Mary Martin? Audra McDonald? Patti LuPone? Bernadette Peters? Angela Lansbury? Ethel Merman?
Over the years, I’ve heard many claim that one of these performers is The First Lady of Musical Theater.
But here’s a question.
If for all these years we’ve had a First Lady of Musical Theater, why haven’t we had a President of Musical Theater, too?
Who’s ever heard of a First Lady with no President?
So, if there had been a President of Musical Theater, who would that have been? Well, hardly a man or woman is now alive who saw the superstars of the 1920s and 1930s. At least original cast albums, which basically started in the 1940s, can give us some nominees from that era.
Alfred Drake would have been a logical favorite son, thanks to his three “K” musicals. The first, KISS ME, KATE, showed his bravado and braggadocio superbly in “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua.” Later he exhibited that he could be unexpectedly funny in “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” just in the way he sang “Alice.” He mewed out the name in such a silly voice that we hadn’t heard him use all recording long. Drake would have almost made a listener think that some comic had come in and dubbed for him.
In KISMET, Drake played a poet who greatly believed in his ability with the spoken word: “Rhymes Have I,” he insisted to anyone who’d listen. The many characters on stage didn’t, but we certainly still do.
Once again, after The Poet (whose real name we never know) was challenged to rhyme “dromedary” and could only manage “very hairy,” Drake’s trademark bravado and braggadocio once again disappeared replaced by a meek “Very sorry.”
Then came KEAN. The least known of the three has a cast album that shows it’s a most worthy musical. Drake played Edmund Kean (1787-1833), an actor so great that he was considered, as one song goes, “The King of London” – which is why a President of Musical Theater would have to play him and sing him.
Drake provided a powerful voice in the bolt-of-lightning balled “Sweet Danger” and retained his comic touch in “Civilized People.” In the latter, Kean encountered two women who both had their eyes on him, which made each want to scratch the other’s out. Drake was the referee who had to defuse this free-for-all.
Another President of Musical Theater in the making would be John Cullum. Just as many politicians work themselves up the ranks, Cullum had a small role in his first Broadway musical: CAMELOT, where he played Sir Dinadan.
(If you know the cast album – easily one of Broadway’s most elegant – you probably can’t read the words “Sir Dinadan” without hearing them in Julie Andrews’ voice in “Then You May Take Me to the Fair.” Ah, she would have easily been a First Lady of Musical Theater had she stayed with us, instead of egregiously choosing to work in Hollywood.)
Cullum’s big break came when he succeeded the not-so-good Louis Jourdan in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. How beautifully he sang the esteemed title song and the haunting waltz “Melinda.” However, his next two musicals showed that he was presidential timber.
In SHENANDOAH, Cullum was Charlie Anderson, a 19th-century pacifist when his fellow Virginians wanted a Civil War. Charlie’s songs ranged from angry (“I’ve Heard It All Before,” his views on the futility of war) to tender (“The Pickers Are Coming,” about losing his daughters to those young men who stop by the house) to exuberant (“It’s a Boy,” a prediction he makes about his about-to-be-born grandchild, who turns out to be a girl).
Charlie’s centerpiece, though, was “Meditation,” where he twice went to his late wife’s resting spot to tell her what was on his mind. The “Meditations” alone might have swept him into office as President of Musical Theater, but failing that, he was at least the 1974-75 Best Actor in a Musical Tony winner.
How fitting that the next time Broadway saw Cullum, his opening song was “I Rise Again” – for that’s just what he did in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, for which he won the 1977-78 Best Actor in a Musical Tony. True, in the terrific Cy Coleman/Comden and Green musical, down-on-his luck impresario Oscar Jaffee means he’ll rise again in a big comeback. Cullum hasn’t needed one to this very day, appearing in WAITRESS in 2017, a full 60 years after his first Broadway appearance.
Should performers who only did a musical or two be presidential candidates? Only if they’d stuck around the theater district and had done substantially more singing and dancing.
Rex Harrison is a good case in point. He received raves for Lerner and Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY after delivering those cantankerous songs so unapologetically: “Why Can’t the English?,” “I’m an Ordinary Man,” and “A Hymn to Him.” He followed those by showing us a completely different Henry Higgins in the poignant “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
But Harrison, an ostensible shoo-in, would have an administration that, at best, would have been limited to one term. Although Harrison would make nine more Broadway appearances in the next 30 years, none was in a new musical. At best, he would have been a one-term wonder.
So would the star from the next Lerner and Loewe musical: Richard Burton as King Arthur in CAMELOT. His wonderful stentorian tones served the score very well, especially in the title song where he explained, “how conditions are.” This is one King who would have been elected President had he, too, had stayed around.
When William Daniels did 1776, he turned down the chance to win a 1968-69 Tony after he was placed in the Featured Actor in a Musical category instead of the one celebrating leading actors. Billing was the issue, but come on – when you have something to sing or say in nine of a show’s dozen numbers, is that a lead, or what?
What a shame that Daniels didn’t do more musicals, for based on what he accomplished here, he would have been a worthy President of Musical Theater. Oh, well, at least the character Daniels played in 1776 – one John Adams – did wind up as President.
Every musical theater enthusiast knows that opera star Ezio Pinza made a big splash in SOUTH PACIFIC, but few remember that he followed it with equally fine vocalizing in FANNY. “Welcome Home,” he sang, just as theatergoers did exactly that with this potential President in his last Broadway appearance.
Before we close, let’s not forget Robert Preston. Some years after he had unexpectedly burst onto the musical theater scene as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN and won the 1957-58 Best Actor in a Musical Tony, he won another for I DO! I DO!
One could argue that playing husband Michael in this musical represented a greater achievement. After all, in THE MUSIC MAN, Preston was the main event in only four numbers and shared a single duet (that future Beatles hit “Till There Was You”). In I DO! I DO! Preston was required to partake of 15 of the score’s 19 songs. Highlights included his solos in “I Love My Wife” (when he was still in the honeymoon phase of his marriage), “It’s a Well-Known Fact” (when he wasn’t any longer) and when he’s forced to be “The Father of the Bride.”
That last one really shouldn’t be that song’s title. “The Father of the Bride” obfuscates what the song is really about, lest theatergoers learn in advance from their Playbills the real title, which would have given away the joke: “My Daughter Is Marrying an Idiot.”
One reason for Preston’s heavy workload is that I DO! I DO! is a two-character musical. Preston’s co-star was the aforementioned Mary Martin, who one-upped him by appearing in 16 songs.
But wait! Why not Mary Martin as President? Just because no female politician has shattered the glass ceiling and reached The White House, that doesn’t mean that one of our First Ladies of the American Theater couldn’t be or couldn’t have become President of the American Theater.
So, whom would you like to see as President? Mary Martin? Audra McDonald? Patti LuPone? Bernadette Peters? Angela Lansbury? Ethel Merman?
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.