A new musical on Broadway is an exciting proposition. In fact, the anticipation for some musicals can be quite a big deal: the latest piece by Stephen Sondheim or the newest vehicle for one of our favorite stars is enough to cause quite a buzz. The erection of a new marquee for a Broadway-aimed musical is the teaser that gets audiences primed for what may just be the next big hit. Occasionally, a musical is announced for Broadway, or it is touring the country with the implied intention of making it to The Great White Way, and it doesn't arrive. Some of these musicals have been so eagerly anticipated that we wonder what happened along the way that kept them from reaching their ultimate destination.
In 1993, Paper Moon, a musical based on the 1971 novel "Addie Pray" by Joe David Brown and the hit 1973 Peter Bogdanovich film "Paper Moon" starring Ryan O'Neil, Tatum O'Neil and Madeline Kahn, was announced for Broadway. Producers were so sure of its arrival, in fact, that a marquee was displayed at the Marquis Theatre and advertisements began to appear in newspapers. Despite being given a well-received production at the Paper Mill Playhouse starring Gregory Harrison, Natalie DeLuca and Christine Ebersole, Paper Moon never actually arrived on Broadway. Brothers Martin and Matt Cassella were the minds behind turning the piece into a musical, with the former providing the book and the latter directing. Composer Larry Grossman (Goodtime Charley, Grind) wrote the music and Ellen Fitzhugh (Grind) penned the lyrics, with additional lyrics contributed by Carol Hall (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). With The Paper Mill Playhouse audiences ecstatic and critics generally offering encouraging feedback, why is it that Paper Moon never arrived?
Paper Moon is an intimate story about a small handful of quirky and colorful characters. The main duo are a Bible salesman/con man named Moze and his partner in crime, a tenacious orphan named Addie, who are trying to survive in Depression-era America by scamming the masses. The story focuses on their relationship, which sometimes feels like father-daughter and at other times like they are just using each other as a means to an end. They meet some lively folks along the way, including the floozy Trixie Delight and her sassy maid Imogene, but the story's focus remains intimately on Moze and Addie. The creators of the show felt that the production at Paper Mill, though a success, wasn't eliciting the responses that they had hoped for. In fact, they felt that the size and scale of the production were detracting from the intimacy that was central to the main character relationships. They wanted audiences to be moved by Paper Moon, and director Cassella felt that he himself was not having the response to the piece that he felt he should. It was decided to postpone a Broadway run and continue working on it rather than bring in a production that they felt was not ready to tell the story effectively. Though it did receive another major production by the Goodspeed Opera House in 1996, Paper Moon has yet to find its way to Broadway.
In the early 1970s, Stephen Schwartz had three musicals running in New York, each surpassing 1,000 performances: Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show. With this kind of success, audiences were eagerly anticipating the arrival of his next musical, The Baker's Wife (1976), which would have a book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba) and which was based on the 1938 French film "La Femme du Boulanger" about a young woman who is married to much older man but tempted by a young lothario into infidelity. With financial backing by producer David Merrick, the musical toured around the country and underwent a tumultuous pre-Broadway tryout. Originally, Carole Demas (Grease, "The Magic Garden") and Topol (Fiddler on the Roof) played the central characters, but were replaced on the road by Patti LuPone (after Loni Ackerman had a turn) and Paul Sorvino. The original director Joseph Hardy was succeeded by John Berry and the original choreographer Dan Siretta replaced by Robert Tucker. Though the show had been announced of Nov. 21 opening at the Martin Beck Theatre, it was not to be.
The Baker's Wife came very close to making it to Broadway, but the reason it shuttered early had to do with several factors. First, the creators were not happy with the product and decided it was not practical to keep a production (that was experiencing so many problems and replacements) on the road to New York City. Word of mouth was already not good. Second: Producer David Merrick was proving to be a challenge for the creators to work with and the more he intervened, the more tense the pre-Broadway tour became. Merrick was dissatisfied with portions of the score, particularly the song "Meadowlark," which he felt was too long. It is ironic that "Meadowlark" would become the most popularly performed and recorded song from The Baker's Wife. Third: The book of the musical was troubled and its problems were never really solved. There was not enough story content to sustain a full-length musical, nor were there any reasonable subplots or secondary characters to help flesh out a full evening of entertainment. These challenges haven't stopped The Baker's Wife, especially its well-regarded score, from living on through a studio cast album (featuring LuPone and Sorvino) and receiving productions around the world.
Listen to LuPone sing "Meadowlark."
Originally scheduled to open at the Majestic Theatre in March of 1971, Prettybelle had similar problems to The Baker's Wife in its pre-Broadway tryout, and it never reached its final destination. Prettybelle was a curious idea for a musical, based on the comically dark novel by Jean Arnold titled "Prettybelle: A Lively Tale of Rape and Resurrection." The story follows Prettybelle Sweet, a southern woman who is writing her memoirs from inside an insane asylum where she is in hold-up after a series of peculiar events in her life. These include the abrupt and suspicious death of her bigoted husband, run-ins with the KKK and her offerings of sexual compensation to minorities for the racism they suffered at her dead husband's hands. Prettybelle, on paper, may have sounded out of the ordinary, a bit odd for what Broadway audiences were used to, but the team behind it included seasoned veterans that justified giving the idea serious credence. Composer Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl) and lyricist/book writer Bob Merrill (Carnival!, Funny Girl) were the impetus behind turning Prettybelle into a stage musical. They had hoped to entice Gene Saks to work with them on the project, but Saks tuned it down and the production defaulted to director-choreographer Gower Champion, who had ushered such hits as Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival! and Hello, Dolly! to Broadway. For its lead, they secured Angela Lansbury who had proven a bona fide star in the musicals Mame and Dear World in the 1960s. Everything appeared to be in place for a hit.
Angela Lansbury sings "When I'm Drunk, I'm Beautiful."
Things went downhill for Prettybelle, almost from the start. There was a disagreement between the creators, director and producer on the tone the musical should take. Champion wanted a stark production, minimal on scenery and other trappings of musical theatre. Merrill and Champion spent a lot of energy unsuccessfully trying to create an avant-garde film feeling about the musical. Producer Alexander H. Cohen was entirely dissatisfied with Champion's work on the show, feeling that he was not shaping it into the type of musical audiences would expect. Much of the cast (as well as Cohen) were not enamored with or inspired by Champion's rigid and overbearing directing techniques. In the end, there were just too many problems with Prettybelle that could not be corrected before it would depart Boston for Broadway. Critical and audience response in Beantown was scathing and those behind Prettybelle decided to cut their losses. In 1982, Lansbury and a few members of the original cast reunited to record a studio cast album that has proven popular with collectors.
A book could be written about just the musicals that had their aim set for Broadway, but lost their way on the road to success. Harold Rome and Horton Foote were behind a musical of "Gone with the Wind" set to star Lesley Ann Warren that never made it to Broadway. Edward Albee and Bob Merrill had high hopes for a musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain that came within inches of a Broadway run (it played four previews on Broadway, then closed before officially opening). There is a heartbreak that is felt when these musicals come so close to taking up residence at the Broadway theatre they have booked, but then never actually arrive. Theatre historians and Broadway enthusiasts delight, however, in pouring over the details and speculations of what could have been. In the cases of Paper Moon, The Baker's Wife and Prettybelle, critics and audiences have found much to recommend despite the challenges that kept these properties from opening on Broadway.
Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."