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Everything Old is New Again

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Tony season is upon us and it’s a year that careened wildly between the sublime The Band’s Visit to the ridiculous SpongeBob SquarePants.

Those two shows plus Frozen and Mean Girls are the nominees for Best Musical. For a while The Band’s Visit seemed to be a shoo-in but recently some have posited that SpongeBob might actually get the Tony nod.

Of course, there’s a whole coterie of theatergoers who look down on SpongeBob as simply a cartoon blown-up to fill the Palace Theatre stage. And others feel that The Band’s Visit is heartfelt and sincere but missing that Broadway razzmatazz. And after it’s opening the much heralded Frozen turned out to be a pretty slushy fairy-tale in the Disney manner. As for Mean Girls, the snarky movie became a snarky musical with the addition of some forgettable songs.

Well, whatever you think, it was ever thus on Broadway.

Take SpongeBob for example. Broadway history has long (very long) list of shows based on cartoons and their close relatives comic strips.

The comic strip Happy Hooligan premiered in 1900 and had a musical version as early as 1906 with Happy Hooligan’s Trip Around the World. The next year saw a show of the same name but with different production credits. We don’t know much more about the show but the fact that both played Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania shows the level of humor on stage.

Hard on Happy Hooligan’s heels were a series of shows based on Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff newspaper strip that was first published in 1907. Only six years later a musical version of the same name toured the country under the auspices of producer Gus Hill. There were a series of Mutt and Jeff musicals produced by Hill for nine more years. There were Mutt and Jeff at the Races, Divorced, in Chinatown, in College,in Mexico, and Mutt and Jeff’s Wedding (not to each other—that would be asking too much for 1917). So, between 1913 and 1922 there were no less than eight Mutt and Jeff musicals, none of which went to Broadway because Gus Hill knew that people in the sticks would sell out his shows but Broadway’s so-called intelligentsia wouldn’t go for the corny jokes.

And if you think that comics were only for rubes at the start of the last century may we draw your attention to a great big Broadway hit, 1956’s Li’l Abner based on the strip by Al Capp. And class-A songwriters Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer provided a terrific score.

Closer to our own age (and you knew it was coming) was Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan’s smasharama, Annie. There hasn’t been a year and maybe even a day that has gone by without a production of this smash hit musical that ran for over 2,000 performances. And like Mutt and Jeff, there were sequels. There was Annie Two: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge that flopped out-of-town in 1990. And that morphed into 1993’s off-Broadway flop, Annie Warbucks. Sometimes the magic works but it’s damned hard to recreate past glories. But that’s fodder for another column.

And please note: Li’l Abner especially was written for adult consumption much as was the comic strip. And Annie also walked the same fine line but usually erred on the side of the younger set in the audience.

Now on to the new fairy tale of Frozen. Again, fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and others have been around since the beginnings of Broadway. Most of the early ones were based on English pantomimes but they soon grew into full-fledged musicals and, again, they were meant for children of all ages, as their publicity was wont to crow.

Cinderella had her moments on stage in a series of shows including 1881’s Cinderella at School; 1904’s Cinderella and the Prince of Castle of Heart’s Desire; 1920’s Cinderella on Broadway produced by the Shubert brothers; and 1916’s flip on the fairy tale, The Cinderella Man with music by none other than Victor Herbert. Of course, in 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicalized the story for television and subsequently there was a 2013 readjustment for modern sensibilities.

And speaking of Victor Herbert he had the most successful fairy tale musical of all time, 1903’s classic Babes in Toyland. Along with lyricist/librettist Glen MacDonough, Herbert wrote one of the greatest scores in Broadway history. And it was a lollapalooza of a production. You think that The Phantom of the Opera is a spectacular show? Well, it can’t hold a fairy godmother’s wand to Babes in Toyland when it first opened.

Our final two musicals don’t really have Broadway antecedents. First of all, The Band’s Visit, excellent though it is, is at heart an off-Broadway musical especially in terms of its physical production. It’s an excellent, moving show but seldom has there been an original Broadway musical on such a small scale. It certainly owes a lot to the success of Avenue Q, another modest show that made it on Broadway from Off and then subsequently went back to Off-Broadway.

And Mean Girls. Well, it does follow in the questionable tradition of slapping songs into what is basically a script from Hollywood. That’s not to say that the show isn’t enjoyable or acted and directed well. But it’s somehow still a movie on stage much in the same as were Legally Blonde and Sister Act.

Have a wonderful Sunday. Everybody into the pool (that is the betting pool).


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