Who are Broadway’s best songwriters? If such decisions are based solely on winners of the Tony Award for best musical score, the results can be rather surprising. Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, Meredith Willson, Charles Strouse and Marvin Hamlisch earned only a single best score Tony Award during their respective careers. And, while Porter (“Kiss Me Kate”), Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”), Willson (“The Music Man”), Strouse (“Annie”) and Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line”) won for their most popular scores, Styne and Bernstein were overlooked for their respective masterpieces: “Gypsy” and “West Side Story.” Styne won instead for the little known “Hallelujah, Baby!” and Bernstein for “Wonderful Town.”
Other one-time winners have included Britain’s Lionel Bart (“Oliver!”), Pete Townshend (“Tommy”) and Elton John (“Aida”); France’s Claude-Michel Schonberg (“Les Miserables”) and Oklahoma’s Roger Miller (“Big River”). Six composers have walked off with a pair of Tony Awards for best score: Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady” and “Gigi”), Jerry Bock (“Fiorello!” and “Fiddler on the Roof”), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (“The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees”), Jerry Herman (“Hello, Dolly!” and “La Cage aux Folles”) and Maury Yeston (“Nine” and “Titanic”).
Broadway’s three-time winners include Richard Rodgers (“South Pacific,” “The Sound of Music” and “No Strings”), Cy Coleman (“On the 20th Century,” “City of Angels” and “The Will Rogers Follies”), John Kander (“Cabaret,” “Woman of the Year” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), and Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Evita,” “Cats” and “Sunset Boulevard”). To date, only one composer has won more than three Tonys for best musical score (Rodgers was honored with a special Tony in 1962), although that could change considering Lloyd Webber is still active.
The record holder, with seven wins, is Stephen Sondheim. During his remarkable 50-year career, Oscar Hammerstein’s famous protege has been honored for his scores to “Company” (two Tonys), “Follies” and “A Little Night Music” – three back-to-back wins in the early 1970s, a record unequaled. Sondheim also ended that decade with a win for his score to “Sweeney Todd” and has since picked up medallions for “Into the Woods” (a surprise victory over Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”) and “Passion” (which was pitted against “Beauty and the Beast”).
While few of those winners would be questioned, the list of overlooked gems far outweighs those that were recognized. What musical theater lover would want to do without “Candide,” “Funny Girl,” “She Loves Me” or “Mame”?
Here’s hoping that recent winners Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”), Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis (“Urinetown”), Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”), Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (“Avenue Q”), Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Piazza”), Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone (“The Book of Mormon”) and Alan Menken and Jack Feldman (“Newsies”) will join their distinguished predecessors and write more Tony-worthy scores.
On March 31, 1943, the St. James Theatre curtain rose on a new production that would literally change the course of the American musical theater. Named in honor of the 46th U.S. state, “Oklahoma!” would also launch the durable partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers’ former partner, Lorenz Hart, thought “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the Lynn Riggs play on which “Oklahoma!” was based, too homespun to be successful as a musical. One Broadway insider, who traveled to New Haven, Connecticut to catch the show in previews, summed up his perception with the oft-quoted remark, “No legs, no jokes, no chance!”
Until the musical had reached Boston, “Oklahoma!” was known as “Away We Go.” But when a full harmony arrangement of what had once been a solo tap feature brought down the house night after night, Hammerstein suggested adding an exclamation point to the song’s title, “and be done with it,” he said. “Oklahoma!” ended its 2,212-performance run in the summer of 1948 and would become the team’s longest running musical. It also set an 18-year record that endured until “My Fair Lady” surpassed it.
For the 1943 production, Mary Martin, Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin were all considered for the role of Laurey. Groucho Marx was considered for the peddler, Ali Hakim. But “Oklahoma!” was never intended to be a star vehicle. Then as now, its strength resulted from a perfect blend of plot, music and choreography. “Oklahoma!” remains Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most often requested property, with about 600 stagings annually. That number rose to 900 in 1993, the show’s 50th anniversary, and passed a similar milestone in 2007, the centennial of Oklahoma’s statehood.
As for those lucky souls who reluctantly invested in a show few thought had any potential, the 1943 production of “Oklahoma!” returned a profit of about 2,500 percent. Translation: a $1,000 investment would have paid $2.5 million. In the 70 years since the musical’s premiere, “Oklahoma!” has continued to provide a steady flow of cash into the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.
As for the famous saying, one that became the title of Sheldon Patinkin’s 2008 book about the American musical theater, all three of its notions are false. “Oklahoma!” features dancing girls in the dream ballet, virtually every line that Ali Hakim recites is a joke and as everyone knows today, the idea of “Oklahoma!” not having a chance at success is laughable. Perhaps original star Joan Roberts (Laurey) said it best when she added one more line to that now-famous saying, one based on the long lines at the box office after the 1943 premiere: “And now, no tickets!”
Look at the compact disc insert of any Broadway cast recording, and you’ll find one or more names credited with orchestrations. These are the talented individuals responsible for giving Broadway scores their distinctive sound. In simplest terms, the orchestrator interprets and fleshes out the composer’s intentions. Armed with a piano/vocal score supplied by the composer, the orchestrator selects the instruments that will be used in the pit and then assigns melodic, harmonic and rhythmic parts accordingly.
Think of the brass riffs in “Gypsy,” the lone fiddler scratching out a tune in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the plink of the banjos in “Mame” or the percussive pageantry in “1776.” Each was a conscious choice designed to tell a story, reveal character or create a mood. Other memorable orchestrational touches feature the addition of unusual instruments. Billy Byers used an accordion to suggest the Parisian setting of “Victor/Victoria,” while Steve Margoshes and Danny Troob opted for harmonica and Jew’s harp to give “Big River” a down-home sensibility.
The art of orchestration has a long and distinguished history. Robert Russell Bennett, Robert Ginzler, Ralph Burns, Ted Royal, Philip J. Lang, Sid Ramin and Don Walker rank among the notable orchestrators who helped shape the Broadway sound. The second and third generations of orchestrators include Jonathan Tunick (“Titanic”), Michael Starobin (“Sunday in the Park With George”), William David Brohn (“Ragtime”), Billy Byers (“The Will Rogers Follies”), Michael Gibson (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”), Doug Besterman (“The Producers”) and Larry Blank (“The Drowsy Chaperone”).
While each has a distinctive style, these men are adept at many different musical idioms and can easily adapt their skills as needed. While that may sound like magic, it’s important to remember that orchestration is a craft. The real magic happens when the orchestrator’s efforts are finally realized by a terrific pit orchestra.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks Romeo in Shakespeare’s oft-told tragedy. If we could briefly suspend reality (which good theater often demands) and assume the discussion is about play titles, there can be quite a lot at stake. They can be familiar (“Driving Miss Daisy”), obscure (“Roadside”), amusing (“Jackie Lantern’s Hallowe’en Revenge”) or even bizarre (“Today I Am a Fountain Pen”).
Often, the most intriguing play titles are those that feature puns, malapropisms or clever turns of phrase. When we encounter these, our curiosity is inevitably piqued. I know virtually nothing about the following plays except for what I’ve read about them in catalogs. But their clever titles made me want to find out more about them. See if you don’t agree.
The idea of substituting a single word in an otherwise familiar phrase resulted in titles such as “Caught With His Trance Down” (a farce about a servant who hypnotizes his master into doing his chores), “Par for the Corpse” (a thriller having nothing to do with golf) or “A Matter of Wife and Death” (the tale of an eccentric millionaire who tries to lure a stranger into marriage).
Other titles entice playgoers by creating an improbable situation. Consider “If Booth Had Missed” or “The Second Marriage of Santa Claus.” Playwrights have targeted kids with plays such as “Are Teachers Human? “Why Teachers Go Nuts” and “Not So Grim Fairy Tales.” When two familiar stories are combined into one, pandemonium is sure to result: “Allison Wonderland” (a mad musical based on the Lewis Carroll tale) or “Cinderladdin” (a genie helps Cinderella get to the ball).
Then there are titles where two words have been switched, thereby shedding new light on the ordinary: “The Mind With the Dirty Man” (a humorous tale of censorship). One also encounters some cleverly worded play titles that invite further examination: “Having a Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her!” (a bedroom farce about infidelity, double standards and a midnight rendezvous), “When God Comes for Breakfast, You Don’t Burn the Toast” (an unexpected visit by the Almighty).
Or how about “The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of Where Babies Come From” (a spoof on the famous boy detectives) or “Will the Real Jesus Christ Please Stand Up?” (the problems of casting an actor to play Jesus in a televised Biblical tale).
While this brief survey illustrates the lengths playwrights will go to in their desire to append a clever title, the success of the comedy, drama, tragedy or farce depends completely on the quality of the writing therein. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet reminded us, after all, “The play’s the thing.”
Four centuries ago, Ben Jonson wrote that “Art hath an enemy called Ignorance.” Of course during Elizabethan times, the writings of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe weren’t exactly thought of as controversial.
How surprised Jonson would be then at the uproar surrounding the premieres of such 20th century works as “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Oh! Calcutta!”
People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based organization committed to “preserving human expression through art, music, the written word, the spoken word and the cyber word as deemed under the umbrella of the U.S. Constitution,” publishes an annual booklet titled “Artistic Freedom Under Attack.” In it, the group documents potential First Amendment violations and the outcomes that resulted when such issues were raised.
One such instance surrounded a Washington state high school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
After receiving a letter claiming Shakespeare’s romantic comedy contained “adult themes” that might “spark further controversy,” the principal canceled the production and subsequently enacted a new selection and review process for plays. That scoundrel Puck was out of luck.
A similar outcome occurred at a New York intermediate school when an American Indian student complained about the “racist portrayal of Native Americans” in the children’s classic “Peter Pan.” Never mind that the Indian Tiger Lily and Peter Pan forged a strong friendship after each saved the other’s life.
After discussions between the school and tribal representatives, the performance was canceled on the basis that the show “repeated stereotypical images of Native Americans (that) would be injurious.”
Perhaps the most outrageous example, and one might add amusing, occurred at a Kentucky high school that had scheduled a production of the musical “Damn Yankees.”
Several parents contacted school officials with a request that the show’s title be changed to “Darn Yankees,” claiming the word “Damn” would convey the wrong message to children who might be disciplined for using it at home.
Citing contractual agreements with the agency that licenses the musical, the superintendent explained that the title could not be altered, whereupon the musical was performed as scheduled without alteration.
It’s curious when seemingly innocuous works provoke such strong feelings decades or, in some cases, centuries after they were written.
In situations such as these, it would perhaps be more prudent to alter the future rather than trying to rewrite the past.
The Broadway musical graveyard is littered with countless shows that, for reasons too varied to enumerate, failed to achieve their potential. And with skyrocketing production costs, it’s surprising that such failures ever merit a second look.
“Annie Warbucks,” “Big” and “Candide” were all declared flops during their original runs.
But the creative teams responsible for these shows were unwilling to accept failure, secure in their beliefs that additional work might reveal the shows they had first envisioned. In each case, subsequent productions eclipsed the Broadway originals.
Another musical that has been kicked around for the past quarter century is “Rags,” whose four-performance fiasco on Broadway in 1986 proved to be one of the costliest failures of the decade.
Featuring a glorious score by Charles Strouse, “Rags” has since been revisited by numerous theater companies hoping to unlock the musical’s potential.
“Rags” begins where “Fiddler on the Roof” left off, with Russian immigrants preparing to establish a new life in America.
Certainly it’s a fascinating premise, but the show’s scope is too broad and features a parade of characters who are never fully fleshed out.
Author Joseph Stein, who also wrote “Fiddler,” focused his tale on the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of Rebecca Hershkowitz, a proud Jew who battles poverty, prejudice and political shenanigans.
Unlike “Big,” whose authors managed to strip the excesses of the Broadway production and find the heart of a tale about a child who gets his wish to be big, “Rags” remains unfocused, unconvincing, even bleak.
Yet, given the public’s natural curiosity about the immigrant experience, it’s a show that can’t be totally dismissed. Still, this musical is not ever likely to become a “Rags to Riches” story.
As one critic wrote of the original production, “If the real immigrant experience had been as joyless and mean as what we see in ‘Rags,’ ‘Rags’ could never have been written, because no immigrants would have come. And the Statue of Liberty would have been facing the other way.”
Television news programs often refer to John F. Kennedy’s White House years as the Camelot era, a poignant reference to the Lerner and Loewe musical about King Arthur and his kingdom. I’ve often wondered what might happen if we took the same approach to other presidencies, by selecting a Broadway show that reflected their administrations, achievements or personalities. Here’s a bi-partisan look at the results.
“Happy Hunting” was a 1956 vehicle for Ethel Merman, but what better example to describe Theodore Roosevelt, the great conservationist and avid hunter? Or how about “Jekyll & Hyde,” the Gothic thriller about one man’s dual personalities. Forthright in public but known for blurting out ethnic slurs in private, Richard Nixon seems a likely candidate. Equally appropriate here would be “Pardon My English.”
The little-known musical “The Me Nobody Knows” might describe Lyndon Johnson, the troubled 36th president who found himself eclipsed by the memory of his predecessor. Irving Berlin’s “Louisiana Purchase” seems an obvious choice for Thomas Jefferson, who bought the land that would eventually become the south-central United States. And Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” evokes the memory of William McKinley, the president who annexed Hawaii and the Philippines.
How about “This is the Army,” another Berlin classic? Clearly Dwight Eisenhower fits that bill. Or “Fifty Million Frenchman,” a title that suggests Woodrow Wilson and his dealings with France during the First World War. As to presidential families, “Jerry’s Girls” seems ideal for Gerald Ford’s wife Betty and daughter Susan, while Andrew Jackson and Harry Truman can battle it out for the title “I Love My Wife.” John Tyler, who had 15 children, undoubtedly knew all about “Babes in Arms.”
“Oh, What a Lovely War!” also recalls Theodore Roosevelt, a man who believed war was a necessary evil. The 26th president also emerges for “Lady Be Good!” in a reference to Roosevelt’s oft-quoted remark that he could either control Congress or his daughter, Alice, not both. Considering the problems Andrew Johnson dealt with following the Civil War, Lincoln’s successor may have uttered the words “Damn Yankees” on occasion, while Ronald Reagan obviously viewed himself as “All American.”
Clearly, shows like “Mr. President,” “Top Banana” and “Promises, Promises” would apply equally to all U.S. presidents, but I’ll leave the final choices of “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Lady in the Dark,” “Romance Romance” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to your imagination. Hail to the chief!
What do musical theater show titles tell us about a production? That depends. Some, like “Show Boat,” “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Titanic,” clue people in immediately. But those like “Here’s Love,” “The Grand Tour” or “Whoop Up” give few, if any, hints. Show titles can range from the generic (“Carnival,” “Seesaw,” “Celebration”) to the more-or-less specific (“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “1776,” “Jekyll & Hyde”). Others go so far as to confuse (“Goldilocks” examines the early days of the film industry rather than a children’s fable).
Of all the reasons behind a musical’s title, one consideration is a theater’s limited marquee space. Hence, the prevalence of one-word titles (“Carousel,” “Brigadoon,” “Skyscraper,” “Hair,” “Nine,” “Baby,” “Rags,” “Passion,” “Big,” “Rent,” “Ragtime,” “Footloose” and “Parade”). Some read like a list from a book on baby names: “Irene,” “Roberta,” “Fanny,” “Jennie,” “Anya,” “Coco,” “Gigi,” “Lorelei,” “Annie,” “Kean,” “Cyrano,” “Oliver!” “Rex” and “Eubie!”
Sooners might think “Oklahoma!” has the market cornered on parts of the country that have been celebrated on the Broadway stage. But don’t forget “The Connecticut Yankee,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” or “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Our neighbor across the Red River can claim “Texas Li’l Darlin’”and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” And while neither “Very Warm for May” nor “110 in the Shade” has an Oklahoma setting, those of us who endure the oppressive summer heat may think otherwise.
Despite advances regarding equal rights, American musical theater, or at least some titles, gives an impression of being rather sexist. Consider “Girl Crazy,” “Bloomer Girl,” “Arms and the Girl,” “The Girl in Pink Tights,” “New Girl in Town,” “The Girl Who Came to Supper,” “Dreamgirls,” “Jerry’s Girls,” “Me and My Girl” and “The Goodbye Girl.” Guys nearly get equal time with “The Boy Friend,” “Golden Boy,” “Minnie’s Boys,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Five Guys Named Moe.” At least they share billing with the fairer sex in “Guys and Dolls.”
So as not to overlook the rest of the family, there’s “Babes in Arms,” “Hallelujah, Baby!” and “Sugar Babies.” And for all the pet lovers out there, one mustn’t forget “Drat! The Cat” and “Cats.” Sorry dog lovers. You’ll have to be content with brief appearances by Sandy (“Annie”), Asta (“Nick & Nora”), Chowsie (“Gypsy”) and Horrid (“Camelot”).
All of this serves as a reminder that one should not judge a book by its cover, nor a musical by its title. Who could have guessed that a show with the quizzical title “Fiddler on the Roof” would become one of the longest-running musicals in American theater history? “Applause” indeed!
On this day in classical music: Dmitri Kabalesvky’s opera “Colas Breugnon” was given its premiere in Leningrad in 1938. Set in Burgundy, France around the turn of the 17th century, “Colas Breugnon” tells the story of a sculptor who recalls his experiences at the end of his life. While the opera has largely fallen out of the operatic repertoire, its sparkling overture has remained a popular staple of the concert hall. Listen to Andrew Litton and the New England Conservatory Philharmonia perform the overture to Kabalevsky’s “Colas Breugnon.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIcWCOZKfjE
On this day in the musical theatre: An acclaimed revival of “The King and I” closed on Broadway in 1998 after a two-year run. Starring Lou Diamond Phillips as the impervious King of Siam and Donna Murphy as Anna Leonowens, a British woman hired to teach the King’s children English, this revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won four, including one for Murphy and another for best revival. Watch Murphy and Phillips perform the charming “Shall We Dance” at the 1996 Tony Awards broadcast. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shVIZAev5L8
Musical musings: Taking the story of Anna Leonowens, the adventurous yet very Victorian English governess who tamed the exotic King of Siam, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d created a musical play as joyously all-American as anything they ever wrote. It’s beside the point that “The King and I” is set in the Far East and has nothing to do with America. As expressed by its charming score, the show’s spirit is that of an idealized 19th-century America far removed from the Civil War, robber barons, the Industrial Revolution and the winning of the West through the expropriation of other people’s property. Anna may be English and no more historically accurate than Robin Hood’s Maid Marian. Yet she has the fortitude and wit of those legendary frontier women who drove covered wagons across the wilderness, bewitched and outwitted the heathens en route, then found gold mines in California backyards. “The King and I” is romantic, clear-eyed and highly moral. Though ever- optimistic, it doesn’t deny intimations of darkness; it successfully absorbs them. “The King and I” is probably the most critic-proof of all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. When it first arrived here in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, the musical play had an imposing heritage to live up to, following as it did “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel” and “South Pacific.” Reviewers were polite but discreetly pained. As much as they hated to say it, or so they seemed to write, “The King and I” didn’t quite measure up. They were correct when they pointed out that Hammerstein’s book, adapted from Margaret Landon’s novel, “Anna and the King of Siam,” was sweet though lacking a strong narrative. But they were dead wrong when they took a similarly dim view of the music, which is packed with riches that give definition to the show’s backbone. – Vincent Canby in The New York Times
On this day in classical music: Ottorino Respighi’s orchestral suite “Roman Festivals” was given its premiere by Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in 1929. The third in Respighi’s Roman trilogy, “Roman Festivals,” or “Feste Romane,” was completed in 1926. Cast in four movements, the work depicts scenes from ancient Rome: Circuses, Jubilee, October Harvest and Epiphany. In typical Respighi fashion, “Feste Romane” is a masterpiece of orchestral color and concludes with one of orchestral music’s most thrilling climaxes. Listen to the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo perform the finale of “Feste Romane.” Massimo Zanetti conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXjxAFzdcAM
On this day in the musical theatre: “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a musical revue that showcased the music of Fats Waller, closed on Broadway in 1982 after a four-year run. The musical was a tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and ’30s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing creativity, cultural awareness and ethnic pride. The production, which featured Nell Carter, André DeShields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page and Charlayne Woodard, offered a collection of rowdy and humorous songs that captured the vibrant mood of the era and reflected Waller’s view of life as a journey for pleasure and play. Carter won a Tony Award for her performance, as did Richard Maltby, Jr. for his direction. Watch the women’s trio perform “Off-Time” and the full company perform “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band” on the 1978 Tony Awards broadcast. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzjL6oR_flg
Musical musings: Jump for joy! “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a rhapsodic treatment of songs and piano solos (newly equipped with words) either wholly composed by, collaborated on or else simply played or recorded by the late great Thomas (Fats) Waller. In spirit, it evokes the late days of the Prohibition era when “vipers” smoked “reefers” and bootleg booze could be the worst or best, depending on your source of supply. Though the songs — especially such famous Waller numbers as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” and the title piece — often became international favorites transcending color lines, their interpretations by blacks (Waller and others) is and always has been matchless. And so it is here. There is a tape deck and a pair of sound consoles at the rear of the theatre that look elaborate and complicated enough to send the show into space. But that’s just what the cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” does all by itself. Wow! – Douglas Watt in the New York Daily News