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The Musical Theater 700 Club By Peter Filichia

While switching channels in the Hyatt in Madison, Wisconsin (after seeing Forward Theater Company produce my playlet OLD COMISKEY PARK), I ran into a promo for THE 700 CLUB.

Wow! It’s still on! In fact, an Internet check showed me it’s now in its fifty-sixth year.

I decided that we musical theater enthusiasts should have a 700 Club, too. It would celebrate musicals that ran in the 700-799 range. They’d include:

GYPSY (702 performances) – According to Gene Castle, one of the original Newsboys, “Let Me Entertain You” was originally written as “Let’s Go to the Movies.”

“Let’s go to the movies. Let’s go to the show. Let’s make hanky-panky along with Vilma Banky and lovely Clara Bow. With Milton Sills there, we’ll know some thrills there, but we will steal ev’ry scene. So let’s go to the movies, but we won’t watch the screen. No, sir! We won’t watch the screen!”

Does its lyricist Stephen Sondheim even remember this? He didn’t include it FINISHING THE HAT, his early collection of lyrics.

COMPANY (705) – Every week on, I give a trivia question. This week’s is “He received a Tony nomination for appearing in what would become a Tony-winning musical, but if you get the CD of the original cast album, you’ll only hear him do one song although he sang in five in the show. Who is he, what’s the show, and what’s the explanation?”

It’s Larry Kert, who succeeded Dean Jones. He’s heard on “Being Alive,” taken from the London cast album on which his voice was superimposed over Jones’.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (711) – How long did it take for Tim Rice to establish himself as an incisive lyricist? Merely the third line in the A-section of his opening number “Heaven on Their Minds.” Rice deepened the character of Judas by having him assume that “I’ve been your right-hand man all along” to Jesus.

Whoa! This very human emotion had never before been explored: Judas, for all we know, may well have considered himself to be first and foremost in Jesus’ estimation. Could one reason for his betrayal be his fearing that Peter was ascending and eclipsing him?

FINIAN’S RAINBOW (725) – All these years later – darn close to seventy-five now – we’ve yet to get wordplay more clever and deft than “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near” and “When I can’t fondle the hand that I’m fond of, I fondle the hand at hand.” Thank you, E.Y. Harburg. 

HIGH BUTTON SHOES (727) – Everyone who saw it came out raving about “The Bathing Beauties Ballet” in the song “On a Sunday by the Sea.” Alas, in those days when seventy-eight r.p.m. records couldn’t accommodate much music, the original cast album saw it severely truncated to two-and-a-half minutes. Forty-two years later, it received a nearly ten-minute rendition on JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY. Budding choreographers, listen carefully and see what you can devise for this.

NINE (729) – Twenty-eight year-old Maury Yeston began writing his musical version of Fellini’s 8½ around the time Stephen Sondheim was enjoying his third consecutive year of receiving Tonys (for COMPANY, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC). Could Yeston have ever imagined then that in nine (!) years he’d beat the master’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG with this score?

WEST SIDE STORY (732) – If you only know the film, you know that in “Quintet,” Anita sings of Bernardo, “He’ll walk in hot and tired – poor dear. Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s here.”

That’s comparatively toothless to what Sondheim originally wrote and what you can hear on the original cast album: “He’ll walk in hot and tired. So what? Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s hot.”

Its frankness isn’t even its best asset. Sondheim manages to get in two different meanings of hot: the first one sweaty; the second, sex-charged.

CANDIDE 1974 revival (740) – Co-producer and director Hal Prince always said that this circus-like take on the 1956 musical should have made the show “look like it cost a nickel.” That becomes clear during the overture. The violinist who solos on the penultimate section sounds as if he’s a wedding musician who’s strolled by your table at the reception.

ON YOUR FEET! (746) – Charlie Chaplin, Cher, Marlene Dietrich, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Peggy Lee, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Jelly Roll Morton and Edith Piaf all had musicals written about them. And yet, despite their careers that may well have yielded stronger name recognition than Gloria Estefan’s, her musical biography outran each of the others. A striking performance by Ana Villafane is a definite reason why.

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT (747) – Whenever a new songwriting team has a smash success, producers are quick to say “What ELSE do you have?” That’s how this show, which Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice originally started in 1968, was jumpstarted after the team’s success with SUPERSTAR. It’s a great family show, which is why it’s enjoyed more than 20,000 school and amateur productions.

WEST SIDE STORY 2009 revival (748) – Arthur Laurents took the suggestion from his longtime companion Tom Hatcher to have the Sharks sing and speak in Spanish. However, a few months after the opening, Laurents and his collaborators decided that audiences preferred a totally-in-English production. But the revival cast album had been recorded much earlier, making this, of the twenty-six major recordings of the Bernstein-Sondheim score, unique.

A CHORUS LINE 2006 revival (759) – Of the twenty-nine performers billed alphabetically, Tony Yazbeck was last. But, oh, this nice guy certainly hasn’t finished last, what with six more Broadway shows and another on the way with FLYING OVER SUNSET in November. Listen to him here as Al, Kristine’s husband, in “Sing!” where he finishes her sentences (which, we’re told, is proof of one’s being made for the other). True, Zach doesn’t choose Al for his chorus line, but plenty of other directors and choreographers have selected Yazbeck. 

INTO THE WOODS (765) – Rocco Landesman says that Joanna Gleason’s performance in this Sondheim-Lapine collaboration was the greatest he’s ever seen an actress give in a musical. Understand that Landesman was once President of Jujamcyn Theatres and later Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. But what may mean more is that Landesman has been steadily attending the theater since the late ‘50s, when his Uncle Jay and Aunt Fran wrote THE NERVOUS SET – so he’s seen plenty of actresses in musicals.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR (770) – Has any Tony-winning performer had less stage time than Marilyn Cooper? She didn’t enter until Act Two, Scene Four, and her contribution involved only this scene, participation in one duet and then its encore. Cooper was a prime example of quality, not quantity, as she and Lauren Bacall traded perceptions on the ideal life in “The Grass Is Always Greener,” one the best eleven o’clock numbers.

OLIVER! (774) – Ever noticed who plays Undertaker Mr. Sowerberry on this recording? Barry Humphries – who some years later would reinvent himself as Dame Edna.

When I had the opportunity to interview the celebrated female impersonator, I was told that any mention of Barry Humphries was strictly verboten; just say that name, and Dame Edna would get up and leave.

Fine; I’d oblige … kinda. For mid-interview, I asked “Dame Edna, have you ever thought of playing the great musical comedy roles? Mame? Dolly?”

She started to answer, but I delivered my zinger: “The Undertaker in OLIVER!?”

During the silence, what a glare I got. Finally came the low-voiced response: “The undertaker in OLIVER! is NOT a great role.”

ANYTHING GOES 1987 revival (784) – This won the 1988 Tony for Best Revival – and not “just” Best Revival of a Musical; no, the awards for revival wouldn’t be split into musical and non-musical categories until 1994.

As a result, ANYTHING GOES wasn’t only competing against the four other 1987-88 musical revivals but also ten other straight play remountings. That made its challenge much greater.

And yet the Patti LuPone starrer still emerged victorious.

These are a few of my favorite members of my 700 Club. And if they gave out S.A.T. scores for musicals, wouldn’t the above-named shows score somewhere between 700 and 800?

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.