There are a few golden years in Broadway history just packed with great musical hits and stars. How many theatre fans wish they could go back in time to, say 1947, with Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon; or 1949 with South Pacific and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; or 1956 with My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella and Bells Are Ringing; or 2005 with Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Light in the Piazza?
But not many wall calendars could compete with 1964, now a half-century gone, for a pure concentration of red-letter days.
The year 1964 saw Carol Channing triumph in Hello, Dolly!, Zero Mostel break and win hearts in Fiddler on the Roof and Barbra Streisand cement her stardom with Funny Girl.
And that was just the top drawer. Golden Boy, High Spirits, Ben Franklin in Paris and Oh! What a Lovely War had a proud place in the next drawer down.
Even the flops of 1964 have their fans. Stephen Sondheim’s cult favorite Anyone Can Whistle ran barely two weeks, and Bert Lahr’s Foxy earned him the Tony Award despite a run of just a few months.
The year 1964 was a time when Broadway musicals were still powerhouses of American mass culture. So let’s pause for a moment and go month by month, show by show and remember why musical theatre fans with access to a time machine might consider setting the dial for that special year.
Click through to explore the landmark theatrical season of 1964.
January 16: The year got off to the best possible start with the opening of Hello, Dolly!, with its classic score by Jerry Herman, staging by Gower Champion and featuring the comeback stardom of Carol Channing in a role that had been turned down by other actresses including Ethel Merman. The out-of-town tryout was a legendary mess, but Champion lived up to his name by overseeing a miraculous transformation that had critics and audience flinging their hats in the air, as the period expression goes. How big a hit was Dolly? The title song, as sung by Louis Armstrong, pushed the Beatles (who had made their US debut on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9 at what is now the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway at 53rd Street) out of the Number One spot on the Top 40 chart, the week of May 9, 1964. Lyndon Johnson used the song as the theme for his ultimately successful campaign for a full term of his own. Football fans may prefer to forget, but the halftime show at the Super Bowl I was Carol Channing singing the title song. The show would eventually surpass My Fair Lady to become, for a while, Broadway’s longest running musical.
February 4: Stage legend Josephine Baker returned to Broadway with a revue of her work titled Josephine Baker and Company, offered a revue of her work, showing she still had “it” at age 57. The singer and dancer who had starred in both the Paris Folies Bergère and the Broadway Ziegfeld Follies was known for her erotic dances in the 1920s La Revue Nègre in her adopted homeland of France. She was never accepted with the same fervor in her native U.S.A., which had barred her from entering the country for most of the decade before this show. As a footnote, this engagement, which lasted 24 performances, had lighting design by Michael Price, who would, in 1968, take the helm of Goodspeed Opera House and steer it to a multiple Tony-winning career.
February 6: Amid the glitter of the season came Rugantino, a “Roman musical spectacle” imported by producer Alexander H. Cohen and performed entirely in Italian. A huge hit in its native Italy, Rugantino was the first new musical to open at the old Mark Hellinger Theatre since My Fair Lady. It lasted not quite a month. Nevertheless, of all the shows on this list, it is the only one that is celebrating its golden anniversary with a return engagement in New York, June 12-14 at City Center.
February 16: The following week brought the final Broadway appearance of master clown Bert Lahr, whose career (begun in the 1920s) had gotten some fresh juice since the movie classic "The Wizard of Oz" in which he played the Cowardly Lion, became a holiday staple on TV. For his Broadway return he chose Foxy, a musical adaptation of Ben Johnson’s Volpone with the action relocated to a Yukon gold-mining camp, where he sets out to gull the gullible. Larry Blyden played his right-hand man, and John Davidson played the male ingénue. In a season awash in great female stars, Lahr took home the 1964 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his work in this 72-performance show, which included a memorable bit of business in which Lahr climbed the proscenium to escape a pursuer.
February 27: Singer Steve Lawrence played ruthless Hollywood climber Sammy Glick in the hard-edged Budd Schulberg/Ervin Drake musical satire What Makes Sammy Run? Robert Alda, Sally Ann Howes and Graciela Daniele had supporting roles in this 540-performance production, which supplied Lawrence with a song hit that became a staple of his Las Vegas act, “A Room Without Windows.”
March 26: Opening night for Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand. Where to start? Other actresses were considered for the role of Ziegfeld Follies-era comedienne Fanny Brice, but Streisand, a Greenwich Village club singer with only one other Broadway credit, made such an indelible impression in the role that she all but obliterated memory of the real Brice. The upside-down skater of the logo ruled at the Winter Garden for more than a thousand performances. Funny Girl remains one of the few hit musicals from this era that has never had a Broadway revival (so far) because who is bold enough to try to make us forget La Streisand? Carol Channing would beat Streisand for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony, but Babs would have her revenge by starring in the movies of both Funny Girl AND Dolly. This would be her last Broadway appearance before she headed west for her legendary film, TV and recording career. Nevertheless, her signature song remains the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill Funny Girl anthem “People,” which entered American culture on this date.
April 4: In his first Broadway musical since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim and his West Side Story/Gypsy librettist Arthur Laurents tried to stretch the musical form once again with Anyone Can Whistle, a story of integrity and corruption that examined the quality of sanity. The ahead-of-its-time musical, featuring Angela Lansbury’s maiden flight as a musical comedy star, closed in less than two weeks but became a cult favorite owing to its superb cast album. Along with Dolly’s “Before the Parade Passes By” and Funny Girl’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Whistle’s “There’s a Parade in Town” was the third big parade song of the spring. The phenomenon gives its title to historian Peter Filichia’s forthcoming new book about this period, “A Great Parade on Broadway: The Spectacular 1963-1964 Season.”
April 7: Just three days later, Tammy Grimes followed up her Broadway success in The Unsinkable Molly Brown with High Spirits, a musical based on Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, co-starring Beatrice Lillie. Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray provided the wan script and score for this show about a kooky medium (Lillie) who summons the ghost of a writer’s first wife (Grimes), and then can’t figure out how to get rid of her. Still basking in the glow of Hello, Dolly!, director Gower Champion stepped in to doctor High Spirits during tryouts, and helped boost the show to an 11-month run.
April 8: While Anyone Can Whistle was struggling toward its premature closing at the Majestic Theatre, a revival of Sondheim and Laurents’ West Side Story had a revival 11 blocks uptown at City Center, with Julia Migenes as Maria, Don McKay as Tony and Luba Lisa as Anita. Also in the cast: Eliot Feld and Marilyn Cooper.
April 17: Sam Levene and Alan Alda (son of his Guys and Dolls co-star Robert Alda, who was appearing a few blocks away in What Makes Sammy Run?) co-starred with Theodore Bikel (the original Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music) in Café Crown, a musical about life at a restaurant on Second Avenue. Further down the cast list could be found the likes of opera singer Brenda Lewis, dancer Tommy Rall, choreographer Bob Avian and future “Mr. Rogers” featured player Betty Aberlin. At three performances, Café Crown had the shortest run of any 1964 Broadway musical.
May 26: Another musical, another great star. This time it was future queen of TV comedy Carol Burnett in Fade Out—Fade In, a custom-written show about a movie theatre usherette who lives her dream of becoming a movie star. Despite drawing mixed reviews, this satire on Hollywood (though a much cuddlier one than What Makes Sammy Run?) proved to be box office gold until Burnett began suffering from an illness that was rightly or wrongly suspected to be artificial. Television was calling her, and this show marked Burnett’s farewell to Broadway for three decades. Though she performed many salutes to Broadway on her TV variety show, she did not return until the 1995 comedy Moon Over Buffalo. FO—FI had a score by Jule Styne, Comden and Green that was not among their best, but did include one showstopper, “Call Me Savage.” The supporting cast included Jack Cassidy, Tiger Haynes, Lou Jacobi and future “Gilligan’s Island” starlet Tina Louise.
June 2: And then, as if the season hadn’t been glitzy enough, the legendary Folies Bergère itself can-canned its way from Paris to New York. “Grande chanteuse” Patachou, future Nine star Liliane Montevecchi, and Georges Ulmer were featured in the sexy Gallic revue, which remained at the Broadway Theatre for nearly 200 performances. It was the final musical of the epic 1963-64 season, and theatre fans would have been forgiven for thinking our cup of 1964 musicals had already run over. Ah, but it was only the intermission!
Summer: No musicals opened for the rest of June, July and August but a lot was happening in the culture. In pop music it was the first year of The Beatles, which would usher in a whole new generation of popular music that would eventually, sadly, sweep showtunes out of Top 40. But theatre music wasn’t quite ready to go. Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were the second and third top-grossing films of the calendar year, bested only by the James Bond adventure "Goldfinger."
In Flushing Meadows, Queens, the World’s Fair brought wonders (and tourists) from around the globe to get a preview of what the future might look like. In the budding U.S. space program, the Mercury Program of Earth Orbits had given way to the Gemini Program of manned moon probes in NASA’s run-up to a planned moon landing at the end of the decade.
In politics, President Lyndon Johnson, who had succeeded the assassinated John F. Kennedy only the previous November, was bashing heads to bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (chronicled in 2014’s Tony-nominated drama All The Way) as he prepared for his own campaign to retain the presidency in the 1964 election. In the afterglow of the Kennedy presidency, which had used Camelot as its touchstone, Johnson’s advisors made “Hello, Dolly!” his campaign anthem.
On Broadway itself, new non-musical plays included Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy, James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie and Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses. In the fall would come Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Murray Schisgal’s Luv and Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice.
September 22: And then, after that quiet summer (on Broadway at least), the annus mirabilis leaped back to life with another all-time Broadway classic, Fiddler on the Roof. It was classic in many ways, including the fact that it was a classic sleeper. No one had expected much. The show had no tap dancing, no chorus girls in tights—not even a parade song. But audiences of every religion and nationality found themselves moved by this story about Tevye, a Russian-Jewish milkman, who has to deal with his daughters bucking ancient tradition as the nightmare of terroristic pogroms closes in on the village of Anatevka. Zero Mostel would win the Tony Award as Tevye, and Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick songs like “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “L’Chaim” and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” became part of every theatre lover’s DNA. For many years it would be hard to find a wedding band that did not include “Sunrise, Sunset” in its repertoire. Before it was done, Fiddler would surpass both Hello, Dolly! and Life With Father to become, for a time, the longest-running show in Broadway history, at 3,242 performances.
September 30: The Vietnam War was just beginning to simmer for the U.S., but memories of the Blitz were still fresh in the minds of Londoners who had made a great hit of Joan Littlewood’s antiwar satire musical Oh! What a Lovely War, which used World War I pop tunes like “Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “The Bells Of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling" and “Keep the Home Fires Burning” to contrast with the bitter horror of battle. New Yorkers didn’t quite get the show’s black comedy sensibility, and it stayed for just 125 performances.
October 20: In one of the earliest modern examples of non-traditional casting, nightclub (and occasional Broadway) star Sammy Davis Jr. was engaged to play a man torn between careers as a classical musician and a boxer in a musical adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy. The Italian-American main character in the original drama became an African-American for the musical. The underrated score by the Bye Bye Birdie team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams includes “Lorna’s Here,” “I Want To Be With You” and “Night Song,” which might have made the show a classic if it had opened just a few years later. The interracial romance at the heart of the story was a problem for some audiences of this period, but the show managed a run of more than a year, thanks largely to the popularity of Rat-Packer Davis, which was now at its peak.
October 27: In his first Broadway musical after making an indelible impression in the show and film versions of The Music Man, Robert Preston chose to play the most mischievous of the founding fathers in Ben Franklin in Paris. People had impossibly high hopes for this musical, which wound up registering milder than it should have. The underwhelming score by Sidney Michaels and Mark Sandrich, Jr. nevertheless contained a few gems, including “I Invented Myself,” “To Be Alone With You” (credited to Jerry Herman) and “God Bless the Human Elbow.” During the run Preston pursued an affair with his co-star Ulla Sallert, the Swedish musical-comedy diva, which nearly sank his longtime marriage to Catherine Craig, but the marriage and various careers survived this near-miss production.
November 9 Danish-American musician/comedian Victor Borge returned to Broadway with the concert show Comedy in Music Opus 2 hoping to match his long-running 1950s hit Comedy in Music, which still holds the record as Broadway’s longest-running musical solo show, with 849 performances. Opus 2, in which Borge again said and sang whatever came to his mind at the moment, stayed for a respectable but non-record 192 perfs.
November 10 Two weeks after her Music Man co-star returned to Broadway, so did the original Marian the Librarian, Barbara Cook. Audiences who had loved her in 1963’s She Loves Me had their fingers crossed for Something More!, but the tawdry story about a suburban Long Island couple who pursue affairs on a trip to Italy was slammed as a “low-grade soap opera” by The New York Times. Despite a score by Sammy Fain and Marilyn and Alan Bergman, the show said arrivederci after just 15 performances.
November 21: Flirtatious French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire displayed her fortune-making legs in Zizi, a dance revue that stayed through Jan. 2. With costumes by Yves Saint-Laurent and dances by her husband, Roland Petite, the star of Broadway’s The Girl in Pink Tights and the film "Hans Christian Andersen" played prima ballerina to a corps consisting of the Roland Petite Dancers.
November 23: Chita Rivera added another ethnic persona to her repertoire, playing Gypsy (properly called Romani) princess Anyanka in Bajour with Herschel Bernardi as tribal leader Cockeye Johnny Dembo, working with her to con a widow out of her fortune. Despite a fiery performance by Rivera with lots of gypsy dancing, the show, with a score by Walter Marks, closed after just six months. That left Bernardi available to replace Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof in 1965, becoming many people’s favorite Tevye. Rivera went on to The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Velma Kelly in the original run of Chicago.
December 15: Buddy Hackett and Richard Kiley played small-time “psychologist” and con-man in I Had a Ball, a musical set among the Boardwalk attractions of Coney Island. Despite the setting, which seemed like a natural for a musical, and rave reviews for Luba Lisa in a supporting role, the show ran only six months. A cast album was recorded and developed a tiny cult following with songs like “Dr. Freud” and “The Fickle Finger of Fate.” While appearing in the show, Kiley was approached in his dressing room with an offer to play Don Quixote in a new musical called Man of La Mancha, setting the stage for a great 1965.
Robert Viagas is executive editor of PlaybillEDU.com, co-author of “At This Theatre” and editor of the “Playbill Broadway Yearbook” series.