A couple of weeks ago, I trumpeted the Tony-winning musicals that can be heard thanks to Masterworks Broadway.
And how about Tony-LOSERS in the Best Musicals category?
These have been on my mind because of – here comes some shameless self-promotion – my new book called Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award.
As it turned out, I had a word-limit that precluded me from putting in every observation I would have liked. So here are ten from worthy Tony-losers that are available on Masterworks Broadway:
1. The cover says “Stuart Ostrow presents Barbara Harris, Larry Blyden, Alan Alda in The Apple Tree.” Indeed, that was the billing when the show opened on October 18, 1966 – but it wasn’t a month later.
Ah, you’re thinking, there’d been a cast replacement. No. Harris, Blyden and Alda were still in place, but the billing went Larry Blyden, Alan Alda and Barbara Harris.
In a quite unorthodox move, Ostrow had decided to rotate the billing on a month-to-month basis. So in December, the billing became Alan Alda, Barbara Harris, Larry Blyden. Then it returned to the first line-up in January 1967 — and so on.
2. Jekyll & Hyde not only outran the four musicals that the 1996-1997 Tony nominating committee favored, but, at 1,543 performances, it also ran longer than all four of that season’s Best Musical nominees combined: Titanic (the winner, 804), The Life (466), Steel Pier (seventy-six) and Juan Darien (forty-nine) – making for a just-shy total of 1,395.
3. James Lapine’s original plan for Sunday in the Park with George was to have the show’s second act take place in the present day (what was then 1984) in Gallery 205 where the actual Seurat masterpiece has been displayed since 1924 – which would have been the sixtieth anniversary of the painting’s being exhibited there. He and Sondheim would concentrate on the interaction among the people who were looking at the painting. But when the collaborators visited Gallery 205, they noticed that no one ever really spoke. Such was the power of the painting.
4. In 1967, when Carolyn Leigh was writing the lyrics to How Now, Dow Jones, she must have thought twice before finalizing a line in “A Little Investigation.” Did she dare have business mogul William Wingate (eventual Tony-winner Hiram Sherman) warn a senator “The first thing you know, some young Kennedy succeeds you.”?
Leigh had to take pause, because merely fewer than four years had passed since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But she obviously felt that with his surviving brothers Robert and Teddy on the scene, there were enough Kennedys left to support the joke.
Alas, on June 6, 1968, while How Now was still running, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Leigh changed the lyric to “The first thing you know, some young upshot’ll succeed you.” Clumsy? Yes – but Leigh knew that How Now only had nine more days to run.
5. In his 1960 book The World of Musical Comedy, Stanley Green wrote that Bob Merrill “has been setting the dramas of Eugene O’Neill to music.” Although Merrill did turn O’Neill’s Anna Christie into New Girl in Town and Ah, Wilderness! into Take Me Along, conventional wisdom says it takes three to make a trend.
Green jumped the gun, for Merrill never did get around to musicalizing The Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra, Long Day’s Journey into Night or any other O’Neill.
Still, considering the worth of both New Girl in Town and Take Me Along, we do have to wonder if Merrill could have stretched himself enough to try a genuine O’Neill masterpiece.
And while we’re on the subject of Take Me Along, its title song turned out to be popular enough to provide the melody for a presidential campaign. When our thirty-seventh chief executive was seeking re-election, his daughters Julie and Tricia were often seen on a bandstand banging tambourines and singing, “Nixon’s the One! Nixon’s the One!”
6. Harold Prince has been nominated for fourteen Tony Awards that he’s lost – and nineteen more that he’s won. In his 1974 memoir Contradictions, he stated that “I don’t think that a show will run longer than Fiddler’s 3,242 performances.” Today, if Fiddler of the Roof’s 3,242 were added to later champ Cats’ 7,485, the total wouldn’t even add up to as many performances as The Phantom of the Opera has played. Little did Prince know that he’d direct that musical, which would run more than three times as long as the Fiddler that he’d produced.
7. In 1959, Bye Bye Birdie, which dealt with rock ‘n’ roll (as rock was then known), was being created by Broadway three neophytes: bookwriter Michael Stewart, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams.
“So imagine how we felt,” says Strouse, “when we read in the paper that Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were doing a musical about rock ‘n’ roll, too – one that would be directed by Garson Kanin and produced by David Merrick. I told my partners, ‘We’re sunk. Now ours will never get on.’”
Yes, Do Re Mi would be the work of Broadway royalty: Kanin not only had written Born Yesterday (then the fifth-longest-running play in Broadway history) but had also directed The Diary of Anne Frank. Styne, Comden and Green had already proved a formidable trio, having created Bells Are Ringing from scratch and rescuing Peter Pan by writing eight new songs during the San Francisco tryout. Comden and Green also had On the Town and Wonderful Town to their credit, while Styne, who’d composed the hits High Button Shoes and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was just coming off Gypsy.
But Birdie did get on, arriving on Broadway eight months before Do Re Mi. And while Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera are no slouches, Do Re Mi had more 1960 star-power with Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker. Give Comden and Green credit, too, for incorporating Silvers’ sobriquets “Hello, hello!” as well as “Funny? Funny?” and “Baby, how-are-ya?!” into their lyrics.
The Do Re Mi team eventually enjoyed better reviews for their eventual Tony-losing show than the Birdie contingency did for their eventual Tony-winner. Both have equally fine scores.
8. I once asked Comden and Green about their song “It’s a Perfect Relationship” in Bells Are Ringing. Had they purposely chosen the non-exchange “Plaza-0” to ensure that they wouldn’t be citing someone’s phone number — much the way authors use “555” today? They said that indeed they had.
For the record, these days “Plaza-0, double-four, double three” – or, more accurately, 212-750-4433 — belongs to HighTech Backup, a company that no one saw coming when Bells opened in 1956.
9. Perhaps you never heard of Judy Tyler, but she had to be one of the fastest-rising stars in the history of show business. By the age of 24, Tyler could claim to have worked with Rodgers and Hammerstein as the ingénue in Pipe Dream, co-starred with Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock and played Princess Summerfall Winterspring in the daily Howdy Doody broadcasts.
In Evita, Che says to Ms. Peron, “A shame you did it all at 26.” A far sadder tragedy was that Tyler couldn’t even reach that age. On the 4th of July, 1957, only days after she’d finished filming Jailhouse Rock, she and her husband were driving through Wyoming and got into a car crash that killed them both.
Their destination had been New York. While Tyler may just have been returning home to pack up and move to Hollywood, she may well have wanted to resume her career on Broadway. If so, we can only imagine in how many Best Musical Tony-winners AND losers she might have starred. Tyler might have even stayed around long enough to play Madame Armfeldt in the 2009-2010 revival of A Little Night Music.
10. Jamaica’s star was supposed to have been Harry Belafonte. Composer Harold Arlen, lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and the latter’s frequent bookwriter-collaborator Fred Saidy started writing Pigeon Island, in which Koli, a young fisherman is happy with his life. His girlfriend Savannah, however, feels that fish is not her favorite perfume; she wants the bright lights of Manhattan.
Once Belafonte declined, the authors switched leading characters in mid-stream and centered on Savannah. Given that Lena Horne played her, producer David Merrick had a hit with the public but not the critics. “Jamaica,” said Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune, “is the kind of musical that leads you to wonder whether it was produced simply because all concerned had such high, happy hopes for the original cast album.”
(Well, it did turn out to be a terrific recording.)