Ethan Mordden's new entry in his history of the Broadway musical looks at an era that brought us not only the gritty reality of "A Chorus Line" and the brilliantly bittersweet works of Stephen Sondheim, but also the nostalgic crowd-pleasers "No, No, Nanette" and "Annie." It was a time when Broadway both looked to its past, but also to its future and allowed reality to enter. Mordden writes of the last time we ever saw true greatness on the stage of the Broadway musical.
"[A] treasure trove for fans of the musical theatre." - Richard Ouzonian, Toronto Star
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About the Author
Ethan Mordden is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Buddies and I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Manhattan.
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One More Kiss
The Broadway Musical in the 1970s
By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
The Age of Sondheim
It is the arrogance of certain critics to believe that their job lies less in assessing an art than in guiding and even bullying it. But art can properly appear only as the product of the free artist. Telling a painter to use a trendier shade of red or a novelist to lay his action in San Diego instead of Altoona is stupid: so why were people who don't write musicals telling writers what kind of songs to write?
Part of it lay in the wish to appear trendy. It looks hip to dismiss traditional work as "old-fashioned." It makes one feel so young. But note that theatre critics of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s did not consider passéiste writing as ineffective. Any era of theatre history naturally enjoys a mixture of the old stuff and innovation, because there is no one theatre going audience, no consensus of taste. The 1920s played host to something as newfangled as the mixed-race operetta Deep River (1926) yet something as old hat as the George M. Cohan imitation The Gingham Girl (1922), complete with Eddie Buzzell doing Cohan. George M. himself was originating the new style of hot-tempo dance musical, albeit with astonishingly outdated songs, in Little Nellie Kelly (1922). This was a forward -backward genre all at once, looking ahead to the work of the director-choreographers of two generations after yet making do with the same old mother songs, Irish songs, flag songs, girl's-name songs. There were twenties shows in the outmoded one-set-per-act look, shows carefully moved from one set to a second set with a change-of-décor interlude downstage of the traveler curtain, and shows whose action led them from one to many other places within a single act. Everything was happening at once, including, almost incredibly, the last productions in the old pantomime-extravaganza genre (they had merged by 1900) in the vehicles of Fred Stone. And they were smash hits, too.
What made some critics suddenly impatient for sweeping change in the late 1960s? Rock was taking over radio, edging out not only Broadway and easy-listening but classical stations as well. Did rock have to seize the stage, too? Why, because it's there?
Then, too, intellectuals had finally taken notice of the musical, and not positively. Before Oklahoma!, a founding title in so many ways, those who wished to could ignore the musical or enjoy it, condescendingly, as a few hours of refreshing nonsense. But once narratives became realistic and characters substantial and music strove for expressive power, the musical could irritate the unbeliever. Worse, it could turn up where intellectuals had to deal with it, as cinema. Reviewing the movie version of the Tommy Steele English show Half a Sixpence for The New York Times, Renata Adler called the songs "trite, gay, and thoroughly meaningless" and added that they "make absolutely no concessions to anything that has happened in popular music in the last ten years."
What should a musical set in England in the year 1900 sound like? Revolver? And if the score is "trite and gay," it is certainly not meaningless. Aside from a few scene-setters, it means what its characters say and how they feel at the moment the music hits in. Or try Pauline Kael on 1776: "Yocks and uplift — that's the formula."
Only someone who had never seen a stage musical would sniff out a formula in 1776, a show without precursor or successor. Kael was the one who, reviewing the film of Fiddler on the Roof, blithely admitted that she had never seen the show. (No wonder; it closed so quickly.) Could it be that what we really have here is people who Don't Do Theatre and Don't Get Music? I mean any theatre and any music — so, again, why are they offering opinions on what Broadway is using for music?
It may be that rock not only overwhelmed theatre music as the national sound but gave intellectuals something to feel hip about. Rock critics are like movie critics in their distaste for established art forms like the novel and, say, Shakespeare and Schiller. Normally, rock writers deal with nothing but rock. Yet every so often, a work of some relevance to the rock scene forces them to consider the musical — the West Side Story film, the Porgy and Bess question, or perhaps The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At such times, their loathing of Golden Age Broadway is unmistakable.
Why the attitude? Are they defensive because Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and their colleagues were consistent in melodic and lyrical content, exactly where rock is erratic? And, after all, it is their father's music — their grandfather's, by now.
So were Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971), Dude (1972), and Via Galactica (1972) going to please these skeptics? All three were the work of composer Galt MacDermot, all were immediately typed as "rock musicals," and while the first was a hit, the other two count among the biggest bombs of all time. Yet the trio did unquestionably mark the eruption of contemporary American pop on Broadway.
Two Gentlemen, from one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, is one of those epochal titles, so full of the views of its day that it cannot properly be enjoyed thereafter. The look was Elizabethan hippie in a three-tiered unit set, the cast was racially so mixed that there were almost no white principals at all, and the score was so now! that the Duke of Milan, in a two-faced grin, led the chorus in a semi-gospel piece called "Bring All the Boys Back Home."
Is this Pauline Kael's idea of a musical? It sounds like Joseph Papp's: and it was. He produced it first in Central Park side by side with a non-singing Timon of Athens and Cymbeline, the book adapted by John Guare and the show's director, Mel Shapiro, and the lyrics by Guare. With Raul Julia, Jonelle Allen, Clifton Davis, Carla Pinza, Frank O'Brien, Jerry Stiller, and Norman Matlock, the show proved at once a zany stunt, a feel-good musical comedy, and a bit of social engineering. It did what the traditional musical did, yet with people that one didn't normally see in a musical and in sounds unfamiliar to the stage.
Rock? By 1971, what was rock? It was "Wake Up, Little Susie" but also "Eleanor Rigby," with its string octet; black harmony groups but also the Steve Miller Band; Bob Dylan but also the Grateful Dead; and Elvis. Like Walt Whitman, rock contains multitudes. Thus, any music whose lineage owes more to Louis Armstrong than to Victor Herbert, set into a theatre context, can be a rock score. Two Gentlemen's musical style is limitless, indescribable. I'd call it Funky Mandolin with a Latin Pulse, keeping in mind that the evening began with O'Brien coming out alone in his white suit, the tunic smothered in medals, to scream, in his freaky soprano, the first half of the old Tin Pan Alley hit "Love in Bloom."
All the principals but Pinza and Stiller reappeared when the show began its Broadway previews at the St. James in November. John Bottoms took Stiller's role, which was sound casting, but Pinza was replaced, in a daring coup, by the Hispanic pop singer La Lupe. Famed for her riches-to-rags cabaret performances in which she used the power of song to devolve from glamour to an almost animalistic earthiness, La Lupe simply didn't suit the more amiable style of the other actors. She was also somewhat unintelligible, and had to relinquish her part to Diana Davila.
"Cultural vandalism" was the opinion of Time's T. E. Kalem; but then, he thought as much of Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the production that defined this era of theatre history. Two Gentlemen was not so influential — and, strangely, its busily tuneful score threw off no hits on even the most modest level. Perhaps there was too much music. The work is nearly opera, singing at any moment, every moment, making music out of not only Shakespeare but also the many isms of the day, all of which were love. Remember "the summer of"? "All you need is"? "Make, not war"? Two Gentlemen's last line is "You can't love another without loving yourself," and note how many of the song titles treat it: "I Love My Father," "I Am Not Interested in Love," "What Does a Lover Pack?," "Love's Revenge" — set to the shuffling beat of the fifties group dance the Stroll — "Hot Lover," "Love Me," "Love, Is That You?," whose reprise creates the at-first-sight pairing of O'Brien with Alix Elias, which helps resolve the love plot.
Guare's lyrics seemed to egg on MacDermot's prankish side, now digging into feeling, now riding a pun, now just being silly in an adamant way. Only grouches didn't like the show, perhaps especially when Jonelle Allen's boy friend (Alvin Lum) made his entrance late in the action. Lum was Asian, so he showed up in one of those holiday dragon heads with the long train — why? because he could — and the finale found the cast on bicycles, blowing soap bubbles, skipping rope, snapping yo-yos, and throwing Frisbees.
Okay, it wasn't Carousel. It was the other kind of musical, the happy-crazy kind, with a lot of ingenuity in the way the score threaded the needle of Shakespeare. What seventies show was older, and newer?
But Dude, a follow-up not to Two Gentlemen but to MacDermot's Hair (1967), was the useless kind of musical, what happens when those lacking in fundamental capability chance into a fluke hit and are consequently given a theatre to play in and a limitless budget. The villain in the case was Gerome Ragni, author of Dude's book and lyrics, though MacDermot did not distinguish himself, either. Ragni had co -written (with James Rado) Hair's book and lyrics and had played its outstanding hippie, Berger. So Ragni was now the fair -haired boy of the rock musical.
And a rock musical Dude absolutely was. Not an everything musical like Two Gentlemen of Verona or, for that matter, Hair. Dude was R&B with piano shavings, Motown group harmony, and a shoo-fly-lazy country band. As well, Dude embodied that resenting dismissal of tradition that we have noted in trendy voices of the time. But Pauline Kael merely scorned the musical. Dude hated it.
Think, first, of its very title. It's like Lewd. Like Turd. Think of the poster, a rear view of a long-haired male clad in denim, as if this in itself meant something. Think of the reconstitution of the Broadway Theatre's auditorium into an arena-style "space," with the instrumentalists broken into winds here and strings there and the performers running in from somewhere else with mike wires trailing behind them. This in itself meant something, in a way: the physical trashing of the legitimate theatre. Think of the only veteran pros in the cast, Michael Dunn (who left during previews; congratulations, Miss Logan), and Rae Allen and William Redfield, who played Dude's parents; or were they supposed to be broken-down actors?
It wasn't clear, but then Dude was apparently more hallucinated than written, in the hope that some of Hair's good Zen would amplify the images. There was no plot per se, but rather a premise. Like Cabin in the Sky (1940), Dude proposed a contest between angels of light and darkness for the hero's soul. He, the title character, was to be a kind of twenty-something rover; the show's subtitle was The Highway Life. But when the actor playing Dude was fired during previews, the producers brought in an eleven-year-old and a grown-up to share the role. This suited the "metaphysical quest" nature of the show, perhaps. More likely, the show was gasping for talent and a kid turned up who had some. (He was Ralph Carter, soon to move on to a lead in Raisin, thence to a television series.) Other characters included Mother Earth, Bread, Sissy, Electric Bill, Suzie Moon (an on-the-rise Nell Carter), and World War Too. As with Hair, there was a huge tunestack filled with wiseacre titles, such as "Eat It," "I Love My Boo Boo," "Air Male," and "Jesus Hi."
Dude was directed by Rocco Bufano, choreographed by Louis Falco, and physically designed by Eugene Lee, Roger Morgan, and Franne Lee. Three people collaborating on scenery for a show that had none suggests the amorphous nature of the project, the sheer lack of narrative material for anyone to work with. Previews had to be suspended during the first week as Tom O'Horgan replaced Bufano and Falco to try to turn Dude into Hair. After all, it was O'Horgan who turned Hair into Hair in the first place. But how is one to transform something that never existed except as a fancy in the minds of idiot critics who think they know better than theatre people what theatre is? In the end — from the very start, in fact — Dude was something never before attempted, not even in the days of The Black Crook: an absolutely unintegrated musical.
Dude closed two weeks after it opened, and five weeks after that came Via Galactica. Unfortunately, the earlier show's notoriety proved contagious, and those who skipped the second show assumed that it was another inane attempt to duplicate Hair. And little Ralph Carter was in this one, too.
However, Via Galactica was not entirely inane and certainly no duplication. "For a long time," the PR handouts read, "there hasn't been a musical that isn't a remake of a remake ... but this is it: VIA GALACTICA, road to the stars." Yes, this was the outer-space musical, and one of the first of the so-called pop operas, because MacDermot set virtually every line written by Christopher Gore and Judith Ross. British eminences Peter Hall and John Bury respectively directed and designed it, and unlike Dude, Via Galactica gave one much to look at: life on earth in the year 2972, a trip by spacecraft to an asteroid ruled by a disembodied head, and a spectacular backdrop made of some 350,000 tennis balls hanging on lines running from the flies down to the stage floor and shimmering against a weird blue light. Via Galactica was something of an event, too, in that it put a brand-new auditorium into rotation, the Uris Theatre.
Put simply, the piece told how Raul Julia escapes the insipid conformity of "perfected" life on earth. Julia sails off to the asteroid Ithaca, ruled by that head (Keene Curtis), which flies around on a kind of Mr. Wizard science-project doohickey. Curtis' wife (Virginia Vestoff) and Julia mate, but in the end their offspring descend a huge ladder, beginning a journey back to earth.
I say "put simply," but the show's producers thought the action so tangled that they provided a summary in the program. Wouldn't it have been smarter to clarify the writing of the show itself? In truth, the action wasn't tangled, just screwy. For instance, the relative lack of gravity on Ithaca was suggested by the actors' bounding about on trampolines. After the first minute or two of startled amusement, the public found it monotonous. So was the relentless singing, at least for some. On CBS, critic Leonard Harris voiced what was to become a standard complaint as the book material in musicals began to contract and even disappear. "Galt MacDermot has written some fine melodies," Harris allowed. "But we need some rest between them."
The combined debacles of Dude and Via Galactica (which closed a week after it opened) all but ended MacDermot's potential as the voice of the New Music. But Andrew Lloyd Webber was just getting started, with the first of the pop operas to be generally referred to as such, Jesus Christ Superstar (1971). Here was a resourceful composer paired with a clever lyricist, Tim Rice. So was this to be Broadway's new pop sound? Certainly, the Lloyd Webber shows and those of the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil were, at first, anything but debacles. To twist George S. Kaufman's famous line about satire, pop opera is what closes Saturday night ... twenty years later.
Or is it "rock opera"? That was the original term, because The Who's Tommy had appeared on a two-disc set in 1969, and the band performed it live in its complete form only in opera places, first at the English National Opera's new home in the London Coliseum and then in New York's Metropolitan Opera House. The Who was utterly rock, and their piece was totally opera, even specified as such on the album: "Opera by Pete Townshend."
Some there are that resist the application of this culturally prestigious word to works by musical primitives, with their hooks and riffs and punk etiquette. Opera is educated, not to mention drug-free. But genius needs no diploma: it strikes in crazy venues. And "opera" simply denotes theatre that is not spoken but sung. "Opera" has no qualification clause requiring a music degree or opening-night top hats or Renata Tebaldi. If it's through-sung, it's opera.
Excerpted from One More Kiss by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 2003 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
• The Age of Sondheim
• All Those Glittering Years: Follies
• If Everyone Got What They Wanted: Musical Comedy I
• Decca Broadway: Americans in London
• Why Can't We All Be Nice? The Dark Musical
• Nobody Does It Like Me: Pippin and Seesaw
• It's a Bore: The Dreary Musical
• Keep It Hot: The Concept Musical
• I Could Be at Home with My Seven Maids: The Revival
• Were You Saying Something? Off-Broadway
• Haven't We Met? The Revue
• I Really Don't Want to Write a Musical About Some Man Who Is Running From the Nazis. I Want to Do Something With Showgirls: Musical Comedy II
• Evolution Papa: Three "Don't" Musicals
• Don't Pop the Head, Cassie! Three Classics
• Please Sign the Book On Your Way Out the Door: The 1979-80 Season