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Favorites by Decade – The 1950s

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I have to pick only five favorite musicals from this incredibly fruitful decade? Really?! Well, it can’t be done. I winnowed it down to six indispensable Broadway titles, but I just couldn’t get to five. Then, to spice it up a bit, I added five off-Broadway shows, as I did for the 1990s column back in April. As off-Broadway was born in the 1950s, I wondered if I could find five titles, but it wasn’t hard at all.

Interestingly, three of the five were produced by T. Edward Hambleton and Norris Houghton, co-founders of the intrepid Phoenix Theatre, which was located at Second Avenue and 12th Street. Alas, today this historic house, built as a Yiddish theatre, has been chopped up into a multiplex cinema. You can see its interior in the 1981 slasher flick The Fan, starring Lauren Bacall as a Broadway musical star stalked by a murderous admirer. Bacall sings Tim Rice and Marvin Hamlisch’s “Hearts, not Diamonds” on its stage, and the film’s climactic scene takes place in the empty theatre. The admittedly rather cheesy movie can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

In winnowing I had to leave out some major likes, including Guys and Dolls, Wonderful Town, Candide, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Peter Pan, The Boy Friend, Fiorello!, Flower Drum Song, Juno, and The Sound of Music. As I said, it was a fruitful era, the height of Broadway’s Golden Age. Nevertheless, here are my fifties faves, in chronological order by opening date.

The King and I (Opened March 29, 1951 at the St. James Theatre)
I liked this Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adaptation of Margaret Landon’s autobiographical novel Anna and the King of Siam when I saw its 1956 film version broadcast on TV sometime in the early 1960s, but I fell in love with it at age 12 upon the film’s 1966 re-release, when I could see it widescreen and uninterrupted by commercials. I attended opening night of its 1977 Broadway revival in a borrowed tux and sat a couple of rows behind Rodgers, who I watched almost as much as the stage. (Shockingly, its OBCR is not available digitally, but you can buy used copies of the CD on Amazon.) Most recently, I was transported by director Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival starring Kelli O’Hara, who finally won her well-deserved Tony for it after five preceding nominations. While there are many fine King and I recordings, my gold standard remains the film soundtrack featuring the brilliant Yul Brynner, who of course originated the role on stage and won both a Tony and an Oscar for it, and the craftily combined efforts of Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon. For me, no one has ever bested Brynner or Kerr/Nixon in their roles, and there is no more perfect moment in all of musical theatre than “Shall We Dance?” as executed by the three of them.

The Threepenny Opera (Opened March 10, 1954 at the Theatre de Lys)
Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s book and lyrics for this slashing account of capitalism’s endemic corruption remains, for me, the best English version I have encountered, despite the bowdlerization of some lyrics on the OCR to allow for radio airplay. In particular, due to Blitzstein’s own gifts as a songwriter, the lyrics fit beautifully with Kurt Weill’s clashing, angular score. And, of course, this off-Broadway production featured Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, re-creating the role of Jenny, the whore she made famous 26 years earlier in the show’s 1928 Berlin premiere. But the OCR also offers the talents of Jo Sullivan, Charlotte Rae, Beatrice Arthur, John Astin, and Paul Dooley. Scott Merrill, who starred as the sexy but treacherous gangster Macheath, may not have achieved the stardom of his fellow cast members, but his performance is indelible. When he left the production, a young guy named Jerry Orbach took over. The show ran for more than six years and just over 2,700 performances. Oh, how I wish I could have seen it.

The Golden Apple (Opened March 11, 1954 at the Phoenix Theatre)
Off-Broadway was clearly hopping in 1954, with John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ delightful through-sung re-telling of Greek myth opening the night after Threepenny. Blitzstein and Latouche were friends, but I bet Latouche missed Blitzstein’s opening night in this case, as Apple had a preview performance on March 10. Did Blitzstein show up at the Phoenix on March 11 to bask in the glow of his raves? I wonder. As Latouche had once planned to translate Threepenny himself (instead he wrote his own modern adaptation of the story, 1946’s Beggar’s Holiday, with music by Duke Ellington), I’m sure he eventually caught the show. Apple was a critical smash and moved to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre, but it was too artsy for the Main Stem crowd and folded after three-and-a-half months. You need both the heavily cut OBCR, for the iconic performances of its original cast, especially Kaye Ballard as Helen of Troy, and the full-length live recording of a production at Texas’ Lyric Stage, so you can grasp the complete work. The splendid 2017 Encores! concert staging, alas, went unrecorded.

Sandhog (Opened Nov. 23, 1954 at the Phoenix Theatre)
Hambleton and Houghton followed up their off-Broadway success with The Golden Apple with this piece by Waldo Salt (book and lyrics) and Earl Robinson (composer) based on Theodore Dreiser’s short story “St. Columba and the River.” It told the story of the building of the Holland Tunnel. Labeled “a ballad in three acts,” the show blends dialogue and song in highly unusual and dramatic ways, and Robinson’s music is haunting. The cast included David Brooks (the original Tommy Albright of Brigadoon), Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley, Michael Kermoyan, and Paul Ukena, plus as three street kids Betty Ageloff (who changed her last name to Aberlin and went on to fame as Lady Aberlin on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), Yuriko, and Eliot Feld. Bernard Gersten, later producer at the Public Theater and Lincoln Center Theater, was the stage manager, Hershy Kay did the orchestrations, and Howard Da Silva directed. An OCR was recorded, though with piano-only accompaniment, but it went unreleased, probably due to some sound problems in its second half that weren’t apparent until after it was finished. So Salt and Robinson made their own recording, a rather elaborate authors’ demo that still aptly conveys the piece. An extremely rare LP for many years, it has recently been released on CD by Stage Door Records and includes selected cuts from the OCR as a bonus. John Latouche, who wrote the hit cantata “Ballad for Americans” with Robinson in 1939, served as dramaturge, and Latouche’s life partner, librettist, lyricist, and poet Kenward Elmslie, funded the making of the OCR. Producer-director-actor Charlotte Moore of the Irish Rep has told me that she wants to do a production of Sandhog there (its main characters are, after all, Irish). Get a move on, Charlotte!

My Fair Lady (Opened March 15, 1956 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre)
What more is there left for me to write about Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s magnum opus? I fell hard for the OBCR when I was four and even harder for the full show when I was 10 and the movie version was released. OK, a story about that. As the opening credits played on screen at Shaker Heights’ Colony Theatre, I was so excited that I started to hum along with the overture. My older brother quickly interrupted me, telling me that I was being rude to my fellow audience members. Embarrassed, I realized immediately that he was right, which was also very annoying. However, never again as an audience member did I act as if I was at home in my living room. I haven’t caught Laura Benanti yet in Lincoln Center Theater’s beautiful revival, but I’m hearing great things about her Eliza Doolittle, and I’ll get there soon.

The Most Happy Fella (Opened May 3, 1956 at the Imperial Theatre)
Frank Loessser’s bounteous musical adaptation of Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama, They Knew What They Wanted, about a middle-aged California vintner and his younger mail-order bride, had the misfortune of opening less than two months after My Fair Lady. In any other season it would have swept the Tonys; instead, it got six nominations and no wins. (Lady had 10 nominations and six wins.) Still, it ran for 676 performances and spawned what I think was the first three-LP original Broadway cast recording, preserving for all time virtually every note of Loesser’s extraordinary score. It was revived at City Center in 1959 and on the Great White Way in 1979 and 1992, and Encores! did very well with it in 2014 starring Shuler Hensley and Laura Benanti, but I think it’s time for Broadway to see it again. The show is much too good to be relegated to concert stagings. Bartlett Sher, are you ready?

West Side Story (Opened Sept. 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre)
If you haven’t been to the Jerome Robbins exhibit currently on display at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, I urge you to hie yourself over there pronto (it runs through March 30). There is some really fascinating material about the creation of this Arthur Laurents–Stephen Sondheim–Leonard Bernstein musical (and its subsequent film adaptation) about warring street gangs on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which Robbins, of course, conceived, directed, and choreographed. In particular, one fascinating tidbit is Robbins’ editing notes about the musical numbers to his co-director on the 1961 movie version, Robert Wise, given long after Robbins was fired from the picture for filming too slowly. There is also a list of all the NYC locations considered for filming, as well as which were finally chosen. I live on 68th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, and I always point out to guests that most of the movie’s location shots were made just down my block, on 68th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenue, which was one of the few blocks still standing after area demolition to make way for the erection of Lincoln Center. Once the movie finished shooting, the buildings came down, and a large apartment complex was built in their place, causing 68th Street to stop at Amsterdam Avenue. I point to a particularly ugly gray apartment building (of much more recent vintage than the above-mentioned complex, though it still stands as well) and announce, “The Jets and the Sharks danced right over there!”

The Music Man (Opened Dec. 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre)
Meredith Willson’s sepia-tinted musical comedy about life in rural Iowa at the start of the 20th century duked it out with West Side Story come awards time, and the more conventionally commercial show won both the Tony and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best musical. I would have voted for gang warfare, and yet I would never diss The Music Man as the inferior of the two. It is just about as good as a musical comedy can get. Also, as with West Side, it got a splendid film version, again directed by its original stage director, in this case Morton Da Costa. In choosing which recording to listen to, it’s always a bit of a dilemma: Barbara Cook or Shirley Jones? “My White Knight” or “Being in Love”? As I knew the film first, I tend to go with that more often than not. I always thought it would be great fun to have Cook and Jones play the Brewster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace. Alas, we’ll never know if I was right.

Once Upon a Mattress (Opened May 11, 1959 at the Phoenix Theatre)
This is the third of the Hambleton-Houghton off-Broadway tuners on the list, and this musical comedy version of the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” unconcerned with anything more than entertainment, is a distinct departure from the artistic ambitions of The Golden Apple and Sandhog. And yet, when it, like Apple, moved to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre, it too only managed a short run, just 244 performances, essentially double the length of Apple’s 125-performance run. I don’t get it. The Mary Rodgers–Marshall Barer score is witty and tuneful, and the Barer–Jay Thompson–Dean Fuller book is a delight. Carol Burnett clowned spectacularly under George Abbott’s direction (something we know for sure because her performance was captured in not one but two TV adaptations in the 1960s). So what was the problem? Perhaps it was the raciness of the premise. No one in the kingdom can get married until the prince is wed, something his possessive mother seems determined to prevent. Alas, one of the ladies in waiting has gotten pregnant. What’s an expectant mother to do without a hubby to do it with? I know this story line KO’d a production at my high school in 1970. The principal told our drama teacher that it would embarrass several students who were in similar straights. We did Little Mary Sunshine instead (see below). Then said drama teacher directed Mattress that summer with a student cast for a local amateur troupe. Mr. Sherlock was always pretty tenacious about getting his way.

Gypsy (Opened May 21, 1959 at the Broadway Theatre)
There is virtually nothing of interest in the Robbins exhibit at Lincoln Center about Gypsy, despite it being possibly the best integrated musical ever written. I think that’s probably because, although Robbins directed and choreographed, the show belongs to book writer Arthur Laurents’ conception of how to tell the tale of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee: by putting her pushy stage mother, Rose, front and center. Even Robbins apparently told Laurents at the time, and not happily, that the show was his show rather than a Robbins show, which he felt occurred because he wasn’t involved enough in the writing process, as he had been on West Side Story. I do think, if one has to choose, that it is probably the best book ever written for a musical, though the Stephen Sondheim–Jule Styne score is pretty nifty too. There have been a lot of great Roses over the years, but I do wish I could have seen the role’s originator, Ethel Merman, play the part. I have heard a live tape of her closing performance, but it’s not the same thing. Just recently, I found a clip on YouTube of Merman singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” “exactly as she does it in the show.” It’s from The Kraft Music Hall program broadcast Oct. 5, 1960, while Merman is still doing Gypsy on Broadway. I’ve seen her perform the song many times, but always out of context as an upbeat anthem. In this clip, even though Merman is not in costume, you can see the desperate, domineering Rose come through. Believe me, it’s something.

Little Mary Sunshine (Opened Nov. 18, 1959, at the Orpheum Theatre)
When Mr. Sherlock told us that our high school musical would be Rick Besoyan’s delicious spoof of operettas, I had never heard of it, or him, and I knew precious little about operetta, except that I didn’t like it much, probably because my parents did. I immediately purchased the OCR and plunked it down on our living room hi-fi player. I was wary, but I ended up very charmed, and I loved being in the show’s chorus as a Forest Ranger. I knew that “Colorado Love Call” spoofed “Indian Love Call” from Rose Marie, because my mom loved Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald. But I really didn’t get most of the other references: “Look for a Sky of Blue” twits “Look for the Silver Lining” from Sally, “Tell a Handsome Stranger” sends up “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden,” from Floradora (you can hear the song on Tallulah Bankhead: Give My Regards to Broadway), “The Forest Rangers” comes from “Stouthearted Men” from The New Moon, and, of course, “In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essenzook Zee” spoofs “In Egern on the Tegern See” from Music in the Air. In the years that followed it was always fun when I heard an operetta song for the first time and realized it had a counterpart in Besoyan’s score. Nobody does this show anymore, probably because audiences no longer have knowledge of operetta. But I came to love the show without knowing the references, so why couldn’t others? I think it would work at Encores! starring Kristin Chenoweth (age be damned), if directed with just the right amount of cheek. By the way, you need the London cast recording as well as the OCR, because only by combining them do you get the complete score. In London Little Mary was played by the redoubtable Patricia Routledge, while off-Broadway she was first created by the equally formidable Eileen Brennan. Both are priceless.

 


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