SOME DO BETTER, SOME DON’T By Peter Filichia
ON THE TOWN only ran fifty-three performances?!?
And FINIAN’S RAINBOW, a mere fifty-five?
As staggering as those numbers are, how about thirty-eight for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS? And wouldn’t you expect that YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, that mainstay of high school and community theater, would have done better than a scant 116? Good grief!
There must be some mistake, you say. Well, yes and no. These figures aren’t for these classic musicals’ Broadway runs, but for the first productions that London saw of these American musical hits.
In New York, ON THE TOWN ran a solid 462. ONCE UPON A MATTRESS racked up a healthy 470. FINIAN’S RAINBOW bettered them both at 725. All have had a Broadway revival or two (or more).
True, CHARLIE BROWN amassed its 1,597 performances at a theater that only had 160 seats. Still, you’d think this musical with a great brand name would have secured at least fifteen months rather than fifteen weeks.
Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Dan Taylor, the Arts & Entertainment Writer for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, covers the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center there. He asked Benjamin L. Clark, its curator, who answered, “From what I understand, daily newspaper comic strips were not all that popular in the UK at that time.”
Sounds as if Schulz made peanuts from PEANUTS over there. And so it follows that Clark Gesner, the bookwriter-composer-lyricist of the 1967 smash-hit, wouldn’t be able to afford Macadamia nuts if he had to depend on the London run at the theater whose name mocked the results: The Fortune.
All right – but Londoners were certainly familiar with Shakespeare, so THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE, YOUR OWN THING and KISS ME, KATE should have prospered. They were respectively inspired by The Bard’s THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, TWELFTH NIGHT and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Yet none of these musicals did nearly as well over there as they did here.
KISS ME, KATE ran an even 400 – less than forty percent of the Broadway run. Granted, it didn’t have Alfred Drake in it (who, as the cast album proves, is marvelous) but it did retain the equally wonderful Patricia Morison from the Broadway edition. An added bonus was Julie Wilson as Lois. If you doubt her presence was a plus, check her out on JIMMY and LEGS DIAMOND. Then you’ll understand.
YOUR OWN THING was an off-Broadway hit in 1968 that came close to running 1,000 performances. It even landed a $750,000 movie sale (not that the film was ever made). The then-contemporary, then-up-to-date version of TWELFTH NIGHT profits from Danny Apolinar and Hal Hester’s melodious, great-fun score. Perhaps the British version only lasted sixty-five performances because London theatergoers, far more familiar with hometown hero Shakespeare and his 1601 hit, resented that Apolinar and Hester unceremoniously dropped such famous characters as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio (with and without his crossed-gartered yellow stockings).
Despite a stunning Rodgers and Hart score (“This Can’t Be Love,” “Falling in Love with Love,” “Sing for Your Supper”), THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE just made it to an even 100 – fewer than half the performances notched at the Alvin – the theater now known as the Neil Simon.
Speaking of him, Simon’s SWEET CHARITY at the Prince of Wales Theatre almost matched the run at our Palace: 484 to 608. Not doing nearly as well there as here was his PROMISES, PROMISES: 560 to 1,281. It too was at the Prince of Wales, which may mean that the house just isn’t hospitable to our hits. FOSSE ran only half as long there, and when THE FULL MONTY was its tenant, it could only manage a third of the Broadway run.
However, when Simon’s LITTLE ME – with music by CHARITY composer Cy Coleman – had its first London revisal in 1984 at that same Prince of Wales Theatre, it ran 334 performances – virtually ten times more than the thirty-six that the same version had on Broadway in 1982. And here’s a fun fact: LITTLE ME’s original 1964 London production ran the same 334 performances.
Not on Broadway, though, although Simon gave it one of the funniest books in musical theater history (with just-as-witty lyrics by Carolyn Leigh). The 1962 original could only muster 257 performances at our Lunt-Fontanne.
How could that be, you ask? Critics gave such raves as “a happy holiday of a show” (Kerr, Herald Tribune), “sumptuous success” (McLain, Journal American) and “Coleman’s music is solid and driving” (Nadel, World Telegram & Sun)? Granted, Howard Taubman of the Times didn’t quite agree, but even he admitted that “it glows with show business savvy.”
No, the problem was that star Sid Caesar was, to put it charitably, not well. Many have told the tale of attending LITTLE ME early in the run and being thrilled by Caesar’s multi-character performance and then upon a return visit, wondering “WHAT is he doing up there?”
In his memoir, WHERE HAVE I BEEN?, Caesar explained: “The doctors gave me pills to wean me from the booze – except that I took the pills by the handful and washed them down with the booze.”
Well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor: a shortened run that kept LITTLE ME from profiting. We must be thankful that Caesar recorded the cast album only a week after the raves hit the stands; his excellent performance on it suggests that he left the barbiturates and bourbon at home.
Lerner and Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY, which is set in London, ran longer on Broadway (2,717 to 2,281), although the London cast album eventually sold better. That may seem odd, given that Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Stanley Holloway and Robert Coote were all on the original Broadway cast album.
Ah, but that one was only released in monaural sound. By the time FAIR LADY opened in London, stereo had become the norm. Those who didn’t have it were considered parvenus on the level of Eliza Dolittle in her rine in Spine days.
On the other hand, two previous Lerner and Loewe shows did better in London than on Broadway. BRIGADOON entertained 102 more audiences (685 to 583); could it be because Scotland is a fond neighbor and much closer than it is to New York?
PAINT YOUR WAGON amassed 477 there and only 289 here. Considering that it deals with our Wild West, why would it be of more than moderate interest to the British? Was it the character named Edgar Crocker, an Englishman who enjoyed being in California during the Gold Rush days? Or perhaps they just enjoyed the superior score. (You’d never know that composer Loewe, seeming so at home here with Western and Mexican sounds, was born in Berlin.)
THE SOUND OF MUSIC did much better in London (2,386 to our 1,443) as did one other classic, blue-chip title. WEST SIDE STORY thrived through 1,039 performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where, ironically enough, George Chakiris, the Oscar-winning Bernardo in the 1961 classic film, played Riff. On Broadway, it played 732.
Wait, you say, co-producer Hal Prince readily admitted that he and his partner Robert E. Griffith closed it too soon, and brought it back for an additional 249. Yes, but add those two runs together and you still won’t get a higher total than the single London run.
So at least one musical based on a Shakespeare play did better in London, for WEST SIDE STORY was an update of The Bard’s ROMEO AND JULIET. Yes, of course you knew that, but that needs to be acknowledged because nowhere on the marquee, window card, cast albums or soundtrack of the Laurents-Bernstein-Sondheim masterpiece has Shakespeare even been credited.
Well, there’s nothing he could ever do about it, for he’s never returned as a ghost as did Hamlet’s daddy and Banquo in MACBETH.
(We’re not in a theater; it’s okay).
Even if Shakespeare did reappear and there were no such thing as a statute of limitations, he might have a hard time getting a barrister to take his case. Many have taken umbrage at his quip “Let’s kill all the lawyers” in HENRY VI, PART TWO – a play that has undoubtedly run longer in London, given that it’s yet to have a Broadway production.
Needless to say, it hasn’t had a musical version, either. Too bad, for I’d like to hear a song called “Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.” As Adelaide cries out at the end of “Take back Your Mink” in GUYS AND DOLLS (1,200 here; 545 there), “Well – wouldn’t you?”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.