Touchdowns & Fumbles

Special Features   Touchdowns & Fumbles Through the years, Broadway musicals about football have been on the receiving end of cheers . . . and a few jeers.
Stubby Kaye (left), Alice Fay and John Payne in a 1974 revival of Good News.
Stubby Kaye (left), Alice Fay and John Payne in a 1974 revival of Good News.

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The most successful of all gridiron musicals was High Button Shoes (1947), with a superb score by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and a book by Stephen Longstreet based on his novel "The Sisters Liked Them Handsome." The show starred Phil Silvers, Nanette Fabray, Jack McCauley, Joey Faye and Mark Dawson.

Silvers played a con man who tries to win a great deal of money by getting the Rutgers football team to throw a game. The team refuses and wins the game against Princeton. Nanette Fabray and Jack McCauley stopped the show at every performance with two songs: "Papa, Won't You Dance With Me?" and "I Still Get Jealous." But the thing that made this show such a hit (727 performances!) was Jerome Robbins' brilliant Keystone Kops/Mack Sennett ballet, danced in front of beach cabanas. It made this the longest-running musical about football in theatre history.

As a clever publicity stunt, the producers of High Button Shoes invited the entire Rutgers football team to see the show. Then the cast visited the team at Rutgers, where Phil Silvers and Joey Faye indulged in hilarious tomfoolery.

The second longest-running show about football was the glorious 1927 musical Good News. With a memorable score by Ray Henderson, B.G. DeSylva and Lew Brown and a spirited book by DeSylva and Laurence Schwab, it recounted the familiar story of a football player who can't play in the big game unless he passes his exams. Set at the fictitious Tait College, the show started off with the orchestra, clad in cheerleaders' uniforms, running down the aisles and jumping into the orchestra pit. The theatre's ushers were also dressed as cheerleaders. The show's great score included "The Best Things in Life Are Free," "Good News" and the rousing "Varsity Drag." In 1947 MGM made a highly successful movie version of Good News with additional material by Comden and Green, Roger Edens, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. The 1927 Broadway production ran for 551 performances.

Rodgers and Hart's 1939 musical, Too Many Girls, with a book by George Marion, Jr., dealt with four pro-football players hired by a millionaire to guard his daughter when she goes to Pottawatomie College, where co-eds must wear beanies if they are virgins. One of the football players (played by Desi Arnaz) is astounded that there are so many virgins in the world. The show ran for 249 performances, and its hit song was "I Didn't Know What Time It Was."

In 1940 Too Many Girls was turned into a movie with most of the Broadway cast intact. There was, however, one notable exception: Lucille Ball was cast in the part originated by Marcy Wescott, and that's when Lucy met Desi.

Leave It to Jane was a 1917 hit by Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. The plot concerned the strategy to lure football great Billy Bolton to play for Atwater College instead of rival Bingham College. The score included such Kern gems as "Leave It to Jane," "The Siren's Song," "Cleopatterer" and "The Crickets Are Calling." The musical ran for 167 performances. When it was revived Off-Broadway in 1959, it ran for an amazing 928 performances.

Surprisingly, All American (1962), with a book by Mel Brooks and a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, starring Ray Bolger, Eileen Herlie, Ron Husmann, Anita Gillette and Fritz Weaver, was a flop. Brooks' plot was criticized. It concerned a top football player at Southern Baptist Institute of Technology whose gridiron fame endangers his engineering career. The show closed after 80 performances.

Broadway's biggest football fumble was called Toplitzky of Notre Dame (1946). With a score by Sammy Fain and George Marion, Jr., the show imagined an angel (a former football star) coming to earth to help Notre Dame beat Army in the year's big game. Despite heavenly help, the show closed after 60 performances, proving that football and fantasy are unlikely teammates.

A scene from 1947's <i>High Button Shoes</i>.
A scene from 1947's High Button Shoes.
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