The 1967 musical comedy How Now, Dow Jones is one of the few plays in Broadway history to focus on bedlam in the stock market, yet its former leading man says the play's a longshot for revival.
Broadway veteran Tony Roberts, who earned his first Tony nomination in 1968 for his role as a singing stockbroker in Dow Jones, remembers the play as "kind of frivolous." If a producer tried to bring How Now back to Broadway amid today's market turmoil, "I wouldn't invest my money in it," Roberts says. "I don't think it has any relevance."
Indeed, the plot of How Now, Dow Jones can't conceal its 1960s origins. The musical focuses on Kate, whose job is to announce the Dow's closing numbers. She has been waiting years for a marriage proposal, but her broker beau Herbert won't pop the question until the Dow hits 1,000. In a hurry to wed, she fraudulently announces the Dow has topped 1,000, and market mayhem ensues.
In the 1960s, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, an index of 30 blue-chip industrial stocks, typically hovered around 700. The Dow briefly broke 1,000 for one historic day in 1972 before a surge that began in 1983 sent the average soaring to its present heights. "These days, you often see the Dow jump up or down 400 or 500 points in one day," says Roberts. To make How Now, Dow Jones contemporary, "they'd have to figure out some kind of device that would seem as fantastical today as the Dow hitting 1,000 seemed back then."
Given recent headlines, that's a tall order.
Even so, Roberts has fond memories of How Now, Dow Jones, which gave him his first big role in a musical. Roberts went on to star in a number of Broadway musicals — including his most recent role as Danny Maguire in the recently ended Xanadu — and gained widespread fame for work in films such as "Annie Hall."
Back in 1967, Roberts had been playing Axel Magee in Woody Allen's comedy Don't Drink the Water when producer David Merrick approached him about trying out for a singing role. Roberts says he had never considering working in musicals, but his audition impressed Merrick and others so much that he won the role of Charley, a bumbling stockbroker who earns most of his commissions by seducing old ladies — a sort of Max Bialystock of Wall Street.
Roberts was 28 when How Now, Dow Jones opened on Dec. 7, 1967, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The cast included Brenda Vaccaro as Cynthia, a Wall Street tour guide. Both Roberts and Vaccaro would earn Tony nominations for their roles. (Roberts lost the Best Actor in a Musical award to Robert Goulet, star of "The Happy Time.")
How Now featured a book by Max Shulman (The Tender Trap), lyrics by Carolyn Leigh (Peter Pan, Little Me) and music by Elmer Bernstein, an Oscar-winning composer most known for scores to films such as "The Ten Commandments," "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape." Its director was George Abbott, who had won a Tony in 1963 for directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Despite such talent, the musical opened to lukewarm reviews, and few of its songs are memorable. Its signature tune, sung by Roberts, was "Step to the Rear (and Let a Winner Lead the Way)," a peppy number later used in car commercials and political campaigns. Today, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks use the tune (with altered lyrics) as the college's fight song.
Roberts says he had no idea his Broadway tune had spread to a football stadium and was now sparking shouts of "Go 'Cocks!" "I thought I was the only one singing that in the shower," he says.
How Now, Dow Jones managed to run 220 performances, until a three-day Actor's Equity strike forced its cancellation on June 15. In his book "The Season," writer William Goldman claimed How Now, Dow Jones survived mostly on the strength of its financial-sounding title, which attracted a healthy pre-sale of tickets purchased at charity events by the wives of wealthy stockbrokers.
The theory has some credence. Despite the proximity of NYC's financial and theater districts, How Now, Dow Jones is one of only a handful of shows in the history of Broadway to focus on the stock market. Most were produced between 1899 and 1914 and include The Rogers Brothers in Wall Street (a vaudeville farce), Bankers and Brokers (a musical comedy) and The Ringmaster (a serious drama).
More recently, plays dealing with business typically focus less with Wall Street and more on office politics — think How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961-1965, and revived in 1995) or the upcoming production of 9 to 5 (planned for spring 2009). Stock market turmoil may pop up in a play, as it did last year in The Farnsworth Invention, but it's seldom the main plotline.
Despite having played one of the few stockbrokers in Broadway history, Roberts says How Now, Dow Jones didn't teach him much about investing.
"I didn't have any money yet, so I didn't pay attention."
Skip Card is a freelance writer and author of the trail guide "Take a Hike: New York City." He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com..