on Sondheim: at this point, he wasn’t really an auteur in the sense he would be on his post-1970 shows. The real culprit was the show’s actual auteur, librettist-director Arthur Laurents, and the problems with the show are mostly his fault.
Yes, the show was groundbreaking when it was new. Yes, it pioneered a bunch of techniques that would figure heavily in Sondheim’s later masterpieces. But it was still an angry, pretentious and generally unfunny rant about all the various scattershot elements of modern life that got on Laurents’ nerves. Shows that are essentially thinly-disguised rants can work, but it generally helps if they’re focused rants, something this show is definitely not.
Sondheim’s score is far better than the book, and it features three of his all-time gems: the beautifully touching title-song, the inspirational “Everybody Says Don’t”, and the bittersweet duet “With So Little to Be Sure Of”. But the score, fine as it is, isn’t a monumental masterpiece on the level of the scores Sondheim would write between 1970 and 1994. The many numbers for the show’s villains are fun, but also somewhat glib and shallow by Sondheim standards. The anthem “There Won’t Be Trumpets” had to be cut because it got upstaged by its own intro speech, and the extended musical sequence “Simple”, while extremely impressive in its ambition and scope, is still hampered by the heavy-handed satire it inherited from Laurents’ book.
Also, to be perfectly frank, there was another Musical that accomplished the same thing that Whistle had been going for much more successfully…the musical version of King of Hearts. Granted, this stage adaptation of a Sixties counterculture film arrived sort of late to the party (1978, to be exact), which might help to explain why it wasn’t any more commercially successful than Whistle had been. Also, its source film didn’t really have a lot of plot, resulting in some fairly blatant filler sequences (particularly those involving an extended sequence of circus acts). But King of Hearts was also an allegory about mental patients taking over an asylum and then a town, and it delivered essentially the same message (that everyone in the world is crazy, and you might as well be the kind of crazy that makes you peaceful and happy) with far more warmth, charm and sincerity than Whistle ever approaches.
Granted, the inmates in King of Hearts bear no resemblance to most real-life mental patients, but like Whistle, the show is quite clearly meant to be an allegory. It tells of a simple soldier named Johnny Perkins who, on the last day of World War I, is charged with defusing a bomb set to explode in a small French village. When the inhabitants evacuate, the population of the local lunatic asylum escape and take over the roles of the townspeople, and when Johnny finds them, they promptly declare him their King. The rest of the show consists of Johnny learning to love the inmates’ simple, peaceful philosophy while desperately trying to figure out how to defuse the bomb before it kills his newfound friends. Like I said, not much external action happens between the fifteen-minute mark and the finale, but the result is still far less unpleasant than Whistle‘s over-plotted farce and unfocused ranting.
Frankly, even the score to King of Hearts is, on the whole, better than Whistle‘s. The inmates sing mostly French-influenced show music, while the songs for Johnny are generally in a Country-flavored Folk vein. There are a couple of clinkers like “St. Anne’s” and “Mrs. Draba”, but songs like the gorgeous duet “Nothing Only Love”, the life-affirming “Somewhere is Here”, and the exquisite meditation on life and death “A Day in Our Life” fill out the inmates’ live-for-the-moment, don’t-fear-the-reaper philosophy beautifully. The glowing “Deja Vu”, in which the inmates take over their abandoned town and assume their new roles, is exquisite, as is the title-song, an ecstatic hymn to their newly-chosen “king”. Johnny gets a thrilling anthem in “Close Upon the Hour”, which is reprised in the wildly idealistic ending where he chooses a life in the asylum to be with his new community of friends. Even the one song for the other “normal people”, “Going Home Tomorrow”, perfectly captures the quiet desperation of the “sane” human condition. The score as a whole is not as clever as Whistle‘s, but it is quite a bit more melodious and certainly far more moving. At any rate, note that King of Hearts still gets performed in regional theatre on a fairly regular basis, whereas Anyone Can Whistle is almost never seen except for the high-profile “concert” (read: they cut out most of the book) staging it receives once every couple of decades.
But by far the most important achievement to come out of this trend toward ‘darker’ Musical Comedies is Bob Fosse’s great artistic breakthrough Sweet Charity. It’s actually rather surprising that this show has done as well as it has…most of the time, shows this dramatically unsatisfying wind up being flops no matter what their other merits (as witness the fact that Mack and Mabel, despite its phenomenal score, has never had a successful production). I suppose in this case the show’s compensations just collectively overpowered its flaws, or perhaps the seamless integration of every element of the production except the book had something to do with it.
Certainly, the score was a huge mark in the show’s favor, with Cy Coleman providing a more legitimate Jazz sound than Broadway usually ever sees, and Dorothy Fields providing some of her sharpest and snazziest lyrics, belying the fact that she was sixty years old at the time. The explosively sexy “Big Spender” and the wildly exuberant “If My Friends Could See Me Now” became rock-solid standards, but about two-thirds of the score is mindblowing. There are admittedly a few weak numbers (“Charity’s Soliloquy”, “I’m the Bravest Individual”, “I Love to Cry at Weddings”, the pretty but oddly underpowered title-song), but the snazzy, character-establishing opening, “You Should See Yourself”; the thrilling quasi-Rock instrumental “Rich Man’s Frug”; the impossibly lush, over-the-top ballad “Too Many Tomorrows”; the Mariachi fire-spitter “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”; the epic Jazz fugue “Rhythm of Life”; the mocking, then suddenly tender ballad “Baby Dream Your Dream”; the heartwrenching character soliloquy “Where Am I Going?”; and the explosion of sheer exultant joy at the eleven-o’clock number “I’m a Brass Band” represent arguably the finest and fullest realization of the classic Broadway sound’s Jazz influences.
Fosse directed the piece as an utterly seamless, almost cinematic whole, and his choreography for it is some of his most iconic, probably ranking right behind Chicago in that regard. The classy yet almost shockingly risqué “Big Spender” scene, in particular, is etched on the collective memories of multiple generations of people who never even saw this show. The original production also had the benefit of Gwen Verdon’s legendary star performance in the lead.
But for all these good qualities, no-one has ever been able to make the show satisfying as drama. The original libretto was by famed playwright Neil Simon, and it was oddly detached and uninvolving for such a sentimental story, consisting of little more than an endless string of brittle Neil Simon quips. Worse, the original ending was so stupid and ridiculous that virtually all later productions have felt the need to rewrite it, and while none of them has really worked, it would be pretty hard not to improve upon the original. The movie version manages to fix these problems, thanks to Peter Stone’s far more moving script and Shirley MacLaine’s heartrendingly vulnerable performance, but runs into a new issue: if you actually make the audience care about the action, this is a monumentally depressing, even defeatist story about an idealistic girl who is continually exploited and never seems to learn. This might have worked for the Fellini film on which the musical is loosely based, but Fellini’s brand of pathos doesn’t generally transfer well to other media, and it also doesn’t pair well with the musical’s mostly upbeat score and snappy, sophisticated feel.
Every revival has tried to fix these problems, but it hasn’t worked yet and probably never will. The 2004 Christina Applegate revival probably came as close to giving this piece a satisfying ending as anyone ever has, but with its weak cast and with Bob Fosse’s choreography removed to accommodate Applegate’s limited dancing skills, there didn’t seem to be much of a point left. But despite the fact that every audience comes away from this show empty and unsatisfied, it continues to be produced regularly, the film version is still regarded as a minor classic in many circles, and it seems likely to continue to frustrate everyone who comes into contact with it for a long time to come.