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Favorites by Decade – The 1940s

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How do I pick just five favorite Broadway musicals from the 1940s? Four slots are immediately taken by the four Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations. That leaves only one other show, a selection I simply couldn’t make. I chose three other shows, for a list of seven, with a whole host of worthy titles, among them Pal Joey, Lady in the Dark, Carmen Jones, Bloomer Girl, Street Scene, Finian’s Rainbow, Brigadoon, Kiss Me, Kate, and Regina, left by the wayside.

So far for each of these “favorites by decade” columns I have also chosen five off-Broadway shows. However, off-Broadway really didn’t exist in the 1940s, so that wasn’t an option. Instead, what I have done is to pick five Broadway shows that exhibit an adventurous off-Broadway sensibility and also lack a complete recording, though bits and pieces of each have been preserved. All five deserve a complete recording, but I’m not holding my breath.

Here’s my list, once again in chronological order of opening.

Cabin in the Sky (Opened Oct. 25, 1940, at the Martin Beck Theatre)
This is the first of three shows with lyrics by John Latouche that are part of my off-Broadway shows on Broadway list, and it’s also the best-known title in that category, due to Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 film adaptation. The film is quite faithful to book writer Lynn Root’s original story, but much of the glorious Latouche–Vernon Duke score is dropped, some of it replaced by songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg (who turned the project down when it was headed for Broadway because it lacked social significance – I guess MGM paid better). The story, about a loving, religious wife trying to save her equally loving wastrel husband from ending up in Hell, isn’t the sturdiest or the most racially enlightened today, but it was progressive for its time, and the show’s book and score are surprisingly integrated for a pre-Oklahoma! musical. Star Ethel Waters recorded several of the songs with the Martin Beck Theatre orchestra, and there is an OCR of a poorly received 1964 off-Broadway production that tampers with the score too much (both cuts and interpolations) but is the only place to hear most of it. Encores! did a decent concert version in 2016, fitted out with fine new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick (the originals being lost) and a strong cast featuring LaChanze, Norm Lewis, and Chuck Cooper, which should have been recorded but wasn’t. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t professionally recorded.

No for an Answer (Opened Jan. 5, 1941, at the Mecca Temple)
This show actually did play off-Broadway, in the building that is now New York City Center, for three performances only on successive Sunday nights, on a bare stage and to piano accompaniment. It was Marc Blitzstein’s follow-up to The Cradle Will Rock (which will shortly be directed by John Doyle for Classic Stage Company), and it, too, was a piece of agitprop musical theatre about labor vs. capital. This time, however, Blitzstein attempted to write real characters rather than satirical types to engage the audience emotionally as well as politically. A short OCR of excerpts was made, and they are tantalizing, but it’s impossible to gauge the full show by listening to them. Unlike in Cradle, whose hero, labor organizer Larry Foreman, is successful in his battle with the oppressive boss Mister Mister, Answer’s hero, labor organizer Joe Kyriakos, is killed, and his Diogenes Social Club is burned to the ground. A one-night 1960 concert version conducted by Leonard Bernstein didn’t go over well, which is not surprising considering the political climate of the time. American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco did the show’s first full production in 2001, 60 years after it was written, but there was, as with Cabin at Encores!, no professional recording. If No for an Answer is known at all today, it is for the fact that a 19-year-old Carol Channing made her New York stage debut in it as a nightclub entertainer singing the wickedly funny “Fraught.” (In 1955 Charlotte Rae recorded an even better version of “Fraught” than Channing’s on her album Songs I Taught My Mother.) Considering that we are now in a new Gilded Age, perhaps someone should take a look at No for an Answer. Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez direct?

Oklahoma! (Opened March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theatre)
What is there left to say about the initial collaboration of Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers? I’ve been a fan of the show since I first encountered it at 15 in my high school’s production in 1969. It wasn’t the first dramatically integrated book musical, but it is the one that caused that form to be almost universally adopted on Broadway. And it is still relevant today, with two recent experimental productions succeeding with critics and audiences alike. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, directed a same-sex version in Portland last summer, and Daniel Fish’s immersive production featuring a folk-band arrangement of the score and a dark take on America’s colonization of the West is coming to Broadway this spring at the Circle in the Square Theatre after successful runs at Bard College and St. Ann’s Warehouse.

On the Town (Opened Dec. 28, 1944, at the Adelphi Theatre)
Twenty-five years ago I wrote a cover story for the Goodspeed Opera House’s Show Music magazine celebrating On the Town’s 50th anniversary. As I think the recent 2014 Broadway revival proved, this musical about three sailors on 24-hour leave in NYC during World War II, which marked the Broadway debuts of composer Leonard Bernstein, book writers–lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreographer Jerome Robbins, remains fresh and vital to this day. Here’s some of what I had to say about it in 1994 (which you won’t find on the internet, as Show Music was never online): “What is perhaps On the Town’s most important asset is its open, casually adult, almost celebratory attitude about sex. Both the men and the women are happily and unashamedly on the prowl. In wartime, of course, such behavior was common. Young men, often still in their teens, were facing death. They wanted to taste a little of life before dying. And many young women thought they deserved to and were happy to oblige. By focusing on this phenomenon of contemporary culture, On the Town brought a heretofore unseen innocent, yet frank, acknowledgment of the truth about contemporary sexual behavior to the Broadway musical, minus the vaudeville sniggering and operetta sugaring which had up to then held sway.” I wouldn’t be on a desert island without it.

Carousel (Opened April 19, 1945, at the Majestic Theatre)
This is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and I count the 1994 Lincoln Center production, which director Nicholas Hytner based on his 1993 production for England’s Royal National Theatre, as one of the highest highlights of my theatregoing life. I can’t understand why Angel Records hasn’t made the OBCR available digitally, but you can buy the CD on Amazon. Even if the production did cut “The Highest Judge of All,” the recording is a must if only for preserving the sensational Carrie Pipperidge of Audra McDonald (then Audra Ann). That said, there is, for me, no definitive recording of Carousel. Even the good ones are compromised, whether by cuts, miscasting, bad new orchestrations etc. That’s why I was so hopeful that producer Scott Rudin’s recent Broadway revival might finally give us a complete and completely satisfying recording. Alas, the less said the better about director Jack O’Brien’s production, filled with fathomless cuts and afraid to address the subject matter of domestic abuse head on. It’s probably more successful as a recording than it was on stage, but I’ve yet to listen to it. One day, when the disappointment subsides, I’ll get around to it.

Annie Get Your Gun (Opened May 16, 1946, at the Imperial Theatre)
As with Oklahoma!, I first encountered this musical while a student in high school. A neighboring Catholic high school rented our auditorium for its production. I was stunned by how many of Irving Berlin’s great songs I already knew, and I found the Herbert and Dorothy Fields book to be funny and breezy while eminently satisfying on a storytelling level. Somehow the hubby and I have nine different recordings of the score, but my favorite is the 1966 Lincoln Center revival starring Ethel Merman and Bruce Yarnell, probably because it contains both Merman, for whom the show was written, of course, and “An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” a great contrapuntal number that is the last new Berlin song to be heard on the New York stage. For all the brouhaha about “I’m an Indian Too” being offensive today and the non-feminist ending, where Annie lets Frank win a shooting match, the show, with tweaks, still worked as late as 2015, when Megan Hilty and Andy Karl headlined a benefit concert gala for Encores! Good is good, I guess.

Beggar’s Holiday (Opened Dec. 26, 1946, at the Broadway Theatre)
The first time John Latouche had a book credit on Broadway was for this then-contemporary adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Duke Ellington supplied the music for Latouche’s lyrics, though Ellington amanuensis Billy Strayhorn was also heavily involved in the creation of the score. The show had a tumultuous out-of-town tryout tour, with George Abbott being brought in to replace John Houseman as director. Abbott’s reputation as Mr. Broadway made him a somewhat odd choice to direct such an experimental piece, but he is on record as saying that of all the shows he tried to fix out of town, this is the one that could and should have worked, if only he’d had a bit more time and money. It is historic for featuring the first interracial kiss in a Broadway musical, shared by Alfred Drake as Macheath and Mildred Joanne Smith as Lucy Lockit, which, according to Latouche’s surviving partner, Kenward Elmslie, discomfited audiences no end, resulting in nightly walkouts. There is no OBCR, as the musical only ran for three months, but you can hear Lena Horne sing “Tomorrow Mountain” on Stormy Weather and “Take Love Easy” on Lena Horne Sings (The MGM Singles). More recently, Sheri Bauer-Mayorga’s CD On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks covers that song. Man of La Mancha book writer Dale Wasserman did a misguided rewrite that resulted in an unfortunate OCR that is marred by poor performances and badly revised lyrics (by Wasserman). But I think this show could work in a smart rewrite, and I hope someone eventually manages to do one.

Allegro (Opened Oct. 10, 1947, at the Majestic Theatre)
In theatrical folklore Allegro is said to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first flop, but technically that’s not the case. It recouped in its nearly yearlong run, but it wasn’t the unalloyed critical and commercial triumph that Oklahoma! and Carousel were. Hammerstein initially wanted to tell a man’s life from birth to death but settled with stopping at 35. I’ve been fascinated by it since I read the script and heard the OBCR while still in high school, and I have managed to see six productions of it in my theatergoing lifetime. I’m very drawn to its use of a commenting Greek chorus and the clear overtones of Our Town, and despite its flaws, particularly in Act 2, I love it wholeheartedly. The cast recording is very truncated but necessary to hear the performances, especially Lisa Kirk’s definitive “The Gentleman Is a Dope.” However, the complete studio recording released in 2008 by Masterworks Broadway beautifully conveys how the show works and is a must for any lover of musical theatre.

Ballet Ballads (Opened May 9, 1948, at Maxine Elliot’s Theatre)
John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ collection of three “dance cantatas” is probably the first musical to move from off-Broadway to Broadway, though it only played in Broadway theatres. It opened at Maxine Elliot’s Theatre for a one-week run as a production of the Experimental Theatre, Inc., which was headed by producer Cheryl Crawford and functioned under a special contract with Equity that allowed for much lower pay for actors, the equivalent of what would become an off-Broadway contract. The critical response was so favorable that commercial producer Alfred de Liagre moved it immediately to the Music Box Theatre on a Broadway contract. Critics raved again, but the show only ran for two months. In a fusion of dance and singing, it told the stories of “Susanna and the Elders” (a Biblical tale), “Willie the Weeper” (about a drug addict), and “The Eccentricities of Davy Crockett” (the life of the eponymous “king of the wild frontier”). A fourth ballad, “Riding Hood Revisited,” was not performed initially but was done in a 1961 off-Broadway revival. Digitally, you can hear songs from Ballet Ballads on Windflowers: The Songs of Jerome Moross. “Willie the Weeper” was recorded in its entirety for the Naxos CD American Classics: Jerome Moross, and on the OCR of my John Latouche revue, Taking a Chance on Love: The Lyrics and Life of John Latouche, you can hear a good deal of material from “Willie” and “Davy Crockett” (a CD that I swear will be available digitally before 2019 is out). There is also a complete live recording made by Moross in 1950 of the show’s Los Angeles premiere that has a young Marni Nixon in the cast, but you have to know someone to get that. The scores for all four sections have recently been restored and published, and I hope some enterprising dance or theatre company will try this timeless show out.

Love Life (Opened Oct. 7, 1948, at the 46th Street Theatre)
The sole collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill is the fifth of my off-Broadway on Broadway shows. Perhaps the first concept musical (some will argue that’s Allegro), it looked at the institution of marriage across 150 years of American history. Its protagonists, Sam and Susan Cooper, start out married and happy in a rural setting in 1791 and end up divorced and miserable in what was then the present-day Manhattan of 1948. In between the scenes of their life are comment songs presented in the style of a vaudeville. The brilliantly eclectic score never got an OBCR due to a recording strike, even though the show ran a whole season on Broadway. A recent production in Germany used a new critically edited version of the score created by the Kurt Weill Foundation. So what is Encores! waiting for? Kurt Weill on Broadway: Thomas Hampson offers four songs—the sweeping opener, “Who Is Samuel Cooper?”; the main love ballad, “Here I’ll Stay”; the nostalgic duet “I Remember It Well” (Lerner reused the idea in Gigi), and the dramatic aria “This Is the Life”—and employs the show orchestrations. Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill has Weill’s widow in an uncharacteristically bubbly mood on the Act 1 production number “Green-Up Time.” Kerry-Anne Kutz: Songs From Berlin to Broadway has a medley of two comment songs, “Economics” and “Love Song,” plus Susan’s torchy Act 2 lament “Is It Him or Is It Me?” And the OBCR of LoveMusik has a truncated version of the show’s climactic minstrel sequence, “The Illusion Minstrel Show,” performed as “The Illusion Wedding Show.” And there’s a lot more out there on a variety of recordings if you are diligent about looking. But you shouldn’t have to look. We need a complete recording!

South Pacific (Opened April 7, 1949, at the Majestic Theatre)
It took director Bartlett Sher’s 2008 production for Lincoln Center Theatre to convince me that South Pacific was a first-rate musical, but convince me it did. Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot were outstanding as Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, and Sher surrounded them with an equally superb company of actors. The double whammy of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and “This Nearly Was Mine” leaves me in helpless tears whenever I watch my DVD of the live PBS broadcast, and O’Hara’s delivery of the word “colored” in the last scene of Act 1 never fails to pierce my heart. Rodgers and Hammerstein were not afraid of presenting the dark side of America, but they always leavened it with hope. While there a number of fine recordings of this score, it’s always O’Hara and Szot that I want to hear.

Lost in the Stars (Opened Oct. 30, 1949, at the Music Box Theatre)
If you read me regularly, you probably have noticed that I do tear up in the theatre a fair amount. But rarely have I been as destroyed as I was by Michael V. Smartt’s delivery of the title song of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s musical tragedy, based on Alan Paton’s book Cry, the Beloved Country, about apartheid South Africa. Director Arvin Brown’s masterful 1986 production for Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre left me shuddering with uncontrollable sobs at the Act 1 curtain, when Rev. Stephen Kumalo sings “Lost in the Stars,” in which he tells his young nephew that he believes he has lost his faith, due to the fact that his only son has murdered a white man. The lights came up for intermission, but I couldn’t stop for quite a while after they did. Lost in the Stars is a hard show to pull off successfully (every other production I’ve seen hasn’t really worked), but if you do, it’s a killer.


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