One of the frequent goals of an Encores! season is to create diversity through chronology — showing the breadth of the musical theatre's range over many decades. Not this year.
All of this season's offerings were produced within an eight-year period. Those eight years (1948-1956), however, were among the busiest, most secure, ambitious and successful years the theatre ever had, producing, among others, Kiss Me, Kate; South Pacific; The King and I; Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady. Encores!, of course, concentrates on the less well-known and the more diverse. And even within the homogeneous world of booming post-war Broadway, there was plenty of variety. Hence our upcoming season of shows: Bells Are Ringing, Lost in the Stars and Where's Charley?
For the creators and star of Bells Are Ringing, 1956 was a reunion year. Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Judy Holliday had begun their professional lives together in the waning days of the Great Depression as part of a downtown troupe called The Revuers. By the mid-'50s, Holliday had become a star in Born Yesterday (the play and its film adaptation) and Betty and Adolph, as they were universally known, had broken out with On the Town, gone to Hollywood and written the screenplays for "The Band Wagon" and "Singin' in the Rain."
The inspiration for Bells, according to composer Jule Styne's biographer Theodore Taylor, was actually nothing more than an illustration on the back of the New York Yellow Pages — a caricature of a young telephone operator hopelessly entangled in switchboard wires. Plopping the phone book down on Styne's piano one morning, Green said to Styne, "Here's our new musical. We'll write a great part for Judy."
The results are a lot like that — Bells Are Ringing feels like a vacation lark for writers at the top of their game and a star who knows securely that the work is being tailored to her gifts. In some senses it tips its hat to the days of The Revuers, with a stockpile of zany supporting characters and situations, a plot that's more like a thread, and a passion for comedy and romance above meaning. Throw in a score that includes "The Party's Over," "Just in Time" and "Long Before I Knew You" and Bells, despite mixed reviews, could hardly have failed. It was, in fact, the virtual definition of a tired businessman's delight, but done with such craft and style that it rises above its own ambitions.
By contrast, Lost in the Stars is among the most ambitious projects ever attempted for Broadway. Playwright Maxwell Anderson was handed a copy of Alan Paton's novel, "Cry, the Beloved Country," by Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein II on an ocean voyage just after its publication. By the time the ship landed, Anderson was convinced that Paton's eloquent, powerful novel of racial unrest in South Africa could be musicalized. And because it contained so many parallels to race relations in the United States, he reasoned that it should be done in a mainstream context, on Broadway. Anderson turned to frequent collaborator Kurt Weill, and the two set about transforming the dense atmosphere and complex characters of Paton’s novel into a musical play.
Weill, concerned that the influences in his score might too closely resemble African-American gospel and blues music, acquired field recordings of Zulu music direct from Africa, only to discover — not surprisingly to us today — that there was a distinction without a significant difference. He and Anderson also reached back to an unfinished musical they had worked on a decade earlier, Ulysses Africanus, cannibalizing some of that score for the new one, including the dazzlingly beautiful and heartbreaking title song, "Lost in the Stars." In the end, the score emerged sounding like nothing so much as Kurt Weill, in a darkly poetic mood, suitable to the tale of an anguished rural black father dealing with his son's absorption into a world of crime in Johannesburg.
Although not a popular hit, Lost in the Stars stunned many of the critics and managed a respectable run. It left behind a reputation created by the many sparks of greatness in its score and its daring attempt to forge a new musical theatre that elevated Broadway to the level of real tragedy.
Produced a year earlier than Lost in the Stars, Where's Charley? was a marriage of expertise and complete inexperience. The newly minted producing team of Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin entered the Broadway field in the late '40s and Feuer, who had been a sometime trumpeter and musical director at RKO in Hollywood, brought along Frank Loesser, who was a well-known movie songwriter but had never tried a Broadway show. (Loesser had begun his career as a lyricist, collaborating with, among others, Bells Are Ringing's Jule Styne.)
They took Brandon Thomas' 1892 hit comedy Charley's Aunt and gave it to George Abbott to adapt and direct. Abbott was hardly inexperienced — he'd been working on Broadway since 1914 and would continue well into the 1980s.
Feuer and Martin were tough businessmen with a reputation for stubbornness and hostility. (George S. Kaufman once cracked that Feuer and Martin were "Hitler rolled into two.") Loesser also had a wild energy and a fierce temper. Abbott, while not a screamer, could be imperious and chilly, and was the unquestioned boss of everything he did. Surprisingly, the show they fashioned was warm, bright, charming and completely inviting. Not a big brassy affair like Bells or a brooding social drama like Stars, it featured a lightness of touch and insouciance that made it a memorable hit of the 1948-49 season — a chamber comedy with songs. It also featured Ray Bolger, who turned its hit song "Once in Love with Amy" into a national sing-along phenomenon.
Unfortunately, 1948-49 was also the season that the musicians' union and the recording industry had a dispute that resulted in the banning of all original cast albums. As a result, Where's Charley?'s reputation, and that of Frank Loesser's momentous entrance into the world of Broadway, has suffered an undeserved obscurity. It was his next show, Guys and Dolls, that put him on the map as a Broadway immortal.
This was Broadway in the late '40s and early to mid-'50s, a place where art and commerce, busman's holiday and limitless artistic ambition lived in happy (if often contentious) proximity, secure in the knowledge that there were shows for every taste and preference. It's a distinct pleasure for Encores! to be able to walk among the giants as they work and play.
(Jack Viertel is the artistic director of Encores! This piece appears in the November 2010 Playbill for New York City Center.)