The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

'70s Also Rans

For better or worse, I saw more Bway musicals in the '70s than any other decade. Naturally, because I lived there, for one, but also because Bway was my first love, the emerald city from childhood that I had to experiencce if not conquer. And that was my time. So, for this decade's unmade Bway movie musicals, I have more reference than just acquaintance with the OCR, and Random House librettos. These I actually saw.

Alan Lerner had made some of the sweetest deals a Bway player ever got in Hlwd. But as his last few had done much to kill the screen musical, his luck had run out around the time of Coco. The show was produced by Freddie Brisson ("the lizard of Roz"--Russell, that is, who was at one time going to star), and financed by Paramount Pictures. As they'd already lost a bundle on On a Clear Day and Paint Your Wagon, Paramount wasn't about to take a chance on somethimg as poorly received as Coco--even if the show was actually a soft hit on Bway, running up new records at the Mark Hellinger, but only on the strength of Katharine Hepburn's name. The moment she left, grosses plummeted and the show  quickly  closed.  Despite her  recent  Oscars, 
Hepburn wasn't really a box office movie star, and if Babs couldn't make On a Clear Day a hit, what reason was there to think Kate could sell a cut-rate Chanel of a musical; and with her croak of a voice. As with most of Lerner's scripts the book was labored; more pretentious than witty, more obligatory than romantic. Andre Previn's music was ersatz Fred Loewe, and tho there are several nice tunes, there was only one real knockout, the symphonic "Always, Mademoiselle," which Hepburn vocally destroyed but whose lengthy fashion parade instrumental is hauntingly beautiful. It's also easily seen in its entirety on Youtube--from the 1970 Tony Awards. Sadly, Lerner flailed thru ill-conceived projects for the rest of his life; Lolita, My Love, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Carmelina, Dance a Little Closer, and a stage translation of his once triumphant film musical, Gigi--which in 1973 was painfully off trend. Rather surprisingly it was revived on Bway 42 years later; in a strangely neutered version--the story tamed into a fairy tale for the burgeoning teen & tween girl market that fuels Wicked and Frozen into stratospheric goldmines. This one failed again. Musicals used to be geared to adults. Now it's for parents with children, seeking "family entertainment." One thing I'll say in defense of Alan Jay Lerner: he wrote for grown-ups. A lot a good it did him after 1970.

The problem with turning classic movies into musicals is the greater the movie, the less likely a musical could equal it. Applause was  a big hit in 1970, the Palace Theater aglow with its first smash since Sweet Chairty--it swept the Tonys (easily, tho it didn't have to compete with Company, which was pushed into the following year by the arbitrary Tony calendar.) It was helmed by blue-chip talent: Comden & Green, Charles Strouse & Lee Adams, Ron Field. And it had a genuine (if un-musical) star in Lauren Bacall--who despite her celluoid fame was at heart, and latter-day practice, a true stage trouper. Ergo the tuner was less All About Eve than Margo Channing Tonite! Denied rights to Joseph Mankiewicz's screenplay at first, the musical was built on Mary Orr's original short story. Prominently missing from C&G's libretto was the acid-tongued Addison DeWitt, whose role was cleverly folded into the producer (a more viable personage to advance Eve's career than a critic), tho the telescoping reduced Eve to a secondary. if catalytic, character. But C&G made a fatal flaw in softening Eve's killer instinct. The film has her angling aggressively to be Margot's understudy--the musical has everyone else suggesting it, Eve demurely giving in. Takes the sting right out of it, doesn't it? And why? Thelma Ritter's Birdie was changed into gay hairdresser, Duane Fox (as if), who hangs out with chorus gypsies (cue production numbers). Applause was the first smash hit I saw on Bway during its high flush, and it was quite the visceral thrill. I was glad that Betty & Adolph and Charles & Lee were all back on top; but in the long run, alas, it was not up to Strouse's gold standard.

Comden & Green's book is by necessity a reduction of Mankiewicz's leisurely but crackling narrative, tho they manage to get some good original lines in on their own. Eve caught flirting with Bill explains they were just playing a game; to which Margot retorts, "One of the oldest!" Or later, drunk, "praising" Eve: "Isn't she a treasure?. . . I think I'll bury her." Ethan Mordden brings up a good point that some of their ideas are improvements. For one thing starting the show with Eve winning a Tony Award, suggests higher stakes than some old "Sarah Siddons" trophy won in a musty banquet room (tho in 1950 the Tony Awards weren't a much bigger affair.) The movie's sexless producer, the Mitteleuropean Gregory Ratoff, is made over into Robert Mandan's suave silver fox--a real candidate for Eve's attention and obligation. But the songs don't really make up for the abbreviated scenario--and often are mere detours. None more so than the title song, Strouse's most felicitous tune (imagine the words, "New York, New York" in place of "Applause, applause" and this could have made Kander & Ebb's song superfluous) but here, enjoyable as it may be, is thoroughly extraneous to the story. This same ensemble and setting will likewise be filler in the second act, when they sing about Eve, "She's No Longer a Gypsy"--when, in fact, she never was one. Bacall vamps her old screen fame, gets down at a gay disco, croaks a penthouse bedroom ballad, gets soused at a party, and shouts a sort of hard-nosed Bway anthem--and that's just the first act.

The musical arrived too late to be serious bait for Hlwd--another "Big Lady" show and who could they cast as a screen draw? Not, ironically, the once actual screen star, Bacall now made over into a stage star, her happiest vocation. Applause was her triumph and if Hlwd wasn't interested, CBS was persuaded and broadcast an abridged stage version on TV-studio sets on March 15, 1973--which counts for something, but not a movie. Coming upon it now (courtesy again of Youtube) is a reminder of how distinct (and now historical) TV shows looked in early '70s video, in their primetime drama/soap style. The direction is misguided: Bacall and Bway veterans, Penny Fuller & Robert Mandan are still playing to the balcony, which truly squashes whatever subtlety or nuance might be desired. Lines are ruined in shouted or rushed moments. But the songs, especially the ensembles look pretty good. The show is abbreviated, with son-of-Mary-Martin, Larry Hagman (as b.f. Bill) losing his ballad. Harvey Evans plays the very blonde Duane, minus the required bitchy snap; but worse is Debbie Bowen, who gets to lead the show's title production number. A cross between Sandy Duncan & Georgia Engel, she has none of the spunk required to sell it. If not the original Bonnie Franklin (and why not? She couldn't have been busy, not having made a TV appearance since an episode of The Munsters in 1966) couldn't they find one of a thousand other talented Bway gypsies? Mercifully, "She's No Longer..." was cut and Debbie wasn't back for more. But, aside from the preservation of the musical on tape--for which we archivists are always grateful--the production does Lauren Bacall no favors. What was incandescent about her on stage, is forced and artificial on video. Encores! unearthed the show in 2008, with Christine Ebersole as Margot and Erin Davie as Eve., but generated little sense of discovery, making the show's future look dimmer.

Written by actor Ossie Davis as a vehicle for himself and wife, Ruby Dee, Purlie Victorious was a satire of black & white stereotypes in the Jim Crow South, which in 1961 was a broadly played fantasy of Negro retribution. (It was filmed with most of the Bway cast intact as Gone Are the Days, in 1963.) But times had changed and the 1970 musical was less a pipe dream than retrograde coon show--a blackface fable, played by real black faces. Purlie was a hit--a very soft hit--but enuf to start a new era for black musicals on Bway. Meanwhile, black cinema was sprouting with more ambitious affirmations: Superfly, Shaft, Coffy, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, Cotton Comes to Harlem--the latter directed by the same Ossie Davis, and released weeks after the arrival of Purlie. These were new black archetypes. Davis's original play traded on embarrassing, nearly minstrel-show tropes, which begs the question of why resusitate it, let alone set it to song. Producer/director Philip Rose, who presented the original play as well (not to mention A Raisin in the Sun.), had a poor record with musicals up to then, just two: Bravo, Giovanni and Cafe Crown--both flops. For Purlie, Rose took a chance on a new team, Gary Geld & Peter Udell (white boys) who used so much of the play they gave Davis book credit. Their gospel/pop/soul score was sufficient to the task, but not very memorable. I haven't played the OCR much over the years, and going back to it now, I know why: it's mostly pedestrian. the opening gospel jamboree, "Walk Him Up the Stairs" is undeniably rousing, but neither lyrically nor musically remarkable. Melba Moore (fresh from Hair) socked over her "Wonderful Guy" moment with "I Got Love"--but this only confirms how much the performances make up for the mediocrity. The show's best song, "First Thing Monday Morning," is a choral chant (from cotton-pickers who factor nowhere else in the story) that unfailingly puts me in mind of "Tall Hope" from Wildcat. And the attempted 11 o'clock rouser, "The World is Comin' to a Start" is downright lame. The songs are poorly placed or simply off-narrative. And how could they not set Purlie's second-act monologue to music--the very crux of the show! Nonetheless Cleavon Little and Melba Moore won Tony Awards--albeit with little competition. Sherman Hemsley, in a role that brought fame and a Tony nod to Godfrey Cambridge in '62, used it as springboard to much greater fame on TV--as the head of The Jeffersons in Norman Lear's uptown black sitcom.
A live performance of Purlie, was filmed in a Bronx college auditorium for CBS broadcast in 1981 (available now, as is almost anything, on YouTube). Robert Guillaume who replaced Cleavon Little in the last month of the Bway run and toured, played Purlie, but Melba and Sherman returned to reprise their roles--with Hemsley now the best known of all, tho still in a supporting part. The 142 minute running time (with commercials bloated to 3 hours) begs for an editor's cut. Not having seen the show since July '70, of which I have little memory, I see now why I never connected with it. Frankly, it's simulatenously tedious and embarrassing. So creaky a play, it feels like something from the 1920s; with musical numbers sort of jabbed in, and then played out front like Jolson specials; most shocking is Melba Moore's cartoon deonstruction of Lutiebelle--so far over the top (where Ruby Dee was human) that she sounds like Steve Erkel imitating Carol Channing--something you'd never know from the OCR; her singing voice completely different. But even so, the performances all seem tired and walked-thru rather than captured for the ages. There's nothing ageless about Purlie--tho Encores! did acknowledge it in 2005. But 45 years on, it's hard not to note how close Purlie is to puerile.

Philip Rose assembled another hit with Gary Geld & Peter Udell five years later, this one based on a Civil War drama starring a mature Jimmy Stewart, Shenandoah. The musical provided John Cullum with a Tony-winning role, and the show took on an R&H vibe, tho it was less artfully split between a war drama with many casualties, sweetened with a series of country-vaudeville numbers, such as "Next to Lovin' I Like Fightin'" a toe-tapper in the vein of Molly Brown's  "Belly Up to the Bar, Boys," and "Freedom," an independence cakewalk. Cullum's songs are all soliloquies--reaching for those Billy Bigelow grace notes. Bway audiences were starved for something this old-fashioned in 1975, and the show lasted over 1,000 performances. But having come from the screen, there was little rush from Hlwd to remake it as a tuner--especially in the musically-exhausted '70s.

The Rothschilds is the musical that tore asunder Bock & Harnick, and for that we are eternally bitter. As the purest purveyors of the R&H musical line, it seems criminal that their only filmed musical was Fiddler on the Roof.  Not Fiorello!, not She Loves Me, and not The Rothschilds -- which probably has the most cinematic potential. Doesn't the very title promise grandeur? Yet Bock & Harnick were criticized for writing another Jewish family story--as if it were a retread of Fiddler. But if Tevye represents universal themes of oppression, tradition and expulsion, Mayer Rothschild's similar beginnings elicit less sympathy knowing they end as financial barons. Everyone loves a success story, but Jews & Money can be a polarizing, even inflammatory, subject. Some might think Harnick fans the flames by having the Roth fils proclaiming, "It's a curious, dangerous, malady we are all afflicted with/ We want everything/ Everything." The song, which is pleasantly rousing, is set upon a Semitic musical line where most of the score has the feel of Mozart, Handel and Haydn--especially in Don Walker's lush orchestrations.
Still, comparisons to Fiddler were inevitably cited; an Oxthodox patriarch with five children (sons instead of daughters); life in the ghetto (German instead of Russian), devotion to the Hebrew faith. But where Tevye accepts his lot, Mayer struggles to change his. Sherman Yellen's skillful libretto took many factual liberties from Frederic Morton's best-selling biography, and only the earliest chapters, but he shapes a story compelling enuf to inspire B&H to much of their usual high standard. The show's downfall is that the second act veers off drastically from the first; and the first--on its own--is very nearly perfect. Its gilded halls opening dissolves to the Jewish ghetto, where Mayer and his wife, Gutele dwell in "One Room"--a song that is enchantment itself, and a glorious example of Jerry Bock's melodic felicity. "He Tossed a Coin"--a showpiece for Mayer--is a street market sales pitch. In "Sons" we see the passage of time as his progeny are born and come of age. One of director Michael Kidd's better ideas has the five boys flee a pogrom into the cellar, and come out moments later, grown men. (A tip of the hat, to Dainty June's Newsboys growing up under a strobe light shuffle.) "Everything" is a haunting minor-key hora that's always been among my favorite songs in the score, and "Rothschild & Sons" is joy incarnate. There are musical delights in the second act, but they're more academic than narratively engaging. Were the show to conclude on the Sons heading out to conquer the capitals of Europe--with Papa getting one last aria, the lovely, "In My Own Lifetime," it might have won more deserving praise and popularity. The show ran and ran, but wasn't quite a hit. That there were no bids from Hlwd was more likely a reflection of the times than the show's actual screen potential. Tho it made a star out of journeyman Bway standby, Hal Linden (who won the Tony over another Jewish icon, Noah, as camped up by Danny Kaye in Two by Two) he would've likely been passed over in Hlwd for an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman. As it turned out, Linden's destiny was in TV not film.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a one-of-a-kind musical that blew in as a breeze from Central Park in '71, and was so of-the-moment it seems to have vanished into time, like Atlantis. Contemporary musicals date into period pieces over time--delightful in their time capsule details, but Two Gents was a 16th century tale, whose modernity lie in its anachronisms and funky Latin-beat score. And, of course, it was Shakespeare. (The Bard is incredibly versatile in adaptation, as seen in Kiss Me Kate, The Boys from Syracuse and West Side Story--to name just a few). Joseph Papp assembled Galt MacDermot and John Guare to bring youth and freshness to the lesser-rated Shakespeare comedy. Originally meant for just the Delacorte and a trailer tour of New York's ethnic boroughs, the musical was pointedly multi-racial, with a score that Rolling Stone said was like walking down a barrio street with all the windows open and a different radio blaring from each one. But the show was deemed far worthier than "street theater" and was pulled by demand to Bway. (The fact that it won the Best Musical Tony over Follies {and Grease} is still grist for many a mill.) Played on a multi-storied scaffold set with Elizabethan costumes and modern props like bicycles, frisbees and telephones, the show had a late-hippie, flower-child vibe in its innocence--one that quickly disappeared in the post-Nixon, post-Vietnam later '70s, when a harder, edgier zeitgeist evolved.
None of this invalidates the screen potential of the musical--which could, in the right hands, have been as unique and delightful as the stage version. Guare's thrust with the story is about the attraction & draw of youth to the Big City; Verona to Milan in the play, but it could be Puerto Rico to New York, or Trinidad to London, Mexico to LA. A subject universally understood. Whether to play it in contemporary times, or mix modern settings with Elizabethan trimmings, or go the full Zeffirelli Renaissance route, is a tricky decision because each one could work. Casting could be just as exciting. Raul Julia was a budding matinee idol and would be hard to replace, but Cleavon Little, Billy Dee Williams, or Ben Vereen would've been fine choices for Valentine; and Diana Ross was surely more suited for Sylvia than she was for Dorothy in The Wiz. And as long as we're throwing wild cards out there, how about Bette Midler for the caustic Julia? The score is so consistently intoxicating, the musical floats on its own aroma. With a creative film director Two Gents on screen could've been a real delight. Another missed opportunity. Instead we get Lost Horizon, Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music..

What a shame Bob Fosse didn't make a film out of Pippin. It was more deserving of his talents (not to mention his fans) than the egregious model-murder story, Star 80 that capped his film career. The Bway musical's success was unduly credited to his creative genius, and enuf of a smash hit to attract film interest., and in Stephen Schwartz's lite-rock score had some undeniable youth appeal. (A teenage Michael Jackson made a record of "Corner of the Sky") It was an Everyman tale, and could've been cast with every, or any man: William Katt, maybe or Treat Williams, if not later, Travolta. Ben Vereen is the opposite of "everyone," but a polished entertainer (and Tony winner for this role) who would be hard to better. Fastrada, Pippin's sexy step-mother is a natural for Ann-Margret; and the widow, Catherine. could find original Jill Clayburgh back in the role, having crossed over into films. But beyond that, Fosse's cinematic style, honed thru the '70s could have found endless possibilities in the palette. But then again, he had struggled with the emptiness of the show on stage, so it's not hard to see why he'd be reluctant to revisit it.

With movie interest absent, the stage show was filmed for video preservation--an ever increasing alternative now that the movie musical was growing extinct. Videotaped in Hamilton, Onatrio--of all places--in 1981, the production brought Ben Vereen, Christopher Chadman (as Pip's half-bro) and sexy John Mineo (as one of the players) back to their original roles. William Katt was Pippin, and Chita Rivera, a Star Fastrada--a rare chance to see her stage magnetism in context. And for Granny, er--Berthe (the swan song of Irene Ryan on Bway) was none other than Martha Raye (composer Hugh Martin's favorite singer) to conduct the sing-along, "No Time at All." But the show's virtues are hard pressed to cover its flaws. The book is short on depth or emotion, and the comedy is mostly in anachronism, or breaking character to comment on the production. And tho I confess to playing the OCR (produced by Phil Ramone) for countless hours as a teenager (while I learned to juggle), it's not a score that ages well like wine. I hadn't seen the show in years, when I caught an acclaimed Deaf-West production at the Taper in LA. but without Fosse's gimmicks, the play's bones were so bare I could hardly wait till it was over. Diane Paulus, Bway's latest "wunderkind" director took on Pippin in 2013, after her previous--and sometimes controversial--resuscitations of Hair and Porgy & Bess. Her solution to the play's hollow center was to drape it in Cirque de Soleil
trappings--hoisting Andrea Martin to aerial gymnastics (and another Tony), and proving once & for all, the show has Magic to Do to disguise its empty air. It would take another Michael Weller rethink (as with Hair) to give Pippin any emotional heft. Without that only a Fosse or another visual fantasist could have brought this to life on screen. But as big a hit as the show was, that passion was never there. Stephen Schwartz was the early '70s Midas of Bway tunesmiths. Pippin was the unlikely smash hit follow up to Godspell, and in '74, a modest framework for magician, Doug Henning, The Magic Show, gave Schwartz a third home run--financially if not artistically. But he stumbled working for David Merrick on The Baker's Wife, and his concept revue, Working never did. He drifted into the Disney stable until his Bway juggernaut, Wicked brought him renewed success. Is there renewed interest in Pippin?

Kander & Ebb started the decade with a near-revue, featuring a cast of feisty alter-kochers, and ended it with Liza Minelli in a confessional nightclub act. 70, Girls, 70, put out a lively album before it quickly expired (it also killed, literally, longtime Bway musical comedy actor, David Burns--he expired on stage after his number, out of town); The Act sold well on Liza's name (and won her a second Tony Award) but wasn't much more than a concert by one "Michele Craig"--a character, in any case, far less interesting than Liza herself. The book by George Furth (Company), was apparently intriguing enuf to engage Martin Scorcese's interest--in tandem with his affair with Minnelli, stemming from their collaboration on New York, New York. Upon consideration, the show would seem to have more potential on screen; moving fluidly between the act on stage and the drama off; mirrored, in that patented K&E way, with ironic show-bizzy tunes. The score isn't top-drawer Kander & Ebb, but it's lively enuf and Liza knows how to put those songs over. But NYNY put the kabosh on further film tuners, and Liza musicals, tho this sort of program, crafted by her personal songwriters might have proved more appealing to the public.

Cy Coleman struggled for seven years to get another musical to Bway after Sweet Charity but Seesaw was a semi-salvaged flop that suffered as much as it was saved by Michael Bennett out of town. The source was a two-character play, Two for the Seesaw which was awkwardly expanded to a 50 member ensemble; essentially a third character: the City of New York--the gritty, bankrupt, scary NY of the '70s. Anne Bancroft & Shirley MacLaine played the hapless heroine, Gittel Mosca on stage and on screen. Lainie Kazan took the musical lead, but Bennett fired her in Detroit, replacing her with Michele Lee. Her vis a vis the Omaha lawyer, was Ken Howard, after Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum. But the musical's big winner was Tommy Tune, brought out of left field to play Gittel's pal, a choreographer, and given his big production number, "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish" (and a Tony award) on his way to becoming the last of the great line of Bway stagers. Perhaps the show would've been better had it remained a two-hander (as I Do! I Do! had proved do-able,) In either case it wasn't destined for screen treatment.

Nor was I Love My Wife, which had just four characters, plus a four-man band who served onstage as chorus as well--a very Off-B'way sized musical, which became Coleman's longest running Bway show thus far. Michael Stewart's book tackled social mores with a pen dipped in Disney. The sexual revolution suitable for family audiences--a suburban New Jersey rethink of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The Paul Mazursky link also extended to Lenny Baker (who was unforgettably good in Mazursky's '50s-set valentine, Next Stop Greenwich Village) and was the nerdy comic lead here. The show also introduced Joanna Gleason and James Naughton to Bway, the fourth was Ilene Graff, a former Sandy in Grease. Sadly, Baker, who won a Tony for the role, was only 37 when he died 5 years later. The show was a minor league affair, and not of much relevance to me. And as much as I admired Cy Coleman, I wasn't enamored with this score, only about half of which I found enjoyable, tho even the best ("Something Wonderful I Missed," "Married Couple Seeks Married Couple") were below his exceptional work. That said, there was screen potential here, particularly for its time. The early '80s had some fresh young talents with little to showcase their musical skills. If nothing else the show would've suited John Travolta well on the heels of Urban Cowboy and Grease; perhaps another pairing with Olivia Newton-John as well. Treat Williams, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg; Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Beals,, Bernadette Peters were all valid candidates for the central foursome. With a fleshed out script, a pruned score (with some new tunes by Coleman) and a modest budget, Paramount missed a solid opportunity here.

Coleman's next show hit Bway barely ten months later, and was all the more amazing for its musical nuance and complexity. On the 20th Century took off like a locomotive (figuratively as well as literally) and blew me away. Cy's Rossini-flavored score is, along with Sweet Charity, his very best--and most unexpected--work ever; Comden & Green's book & lyrics are a model of economy and an improvement on the original play and movie; and Harold Prince's Art Deco production was spic 'n' span in finesse and utility. Likewise the cast could hardly be better: John Cullum, Imogene Coca, and Kevin Kline--turning a  small  supporting  role  into a  Star-making  part. 
And then there's Madeline Kahn, who under the strain of her most taxing role, notoriously clashed & burned with the producers and Prince, only to be replaced after two months by Judy Kaye, hailed, almost punitively, as the Big Star Discovery. Kaye, who I later saw (twice) as well, was fine, and continues a long, varied and rich career in a variety of roles, but I didn't see her blazing as brightly as Kahn--at least in the two performances I saw Madeline, when she was fully on--which apparently wasn't with regularity. She was magnificent. With her and Coca on one stage, it was a bounty of female comic talent. Add Cullum, Kline, and the propulsive score; and it's a cornucopia. One of the few musicals I was obsessed with during this period, in case you couldn't tell. In my many focussed listenings of the OCR, I concocted a visual image of the show that had great screen potential. A cross of '30s MGM with German Expressionism, entirely studio set, and with angle-shot close-ups like comic strip panels. It seemed dandy. But then, I had long refused to accept that the score--the show's greatest asset--is to most ears considered operetta--which I think limited its success. I, too, was allergic to what I thought was operetta, and my taste never strayed down that alley. But this, to me, was a true, artfully crafted, musical comedy score. If this was operetta, it was Cy Coleman's take on the genre, hardly reminiscent of Romberg or Friml. But when a show this good barely ekes out a years run on Bway. what chance is there of a Hlwd movie? The musical languished for decades until a revival was mounted in 2015 as a showcase for Kristin Chenoweth--a role eminently suited to her comic and vocal  abilities (unlike her miscast stints in The Music Man, or Promises, Promises). But On the 20th Century is as out of time in the 21st--an opera bouffe in a comic book world. I have little doubt had it first unveiled in The Golden Age it would be as much in the canon today as Pajama Game or Hello, Dolly! Like everything, it's all in the timing.

They're Playing Our Song  was another two-hander, buttressed with a couple of backup trios; one male, one female. It was a low cost affair, written by Neil Simon in his sleep, a show that exemplifies the '70s Bway ethos: scaled down production, spare plot, tinkly pop score. A hit for the suburban bourgeoisie. And as such: another natural for the movies. Especially in the Reagan era, when Simon was recycling nearly all his stage output on screeen, between his slew of new sceenplays. This one was "When Marvin Met Carole," a fictionalized romance between a composer & lyricst, much like the authors of this very show: Marvin Hamlisch & Carole Bayer Sager--he's steady, she's a lovable nutjob. Their score sounds like a demo to win a track on Barbra Streisand's "Songbird" album. She and Hamlisch had already struck gold with "The Way We Were," and she would be prominent among his praisers upon his death in 2012. On Bway They're Playing Our Song got away with Lucie Arnaz (and Robert Klein)--neither much of a singer, tho Arnaz was far superior to her mother, Lucy (admittedly a low bar.)  Stockard Channing, Anita Gillette and Ellen Greene were replacements, but a film would require a Star. After Streisand's 1979 Main Event misfire (which, incidentally, was the point she fell off the cliff of my interest) she mght well have considered this piece of fluff instead of a trainwreck like All Night Long. Barbra was surely suited for Simon's heroine, a kooky neurotic, always dressing in cast-off stage costumes, forever breaking up with her unseen boyfriend. As her exasperated writing partner, Steve Martin would've been rather nifty. Almost makes you want to see it. The show wasn't long on music to begin with, full of typical Neil Simon dialogues and gags. The musical's score (even with Sager's thuddingly pedestrian lyrics) might have had a hit or two with Streisand, something it didn't generate otherwise.

No one dominated musical theater more in the '70s than Sondheim (who needs no first name) beginning with Company, which felt like the future, but was really just Sondheim, who, tho often-imitated is rarely equaled. And that's much the problem with musicals in his wake; brilliant as Sondheim's shows are, they're mistakenly held as the path to Bway's salvation. Instead they opened a boutique niche; musicals for the connosieur not the masses. I still remember the feeling of strangeness sitting in the balcony of the Alvin Theater in July 1970. At that point we knew Sondheim's tunesmithness from just two shows: the bizarre, if often interesting Anyone Can Whistle, and A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum--which didn't really catapult him to anyone's favorite composer (the Tony's even passed him over for Bravo, Giovanni! for Chrissake--What's Bravo Giovanni! you may ask. Exactly.) But Company was a musical revelation, tuneful, icy & modern, brilliant. It proved that musical theater didn't have to embrace rock to feel contemporary. Hal Prince's production was all mylar and chrome; a kaleidoscopic collage given motion by Michael Bennett.  A quintessential  stage  piece.
You can see the studios shaking their heads over the show's screen potential. First off. the score was too sophisticated--thought too adult for general public ears. Remember, it took decades for Sondheim to dissolve into the public bloodstream. George Furth's book was less a story than a string of vignettes--pushing the concept musical into further abstraction; heightened by the geometric patterns of the staging. I didn't see how a movie was remotely possible. Then several years ago, it suddenly seemed clear to me how it should've been done. Where the show was abstract, the film would be literal; lensed entirely in New York in the mid-70s, and directed by Mike Nichols--a project he should have taken over that dreadful Day of the Dolphin. Nichols was exceptional with the best of actors, and would get the maxiumum impact from each vignette. And with a smart editor using plenty of quick cuts, split screens and checkerboard effects, the songs could be effectively, thrillingly done. Then there's the great parlor game of casting, particularly juicy in this case, with untold possibilities. In the mid-'70s Warren Beatty is the ideal 35 year-old bachelor (and was then) but could he sing? Dustin Hoffman sounds right, too, but for the vocals. So who, Dean Jones? He was a film star after all--and let's face it, Bobby is more a cypher than a character Wouldn't Madeline Kahn make a great Amy--who's not "Getting Married Today"? Imagine Barbara Harris as Jenny; Eileen Brennan as Sarah, Paula Prentiss as Susan; and their spouses culled from Alan Alda, Paul Sorvino, William Daniels, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Tony Roberts, or Elliot Gould. A young Stockard Channing might make a fine stewardess, April. And then there's Joanne: Elaine Stritch had the defining role of her career, but she's not irreplaceable. And not--if we're honest--a real screen star. I saw her twice, as well as her replacements, Jane Russell and Vivian Blaine; and later in one of the many staged concerts, a terrific Carol Burnett. The role is now a staple of ballsy women of a certain age. Patti Lupone took it on (to much lesser effect) in the Neil Patrick Harris concert which was filmed for PBS. Mike Nichols was so good he probably could've coaxed an astonishing perf out of Doris Day, but might have gone for Anne Bancroft or Shirley MacLaine. I can see them all but my imagination is tickled most by the idea of Lauren Bacall.

Another orgy of casting gamesmanship clings to Follies like the ghosts within the show. Less than a year after Company, Sondheim, Prince & Bennett gave birth to a spectacle forever eulogized as the Be All & End All. (I consider it the last gasp of  The  Golden  Age --both for its thematic as well as symbolic deconstruction of the musical.) It had quite a buzz around it when it opened in April '71, but it never quite reached that SRO hysteria a hit takes on. "Nostalgia" was trend du jour around Bway that spring, with mobs clamoring for the old-fashioned comforts of No, No, Nanette; exiting in giddy satisfaction; a congregation in joy. But Follies was a touch too bitter; people came out conflicted, unsure, lost in thought. For those with show-envy I saw that original production at the Winter Garden 3 times. And much as I was mad for it, somehow it hasn't remained among my top theater memories. (I've only to think of Nanette and I'm smiling.) Unquestionably, Sondheim's score is breathtaking, and more so for having so much variety; half pastiche (and flawlessly so) and half signature. But oh, that book! The crumbling marriages in James Goldman's libretto are the show's albatross, yet without them it's little more than a revue.

There are legions who find the original cast unbeatable. I'm not one of them. I often find Hal Prince's casting quirky and disappointing. I've nothing against Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson or Yvonne DeCarlo--but how much more resonant the show might have been if its leads had genuine Bway histories in their bones. Mary McCarty, Ethel Shutta, Fifi D'Orsay--were they anyone's fond recall? And really, couldn't they do better than John McMartin? The production was spectacular but its lavishness has hardly gone extinct. I also saw what was surely the show's first revival, in 1976--at the postage stamp-sized Equity Library theater in NY, (which surprisingly worked well) with a decidedly unknown cast. It was the 1985 Lincoln Center concert that began the tradition of an All-Star event. The PBS documentary of the production plays up the whole packaging and rehearsal right up to the onstage entrances, giving "Beautiful Girls" a true celebrity parade--to the roar of the crowd. (I confess it's more thrilling than anything in the actual show.) Many have carped that the doc shows only parts of the musical, but the backstage excitement is, damningly, a lot more fascinating than Goldman's libretto. The show has been returning more regularly in the 21st century, with Bway revivals in '01 and '11; as well an Encores! edition in '07. With Sondheim's rep growing in time perhaps they will come around to a film adaptation some day. In fact there was Hwld interest from the start--with rumor of a Bette Davis, Joan Crawford version at one point. Can you imagine Bette tearing thru "Could I Leave You?" or Joan emoting thru "Losing My Mind"? A roster of retired screen stars would no doubt be vying to fill in the margins. It would've been awful. Many stage-centric musicals are better left untouched by cinema, but time has brought newer techniques, and Follies might have fresh possibilities. I had been waiting all my life for something like Birdman to take me thru all the nooks & crannies of a Bway show, from street to stage to catwalk. Only I wished it was a musical. Follies takes it one step further, going in & out of the past. How great the transitions would be morphing from the crumbling half-demolished theater to the glorious Ziegfeldian spectacle of the past. Quick, sign up Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline & John Travolta before it's too late. Ted Chapin, now head of the R&H Org, was lucky enuf to apprentice as a go-fer on the original production, and later wrote a wonderful book about the experience, Everything Was Possible. It seems to me this might make a better screenplay than the play itself. As long as the songs get their due.

The Sondheim/Prince Industiral complex rolled on thru the '70s. A Little Night Music (as already discussed) came next, then a resuscitation of Bernstein's great Candide (with Sondheim adding new lyrics) followed by Pacific Overtures, and topping the decade off with Sweeney Todd. But film producers weren't snapping these up for the screen. Night Music was made (poorly) as an indie production and Sweeney Todd had to wait over 25 years before it was risked by Hlwd. Pacific Overtures was, if possible, even more resistant to translation, given its very nature as a Kabuki pageant. The stage musical was however filmed (for TV broadcast in Japan), a practice that will only increase (particularly for Sondheim's shows) in light of dwindling interest from film producers. Bway was funneling less product (plays as well as musicals) to Hlwd than ever before as we moved into the Eighties. The Fabulous Invalid was looking seriously anemic. 

Next Up: Annie

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