Broadway Beginners' Luck

News   Broadway Beginners' Luck Playbill historian Louis Botto shares stories of writers' first brushes with Broadway.

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Having your first play produced on Broadway can be a triumph or a disaster, as many playwrights have experienced. Arthur Miller's first play, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), lasted only four performances. Miller was 29 years old at the time. Fortunately, his second play, All My Sons (1947), was a hit — and was revived earlier this season on Broadway.

Tennessee Williams' first play never made it to Broadway. Battle of Angels (1940), starring Miriam Hopkins, closed in Boston after a disastrous opening night in which an onstage fire caused the audience to flee the house. Williams' second play, The Glass Menagerie (1945), was a Broadway triumph and featured a landmark performance by the revered Laurette Taylor. The play is constantly revived worldwide.

William Inge had good luck with his first Broadway play, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), which had memorable performances by Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer. It was a hit and was made into a successful film in which Ms. Booth co-starred with Burt Lancaster. She won an Oscar for her performance.

In 1934 Lillian Hellman scored a huge hit with her sensational Broadway debut, The Children's Hour. Its theme of alleged lesbianism, a taboo theatrical subject, was accepted and the play ran for two years. When Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn was warned that he couldn't turn it into a film because it was about lesbians, he said, "No problem. I'll make them Lithuanians." He didn't do that, but his studio did make the film in 1936. Directed by William Wyler, it was retitled "These Three" and the subject was changed from a lesbian accusation to a heterosexual one. It wasn't until 1961 that another film version, directed again by Wyler, restored both the play's title and subject matter. Garson Kanin had a huge hit with his first Broadway play, Born Yesterday (1946). It made a star of Judy Holliday, who also appeared in the hit movie version. The comedy, with a Pygmalion-like plot in which a seemingly dumb woman is turned into an intelligent wit, ran for 1,642 performances on Broadway.

Two of Broadway's finest writers of high comedy — Philip Barry and S.N. Behrman — had lucky stars. Barry's first play, You and I (1923), was a Broadway hit, as were his later comedies: Paris Bound, Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. Behrman's first play, The Second Man (1927), was also a hit and starred the Lunts, for whom he went on to write many more successful plays.

On the musical front, some composers and lyricists, too, have found good fortune with their first Broadway shows. In 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein scored a triumph with their debut musical — Oklahoma! Of course, the duo had written songs together as far back as 1913 — but not for Broadway. And both Rodgers and Hammerstein had had many previous Broadway hits — but not as a team. Their first Broadway collaboration, Oklahoma!, prompted Cole Porter to declare, "The most profound change in 40 years of musical comedy has been — Rodgers and Hammerstein."

Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein enjoyed gratifying success with their first Broadway collaboration, On the Town (1944). Based on Jerome Robbins' popular ballet Fancy Free, about three sailors on leave in Manhattan, it received raves from all critics except John Chapman of the Daily News. However, when the musical became the hit of the season, Chapman wrote another review — praising the show. His comment was: "I don't know why I didn't like the show. It must have been something I ate that night."