THE UNLIKELIEST HIT OF ALL By Peter Filichia
What with staying at home so much, I finally caught up with a much heralded film of two years ago
LOVE, SIMON tells of Simon Spier, a teen who’s gay but fears coming out to family and friends. Becky Albertalli’s screenplay gets all the drama out of the situation while managing to include a very happy ending.
What also struck my fancy, as a musical theater enthusiast of long standing, was the musical that we saw rehearsed and ultimately performed at Simon’s high school.
Some may assume I was surprised because the Masteroff, Kander and Ebb musical was being presented by and for teens and their parents. After all, we’re talking about a show that shows casual sex, the rise of Nazism and – depending on the version that drama club director Mrs. Albright chose – homosexuality.
Sure, but something else came to mind. Back in 1966, when CABARET was first announced, very few would have predicted that it would amount to anything, let alone be the high school musical of choice in a film made fifty-two years later.
Let’s return to the summer of 1966, when everyone who followed Broadway was looking forward to three obvious smash hits.
The biggest blockbuster would of course be HOLLY GOLIGHTLY, the musical version of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. The producer was David Merrick, whose name had been above the title of twenty Broadway musicals. In a time when one out of six Broadway shows succeeded, he’d gone twelve-for-twenty.
The music and lyrics would be by Bob Merrill, who’d done excellent scores for NEW GIRL IN TOWN, TAKE ME ALONG and CARNIVAL. (Having written the lyrics for FUNNY GIRL wasn’t a bad credit, either.)
The bookwriter and director: Abe Burrows. He’d performed the same tasks for GUYS AND DOLLS and HOW TO SUCCEED. Each had won a Best Musical Tony and the latter had even snagged a Pulitzer Prize.
True excitement came when we heard who’d play Holly: Mary Tyler Moore, two-time Emmy winner for her iconic role on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Another TV star, Richard Chamberlin, late of DR. KILDARE, would now have the chance to be a matinee (and evening performance) idol.
Would it win the Best Musical Tony? Well, Merrick would be competing with himself, because he had Robert Preston ready to go in another musical: I DO! I DO! After Preston’s 1957 triumph in THE MUSIC MAN, he would always get top billing over the title, but in this case, for the only time in his post-Harold Hill Broadway career, he’d take second; Mary Martin, the possessor of four times as many Tonys as he had, would be in the top spot.
Merrick would reunite for the first time with Gower Champion since the latter had directed and choreographed HELLO, DOLLY! then en route to becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history. In a forty-five-month span, Champion had directed three musicals, all of them hits. How big was each? The one that had run the least amount of time was BYE BYE BIRDIE.
I DO’s score would be by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, who had done 110 IN THE SHADE for Merrick. It was a hit, although not as big a one as their musical THE FANTASTICKS, which was just about to pass THE THREEPENNY OPERA as the longest-running off-Broadway show (a title it’s never relinquished).
But wait! There’s more, namely COME BACK! GO AWAY! I LOVE YOU! The reason for the three different sentences? This would be three shows in one, one per act. The score would be by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, whose last musical was no less than FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The leading lady would be Barbara Harris, who was so wonderful in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER.
Jerome Robbins was to do it, and then reneged, which was a blow until his replacement was named: Mike Nichols. His just-released film of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? was receiving raves. On Broadway, he’d directed three shows, and won Tonys for all. (Granted, we’re talking about two Tonys; the nominators had lumped THE ODD COUPLE and LUV together.) He’s the one who said “Let’s rename it THE APPLE TREE.”
And bringing up the rear? CABARET. Masteroff had been represented on Broadway three times – and had never had a hit. Kander had gone twice without a hit. Ebb was the one who’d suffered the least with “just” one flop: FLORA, THE RED MENACE, his first collaboration with Kander, squeaked through three months.
Despite many charms, FLORA had its weird moments. The leading man mumbled his way through a song about Demosthenes while his mouth was full of marbles. And now CABARET would have a song in which two seniors sing about a pineapple?
Having had FOUR straight flops as a director was Harold Prince. Now he’s a directorial legend, but back then, he was just a producer who was a wannabee at staging a show.
Stars? The closest thing to one was Lotte Lenya. A mention of her name was then usually followed by the question “Isn’t she dead?” No, but she was more famous than Jill Haworth, Bert Convy, Joel Grey and even Jack Gilford who didn’t mean much to the ticket-buying public.
And a musical that centered on the Nazi movement? Sure, THE SOUND OF MUSIC had dealt with The Third Reich, too – but suggested that it would eventually be defeated. CABARET was conceived to show the rise of Nazism, reiterating that the movement was destined for great success long before it would decline and fall.
What’s more, CABARET had the nerve to charge a twelve-dollar top – the highest of any musical on Broadway.
There can only be so many hits a season. How could CABARET possibly survive with those three behemoths as competition?
But after Walter Kerr proclaimed CABARET “a stunning musical, brilliantly conceived … you’d be wise to go to it” – with most other critics having made similar observations — CABARET would rack up more performances than the other three musicals combined. Take the 463 for THE APPLE TREE, the 560 for I DO! I DO! and the ZERO for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S – the renamed HOLLY GOLIGHTLY – and you get 1,023 performances – a full 142 fewer than CABARET’s 1,165.
Some unfamiliar with this period of musical theater might have blinked when reading “ZERO” for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. The show got bad reviews in Philadelphia and worse ones in Boston.
“I can still see Mary going offstage and bursting into tears as soon as she reached the wings,” Chamberlain told me – in 1999, more than three decades after the fact.
Merrick then made the greatest grandstanding move of his entire 54-year career. After the fourth preview, he told the press, “Rather than subject the drama critics and the theater-going public – who invested one million dollars in advance sales – to an excruciatingly boring evening, I have decided to close the show.” For a season or so afterwards, Merrick, in every PLAYBILL bio, eschewed mentioning the two dozen hits he’d already had, but chose to use, “Mr. Merrick is best-known as the distinguished producer of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.”
CABARET also collected more Tonys (eight) than those other three musicals combined, including one for producer Prince and one for director Prince. Kander and Ebb won their first Tony, beating out the wonderful scores from THE APPLE TREE and I DO! I DO! All three recordings are still in print after all these years.
Ticket demand for CABARET was so great that the show even moved from the Broadhurst to the Imperial to take advantage of the latter’s additional 250 seats.
When CABARET closed on Sept. 6, 1969, it was hardly finished. Of the four musicals in question here, it was the only one to get a movie (although I DO! I DO! did get a TV special).
What a film it is. Had THE GODFATHER not been in contention, CABARET would have won the Academy Award for Best Picture; as it was, it nabbed eight Oscars, still the record for a movie that didn’t win the top prize.
The film was much reimagined (thank you, Bob Fosse), as it was for its second Broadway revival in 1998 when it won four more Tonys. The original cast album and the revival cast album show the marked differences between Joel Grey’s fey Emcee and Alan Cumming’s dangerous one. You get a few different songs on each, too. Both are well worth having.
CABARET has now had three Broadway revivals that have amassed of 3,026 performances. Its closest competitor is THE APPLE TREE with one ninety-nine performance revival. I DO! I DO! did get an off-Broadway revival which achieved fifty-two performances. As for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S …
But CABARET lives on – in regional and community theater productions – and even at Creekwood High in Atlanta where Simon Spier goes to school. Yesterday, today and tomorrow belongs to CABARET.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.