STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Ten for the '60s

News   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Ten for the '60s
Hasn't that NBC four-hour mini-series "The '60s" been getting a lot of press?

Hasn't that NBC four-hour mini-series "The '60s" been getting a lot of press?

It spurred many rock writers to list "The Top Ten Musical Influences of the Decade." Some placed The Beatles first, some Bob Dylan, others The Rolling Stones. Nobody chose Herman's Hermits for anything. Herman's Hermits probably are hermits now.

Let's have equal time for "The Top Ten Musical Theatre Influences of the '60s."

Editing was tough on this one. Ruthlessly I discarded those who did well in the '60s, but had done better in previous decades: Merman, Martin, Cook, Rodgers, Lerner, Kidd, Mielziner, Feuer and Martin. Others who showed promise in the '60s would have to wait until the next decade for their real glory: Bennett, Tunick, Tharon Musser, Jules Fisher. As for Sondheim, the '60s were his darkest decade.

Some achieved greatness only long after the decade was well on its way: True, so did the Beatles and the Stones, but I'm going to be a bit more stringent than the rock critics. So no Lansbury, Aronson, Zipprodt, or Kander and Ebb. (Kander without Ebb did have A Family Affair in 1962, but that doesn't much help his cause.) Jerome Robbins and Barbara Harris were dropped because they dropped out before the decade ended. Those who achieved one -- and only one -- big success (Channing, Verdon) can't be included either, and even two (Mostel) weren't deemed enough.

The important criterion for me: Who was a presence both at the beginning and end of the decade? Here are my choices. Imagine the '60s musical theatre without them.

1) HAROLD PRINCE. "F" may not be a good grade in schools, but Hal Prince saw three of his '60s F's -- Fiorello, Fiddler, Funny Thing -- win Best Musical Tonys. The other F -- Flora, the Red Menace -- was a flop, but significant, because it would be the last show Prince would present but wouldn't direct. His staging career started slowly, as he first took over A Family Affair, did Baker Street for Alex Cohen, and turned down the Dolly job (and urged Merrick to drop the title song). So when only cognoscenti loved She Loves Me, he had to bounce back from Superman to reinvent the feel of the American musical with Cabaret. His work on Zorba was pretty cherce, too.

2) DAVID MERRICK had three holdovers as the decade opened (Gypsy; Destry; Take Me Along), and then produced 21 musicals in the next 98 months. In between, he helped develop Funny Girl. In nine of the decade's 10 years, Merrick produced at least one of the four Tony-nominated musicals (four times he had two of them). True, he missed 1966, but he could assuage himself with three of the four Best Play nominees, including the winner, Marat/Sade, which was almost a musical, anyway. He won one Best Musical Tony (yes, a surprisingly only once) with, of course, Hello, Dolly!, which he made a just-as-big smash nearly four years later after he thought of bringing in a black cast. Add to the mix his 1961 gambit with Subways Are for Sleeping's phony full-page ad, and that he was a frequent presence as a guest on national TV shows.

3) GOWER CHAMPION. Winning Tonys for direction and choreography in one year isn't easy. In the '60s, Champion did it three times, for Bye Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly!, The Happy Time. Sure, the last one was weak, but his two "losers" -- Carnival! and I Do! I Do! -- weren't. Did you notice, by the way, that three of Champion's show have a total of four exclamation marks in their titles? Makes sense, for his shows were that exciting.

4) JERRY BOCK AND SHELDON HARNICK started the decade with a Tony and a Pulitzer for Fiorello! Okay, they didn't get much for Tenderloin or She Loves Me, but their work was delectable on both. Then came Fiddler -- 'nuff said -- and the fun filled Tony-nominated The Apple Tree. They were respected as play doctors, too, and improved Baker Street and Her First Roman. As the decade ended, they were completing The Rothschilds. None of us, perhaps even they least of all, knew it would be their last show. Bock was 42, Harnick 46. What we've all missed.

5) JERRY HERMAN. He started the decade by squeezing in a song into a Broadway revue (From A to Z), and ended it as the composer lyricist of the decade's longest-running musical (Hello, Dolly!). In between, he had a household-name hit in Mame, too. But more important: During the middle of the decade, Herman's sound defined what Broadway was, as The-Title-Song-as-Big-Production-Number became de rigueur. While he ended the decade with a flop (Dear World), he showed he could stretch himself and write a lovely, delicate, foreign-flavored score.

6) BOB FOSSE still had his Tony-winning Redhead running as the decade began. Then he rescued How to Succeed's choreography, before getting a brace of Tonys for choreography and a couple of nominations for direction in both Little Me and Sweet Charity. Don't forget that Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical in '64 for the City Center Pal Joey, either.

7) MICHAEL STEWART. As we all know, you can't do a good musical without a good book, and Stewart provided Birdie, Carnival! and Dolly! While he ended the decade with George M., he was still then the bookwriter whom producers considered first.

8) JERRY ORBACH today may be known for "Law & Order," but he was the most valuable leading man of the musical decade. He helped to jump-start The Fantasticks into its phenomenal run, then went to Broadway with Carnival! There was no Tony nod there, but he did manage one for a City Center Guys and Dolls in '65, and won the prize in '69 with Promises, Promises -- in a charming performance that was very different from his other anti-heroic stints.

9) TOM JONES and HARVEY SCHMIDT. Is there any doubt this was their decade -- even though The Fantasticks has constantly played through every subsequent one? Though two of their Broadway shows weren't money-makers, 110 in the Shade has shown great staying power, and Celebration was a noble experiment and terrific score. And when they moved to their Portfolio Studios to do some workshops, we had every reason to believe that we'd get so much more from them in the ensuing decades. Nevertheless, you can't take those '60s away from them.

10) JULE STYNE. He makes the list, though four of his five shows were with two collaborators who don't: Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Maybe it helps to point out that their quartet -- Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping, Fade Out -- Fade In, and Hallelujah, Baby! -- were the money-losers (though good work can be found in all). Styne makes the cut because of the one they didn't do -- Funny Girl, his only '60s hit, his best work of the decade, and fodder for one of our best overtures.

Just missing the list: Onna White, who got five Tony nominations for her choreography -- and though she didn't get one for 1776, I've heard from more than one source that she was the one really helped steer the show into shape. Director Joe Layton, bookwriter Joseph Stein, composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams, second banana Jack Cassidy, orchestrators Philip J. Lang and Don Walker, designers Oliver Smith, Tony Walton and Cecil Beaton almost made it, too.

On second thought, there were so many potent forces in the '60s, maybe I should have listed "The Top 60 Musical Theatre Influences of the '60s."

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at

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