The popular board game Trivial Pursuit, which tests a player’s knowledge of everything from science and literature to sports and entertainment, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. I was a devoted fan of this game, yet, like many who shared my enthusiasm, there were certain categories that almost never failed to stump me. If only the final question could be related to the musical theater, I often wished. With that in mind, here are a few little-known curiosities that I stumbled upon recently. Most are courtesy of Michael Patrick Kennedy and John Muir, whose book “Musicals” is filled with such trivia.
- The original plot of “Anything Goes” involved a shipwreck. While the show was in rehearsals, the S.S. Morro Castle caught fire off the coast of New Jersey. Authors Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse were unavailable, so Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were brought in to rework the plot and eliminate any references to the shipwreck.
- The Valentine mentioned in the Rodgers and Hart song “My Funny Valentine” has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. It instead refers to the show’s hero, Valentine LaMar.
- Irving Berlin’s 1950 musical “Call Me Madam” featured a catchy number titled “They Like Ike.” Two years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower used it as part of his successful presidential campaign.
- Due to French copyright laws, Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carmen Jones” cannot be performed in France without the permission of Georges Bizet’s descendents.
- Legendary actress Judi Dench was to have played Grizabella in the British production of “Cats” (1981) but had to bow out due to a leg injury. She was replaced by Elaine Paige, who would go on to become famous in her own right.
- During tryouts for “A Chorus Line,” the character Cassie (whose “The Music and the Mirror” stopped the show nightly) was not chosen as one of the final eight dancers. Audience reaction was so hostile that the story was changed to have her make the final cut.
- Despite the show’s title – “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” – no one ever goes to the Forum.
- Hired to play in the pit of the 1930 production of George Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” were Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Red Nichols and Gene Krupa, each of whom would go on to become jazz greats.
- Alice blue, a bluish/gray hue said to match the eyes of Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, was made popular in “Alice Blue Gown,” a song written for 1919′s “Irene.”
- After seeing the 1941 premiere of Kurt Weill’s “Lady in the Dark,” composer Igor Stravinsky went backstage to congratulate Weill.
- In the 1957 hit “The Music Man,” composer Meredith Willson used the same melody for two of the show’s big tunes: “76 Trombones” and “Goodnight My Someone.” People often don’t recognize the similarity because the tempos are so different.
- In the 1975 musical “The Wiz,” Dorothy’s slippers are silver instead of ruby red.
- Leonard Bernstein’s New York-based musicals (“On the Town, “Wonderful Town,” “West Side Story”) were all hits. Those set in other locales (“Candide,” “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”) were considered flops, even though “Candide” has gained respectability in the decades since.
In an industry that seems unduly interested in pigeonholing musical artists, few ever have the courage to explore an area outside the one responsible for their initial success. Frederick Loewe, Jerry Bock, Jerry Herman and John Kander were men associated almost exclusively with the musical theater. Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser and Jule Styne made the occasional foray into film but always returned to the theater.
Victor Herbert, Kurt Weill, Meredith Willson and Charles Strouse are among the few who were not only classically trained but welcomed the opportunity to take an occasional break from the musical theater. The Irish-born Herbert, whose operettas “Naughty Marietta” and “Eileen” earned him international fame, played cello in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony and was instrumental in establishing the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). His two cello concertos are still occasionally heard today.
Weill is primarily remembered for “The Three Penny Opera” and “Lady in the Dark,” but he also made an impressive showing in the concert hall with his two symphonies, two string quartets, a cello sonata and a violin concerto. Willson got his start in the music business as an accomplished flutist who eventually wound up playing in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. He recounted those early experiences in his autobiography “And There I Stood With My Piccolo.”
In addition to giving the musical theater “The Music Man” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” however, Willson composed two symphonies that were recently recorded by William T. Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Strouse’s musical pedigree is one of the most impressive. Like many composers of his generation, he studied with noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris. When the musical theater beckoned, he responded with “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause” and his runaway hit “Annie.” But he is also credited with a “Sonata for Two Pianos.”
Other musical theater notables who found success in the world of classical music include Harvey Schmidt (“The Fantasticks,” “I Do! I Do!”), composer of a piano suite titled “Monteargento”; Richard Adler (“The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees”), who wrote “The Statue of Liberty Suite”; and Cy Coleman (“Sweet Charity,” “The Will Rogers Follies”), a composer of piano sonatas.
The true eclectic among this group is George Gershwin, the Tin Pan Alley composer (“Oh, Kay!,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Of Thee I Sing”) whose desire to incorporate elements of jazz into symphonic music resulted in “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris” and his masterpiece, the folk opera “Porgy and Bess.”
Lesser talents have attempted to cross over from one musical realm into another, but the results have rarely been convincing. How many of the aforementioned works will have any kind of lasting effect on the repertoire is impossible to predict. At least the musicians responsible for those works can’t be faulted for any lack of style, form or musical logic.
With another school year about to conclude, students will be asked to review some basic math skills. For those seeking an additional challenge, here’s a quiz that will test one’s knowledge of the musical theater.
Start with the number of trombones in “The Music Man” and multiply that by the number of lost souls Lola and Joe sing about in “Damn Yankees.” Then subtract the number of shopping days until Christmas in “She Loves Me” and divide that answer by the number of deadly virtues Mordred mentions in “Camelot.” Multiply that answer by the number of guys named Moe in the title of a Louis Jordan revue, then subtract the number of singular sensations celebrated in Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line.”
Ready to continue? Divide the result by the title of Maury Yeston’s 1982 Tony Award-winning musical, then multiply that answer by the number of months per year Meg Boyd becomes a baseball widow in “Damn Yankees.” Subtract the number of Veronese gentlemen found in the title of 1971′s best musical Tony winner. Divide the result by the appointed hour George and Amalia plan to meet for a romantic dinner in “She Loves Me.”
Multiply your result by Liesl’s age in “The Sound of Music,” then subtract the number of coins in the fountain sung by the male quartet in “Forever Plaid.” Now, add the number of people who just got off the bus in “Company.” We’re nearly finished! Multiply that result by the number of black dragons featured in “Pacific Overtures,” then add the number of twinkling stars mentioned in Magaldi’s serenade to Eva Duarte in “Evita.”
Finally, add the number of minutes that elapsed between the time the prince met Cinderella until their first dance in “Cinderella,” then subtract the number of little maids from school found in “The Mikado.”
If your calculations are correct, your final answer should be the year Oklahoma became the nation’s 46th state.
With our nation’s economy in a constant state of flux, I thought it would be interesting to see how inflation has treated salaries and other monetary issues discussed in Broadway musicals of the past. Thanks to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ cost-of-living calculator, which is based on the Consumer Price Index, one can compare costs from any two years during the past century. Not surprisingly, some figures have kept pace with inflation, while others have hit either side of the mark, dramatically so in a few instances.
Regardless of the era, rent accounts for a substantial portion of anyone’s monthly salary. In “Wonderful Town,” the Sherwood sisters rented a New York studio apartment in 1935 for $65 a month. That’s equivalent to $1,104 today, far below the current asking price of about $1,750 a month. Salary comparisons are no less telling. Stine, a novelist-turned-screenwriter in “City of Angels,” earned $5,000 a week in 1948. In today’s money, that would be worth a respectable $48,000.
In “Promises Promises,” a musical set in 1960s New York City, Chuck Baxter earned $112 a week as an insurance company accountant. He’d still be struggling today with his weekly paycheck of $880. As for a person’s net worth, consider Jimmy Smith, publisher of religious literature and Bibles in the 1925 musical “No No Nanette.” Having amassed around $750,000 then, he’d now be worth nearly $10 million.
Smaller purchases are no less dramatic by comparison. It only cost a nickel to ride the New York subway in 1933, the setting for the aforementioned “Annie.” That nickel is worth 90 cents today, a little more than one-third the cost of a current $2.50 subway fare. In “Wonderful Town,” you could buy an ice cream sundae for 19 cents or a banana split for 28 cents. Those figures jump to $3.23 and $4.76 respectively – not far off from what you’d spend for those sweet treats today.
The passage of time can similarly affect one’s perception of monetary issues. The 1933 marathon dancers in “Steel Pier” were competing for a $2,000 jackpot. That doesn’t sound like a huge sum until one learns that it would be worth nearly $36,000 today.
As for losing money, it’s tough regardless of the era. In “Damn Yankees,” the temptress Lola, a partner-in-crime with the devil, got some guy in Chicago to embezzle $100,000 and then lost it for him at the race track. The poor guy would have been out $868,000 in today’s money. Finally, there’s that famous line from “42nd Street,” in which audiences learn that the top ticket price for a 1933 Broadway musical was $4.40. Today, that figure is a manageable $78, about $70 short of what today’s top ticket would actually set you back.
“Money Isn’t Everything,” Oscar Hammerstein reminded us in “Allegro.” But, as the leering emcee tells us in “Cabaret,” whether you’re dealing with a mark, a yen, a buck or a pound, money makes the world go around.
Throughout much of the mid-20th century, the Broadway musical was primarily interested in storytelling. Writers therefore sought inspiration in literary sources: novels (“Don Quixote”), plays (“Pygmalion”), even short story collections (“The Stories of Damon Runyon”). And, thanks to some talented and persistent creative teams, each of those examples became a musical theater hit: “Man of La Mancha,” “My Fair Lady” and “Guys and Dolls,” respectively.
Today, Broadway is looking more and more to Hollywood in search of properties to musicalize. But few screenplays are well-suited to the demands of the musical theater. “42nd Street,” “The Producers” and “Once” are rare exceptions. This season’s “Kinky Boots” also appears destined for success. Far more common are critical and commercial screen-to-stage failures, including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” ”High Society,” “9 to 5,” “Cry-Baby” and “Catch Me If You Can.”
Undeterred by such setbacks, producers continue to mount stage versions of popular Hollywood films. Projects under discussion or in the works include “Dirty Dancing,” “Pretty Woman,” ”Moonstruck,” “Big Fish,” “Diner,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Rocky,” “Flashdance,” “Father of the Bride,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Robin and the Seven Hoods” and ”Pure Country.”
Another disturbing trend is the ever-growing list of pop songwriters who have decided to dabble in the theater. Paul Simon’s “The Capeman” was a miserable failure, as were Harry Connick Jr.’s “Thou Shalt Not” and several Frank Wildhorn musicals: ”The Civil War,” “Dracula,” “Wonderland” and “Bonnie & Clyde.” Unfortunately, Broadway has become a Catch-22 situation: Producers will only hire writers, composers and lyricists with proven track records. Newcomers, therefore, have a difficult time getting their work noticed.
With production costs skyrocketing and orchestra seats approaching the $150 mark today, Broadway is facing an uncertain future. One hopes that talented young writers will continue to make their voices heard, which, in turn, should ensure that this special art form will not just survive, but flourish.
Oklahomans are justifiably proud fact that their state song hails from a landmark 1943 American musical. And while no other state can make that claim, numerous other states have also been memorialized in song. Nearly half of the 50 states have no musical theater connection at all, but for those that do, few can compare favorably to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
In fact, many states are spoken of disparagingly. Consider “I’m Tired of Texas,” a song from “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” that refers to the Lone Star State as being “the rear end of the USA.” Montana gets similar treatment in the musical “Whoop Up.” The lyric suggests that Montana is “one-third rock and two-thirds dust” and goes on to say that “you live here only if you must.” In 2005, the Sooner State found its way into “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” a hit musical in which the singer poked fun at Oklahoma but also referred to it as “my little piece of heaven.”
Our neighbor Arkansas is unfortunately saddled with one of the musical theater’s most inane examples: a hokey two-step from the Huckleberry Finn-inspired “Big River.” Other states receive a mixture of praise and condemnation, including “Iowa Stubborn” from “The Music Man.” The townsfolk talk about their willingness to accept outsiders but then speak with pride about their “chip on the shoulder attitude.”
The Amish celebrate the bountiful fall harvest in “Plenty of Pennsylvania” (“Plain and Fancy”), while a boastful Richard Henry Lee tries to impress John Adams with the accomplishments of his venerable Virginia family in “The Lees of Old Virginia” (“1776″). In the Richard Rodgers musical “No Strings,” Maine gets a “Green Acres”-type number in which the romantic leads battle it out over where each prefers to live: he in rural Maine; she, north of Central Park in New York.
Texas can lay claim to a half-dozen show tunes, although neither “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It” nor “I’m Leavin’ Texas,” from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and its ill-fated sequel, do their state proud. New York has found its way into more than a dozen songs, most praising the joys of living there: “A Day in New York” (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), “You Can Be a New Yorker Too” (“Mayor”) and “When You’re Far Away from New York Town” (“Jennie”).
Several musical theater-related songs have impressive pedigrees thanks to the accomplishments of their composer/lyricists, from George and Ira Gershwin’s “Cactus Time in Arizona” to Irving Berlin’s “Louisiana Purchase.” And tuneful though they are, the songs “Gary, Indiana” (“The Music Man”), “Kansas City” (“Oklahoma!”), “Travelin’: In Louisiana” (“Sugar Babies”) and “New York, New York” (“On the Town”) can’t match “Oklahoma” for inspiration and sheer musical pleasure.
From “Little Mary Sunshine” and “Dames at Sea” to “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Urinetown,” the musical theater has taken great pleasure in poking fun at itself. Not surprisingly, countless other show titles have been subjected to considerable abuse, many of which perfectly sum up a show’s shortcomings. Here’s a sampling of a few ageless gems along with some newer classics.
Two musicals that failed to keep audiences engaged prompted the following: “The Red Shoes” was caustically nicknamed “The Red Snooze,” while “Nick and Nora” became known as “Nick and Snora.” In 1990, British pop star Michael Ball recreated his role as the amorous Alex Dillingham when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love” transferred to Broadway. But the actor’s noticeable weight gain prompted many visitors to rename the show “Aspects of Love Handles.”
Some musicals never managed to find their audiences. The ill-conceived stage adaptation of James Clavell’s “Shogun” became known as “Show Gone” after its sudden demise, while the one-performance run of “Dance a Little Closer” was quickly dubbed “Close a Little Faster.” Ethel Merman, the legendary singer who created the role of Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” headed a celebrated revival two decades later. But at 57, Merman was considered by many to be too long in the tooth to play the celebrated sharpshooter. The 1966 revival was thereafter known as “Granny Get Your Gun.”
A regional production of the Irving Berlin classic featured a leading lady who was cast in spite of her rather large frame. That resulted in the production being called “Annie Weighs a Ton.” “Dreamgirls,” the six-time Tony Award winner from 1981, told a tale that closely resembled The Supremes’ rise to fame. But Jennifer Holliday’s powerhouse voice led many to call the show “Screamgirls.”
Even the legendary musical “Show Boat” has had its detractors. Based on Edna Ferber’s epic novel about three generations of theatrical performers who traveled the Mississippi, the musical has had to endure the titles “Slow Boat” and “Boat Show.” Frank Wildhorn’s “Jekyll & Hyde” recently returned to Broadway but the reviews for the 2013 revival were no kinder than those it received after its 1997 debut. In one production of this troubled musical, the leading man was a multi-personality kind of guy who also tended to be rather sarcastic. Some dubbed the show “Heckle & Jekyll & Hyde.”
It just proves that regardless of subject matter, star stature or the talents of the creative team, when it comes to humor in the musical theater, nothing is sacred.
Yesterday, I put together a list of prominent Hollywood actors who took a break from their film or television careers to star in a Broadway musical. Today, the women get their due. Curiously, each performer has made but a single appearance in a Broadway musical.
Lucille Ball, the lovable redhead who became a television icon with her sitcoms “I Love Lucy” and “The Lucy Show,” played an Annie Oakley of the oil fields in the 1960 musical “Wildcat.” Celebrated for her big-screen appearances in “Gone With the Wind” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the winsome Vivien Leigh portrayed an exiled member of the Russian nobility in the now forgotten “Tovarich.”
In 1969, four-time Academy Award-winner Katherine Hepburn was enticed to portray the legendary couturier Coco Chanel in a musical bio written by Andre Previn and Alan J. Lerner. The show traced Chanel’s life from her impoverished beginnings to the leader of the fashion industry. Shelley Winters, an actress remembered for her roles in “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” played the Marx family matriarch in a failed 1970 musical titled “Minnie’s Boys.”
Although Bette Midler (“The Rose” and “Outrageous Fortune”) would ultimately divide her career between film and the concert stage, she briefly played Tzeitel in Broadway’s long-running hit “Fiddler on the Roof.” And Lillian Gish, who portrayed the daughter of an abolitionist leader in “The Birth of a Nation,” starred as the Dowager Empress of Russia in the 1965 musical “Anya.”
Baby boomers know Agnes Moorehead as Endora on the television sitcom “Bewitched,” but this imposing actress also appeared as Aunt Alicia in Lerner and Loewe’s 1973 stage adaptation of the musical “Gigi.” Although not primarily known for their screen roles, two performers deserve inclusion in this group: soprano Teresa Stratas took a sabbatical from the world of opera to star in “Rags,” a four-performance fiasco about the challenges faced by an immigrant family after their arrival in New York.
And Anna Maria Alberghetti, who appeared in the 1951 film “The Medium,” made her only Broadway musical appearance a decade later in “Carnival.” She won a Tony Award as Lili, the orphaned waif who joins the carnival and falls in love with a magician. Finally, there’s Rosalind Russell, the no-nonsense screen star remembered for her exuberance in “Auntie Mame” and “Gypsy.” Russell played Ruth Sherwood, a Midwestern girl trying to launch a literary career, in Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 stage musical “Wonderful Town.”
More recent examples include Allison Janney (“The West Wing”), who made her Broadway musical in the 2009 musical “9 to 5,” and Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”), who made her Broadway debut the same year and won a Tony Award for her role in the revival of “A Little Night Music.” Jane Lynch (“Best in Show,” “Glee”) will take over the role of Miss Hannigan in the Broadway revival of “Annie” this week.
If most noted performers tend to become strongly identified with either Broadway or Hollywood, a few, including Celeste Holm, Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Streisand and Julie Andrews, have managed to transition back and forth with ease. Today, far more performers tend to leave the Great White Way for Tinseltown, although a few notable examples of the reverse can be cited, some of whom may surprise all but the most astute theatergoer.
While most of these Hollywood notables were primarily thought of as screen actors, all explored the world of the stage even though each appeared in only a single Broadway musical. Long before Andy Griffith became known as Mayberry’s easy-going sheriff, he played a similar character in the Broadway production of “Destry Rides Again.” Anthony Perkins starred as a man struck by wanderlust in 1960′s “Greenwillow,” the same year he created the role of the evil Norman Bates in “Psycho.”
Many will be surprised to learn that Jackie Gleason won a Tony Award for his role as Sid Davis in “Take Me Along,” yet never received an Emmy for portraying Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” Christopher Plummer, an award-winning stage actor whose career will forever be associated with “The Sound of Music,” earned a 1973 Tony Award for his role as Cyrano de Bergerac in the musical “Cyrano.”
Although Alan Alda has starred in numerous television series, he’ll forever be remembered for his role as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H.” But this versatile actor also appeared in the musical “The Apple Tree.” And two of the big screen’s finest stars each took a break from films to star in musicals written by the distinguished songwriting team of Lerner and Loewe. Rex Harrison earned a Tony and an Oscar for his role as the unyielding Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” while Richard Burton gave a princely performance as King Arthur in “Camelot.”
Other notable actors who dabbled in the Broadway musical include Jack Klugman (“The Odd Couple” and “Quincy, M.E.”) in “Gypsy,” Sid Caesar (“Your Show of Shows”) in “Little Me,” Vincent Price (“The Fly” and “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”) in “Darling of the Day,” Burgess Meredith (“Of Mice and Men” and “Batman”) in “Johnny Johnson,” and F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus”) in the short-live musical “Triumph of Love.”
More recent examples include Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier”), who appeared in the 2010 Broadway revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” Sean Hayes (“Will and Grace”), who made his Broadway debut the same year in the revival of “Promises, Promises,” and Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”), who drew large crowds to watch him climb the corporate ladder in the 2011 revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Teachers of grammar have long cautioned against the overuse of the exclamation point, noting that if employed too frequently, it tends to lose its importance. Broadway hasn’t always taken heed, though, boasting nearly two dozen musicals with exclamation points. But just how many actually deserve this distinction? A look back through the decades reveals that some – “Red, Hot and Blue!” (1936), “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” (1948) and “Oh, Captain!” (1958) – failed to achieve substantial runs. With each running less than six months, the addition of an exclamation point to the title was perhaps ill advised.
An attempt to blend Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” with the music of Duke Ellington likewise failed to excite audiences. “Play On!” (1997) did anything but what its title suggested. Conversely, “Oklahoma!” (1943) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1964) together amassed more than 5,000 performances and remain two of the most popular musical theater titles in the catalog. “Drat! The Cat!” (1965) and “I Do! I Do!” (1966) opted for two exclamation points in their titles, but only the latter, with 561 performances, seems to have benefited from the additional punctuation.
Off-Broadway’s “Snoopy!!!” added a third exclamation mark, yet only survived five months. And with an unremarkable three performances, “Oh, Brother!” (1981) holds the record for the shortest run in this category. “Fiorello!” (1959), a musical that chronicled the events in the life of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, remains the only Pulitzer Prize winner in this select group.
Other musicals that celebrated larger than life personalities include “George M!” (1968), a retrospective on the life of actor/songwriter George M. Cohan; and “Eubie!” (1978), a musical biography of pianist and songwriter Eubie Blake. This exclamation mark phenomenon isn’t restricted to the United States. England’s contributions have included “Oliver!” (1960, United States 1963) and “Oh, What a Lovely War!” (1963). South Africa introduced American audiences to “Sarafina!” (1988).
The trend of adding exclamation points to show titles apparently began in 1924 with “Lady, Be Good!” No decade since has failed to include at least one such musical, the most recent being “Baby It’s You” (2011), a jukebox musical that featured the music of the 1960s pop group The Shirelles. The show only ran four months before closing.
Adding punctuation to a show’s title may be a useful marketing tool, but as documented here, such obvious embellishments are often an attempt to compensate for shortcomings that will almost certainly undermine the musical’s success.