We don’t usually get terribly sentimental about theaters, but in this case we must make an exception.
On September 29, the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street celebrated its hundredth anniversary. Considering that it’s always been the flagship for the all-important Shubert Organization, attention should be paid.
Although Othello opened the house, the Shubert has predominantly been a home to musicals. Its most famous tenant, of course, was its longest-running show: A Chorus Line, which stayed put for nearly fifteen years. It was indeed “One singular sensation” as the eleven o’clock number went. Shall we all play that song in celebration of the anniversary?
Don’t have it, either from the original or the 2006 revival cast album? Ninety-nine cents can bring it your way via digital download. And ninety-nine cents is an almost perfect way to celebrate one hundred years.
When A Chorus Line opened at the Shubert in 1975, its main competition was Chicago at the nearby 46th Street Theatre. And while the 1996 revival of Chicago opened at that same theater (which had since been renamed the Rodgers), it moved to the Shubert in early 1997. Had it stayed there and not sashayed to the Ambassador in 2003, it would now have outrun A Chorus Line as the longest-running Shubert tenant.
Oh, well, “But nothing stays” as Roxie and Velma sang in Chicago’s brass-tacks eleven o’clock number “Nowadays” — which is also well worth ninety-nine cents. And would Ann Reinking have ever believed when she replaced Gwen Verdon in 1977 that she’d someday get the chance to record her Roxie on a new album nearly twenty years later?
“In fifty years or so, it’s gonna change, you know,” Roxie and Velma sang – and, oh, were they ever correct about musical theater. Fifty years ago last week, Here’s Love celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Shubert by opening there. Meredith Willson’s musicalization of Miracle on 34th Street involved a mother who wanted to protect her daughter from any illusions; today, the musical at the Shubert involves a mother and father who couldn’t care less about their daughter.
Your ninety-nine cents would be well-spent on “Here’s Love,” the show’s intoxicating title song. Willson had Kris Kringle imagine a world in which rivals wished each other well, such as “CBS to NBC,” “Cinderella to her sisters” and plenty of others.
Of course, any fifty-year-old song is going to have some dated then-involved topical references. “L&M to Lucky Strike” shows how pervasive smoking once was. And yet, while Nikita (Khrushchev, once premier of the Soviet Union), the Eisenhowers and Elizabeth Taylor are no longer with us, Fidel Castro still is, lo these many decades later.
The song also mentions one other departed soul of note, although he’s only referred to by his famous initials: JFK. Sad to say, along with Here’s Love’s fiftieth anniversary, we’ll soon mark the same milestone for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. When Willson wrote the song, the president was alive and well, and so he included him in a lyric. Only 51 days after Here’s Love opened on Oct. 3, 1963, Willson had to change the lyric “JFK to U.S. Steel” to “CIA to U.S. Steel.” The original lyric, however, remains on the cast album.
In 1974, while Over Here! was playing the Shubert, its backstage was fiery, because The Andrews Sisters were bitterly fighting over money; Patty believed that she was entitled to more than Maxene. Any bad blood between the sisters can’t be gleaned from the original cast album, in which the siblings seem to be having a wonderful time, especially when singing the boogie-woogie-filled title tune.
Still, if you only have ninety-nine free cents in your budget, spend it on “The Good-Time Girl,” a rollicking polka that Patty delivers. It’s one of those songs with an obfuscating title so that no theatergoer could know the title in advance and have the song’s big joke spoiled for him. What “The Good-Time Girl” doesn’t want anyone to know is the name of a medical affliction that Patty probably wished on Maxene.
Sondheim’s most famous song had its New York debut at the Shubert, where “Send in the Clowns” graced the second act of A Little Night Music. You probably already have a recording of that song, given that it’s now enjoyed 900-plus renderings ranging from A(ngela Lansbury on A Stephen Sondheim Evening) to Z(arah Leander, the German singer who immortalized “Wo sind die Clowns”).
So what should you choose from Night Music? You’ll get more bang for your almost-a-buck if you spend your ninety-nine cents on “A Weekend in the Country,” the show’s hellishly clever Act One closer. It weighs in at six minutes and forty-one seconds, which comes down to more than four seconds of music for each penny.
Conversely, if you buy the forty-eight-second “Rumson Creek” from Paint Your Wagon – incidentally, another show that played the Shubert — you’d be paying more than two cents for every second. (Good song, though.)
With “A Weekend in the Country,” we’re not simply talking about quantity over quality; Sondheim was at the height of his interior rhyming powers (“And be hopelessly shattered by Saturd-ay night”) and his ability to characterize — such as when young Anne, terribly jealous of her rival, mock-innocently asks “Is that a relation to the decrepit Desirée?”
Only two weeks after A Little Night Music debuted on Feb. 25, 1973 came one of the most exciting nights at the Shubert, when Broadway officially acknowledged its newest genius. Sondheim: A Musical Tribute was a one-night-only affair on March 11, 1973 that was happily recorded.
The biggest surprise on the song list was seeing “We’re Gonna Be All Right” (from Do I Hear a Waltz? ). On the original cast album that song, in which a married couple decided to forget the past and look to the future, was at best a time-killer. But on the tribute album, Laurence Guittard (the original Carl-Magnus in Night Music) and Teri Ralston (the original Jenny in Company) showed us what had originally been on Sondheim’s mind.
He’d written a long and incisive verse about a couple’s marital difficulties that, along with some lyrics in the main section, had been cut long before the Boston tryout. (“Sometimes she drinks in bed; sometimes he’s homosexual.”) The music that Richard Rodgers provided for that verse was pretty felicitous, too. But Rodgers, who was the show’s producer, worried about alienating an audience that would mostly consist of heterosexual couples. (It was 1965, after all.)
But wait! While you’ve heard “I’m Still Here” a million times, have you ever heard it done by Nancy Walker? Of all the renditions I’ve ever heard, this is the best. That may surprise, for Walker was best known as Rhoda Morganstern’s acerbic mother and Rosie, a waitress on Bounty paper towel commercials. But what power and panache she brings to Sondheim’s best out-of-town song replacement.
Which of the two should you choose? Let’s put it this way: there was once a humiliatingly awful TV program called The $1.98 Beauty Show. If you really want beauty for $1.98, choose both songs.
Barbara Harris had her all-too-soon Broadway swan song at the Shubert in The Apple Tree – and won a 1966-67 Tony for her troubles. What’s interesting is that in each of Harris’s Broadway musicals – this and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever – the super-versatile actress played more than one role. What great opportunities to show range, of which Harris had plenty. In Clear Day (at the nearby Hellinger), she was both the austere and elegant Melinda Wells and her reincarnated flibberty-gibbet self Daisy Gamble. In The Apple Tree, which consisted of three one-act musicals, Harris got to play Eve, the real first lady of the land; Barbara (accent on the second syllable), the princess who’d choose either the lady or the tiger for her beloved; Ella, a chimneysweep with visions of grandeur and Passionella, a beautiful, glamorous, radiant, ravishing movie star.
So splurge for $3.96 and hear Eve’s plaintive “What Makes Me Love Him?” about you-know-who; Barbara’s double-entendre-laden “I’ve Got What You Want”; Ella’s wistful “Oh, To Be a Movie Star” and Passionella’s “Gorgeous” – all to see the wonder that was Harris.
More Shubert singles? Spend ninety-nine cents on “Honest Man” (Bajour); “Who Can I Turn To?” (The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd); “I’m Going Back” (Bells Are Ringing); the title song of Take Me Along; Barbra Streisand’s breakthrough Broadway debut as “Miss Marmelstein” in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, and “7½ Cents” (The Pajama Game).
Expert Broadway historians may question the last-named, for they know that The Pajama Game played the St. James. Indeed it did open there and stayed there for eighteen months before moving to the Shubert – for all of twelve more days and sixteen more performances. Why did producers Robert E. Griffiths and Harold S. Prince (as the latter was known in those days) even bother? By that point, the show was probably grossing about seven-and-a-half cents.
The Shubert has been a second or third home to many transfers, including Kiss Me, Kate, which spent its entire last year there. From that musical, there’s no other possible ninety-nine cent choice than “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” – for it includes the lyric “a show typically Shuberty.”