Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Posterity Is Just Around the Corner

News   Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Posterity Is Just Around the Corner
One of the things I most enjoy about looking through old Playbills from the 1940s is the page listing the other shows then playing on Broadway. I recently did a column here about an imaginary, time-travel visit to the 1956-'57 season, but any one of these Playbill pages can take you on an instant--and sometimes heartbreaking--trip to a Broadway week of days gone by. The names of the stars and the titles of the shows available in any single week of the period are enough to make any present-day theatre lover swoon. (One could have the same experience looking at the theatre ABCs in a newspaper of the time, but for Playbill collectors like myself, these pages will be more readily accessible.)
Andrew Lloyd Webber plays 'Cat Morgan Takes a Stand' at the 6138th performance of Cats. (See second item below.)
Andrew Lloyd Webber plays 'Cat Morgan Takes a Stand' at the 6138th performance of Cats. (See second item below.) Photo by Photo by Nigel Teare

One of the things I most enjoy about looking through old Playbills from the 1940s is the page listing the other shows then playing on Broadway. I recently did a column here about an imaginary, time-travel visit to the 1956-'57 season, but any one of these Playbill pages can take you on an instant--and sometimes heartbreaking--trip to a Broadway week of days gone by. The names of the stars and the titles of the shows available in any single week of the period are enough to make any present-day theatre lover swoon. (One could have the same experience looking at the theatre ABCs in a newspaper of the time, but for Playbill collectors like myself, these pages will be more readily accessible.)

At random, I took down from my shelf three Playbills from the original production of Annie Get Your Gun, all from the first year of the run, 1946-1947. Each one has such a page, headed "New York's Leading Theatres and Hit Attractions," so what could one see after one had caught the great Merman as Annie Oakley? Well, there was Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire; the original productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Allegro; Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie; Judith Anderson in Medea; Helen Hayes in Happy Birthday; John Gielgud and Lillian Gish in Crime and Punishment; Phil Silvers in High Button Shoes; the Harold Rome revue Call Me Mister; Song of Norway; Ray Bolger in the revue Three To Make Ready; the comedy success John Loves Mary; Ina Claire in The Fatal Weakness; Clifton Webb in Present Laughter; the Kurt Weill Street Scene; Bobby Clark in Sweethearts; and (briefly) Alfred Drake and Zero Mostel in Beggar's Holiday and Orson Welles in the Cole Porter calamity Around The World.

That's not everything, but perhaps it's enough to make my point. And you could find a pretty equal line-up almost any week during the '40s (these lists became intermittent in Playbill thereafter--you can find them in a new incarnation in the late '50s--but they are to be found in all current Broadway Playbills). One can only look back and think, Was there really a time when so many thrilling shows and stars were available and playing in a radius of about ten blocks? Which brings me to the question of today: How will people 50 or more years from now view our current period when they look at those "How Many Have You Seen?" pages in their old Playbills from the '90s?

Of course, one's instinct is to go with the easiest immediate response and answer wistfully that our time simply does not begin to provide a comparable line-up. We're quite obviously inferior in terms of performers, writers, and productions. But is that exactly true? There's no question that, at least in terms of Broadway, the straight plays just aren't there these days. While you could find more than a dozen non-musicals playing on Broadway at any time in the '40s, '50s, and even '60s, you will now find no more than a handful, and for the most part they're institutional company revivals, with a few solo shows mixed in. But it's necessary to keep in mind that the balance on Broadway shifted years ago, and that non-musical theatre is these days still to be found in New York, just not on Broadway.

A comparison of current listings with those old Playbill pages would also make it immediately evident that there is no longer a deep pool of regular theatre stars any more. While we have a number of stars on Broadway at the moment, several of them come from other media (Whoopi Goldberg, Raquel Welch), while more than a few productions (even some that carry names above the title) are in no way dependent on the names of the performers appearing in them. It's nice to find at the moment that currently on Broadway is a name--Julie Harris--that one could find on those Playbill pages 40 years ago. But it's also true that the large number of name stars who appeared in plays and musicals on Broadway season after season in decades past has dwindled down to a precious few. Another significant factor that will have to be noted when historians and fans look back on our time is the increased reliance on musical revivals. While it is not true that revivals did not exist in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, they made up a very small percentage of the Broadway season. Only a few (the above mentioned Sweethearts in 1947, Pal Joey in 1952, No, No Nanette in 1971) were major successes or had significant impact, and for the most part musical revivals were relegated to New York's City Center, where every year audiences could attend first-rate, low priced and often extremely authentic revivals of relatively recent hits. In recent years, revivals have been a significant part of each musical season, and in several cases--the 1992 Guys and Dolls, this season's Chicago--they've been the biggest musical hits of their seasons.

Perhaps what will most strongly leap out at future observers of our time is the large number of long-running shows. While a perusal of those Playbill pages in the '40s would see a regular, often week-to-week turnover in productions (excepting a very few like Oklahoma!), today's listings have carried certain titles for more than a decade, with fewer new shows arriving each month. Indeed, our period will have to be viewed as the years that saw the arrival of the biggest hits in musical theatre history. One can only wonder if the next 50 years will see the arrival of any new musicals that will rival the runs of the blockbusters of the last two decades.

A more subtle distinction will be evident to those future observers who probe more deeply, and it concerns those long-running musicals: Never in the past has there been as significant a discrepancy between critical and audience taste. The hit musicals from the '40s mentioned in the first paragraph all received across-the-board strong reviews, but the same can't quite be said of Cats, Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera, or Miss Saigon (even if they were well-received in London, and even if all but the last took the Best Musical Tony prize). Audiences have simply not cared whether or not these shows got good reviews, and they have thrived largely on word-of-mouth; in the past, this only happened with fluke shows like the '30s Olsen and Johnson comedy revue Hellzapoppin.

It's common practice for commentators on Broadway history to see the '60s as the time of decline, the end of the golden age of Broadway and in particular musical theatre. But our time (and here I include the next couple of decades) may ultimately come to be viewed by posterity as the time when some of Broadway's greatest musical theatre writers--Stephen Sondheim, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Cy Coleman- were making their last contributions, and a time when some of the major, younger top talents- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Maury Yeston, William Finn, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens--were thriving. If a new generation of successful musical theatre writers emerges in the next 50 years, our current period may indeed be viewed as one of decline; if not, it may actually look like a final burst of glory. Whatever happens, it's too soon to be certain that, years hence, our time won't be viewed as some sort of golden age. Stick around and find out.

In the many articles that appeared when Cats recently broke the record to become the longest-running show in Broadway history, one idea kept cropping up in discussions of the reasons for the show's success and longevity. It's an idea that has attached itself in such analyses to Cats and every subsequent pop opera hit, and it's one that I have always felt is simply untrue.

It's widely maintained that Cats's enormous commercial success is due to something called "hype," or marketing. It's stated that the famous Cats logo helped make the show a known quantity internationally and sell the show everywhere, and that heavy advance promotion helped make it critic-proof.

May I submit there was absolutely nothing unusual or unprecedented about any of the advance marketing of Cats. True, the show opened to an enormous advance sale, but (as was also the case with the huge advance sales for Les Miz, Phantom and Miss Saigon) that was due to the fact that the show was an acclaimed hit in London prior to its Broadway production. Word of mouth had already spread to this country (in those days much less aware of what was happening in the West End than it now is) that Cats was a sensation, and highly favorable eye-witness reports plus the London cast album made a lot of people very excited to see it. The show was also the subject of a number of major pre-opening magazine and newspaper stories, but only because of the already stated London triumph; no matter how excellent were the show's original press agents (Fred Nathan and Associates), magazines do not do advance cover stories on musicals that haven't already established themselves as major hits. And Cats did nothing more than take the usual ads taken by any new show prior to its Broadway opening; in fact, the show took fewer ads than most shows, but most shows aren't blessed by terrific advance word.

Since opening, Cats has taken far fewer ads than many shows that needed them more, and its "hype" has actually consisted of nothing more than word of-mouth, awards, and the occasional ad or publicity break. If "hype" could sell a show, then Cyrano--which took endless, two-page print ads and many TV spots throughout its short Broadway life in an attempt to make the show look like an event musical--would still be running. It's simply absurd to maintain that Cats's success is due to some non-existent promotional hype factor.

As for the matter of the logo, there's no question that the Dewynters logos for Cats, Phantom, Les Miz, and Miss Saigon are brilliantly memorable images and encapsulations that have helped sell these shows. But as my collection of foreign cast albums and programs from foreign productions of American musicals of the last 40 years will attest, there is nothing new about using the same logo internationally; just about every such foreign program and cast recording sports the same logo the show began with on Broadway. It's simply the fact that the British pop opera hits have had international success in their original foreign runs well beyond that of even the most celebrated American musical hits.

And as for the frequent accusations that Cats was a triumph of merchandising, again I don't get it. You can merchandise a show all you want, but if people don't like it or want to see it, it will be to no avail. May I point out that The Goodbye Girl and Steel Pier also had logos, and that those logos were emblazoned on mugs, T-shirts, hats, posters, and souvenir programs sold at the theatre. Somehow, though, those logos and that merchandising failed to sell those particular shows, so other factors must have made Cats and its pop opera successors into hits. The fact that the pop opera logos are famous beyond all others is simply due to the fact that these shows get produced around the world more and have lasted longer than others. But surely these productions were not prompted by the logo itself, but rather by something about the show that audiences like.

Before leaving the subject, I'd like to mention something else that I was struck by after attending the milestone Cats performance. In the press kit distributed for the event, the show's current press agents, Bill Evans and Associates, reproduced not only current statistics and articles discussing the show's long life, but also several articles that appeared in such prestigious magazines as Smithsonian, Horizon, Time, and Newsweek just before the show opened in 1982. Written by critics and other serious writers, these pieces hail the show (on the basis of the London production) as brilliant, a state-of-the-art, innovative, daring and wildly imaginative production. The staging, scenic design, and, yes, the music, are praised to the skies, with more than one saying that Cats is the artistic equal of the previous Broadway season's Nicholas Nickleby (another Trevor Nunn-John Napier show). How fascinating it is to read these pieces in light of the fact that the show is nowadays routinely dismissed as a dumb family attraction of interest only to tourists or lowbrows. Clearly Cats was, at least at the beginning, a highly respected artistic venture. I would ascribe the change in outlook to the fact that a) the show ran so long--had it run just three or four years, it might have been fondly remembered and now revived, and b) it was followed by the blockbusters Les Miz and Phantom. The combination of Evita, Cats, Les Miz and Phantom (and throw in Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph.... if you wish), all from London and almost all hits beyond anything American, was just too much for many critics and people in the community to bear. I believe it was this resentment, more than any other factor, that caused the next British blockbuster, Miss Saigon, to be treated so harshly by critics and others; had it come in before or soon after Cats, its local reception might have been similar to the mostly ecstatic one it received in London.

I can't recall any musical undergoing as many textual alterations to accommodate its series of leading ladies as Victor/Victoria; what with the alterations, elimination of songs, and addition of new material every time one attends, it's fast becoming the new Show Boat or Candide.

To make this as brief as possible, after a road tryout that saw original Victoria Julie Andrews lose her opening number ("The Victoria Variations"/ "I've No Idea Where I'm Going") and have two of her other numbers replaced ("Attitude" became "Louis Says," "I Guess It's Time" became "Living in the Shadows"), the show came to New York, and during the first year of Andrews' run, the Act Two opener "Louis Says" was eliminated.

When Liza Minnelli subbed for Andrews last January, she dropped Victoria's first number, "If I Were A Man," then substituted a new song, "Who Can I Tell?," for Andrews' Act One closer "Crazy World." With "Louis Says" not restored, Minnelli had one less song than Andrews (although two less than Andrews had at the Broadway opening).

New Victoria Raquel Welch has the shortest musical program of any of the Victorias thus far. "If I Were A Man" is back, while "Trust Me" has a new section addressing the problem of Welch's voluptuous figure for a potential drag queen. At the end of the first act, Welch performs a shorter version of "Who Can I Tell?," cutting the big-finish section with which Minnelli brought down the curtain; instead, "Who Can I Tell?" fades into the original Broadway Act One ending (cut for Minnelli), which features the spoken "good nights" of the principal characters.

In Act Two, the King Marchan-Victoria duet "Almost A Love Song" has been cut by half; the first portion, with the two sitting on King's bed, has been retained, but the second half, with the two in their separate rooms, is gone. "Living in the Shadows," a solo whose two parts were separated by about 15 minutes of dialogue, is no more; the first half becomes a brief crying jag for Victoria, but for the second Welch has a reprise (not listed in the Playbill for the critics' performances) of "If I Were A Man" with an all-new lyric and an assertive tempo like that of "Shadows." In the finale title number, Victoria's solo section is now done with the chorus. And no, "Louis Says" has still not been restored.

Where Andrews' Victoria hailed from Bath, England and Minnelli's from Saskatchewan, Welch's is from Pennsylvania. For her first scene audition piece, Julie sang about fairies in her garden, Liza that her heart is in Saskatchewan; Welch warbles a bit of "Tit Willow" from The Mikado.

Maury Yeston's music for Titanic--the most original and richest Broadway has heard in some time--was dismissed by virtually every critic when the show opened, but RCA Victor's new and ideal cast recording should go a long way toward setting matters straight.

If you've only heard the 16-minute opening The Launching sequence in its four-minute reductions for the Tonys and the Rosie O'Donnell Show, you haven't really heard it; it's a stunning achievement, but it's far from the only great thing in Titanic. "The Proposal"/"The Night Was Alive" is the year's best, most affecting single number, and almost as good are "Lady's Maid," "No Moon," and the first act finale sequence. Titanic's ensemble of actor-singers is extraordinary, although it's possible to single out on disc Victoria Clark, Brian d'Arcy James, Martin Moran, John Cunningham, Michael Cerveris, David Garrison, Jennifer Piech, and Allan Corduner for special mention, just as Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations must also be singled out. Titanic's is by far the season's best score, one you'll want to hear again and again, and it's been beautifully preserved.

This week's other new cast recording falls into the "now I've heard everything" category. Thanks to two friends who can track down just about anything, I've been enjoying the cast recording (cassette only, and available only at theatres where the show plays) of the South American touring production of Big. It goes by the title Quisiera Ser Grande (also the title of the opening number), and is sung in what I suspect is Castillian Spanish.

It's one of the poorest professional performances I've ever heard, with two principal teenage boys who are rarely on pitch, adult leads not much better, cheap synthesizer arrangements, and dismal sound. But it's something of a must nonetheless--let's face it, did you ever think you'd hear a Spanish-language cast album of Big? The recording does not include "Here We Go Again" and "The Real Thing" (don't know if these are omitted from the production as well), but just about everything else is there, including "Junto a Mi" ("Stop, Time"), "Cruzala" ("Cross The Line"), "Sirvanme un cafe" ("Coffee, Black"), and "Soy solo un nino" ("I Want To Go Home"). As oftens happens with Spanish translations of Broadway musicals, several of the principal characters have been renamed (Susan Lawrence is Diane Williams, MacMillan is MacAnderson); don't ask why. Can we now look forward to a Spanish cast album of Steel Pier?

What were the titles of the Mexican productions of Grease, Carnival, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?

Answer to last week's quiz: When the new musical Triumph of Love had its premiere last year in Baltimore, Mary Beth Peil played the role that Betty Buckley will be playing on Broadway this fall.

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