So how are we celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Robinson Crusoe, Jr.?
The musical that opened at the Winter Garden on Feb. 17, 1916 was a riff on Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 novel. Although Defoe’s work would ultimately become simply known as Robinson Crusoe, its actual title was substantially longer.
Take a deep breath now: The Life and Strange Surprizing (sic) Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.
And you thought that Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed was a long title …
The unexpurgated title pretty much sums up the book, although it doesn’t mention Crusoe’s befriending an island native: Friday. That wasn’t his real name, but Robinson dubbed him that because he found him on a Friday.
Because Robinson Crusoe, Jr. was a vehicle for Broadway’s first super-duper-star Al Jolson, you might assume that he played the title role. No, Jolson portrayed Gus, chauffeur to Henry Westbury, who falls asleep and dreams that he’s Crusoe and that Gus is Friday.
It sounds like mindless fun, which leads to another surprise: Sigmund Romberg, whom we usually associate with romantic operettas, wrote the score – or at least much of it. (You can also get a feel for Romberg in The Girl in Pink Tights, which he was writing just before his death and was finished by crackerjack orchestrator Don Walker.)
Jolson wanted some snazzier numbers than Romberg was able to provide, and in those days, whatever Jolson wanted, Jolson got. So soon the score included “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?”
Hey, I say wherever they went and whatever they did, it was their business. Who were they hurting?
But imagine being all that time away from civilization – which to our minds, of course, means Broadway. If Robinson Crusoe III were a musical theater enthusiast and returned today from some distant outpost after a twenty-eight year exile, think of all he’d have missed since February 17, 1988.
To paraphrase a song from a show he did know – Bye Bye Birdie – Robinson Crusoe III would have a lot of listenin’ to do. Even if he’d caught Chess in London in 1986 or 1987, he’d be thrilled to encounter “Someone Else’s Story,” the glorious new song written for Broadway. Although he would have known most of the Gershwin songs collected in Crazy for You, he would have been as overjoyed as the rest of us to discover the jaunty “What Causes That?”– the treasure interpolated from Treasure Girl.
Crazy for You was a revisal of the 1930 Gershwinner Girl Crazy, which had been produced long before Robinson’s birth. But Robinson would have certainly known Cabaret and have been as stunned as the rest of us by its 1998 revisal. Wouldn’t he too be impressed when he heard Alan Cummings’ dynamic new take on The Emcee? It’s now the way that every performer tackles the role.
Robinson would have to catch up with a peck of good ol’ fashioned revival cast albums, too. Wouldn’t he laugh long and hard when he heard that note in “Sue Me” that Nathan Lane and Faith Prince held for five seconds in hectoring each other in the 1992 Tony- and Grammy-winning Guys and Dolls? In the 1995 How to Succeed revival, he’d also appreciate the droll reprise of “Been a Long Day” that went missing from the original 1961 recording.
Would Robinson have ever believed that a revival of Chicago would have been around for more than half the time he’s been away? If he remembered the 1975-76 Tony race when A Chorus Line was greatly responsible for Chicago’s winning nary a single trophy, he’d be astonished to hear that the Fosse-Kander-Ebb musical passed that hit’s 6,137-performance run five years ago and has now become the second-longest-running show in Broadway history. Had he been a fan of Chicago’s original cast album (and we all are), he’d be even happier that the 1998 Grammy-winning revival cast album includes Velma’s “I Know a Girl” and the expanded “Nowadays” and “Hot Honey Rag.”
Robinson would have already known that Edward Kleban was a fine lyricist, thanks to A Chorus Line, which in 1988 was the longest-running show in Broadway history. (O tempora! O mores! It’s now in sixth place!) Robinson wouldn’t have necessarily known, however, that Kleban was an expert composer too, for none of his other musicals ever saw the light of day or lighting designers. Bless Lonny Price and Linda Klein for finally letting us hear Kleban’s lyrics and music in twenty different songs in their 2000 biomusical A Class Act. The standout here is “Next Best Thing to Love” with a beautiful melody complementing one of musical theater’s most profound lyrics.
Encores! didn’t start until 1994, so Robinson wouldn’t know about this wondrous series that yielded the new, much fuller and crisper Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. No, he wouldn’t get the irony that Megan Hilty, who’d just played Marilyn Monroe in Bombshell in the Smash TV series, would be the new Lorelei Lee, a role associated with Monroe. (Although if Robinson were really a Broadway baby, he’d first and foremost think of Carol Channing in the role.)
Of the new shows, Robinson would be most interested in Assassins, given that it was written by Stephen Sondheim. What he’d find is a late-career masterpiece featuring ten dynamic songs. But he’d be equally stunned with “November 22, 1963,” the harrowing scene in which Lee Harvey Oswald is convinced to kill President John F. Kennedy. Every one of John Weidman’s words counts in one of the best-written scenes in the history of musicals, boasting not an ounce of fat on it.
Think of all the beautiful songs that the last three-almost-decades have given us that Robinson has missed. Let’s start with Sweet Smell of Success’ “I Cannot Hear the City.” It’s the centerpiece of Marvin Hamlisch’s final Broadway score (unless The Nutty Professor does get to The Main Stem, as we’re all hoping). We can assume Sweet Smell is not expert lyricist Craig Carnelia’s final Broadway score; he has a new show that will be produced this summer in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Robinson would have to be impressed by one of the finest torch songs that Broadway has ever known: “With Every Breath I Take” from the 1989-90 Tony-winning City of Angels. Of all the Broadway composers we’ve ever had, Cy Coleman was easily the most qualified to write jazz-infused music for a film noir parody.
And to think that only eighteen months later in 1991 Coleman gave us the Tony- and Grammy-winning The Will Rogers Follies. No matter how rickety Robinson Crusoe III would have been from a lack of vitamins and good nutritious food, the joyous polka that is “Our Favorite Son” might make him leap out of his chair and onto the dance floor.
But there have been so many wonderful show songs in the last twenty-eight years! He’d revel in the joy of “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” Grand Hotel’s great eleven o’clock number. There’s that trinity of hits in the Tony- and Grammy-winning Hairspray: “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” “Welcome to the ‘60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” And even some less-than-smash-hit shows have some nifty nuggets worth recommending: Peter Allen’s Hellinger-closing Legs Diamond has one: “Cut of the Cards.” My Favorite Year has two: “Twenty Million People, the opening number, and the title song, the final song.
That brings us to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who delivered one of the greatest musicals of at least the last twenty-eight years: Ragtime.
Robinson would appreciate that they had to write for three different classes of people – Jews, Blacks and WASPS – and that they succeeded in creating three different and distinct sounds while replicating a long-ago era. The team got it beautifully and stirringly right from each waltz to (of course) ragtime song.
Wouldn’t Robinson tap along to “Crime of the Century” a razz-ma-tazz vaudeville number, and revel in Coalhouse and Sarah’s happiness in “Wheels of a Dream” (and marvel at how well it was sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald)? He’d admire the beautiful subtext of “Our Children,” where Mother and the Baron sing about their kids bonding when they’re bonding, too. Wouldn’t he swoon, too, at “Back to Before,” not just because of Marin Mazzie’s galvanic rendition, but also from the song’s message and implications.
Speaking of Ragtime, let’s also give Robinson the show that put Ahrens and Flaherty on the Broadway map: Once on This Island. When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe that so many magnificent songs were coming at me one after the other: “Waiting for Life,” “Forever Yours,” “Ti Moune,” “Mama Will Provide,” “Some Say,” “The Human Heart” – I was on sensory overload. So too will Robinson.
Wait — would Robinson Crusoe III even consider listening to a show called Once on This Island after a twenty-eight year stretch in which he feared he’d be marooned on an island once and for all?
No, I’ll bet that as soon as he heard the first intoxicating notes of “We Dance,” Robinson Crusoe III might listen to Once on This Island on a regular basis for at least the next twenty-eight years – just like the rest of us.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.