Is Two Better Than One?

I was a mere lad of 17. Well, I felt that was a good age at the time. And I was so excited, because I had been recruited to work on a production of a new musical version of the classic, episodic American play, I Remember Mama. The show was being installed at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, NY, and all of us young whippersnappers were being promised the experience of working on a show in its pre-Broadway tryout. We would even get to meet and greet the star, Celeste Holm. I mean, she had been in the original production of Oklahoma! and she would have lots of stories to tell us. (She didn’t. She was a stuck-up bitch then and later when I had to deal with her in my soap opera publication days. But I digress.)

We were all excited. Then we were all disappointed. The show, well, quite honestly, sucked. There was no musical hidden in I Remember Mama.

Imagine my surprise, several years later, when a new Richard Rodgers musical was announced: I Remember Mama starring Liv Ullmann in the title role. As lyricist Martin Charnin later explained, “Liv Ullmann was the best and worst thing that happened to that show.” Best, because she was an award-winning actress who could bring in audiences. Worst, because she couldn’t sing. And she REALLY couldn’t sing. Sadly, I Remember Mama was the last show Rodgers ever composed. It wasn’t very good. There really wasn’t a musical hidden there.

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In 1928, Joseph Moncure March wrote an epic tone poem called “The Wild Party”. In 1999, Broadway saw two musical versions of the poem, one by Andrew Lippa and the other by Michael John LaChiusa. Yes, I concede it: there really was a musical idea lurking in the poem. But TWO musicals? They were very different, yet the underlying similarities could not be disguised. And both failed to run the season. Once audiences saw one, they saw no reason to see the other, and both of them died as a result.

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We celebrate the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth this year. While he is best remembered (in some circles—not ours, I hope) for his dazzling work in classical music, he’s also much beloved for his breakthrough work in musical theatre. Shows like On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, and the much-lamented flop (which should have been a hit because his score is amazing) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But wait, there’s one Broadway musical by Bernstein missing from that list. Peter Pan. No, not that Peter Pan, you know, the televised one starring Larry Hagman’s mother. That was in the mid-1950s and is still much beloved today. No, Bernstein wrote the score (music and lyrics) to Peter Pan in 1951, starring Jean Arthur in the title role, with Boris Karloff (yes, the same actor who did all those Frankenstein movies) as Captain Hook. It had a respectable run (actually longer than the second one, which was not considered a success at the time). But thanks to the magic of television, the Bernstein one is forgotten (though an original cast album can be found if you look for it). What a pity, truly.

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Think this phenomenon of two shows from one source is anything new? Think again. Late in their careers, Gilbert and Sullivan (who weren’t speaking to each other by this point) had one of their first major failure (compared to the 12 coming before), Utopia Limited. They should have stopped then and there. They didn’t. Gilbert decided to adapt a short story called The Duke’s Dilemma—even though it had already been turned into a comic opera, The Prima Donna. Sullivan had steadfastly refused to work again with Gilbert on a number of ideas, but his resistance was finally worn down and the duo created The Grand Duke. Was it bad? That’s being kind. They never worked together again, each one blaming the other for the failure.

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Speaking of Gilbert and Sullivan, at one point there were TWO productions of a swing version of The Mikado running on Broadway simultaneously (and across the street from each other) in 19309 Both were called The Hot Mikado. Both had respectable runs. Fast forward a few decades to 1996. My old pal David H. Bell comes out with his version of Hot Mikado. It’s a brilliant and stunning production (and very funny). Alas, it died on the road but is still done in Europe. The CD is available online.

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I love Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s a seemingly small play with epic meaning (the third act always gets to me). But is there a musical there? Well, there was one done for television starring Frank Sinatra as the stage manager. It’s largely forgotten now, except it did have one hit song, “Love and Marriage” (a/k/a the theme to Married With Children). There is also a second musical version, one never making it to Broadway but with an impeccable pedigree: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade, I Do I Do, Celebration) took a stab at turning Our Town into a musical called Grover’s Corner. It was on the road for years, but it never was much good, sad to say. Another case of there really being no musical in the source material.

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This brings up to a new quandary. Billy Wilder was a cinematic magician. His credits are too numerous to name, but I’ll mention a couple. Sunset Boulevard (wait, isn’t there a musical by that name; yeah, that’s the source). The Apartment (which won the Oscar for Best Picture) became Promises, Promises on Broadway. And one of his funniest movies of all, Some Like It Hot. It became Sugar, with a book by Peter Stone, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Bob Merrill. It had a respectable run, but it really didn’t translate well to the stage. And yet, a new musical version of Some Like It Hot is heading to Broadway in 2020. Why? Sometimes, the better the source material, the harder it is to adapt well into a musical.

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So, all this begs the question: are two versions of the same source material really necessary? And if the source material really is superior, how is it being served by being turned into a musical. In a time when way too many movies are being musicalized (and not particularly well), doing the same thing again really shows a lack of creativity. Personally, I’d still rather see an original musical. But that’s just me. I’m olde. I’m grumpy. I love musicals. Just not two musicals with the same friggin’ source.

 

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a good musical. He’s also steeped in politics and American history when he’s not telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn (“And stay off!”). In a former life, he published a weekly newspaper, Soap Opera NOW!