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Favorites by Decade – The 1970s

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So now it’s my five favorite Broadway musicals of the 1970s? That’s easy: the five collaborations of director Harold Prince and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. They also get a sixth title included, as I am once again also choosing five off-Broadway tuners. Unlike for the recent 1950s column, though, I don’t have a lot of shows that I regret having to leave off the list. Perhaps The Rothschilds, On the Twentieth Century, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Annie—and certainly Chicago—but that’s about it.

The 1970s are the decade in which I moved to NYC to live (in October 1976), so I have actually seen all 10 of these shows, eight of them in the original production (on Broadway, on National Tour, or in the West End) and two in revival (one of which was directed by its original director and included cast members from its original production). To echo Spencer Tracy’s assessment of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, for me musicals in the 1970s didn’t have much meat on them, but what there was was cherce.

Company (Opened April 26, 1970, at the Alvin Theatre)
I had just turned 16 when I brought this OBCR home, put it on the turntable in my bedroom, closed the door, and sat down to listen. By the time it was over, my world had shifted. Any interest I had in pop music—and I did listen to artists such as the Four Seasons, Simon and Garfunkel, the Dave Clark Five, Petula Clark, the Turtles, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees—vanished, because none of it was remotely as interesting as this now-seminal Sondheim score. I saw the national tour at Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre while home from college for Thanksgiving vacation in 1971. It featured George Chakiris as Bobby and Elaine Stritch as Joanne, and though I was disappointed that there was no moving elevator, I hung on every word and note. With Company, the mature Stephen Sondheim emerged full blown, and musical theatre would never be the same again.

Follies (Opened April 4, 1971, at the Winter Garden Theatre)
Harold Prince once told me, as he has told others across the years, that this mordant musical about mortality is his favorite of all the shows he produced and/or directed. It certainly killed me that I couldn’t get to New York to see it. Alas, there was no national tour, just a one-off engagement in L.A. I played the OBCR to death, but the truncations and omissions were maddening. I did see an amateur production in Cleveland directed by Fran Soeder, with Eric Stern on piano leading the onstage band, which I thought was terrific for what it was (I wouldn’t actually meet these fellow Ohioans until moving to NYC). One of the bootleg recordings I most treasure is the complete audiotape made through the sound system of the Winter Garden. I’ve seen numerous revivals, but nothing can compare with that tape, augmented by the color film footage, both silent and with sound, that exists of Prince and Michael Bennett’s stunning, heartbreaking production. Between the two, I’ve almost convinced myself that I was there.

Dr. Selavy’s Magic Theatre (Opened Nov. 23, 1972, at the Mercer Arts Center)
I bought the LP for this show because playwright Arthur Miller vouched for it in the liner notes, calling it “wild, wooley [sic], and wonderful.” At the time I had no idea who Richard Foreman, who conceived, staged, and designed it, was, nor had I heard of lyricist Tom Hendry (who went on to a long theatrical career in Canada) or composer Stanley Silverman. (Silverman would subsequently write Up From Paradise with Miller, the musical version of the great playwright’s The Creation of the World and Other Business.) Silverman’s eclectic pastiche score was engaging enough, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what the show was about. However, when I saw a 1984 revival, again under Foreman’s aegis and even featuring a few original cast members, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, this surreal meditation on the world as a madhouse popped perfectly. Of course, by then I had seen Foreman’s Rhoda in Potatoland (so much string!), as well as his revival of The Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center, so I knew a bit of what to expect. The great Broadway set designer Oliver Smith was a co-producer. The show’s hit off-Broadway run came to an abrupt close after four months when its rickety theatre, the Mercer Arts Center, suddenly collapsed (fortunately not during a performance).

A Little Night Music (Opened Feb. 25, 1973, at the Shubert Theatre)
As a big Lerner and Loewe fan, I was very excited to hear that Prince and Sondheim were doing a romantic musical, and I was not disappointed by this elegant adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. I saw the national tour twice at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre with a cast that included Jean Simmons, Margaret Hamilton, George Lee Andrews, Ed Evanko, and Stephen Lehew. Yes, it was their most conventional show to date, but when the conventions are such sturdy ones, who cares? When I worked with Andrews a few years later on Starting Here, Starting Now (see below), I was shocked to realize just how young he was when he played the middle-aged Fredrik Egerman. He was terrific, by the way (in both shows). He’s also terrific singing his big Act 2 solo (he played the servant Frid on Broadway), “Silly People,” on Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. The song was cut in Boston, but Andrews got to sing it on the Shubert Theatre stage for this one-night tribute concert not long after Night Music opened on Broadway.

Candide (Opened Dec. 11, 1973, at the Chelsea Theater Center/Brooklyn Academy of Music)
In his memoir Contradictions, Harold Prince says, “I loved working on Candide in Brooklyn and I hated bringing it to Broadway.” He was talking about the freedom of nonprofit theatre versus the pressures of the commercial variety, but that’s why I include the show here as an off-Broadway musical and not a Broadway one. Because it had an entirely new book by Hugh Wheeler and featured major changes to the score by Leonard Bernstein and a variety of lyricists (including new lyrics by Sondheim for this production), including a completely new, more intimate orchestration, I think the revisions sufficient to call it a practically new show. It’s a rare instance of a Broadway flop being turned into a hit (73 performances versus 740 performances), and it is the only version of this frequently revised musical that I have ever seen fire on all cylinders. I wish I had seen it at BAM (the hubby did), but I did catch it on Broadway on its closing weekend and was thoroughly entranced.

A Chorus Line (Opened May 21, 1975, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Newman Theater)
I include conceiver, choreographer, and director Michael Bennett’s mega Broadway smash here as an off-Broadway show because off-Broadway is in its DNA. Producer Joseph Papp of the Public Theater gave Bennett the option to develop the musical, both in writing and in performance, in a long workshop rehearsal process that would never have been possible in the commercial world of Broadway. The Marvin Hamlisch–Ed Kleban score throbs with theatrical vitality and smarts, and the recent well-received Encores! staging seems to have quieted the voices claiming that the show is an unrevivable period piece, which began thanks to the lackluster 2006 Broadway revival. I first saw the show at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in August 1976, just a few weeks after its July 22 opening there. To say it was thrilling would be an understatement.

Pacific Overtures (Opened Jan. 11, 1976, at the Winter Garden Theatre)
That said, I was not happy when A Chorus Line beat Pacific Overtures for the best musical Tony. That’s because this fourth Sondheim-Prince collaboration about the opening of Japan to the West by American Commodore Matthew Perry was simply the most astounding musical I had seen to date in my 22 years on the planet. My best friend and I were in the Winter Garden Theatre at the first preview, the evening of Dec. 31, 1975, and the memories are indelible, especially Perry’s ship folding open and rushing menacingly downstage at the audience like a giant piece of origami. Designers Boris Aronson (sets), Florence Klotz (costumes), and Tharon Musser (lights) were on fire for this one. John Weidman’s book was spare and sharp (with a little help from Hugh Wheeler), and Sondheim’s amazingly varied score somehow expressed the sounds of Eastern music in Western ways without a trace of kitsch. My hubby was in the audience that night too, though we would not even meet for another 17 years. I don’t believe in definitive superlatives and ultimate favorites, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more important night in the theatre for me than seeing Pacific Overtures.

Starting Here, Starting Now (Opened March 7, 1977, at Barbarann’s Theatre Restaurant)
This endlessly entertaining off-Broadway musical revue by Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics and direction) and David Shire (music) closes with three young people staring hopefully out at the audience and into the future as they sing, “Whatever my fortune, I’ll carry the torch of a new life comin’/What manner of thing will it be?/Who knows? Who cares?/Just bring my world to me.” And that’s just how I felt as I sold tickets to the show as its box office treasurer. I got the gig a mere three months after moving to NYC. I met a crucial mentor and lifelong friend, Maltby, because of it, and it provided my entry into the world of the professional theatre. When I first heard the songs during rehearsals, I was stunned by their unfailing high quality, because I had never heard of the songwriting team. How could a body of work like this exist without my knowing about it? My new life was indeed just beginning, and it couldn’t have had a happier kickoff.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road (Opened May 16, 1978, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Anspacher Theater)
I was already a fan of book writer–lyricist Gretchen Cryer and composer Nancy Ford’s work when this feminist manifesto opened at the Public Theater, thanks to their scores for Now Is the Time for All Good Men and The Last Sweet Days of Isaac. The reviews, however, were almost unanimously not good and made the musical sound like arid agitprop, so I didn’t race to see it. Nevertheless, it found its audience and was so successful at the box office that it transferred to off-Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre for what turned out to be a run of 1,165 performances. I finally caught up with it when Cryer, who also created the show’s leading role of a middle-of-the-road pop singer who is hitting 40 and wants to reinvent herself as an edgier, more authentic artist, returned to the part in the spring of 1980. I knew her slightly, because her young son, Jonny, volunteered under me at Equity Library Theatre, where I was theatre manager, helping to usher, work the concession stand, take tickets, and stuff like that. (Yes, he’s now Jon Cryer.) To my surprise I was bowled over by the show, thoroughly taken with its stinging rebuke of misogyny and consumerism. It worked just as well in 2011, again starring Cryer, when the York Theatre Company produced it in its Mufti Concert Series. Some critiques, it seems, are eternal.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Opened March 1, 1979, at the Uris Theatre)
I caught the second preview of this Sondheim-Prince-Wheeler masterpiece at the Feb. 7, 1979, Wednesday matinee, because I couldn’t go to the first performance on Tuesday night due to my job at ELT (we had a production of Eric Bentley’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde running). At the time I was collaborating with the above-mentioned Fran Soeder and Eric Stern on a musical version of O. Henry’s short story “The Last Leaf,” and because Fran was serving as Harold Prince’s directing assistant on Sweeney, I knew about the mad barber, his bloody murders, and the comic ode to cannibalism he shared with the demented Mrs. Lovett, but much of the audience didn’t. The stunned surprise that greeted “A Little Priest” as it dawned on people that yes, indeed, they were going there, remains forever burned into my brain. Watching the tour de force performances of Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, I knew I was witnessing an iconic moment in theatre history. I also remember Fran expressing his concern during rehearsals that a gorgeous song written for a supporting character might get cut due to time considerations. Fortunately, “Not While I’m Around” was very present and beautifully accounted for by Ken Jennings. As the ’70s ended I was a mere 25, and the future seemed limitless and full of promise, particularly when a musical such as Sweeney Todd could succeed commercially on Broadway. All in all, it wasn’t such a bad time to be young.

 


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