Here are the performance tallies of the original Broadway productions of some of the most acclaimed and/or revived musicals of all time: Brigadoon: 581. Wonderful Town: 559. Kismet: 583. Sweet Charity: 608. Bye Bye Birdie: 607. Gypsy: 702. West Side Story: 732.
Runs of this length, common to the '40s, '50s, and '60s, would now be considered puny. True, those decades did see blockbuster runs for Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and a few others. But those were the exception rather than the rule, and even wildly acclaimed shows like The Pajama Game, How To Succeed... or The Music Man had runs of about three years but no more.
Which brings me to the question of the day, and it's a question that I admit up front I am not able to answer definitively, although I can posit some possible explanations: Why do today's hit musicals--A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Miss Saigon--run so long, so much longer than the biggest hits of the '50s and '60s? We now stand in awe of musicals like West Side Story and Brigadoon, and audiences loved them when they were first produced. But why were these shows unable to sustain a run of more than a year and a half or so, when today's most popular shows tend to last more than a decade?
First of all, the economics of Broadway musicals have changed entirely in the last couple of decades. In the '40s and '50s, producing a full-scale Broadway musical was not a humongously expensive proposition, and for this reason, hit shows were able to return their investment in a matter of months. It was possible to present a steady stream of new musicals each season that only needed to run a year or so in New York to be quite profitable, and equally possible to let them go and close them after that amount of time to make way for a new one.
There was an abundance of musical theatre talent at the time as well, so it was only natural for all the major musical producers, composers, librettists, stagers, and stars to get right to work on their next shows while their current ones were still brand new. There was no need to prolong the run of a show once it had started to slip at the box office; it was easier simply to put on a new show, one that would have the enormous (and no longer existing) audience of regular theatregoers eager to shell out their $5.40 or $7.50 to see the latest Broadway musical. There were more star-oriented shows in those days, and the big stars like Merman, Martin, or Verdon would choose to play a hit for a year or two, take a break, then return in their next vehicle. They would not stay in the same show for three or four years, and if their shows achieved that degree of success (like The Sound of Music or South Pacific did), they would withdraw to be succeeded by others, and go on to the next project. This star system necessitated a turnover of musicals no longer required in a period when shows not dependent on name stars (Les Miz, Cats, Phantom) are the biggest successes.
Then too, there is the matter of tourism and the changing audience for musicals. While the Broadway musical has always won fans and success around the world, it was not until the unprecedented international success of the pop operas of the '70s and '80s that English-language musicals had the degree of impact around the world that they now have. And while New York has always been a tourist haven, and tourists have always loved going to Broadway shows, the tourist audience is now far more international than it used to be. Shows like Phantom and Les Miz, through-sung contemporary operas with the same kind of international appeal as standard repertoire operas, do not require audiences to understand English, any more than audiences at the Metropolitan Opera need to understand Italian or German to have a good time. This goes double for Cats, which, after all, is not about much more than various kinds of cats, and which is not only through-sung but more or less through-danced. To an extent, Cats, Phantom, and Les Miz have become tourist attractions like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, in a way that musicals of decades past never were.
But while I believe the above reasons all play a part, they don't quite explain to me why shows like Phantom and Les Miz are, after a decade, still doing such strong business on Broadway and in the West End, while shows like Bye Bye Birdie or Damn Yankees went through their audiences in a couple of years and then folded. I suspect it really boils down to an entirely different mentality: In the old days, musicals (the good ones anyway) were made to entertain, thrill, and delight the crowds for a year or two. They were then meant to move off to the movies and to a life in summer stock, making way for the new product that theatregoers expected to see every season.
There could very well be other reasons for the wild discrepancy in the length of the runs of today's hits and the hits of the past, and if anyone out there can suggest some, I'd be happy to entertain them.
The subject of Broadway long runs naturally brings us to Cats, which as of June 19 becomes the longest-running show in Broadway history. What I am about to say may prove disturbing to some; indeed, it could in one stroke destroy any credibility I may have, even end my career as a theatre journalist, so unfashionable and unfathomable will it appear to many. In fact, you may wish to skip the following section of this week's column if you do not wish to become hopelessly disillusioned with my ability to judge musical theatre.
Over the years, Cats has become one of the more reviled shows in Broadway history. People will tell you it is dumb, dull, tired, and unbearable. I would submit first of all that if it were indeed any or all of those things, it would not have lasted so long, not only on Broadway, but in London, where it is even older, and around the world, where it has been the most successful musical in history.
But now comes my shocking admission: When I saw Cats in London in the summer of 1981, shortly after its opening and with the original cast intact, I found it a highly original, enjoyable, even stimulating piece of musical theatre. Make no mistake, Cats does not provide the kind of emotional satisfaction of a genuine book musical, with characters with whom one can empathize, and a plot one can get caught up in. But it was never intended to do so; indeed, it's not a conventional musical at all, but rather a dance spectacular, a revue-like, musical theatre entertainment that, rather daringly it should be recalled, chose to set to music a collection of T.S. Eliot poems. One tends to forget now that Cats was, because of its source material and the fact that London had never produced a successful, home-grown dance show, a rather risky and unorthodox piece that few believed in prior to its opening.
Why did I find Cats so bracing that first time in London? First of all, the West End production, at the New London Theatre (up to that time a white elephant where nothing ran) is staged more or less in the round, and, with a bank of seats that moves during the overture, the show felt circus-like in London. Without a proscenium, Grizabella was able to ascend to the Heaviside Layer right over one's head. And numbers like the opening and "Mr. Mistoffelees" were more effective in this atmosphere than they have ever been in later, proscenium productions.
This was also an unusual, ultimately key moment in the history of the British musical. Throughout the '70s I would journey to London and be almost embarrassed to tell friends that I had attended such West End musicals as Gone With The Wind, Trelawney, The Good Companions, Tom Brown's School Days, The Card, The Good Old, Bad Old Days, and many others. Not that some of these weren't enjoyable, but London at the time was still completely in the thrall of American imports, and local musicals were, in spite of the success of Oliver! and a few others, still considered wistful little also-rans, barely capable of competing with the superior American model. Things had begun to change with the enormous success of Jesus Christ Superstar in the early '70s. But when Evita opened in London in 1978, it was clear that the West End was now capable of coming up with musicals easily as exciting as anything on Broadway. And with Evita still selling out at the Prince Edward, Cats came in as Lloyd Webber's follow-up show.
Then there was the original London cast, each principal a star capable of carrying his or her own show, together a knock-out group including Brian Blessed, Elaine Paige, Paul Nicholas, and Wayne Sleep (such supporting players as Sarah Brightman, Bonnie Langford, and Finola Hughes all made noticeable contributions). With this company, the show became a series of star turns, one performer topping the other, and this was not only exciting but entirely suitable for a show that was never meant to be any more than a series of numbers with a thin narrative framework.
Now comes perhaps my most shocking statement: We may all now be quite tired of the score, but in '81 I found it extremely impressive (and so did everyone for whom I brought back the double-LP cast album, although I doubt if many of them would admit it anymore). Few have taken into account the challenge that Andrew Lloyd Webber was presented with here, having to come up with over 20 separate numbers about different kinds of cats and nothing else. Lloyd Webber's musical invention and mixture of classical, pop, and traditional English song in this score is, I still believe, quite striking. Is anyone else willing to notice what a dazzling piece of writing is the overture? And while "Memory" has by now probably lost its ability to be affecting, I'll never forget how excited I was listening to the first recorded Cats release--an EP of the overture and Paige doing "Memory"--before I left for London. Note of course that Cats was written in the days when Lloyd Webber was not as sparing with melody as he later became, and was still willing to write a score of 20 or more songs with as many distinct tunes.
Cats was an original, one-of-a-kind piece, meant only as a musical entertainment, and if it was overlong and had its longeurs, it was, at least back in '81, quite a show. By the time I came out of the New London, it was clear to me that it would be an unstoppable success on Broadway and everywhere else. This is not to say that I thought the show did not work when I saw it on Broadway the following year. The original New York company was an abundantly gifted one, and they had been expertly drilled; the reaction at the first preview that I attended was ecstatic, and it was evident that there would be smooth sailing ahead (although I couldn't have guessed there would be 15 years of it, especially since Cats was a far more expensive show to run than the previous record holder, A Chorus Line). But perhaps because I had so enjoyed it in London, the New York production was less exciting. True, the creative team did a wonderful job refashioning the Winter Garden to convey what the show had been in London; but even with a thrust stage and other adjustments, John Napier's amazing design was at least partially bound by the proscenium, and lost the carnival feeling that was such an integral part of the show's success in London.
When I saw the show again in New York two years later, I was even less taken with it, but then I believe that Cats does not hold up as well to repeat viewings as certain other pop operas. I must admit that in recent years, when people start discussing how awful Cats is, I have tended to stay out of the conversation. So I am happy to take this opportunity to say that, at least at one time, I was pretty much bowled over by Cats.
THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK:
I recently received First Night Records' four-track CD single of three new songs (and a reprise) from the London production of The Goodbye Girl, which stars Gary Wilmot (previously seen in the West End in Me and My Girl, Carmen Jones, and Copacabana) and Ann Crumb (Aspects of Love, Anna Karenina, the Rags revival). The three songs on the disc are all ballads, and the most attractive is "The Future Isn't What It Used To Be."
This is the time to answer some questions I've received about the new version of The Goodbye Girl created for the West End (the production is scheduled to close at the end of the month after a run of just over two months). Barring reprises, the new production has ten songs; only three ("Elliot Garfield Grant," "Good News, Bad News," "Who Would Have Thought?," all with lyrics by David Zippel) have been retained from the 1993 Broadway production. There are seven new ones with lyrics by Don Black; Black is the sole lyricist credited on the title page of the program, with an asterisk in the song listings indicating the Zippel numbers. Hamlisch has not recycled any of his Broadway melodies for the new songs, although one ("Am I Who I Think I Am?") has a somewhat similar melody to "I Think I Can Play This Part."
Paula (Crumb) opens the show with "I'll Take The Sky"; while it's attractive and will satisfy those who felt that "No More" was too bombastic for that slot, "No More" was a better song, even if it didn't quite fit the moment. (None of Bernadette Peters' three solos remain.) "A Beat Behind" has been replaced by the inferior "Body Talk."
The mother-daughter duet "Don't Follow in My Footsteps," a production number at a playground, is gone; mother and daughter Lucy now share "Get A Life," in the apartment and in the slot formerly held by "How Can I Win?" While the scenes from the disastrous Richard III production are still seen, the song "Richard Interred" is gone. Instead, Elliot has the new solo "Am I Who I Think I Am?" after the performance, in which he questions his career.
Landlady Mrs. Crosby (Shezwae Powell, of London's Children of Eden, Once on This Island and 70, Girls, 70)'s new second-act number "If You Break Their Hearts" is a duet with Elliot in which she illustrates what she will do to him if he doesn't do right by Paula and daughter Lucy. "Who Would Have Thought?" is now sung by the kids and the ensemble, but not first by Paula and Elliot as on Broadway.
The new roof-date number, "Do You Want To Be In My Movie?," is an MGM fantasy in which Paula and Elliot are backed by four couples in evening dress. Elliot's new "proposal" song to Lucy is the catchy "The Future Isn't What It Used To Be," and it's reprised as the finale.
Overall, I believe the original score was much better than the London score (most of the London dialogue was heard on Broadway). The question now is: Which version of The Goodbye Girl will be leased for future productions?
And while on the subject of West End productions of American musicals, it's good news that the London production of Passion that starred Michael Ball and Maria Friedman (the latter currently starring in Lady in the Dark at the Royal National Theatre) and closed last September, will finally be recorded. The recording, scheduled for summer release, will be made during the four performances of 'Passion' in Concert, June 12 to 15 at Golders Green Hippodrome.
QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
Who replaced Elaine Paige in the London production of Cats?
Answer to last week's quiz: Betty Garrett filled in for Judy Holliday when she vacationed from Bells Are Ringing. Garrett's husband Larry Parks took over the male lead opposite her.
KM: As I understand it, Eder, heard on the studio recording of Pimpernel, will be continuing with J&H and will not be in Pimpernel. I hear that the Pimpernel leads will be Australia's Anthony Warlow, Terrence Mann, and Carolee Carmello. Eder's next Wildhorn vehicle is expected to be Svengali.
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