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In the 1970s..

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There were 180 musical mounted either originals or revivals. When discussing which are my favorite musicals I think there’s three categories since every musical is a favorite for different reasons. There are enjoyable productions that may not have become successes. There are shows in which the original was possibly not the greatest but have gone on for fame and fortune And there’s shows that were so remarkable in their original production they can never be revived as successfully as the original production.

For the sake of this article I’ve decided only to list original musicals and revues (I’ll cheat a little). And I’m listing them alphabetically (and not counting articles like “A” or “The” as the first word alphabetically (take that New York Times A B C’s – do they actually exist anymore?).

If you’d like a more in depth opinion on some of the most noteworthy shows see Frank Vlastnik’s and my book Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
This show was perfect in every way. Most songwriter revues since this show are basically staged radio. Ain’t Misbehavin’ didn’t have a plot but it had a cast of characters that were as fully realized as any musical. It was simple, didn’t take itself too seriously, wasn’t full of shtick, and respected the material. Every cast member had Personality (note that capital “P”). And it put the songs forward. Not the sets or false dramatic moments. But it did have subtext and that’s because of the exemplary cast and direction. Too many revues since then have bland performers who sing and dance well but have no individuality. This show was a joy in every regard. And it wasn’t ballad heavy like a lot of other songwriter revues.

The transfer of Ain’t Misbehavin’ to Broadway was a great success. If you’d like, jump down to Jacques Brel…, where I peruse two other shows that made the leap and what lessons we can learn from them.

Annie
I gotta admit I wasn’t bowled over by Annie when I first saw it in tryouts at the Kennedy Center. But it was clearly fully professional in every regard, and no cost was spared in scenery, costumes, lighting, orchestration—you name it. And it treated what might be called a “children’s show” with respect. It was equally enjoyable for audiences of all ages. Of course, since then it’s become one of the most successful musicals of all time. And the current national tour, directed by librettist/lyricist Martin Charnin, is perfect in every way.

Company
It’s difficult for audiences today—OK, it’s impossible for audiences today to respond to Company in the same way as audiences did in the original production. It had a libretto like no other show. It had a set like no other show. It had a finger on the pulse of America at the time like no other show. Its construction, orchestration, and score like no other show. It truly was a revelation. It was hip and current and smart. And, most importantly it didn’t pull back on emotional impact. When Dean Jones (and Larry Kert) sang “Being Alive” it was the perfect musical moment. Songs in shows are supposed to be there when spoken words alone can’t express the emotions of the moment. And “Being Alive” elevated the whole show and the experience of seeing the show like no other show before it. Just as we can’t see Oklahoma! through the eyes and minds of the original audience, no other revival of Company can ever equal the sheer heart-stopping moments and exhilaration knowing history was being made on stage at the Alvin Theatre. Aside: When Elaine Stritch sang the lyric, “Everybody rise!” in “The Ladies Who Lunch” many if not most of the audience were so caught up in the moment that we thought, “are we meant to stand up?” And if we had, we wouldn’t have felt like fools.

A Chorus Line
Another show like no other. Like Company, A Chorus Line was unlike any show before (or since). There was no real plot. There was no set to speak of. But the personalities of the characters were front and center. And Michael Bennett truly revolutionized staging with its cinematic elements. It sounds strange if you didn’t see that original production, but when you left you would swear there were close-ups and wipes and montages. What’s bad about A Chorus Line is that when it moved uptown from the Public Theater and became a smash hit every other non-profit theatre hoped that their show would move too. (The same thing can be said for when Chicago moved to Broadway from City Center’s Encores). Board members now expect lightning to strike again with big returns and that means moving the show to a Broadway theatre.

Follies
Speaking of Michael Bennett, he happened also to co-direct this landmark musical. I think it was Harold Prince that opined that Follies could never be revived satisfactorily. And he was right. Because the whole show was about resonance. While watching Ethel Shutta or Alexis Smith or Yvonne de Carlo you weren’t just seeing the characters but also the whole rich history that came along with them. The entire show was based on a nostalgia that wasn’t exactly as it’s recalled. And though you may not have seen Ethel Shutta on Broadway in the ‘30s, you knew she was the real thing. Her whole style of performing was antiquated (and I mean that in the most positive way). The way she sang, her posture, her attack on the lyrics was all reflective of a bygone era.

Hal Prince was correct. You can never mount Follies again. It was at once of its time and of the entire past of the Broadway musical at the same time. And it made us personally reflect on our own lives, the roads we didn’t take, nostalgia for past times that were probably both better and worse that the present. For me, the closest a revival came to the original was the Paper Mill production. It was a shadow of the original but it had the right almost wistful feeling of a time that was truly gone with the wind. Yes, it was more MGM than Broadway but it still rang many of the same bells, albeit much toned down from the original.

Okay, you made me say it: Follies was the greatest experience in my decades of theatergoing. When my friend Harry and I left the theatre we literally found it difficult and even redundant to say anything. It took over a half-hour for us to gather our wits together.

Grease
For better or worse (probably the latter), Grease helped create the whole 1950s nostalgia. The best thing about the show was that it didn’t comment on itself. It really loved the ‘50s. The pastiche score was sincere even if it was silly. And it didn’t have any message at all! It just wanted to entertain. Is the score great? No. Is the libretto great? No. Were the performances great? You got it, no. They were all very good but there was really nothing special to act. The cast had to simply believe in their characters without commentary. Believe it or not, it’s the show I’ve seen most often. Yes, there were the Broadway revivals. But I’ve seen it in London, Paris, Milan and probably a few more cities. Somehow the simplicity and sincerity of the show translates even in countries that never went through the whole ‘50s greaser culture.

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
What do these two shows have in common? And before we get to that, yes, I know they both opened off-Broadway in the 60s. But I’m including them because, like Ain’t Misbehavin’ they transferred to Broadway and there’s a lesson for us all in that jump to The Main Stem. But first let’s talk about each show individually.

Jacques Brel: Shall we love this show or hate it? This off-Broadway revue of the songs of Jacques Brel was, like Ain’t Misbehavin’ a simple revue. It played over four years at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village and then made the jump to Broadway where it closed after only 52 performances.

 Jacques Brel (the show) had even less going for it than Ain’t Misbehavin’. First, most Americans never even heard of the great French singer-songwriter. And it was produced decades before “singer-songwriter” was even a thing. But the excellent cast and the power of the music created a unique theatrical experience. No special sets or costumes or lighting or staging. Just terrific talents and terrific tunes.

Now, why should we hate it? And the aforementioned Ain’t Misbehavin’ too? Because the success of these two “jukebox musicals” led to seemingly hundreds of songwriter shows of lesser worth. And no, putting a jukebox musical on stage with a script doesn’t guarantee success. Most of these shows, including some on Broadway now, fall flat because they’re produced to make money not for artistic reasons. Beautiful is an exception because of its top-notch script, direction and it having a real story to tell and does it respectfully and seriously.

Now let’s have a look at You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the smallest of the bunch but just maybe the most successful show of any on this list. Yes, even Annie. Is there a school anywhere in the United States that hasn’t had at least one production of this show? Or a recreation center or summer camp or church? With nothing but a scrim and some variously colored and shaped blocks this show charmed us and moved us too. The cast was just perfect with Gary Burghoff, Bill and Skip Hinnant, Reva Rose, Karen Johnson, and Bob Balaban as the Charles Schulz characters. Songwriter Clark Gesner couldn’t make lightning strike twice in his career but this show is a hugely enjoyable miracle.

You know, it’s very difficult taking as beloved a comic strip as Peanuts where millions of readers each have their own imaginative idea of how these people talk. The genius was in having everything so stylized. Bill Hinnant wasn’t wearing anything that would identify him as Snoopy. No tail, no long ears. But for the entire show, the audience used their imaginations to conjure up the characters. And isn’t it rare for shows to ask the audience to use their imaginations while watching a show? Not just sit back, keep your eyes open and take it in but actually let your mind fill in the blanks as if you’re collaborating with the artists. It’s interesting to note that the original off-Broadway run was 1,597 performances. When a different cast made the trek to Broadway the show lasted 32 performances. So, we’ll leave you with the saddest thing of all in looking at this show and Ain’t Misbehavin’. Basically, now there is no off-Broadway. Can’t make money off-Broadway. So, everything that is produced in a resident theatre company or for Encores has the staff, consciously or not, hoping that lightning will strike and the show will move to the Great White Way. And that’s not always the wisest thing to do.

And that brings us, believe it or not, to Fiddler on the Roof, the Yiddish production of which is also moving. But its producers are, like Tevye, very wise. They are moving to an off-Broadway theatre. Because what many producers don’t realize if you’re a hit in a smaller theatre with, say, 250 seats what makes you think you can make the leap to a 1,000 seat theatre and sell that out.

A Little Night Music
Here’s the third Harold Prince show on the list. No surprise there. And the second Sondheim show. I don’t have much to say except that every facet of the show was elegant and excellent. Sounds simple, no?—to paraphrase a great show from the ‘60s (again with Hal Prince at the helm). The score was witty in a fun way not a show-off way. And the emotions were real. And “Send in the Clowns?” Nothing more to say except it’s a perfect song.

Music Is
What you never heard of this show? It only played eight performances. It was one of the last shows directed by George Abbott, who also wrote the script. Richard Adler and Will Holt composed the score. It really harkened back to Abbott’s glory days of The Boys from Syracuse and its ilk. But the timing was wrong. I saw the show at least three times at its DC tryout, and it was just a lot of fun. No message. Catherine Cox, Joel Higgins, Christopher Hewitt, David Holliday and Sheri Mathis were perfect in their parts. It was silly. It was fun. It was entertaining. Shouldn’t that be enough? Well, maybe not now as Head Over Heels proved. Not at ticket prices what they are.

No, No, Nanette
Here’s a show that was (be patient) a cross between Grease and Follies. You had the nostalgia quotient for what we look back on as a simpler time (though what about that nasty crash of the stock market?) and a past star, Ruby Keeler, back on Broadway decades after her last appearance. Again, produced, written and directed in the best Broadway style. It really broke new ground and like all shows that are unique and successful others tried to make lightning strike twice. Good News with Alice Faye instead of Ruby Keeler. And Harry Rigby again producing. But it only lasted 16 performances. It was a lot of fun but audiences had already seen the real thing and perhaps years after or years before No, No, Nanette it might have been a success. Harry Rigby will, however, make a return appearance on this list.

On the Twentieth Century
Here’s another statement by me that you might agree with or might get you pissed off. Here goes: On the Twentieth Century was the last great traditional musical. Note that I did put “traditional” in the statement. And I wouldn’t have put it in if it wasn’t for Hamilton. I won’t go on listing its many accomplishments. Let’s just say it was a perfect production. Hal Prince again, I might add. And where was this show in the recent documentary on the director? Yes, it didn’t have an impact on Broadway history but it was perfect in every regard. Not revolutionary or emotionally impactful. But just smart, and witty (not the same as smart), and perfectly designed and directed, and acted… Have I gone on too long?

Pacific Overtures
Now here’s a really great show that just might have been a little too esoteric for the tired businessman. Prince and Sondheim again with a brilliant, intelligent, insightful show. Beautifully written, produced and designed (Aaronson and Klotz and Musser!!) but possible too intellectual for your typical Broadway audience. Those girls in kimonos didn’t show any leg.

70, Girls, 70
More nostalgia casting but with a wonderful score and the always delightful Mildred Natwick leading the cast. She was one of the consummate performers that doesn’t quite get her due. From the comedy of Barefoot in the Park to Blithe Spirit there’s nobody who was more in control of her own character and the audience. Her likes will never be seen again. And there was also Hans Conreid, Lillian Roth, Herbie Faye (also in Sugar Babies with Joey Bishop), and Lillian Heyman. Not big name stars but seasoned performers with decades and decades of experience. I didn’t see the show, apparently it was somewhat of a mess. But here’s a show whose original cast recording of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs makes it sound like the funniest shows ever on stage.

Sugar Babies
Here’s a show that had legs aplenty. Legs physically on view on stage thanks to Ann Miller and also legs at the box office. It was a surprise hit. Talk about a show that celebrated the past but wasn’t particularly nostalgic even though the stars Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller were certainly stars of the long ago past. But the show wasn’t designed for nostalgia. It was out only for fun. And when Mickey Rooney left and comic Joey Bishop took his place the show worked just as well. Harry Rigby back again celebrating the past by making it just as entertaining in the present. And it boasted the brilliant Hilary Knight poster design (actually three different designs all superb).

Sweeney Todd
I guess by this point you’ve figured out that the team of Prince and Sondheim ruled the Broadway stage of the 70s. And this show was no different. It was immense and intimate at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. All the more amazing given the subject matter and the fact that the protagonist and leading character was a murderer who was abetted by the a woman who cut up corpses for ingredients in her meat pies. When I saw it for the second time I was sitting next to a woman who had no idea what the show was about. And I was worried that she’d take offence at the tone of the piece where the characters you root for are the most despicable of people. But the brilliance of Prince and Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler (not to mention Cariou and Lansbury) entertained her mightily. Perhaps if she had known what the show was about she wouldn’t have attended. But isn’t it the nicest thing to sit in a theatre and know you’re in good hands. That people who know what they’re doing are in charge? Not that the aforementioned gentlemen and lady haven’t had their share of flops but even the “failures” are strong and steady and sure.

Working
Like 70, Girls, 70, a show that people say works better as a cast recording than the show itself. What’s most remarkable about the high quality of the score is that it was made up of songs by a whole bunch of people with completely different styles and backgrounds. You’ve got Stephen Schwartz and Mary Rodgers and Micki Grant and Craig Carnelia all working at the top of their game. Maybe it’s Kirk Nurock’s orchestrations that tie everything together so seamlessly. It’s a surprisingly excellent score with more variations of mood, style, message, and breadth of subjects than any other Broadway score. Get the cast album and you won’t be disappointed.

We thought the 70s were a disappointing decade as far as musicals went. But looking back now with the knowledge of what’s on Broadway now it seems like the most exciting of decades. And it was.

 


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