Old Musicals You Don't Know but Probably Should

Michael Kape aka Grumpy Olde Guy
“Burns Mantle Yearbooks”. When I was a mere lad trying to steep myself in as much theatre as I could possibly find, I devoured each and every “Burns Mantle Yearbook” in my school library. Every Broadway opening—and closing. Ten edited scripts from the best plays and musicals of the year. The gossip. The dirt. The dish. Who made money? What ran the longest?

Sorry, we had no Internet back then. No looking up shows on Wikipedia. We just had to learn what had happened before we were born (and contrary to popular belief, I was NOT in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot; I was doing East Lynne in Burlington, Vermont).

I bristle when I see lists (as appeared here a few weeks ago) of “Best Musicals,” and none came from before 1970. Yikes-and-a-half! I swear some people think there was no musical theatre before the first musical they ever saw. Bulletin: musical theatre as we know it has been around since The Black Crook in 1863. Gilbert and Sullivan. The operetta era. The Princess musicals. The Golden Age of Musicals.

So, with little regard for the eras from which they came but in alphabetical order, I’ve compiled my own list of 40 Best Musicals before Hair (1968—Broadway), which helped change everything. If you don’t know these musicals, maybe it’s time you discovered them. And remember, the internet is our friend. So is Burns Mantle.

·         A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: In many ways, this is a smart-ass college boy senior thesis—write a new musical based on the low Roman comedies of Plautus with a highly-sophisticated score. But Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart—both masters of comic writing individually—crafted a truly hilarious book. And Stephen Sondheim’s score is witty, melodic, intricate, and downright funny on its own. The overture alone is one of the best ever written. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight. (An obscure but interesting side note about Forum. It was the first successful modern musical comedy done with a single set. Nothing moved in on wagons or flew in from the flies. Just a single set.) And whatever you do, don’t assume you know the show just based on the horrific and decidedly unfunny movie version.

·         Annie Get Your Gun: Fresh off the success of Oklahoma (more about that later) Rodgers and Hammerstein became producers. The story goes Dorothy and Herb Fields brought their fictionalized story of Annie Oakley—to star Ethel Merman in the title role—to the pair to turn into a musical (Mike Todd had turned them down). R&H had already picked out their next writing project (which became Carousel), so they set out to find someone to write the score. Initially, it was going to be Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. But Kern was hospitalized and died before they could get started. So, R&H tried to persuade one guy who had never written a book musical before (though he’d written plenty of revues, e.g., As Thousands Cheer with Moss Hart) to write the score. He wrote three audition songs: “Doin’ What Comes Naturally”, “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”, and a little ditty to be sung in one during a massive set change—"There’s No Business Like Show Business”. The result was a major triumph for Irving Berlin and marked an entirely new direction in his writing. And the show itself became one of the classics of musical theatre. Yeah, some of it is cringe-worthy today (I’m an Indian Too), but it is still a masterpiece.

·         Anything Goes: This was another piece originally intended to star Ethel Merman, with a score by Cole Porter and a book by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. The basic bones of the story were there—a musical set on an ocean liner—but it was centered around a shipwreck. But a real shipwreck had occurred a few weeks before the show opened (or so legend has it) and it was decided to scrap that story. The original book writers were unavailable, so director Howard Lindsay recruited Russel Crouse to help him rewrite the libretto, thus beginning one of the more successful writing teams in Broadway history. (They would go on to write the long-running Life With Father and the book to The Sound of Music.) No matter. The real story here is a triumphant score by Porter, with plenty of show-stopping gems.

·         Babes in Toyland: Composer Victor Herbert was fresh off a rousing success—a musical version of The Wizard of Oz, featuring a book by L. Frank Baum. Herbert, one of the brightest lights of the operetta era, cast his sights on writing another musical for children, this time incorporating characters from Mother Goose into a story of kidnapping, greed, and ultimate redemption in Toyland. (Do NOT compare this with the horrible Walt Disney movie of the same name with drastically altered Herbert songs and a ridiculous plot. Even Walt ending up hating it.) It has a beautiful score, with the song Toyland being one of the most moving and melodic pieces Herbert ever wrote.

·         Boys From Syracuse: Take William Shakespeare’s first known play, The Comedy of Errors. Throw into the mix the most successful songwriting duo of the 1930s, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Add in wildly funny librettist/director George Abbott. Get George Balanchine to choreograph. The result is Boys From Syracuse, which was actually written, in part, for Hart’s brother Teddy. Classic songs from this uproarious musical comedy include “This Can’t Be Love”, “Sing for Your Supper”, and “Falling in Love With Love”. The show itself, like its source, is just fun, silly, and altogether a great musical comedy.

·         Brigadoon: Lerner and Loewe wrote some classic shows (Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Camelot), but to me, this is their best work. The luscious score by Fritz Loewe can leave you gasping for breath at times (“Come to Me”, “Bend to Me”—a/k/a “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera—oops, did I say that?). The final line (“You must really love her, laddie”) leaves me in tears. A Scottish village magically appears only once every 100 years. Yup, I can thoroughly believe this premise when it’s surrounded by that score.

·         Bye, Bye Birdie: This little-known and rarely-performed piece (okay, being facetious—it’s done in high schools, colleges, and summer camps all the time) was revolutionary in its time. Based loosely on the drafting of Elvis Presley into the Army, it was the first Broadway show to include rock music within its score by Lee Adams (lyrics) and Charles Strauss (music). However, the story really centers around musical producer Albert and long-suffering girlfriend Rosie, his racist mother Mae, and yes, the McAfee family. Do not judge the original, groundbreaking show by the rather awful, truncated, refocused movie. Michael Stewart wrote a rocking book and Gower Champion crafted it into a Tony-winning musical.

·         Cabaret: Kander and Ebb. Joe Masteroff (who we sadly lost over the weekend). Nazis. Nightclubs. A ghostly Emcee. A huge success in its original Broadway run, it’s gone on to be an even bigger one in its many revivals. If you’ve only seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to see the stage version. Really.

·         Candide: Okay, this was a flop when it was first produced, but oh, that score, that overture. It took a reimagining of Candide by Hal Prince to bring this show the honor it deserves. Yes, it’s moved into the opera realm, but at heart, it’s still musical comedy based on the classic novel by Voltaire. Perhaps Lillian Hellman was not the ideal person to write the book (think Edward Albee writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s), but Leonard Bernstein’s score is a masterpiece. If you’ve never seen it, there’s a great video available online.

·         Carousel: Richard Rodgers said the best thing he ever wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II was Carousel. A lot of us agree with his assessment. Yes, it has book problems when seen through a contemporary prism (it does, after all, hinge on spousal abuse). It also has a glorious score. Unfortunately (in my opinion), it also set the template for every subsequent R&H musical. They were never really as original and daring again (though Allegro does come close for being different).

·         Damn Yankees: Coming off the success of The Pajama Game, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (score), along with George Abbott and original novel (The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant) author Douglass Wallop (book), put together the quintessential Golden Age musical. Although original producer Hal Prince says he prefers Pajama Game, Damn Yankees is the more moving, heartfelt piece. It’s love, redemption, temptation, and the devil—with some baseball thrown into the mix. And yet there’s great sorrow attached to this piece. Jerry Ross died a few months after it opened, and Richard Adler could never duplicate the team’s success on his own. The movie version is actually slightly better, with Tab Hunter making a better Joe Hardy than Stephen Douglas.

·         Fiddler on the Roof: Come on, do I really need to tell you why this is a masterpiece?

·         Finian’s Rainbow: I confess, I love this show (so much so I invested in the Broadway revival). In its time, the show tackled an array of thorny issues (e.g., racism) in a light-hearted but meaningful way. Yip Harburg (lyrics) and Burton Lane (music) crafted a beautiful and eclectic score. When the strains of “Look to the Rainbow” are played, I start crying and don’t stop until the last notes of the finale. Whatever you do, don’t judge it by the mangled movie version directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

·         Fiorello: Some things I just don’t understand, especially how this brilliant show could be so forgotten today. It won Tonys. It grabbed the Pulitzer Prize. The score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is one of their best. I know people don’t remember NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia any more (and this show is a highly-fictionalized version of his life). Still, this amazing musical stands on its own. If you’ve never discovered Fiorello, it’s not too late. Interesting side note. This was another situation where the writing team for the score was auditioned (audaciously I believe) before landing the assignment. Bock and Harnick were given the assignment to write two songs over a weekend. They came up with a couple of classics: Politics and Poker as well as Little Tin Box. ‘Nuff said.

·         Funny Girl: To be painfully honest, this highly fictional version of the life and career of Fanny Brice had major problems—like the book by Isobel Lennart is not very good or particularly truthful (omitting her first marriage and her son from the story). But then there’s the score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (I mean, for goodness sake, “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, “I’m the Greatest Star”, “The Music That Makes Me Dance”, and that little ditty, “People”). And that Styne overture—one of his best. The movie is better, but I wish it had not jettisoned so much of the original score.

·         Gypsy: It had Merman. It had Jule Styne’s music. It had Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. It had Arthur Laurents’ book (arguably the best book of a musical ever written). It had that amazing overture (arguably the best overture ever written). Seriously, if you don’t know Gypsy, can you really call yourself a fan of musical theatre?

·         Hello, Dolly: Yes, yes, yes, we should all know this hugely successful show for any number of reasons. So, instead, I going to ask you to consider some back story. Start in 1835, with the one-act farce by John Oxenford, A Day Well Spent made its debut. Fresh off his Pulitzer win for The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder adapts the original farce into The Merchant of Yonkers. It is not a success, but he adapts it again into The Matchmaker, enlarging the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi. Enter producer David Merrick (a/k/a The Abominable Showman), determined—at all costs—to make this story (then called Dolly, a Damned Exasperating Woman) into a successful musical. Michael Stewart is recruited to write the book (after his success with Bye, Bye Birdie) and Jerry Herman the score (after his modest success with Milk and Honey). Hal Prince, Joe Layton, and Jerome Robbins all turn down the directing gig, which eventually is accepted by Gower Champion. Ethel Merman and Mary Martin both turn down the lead (though both would eventually play it) before Carol Channing makes it her signature role. It opens out of town (Detroit and Washington, DC)—and flops with audiences. Merrick flies in every show doctor he knows. New material is added (and songs jettisoned). Bob Merrill is paid a lot of cash (but not credited) to rewrite Elegance and some of Dancing. New opening numbers are tested and rejected until I Put My Hand in There prevails (but is ultimately cut from the awful movie version). But the Abominable Showman finally got his way and Hello, Dolly became a smash hit, a blockbuster, and a well-loved classic.

·         HMS Pinafore: It’s difficult to pin down a favorite comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, but Pinafore was the most often produced (and loved) and successful among their early works. It’s utter nonsense, but it’s delightful utter nonsense. It set the pattern for all their subsequent works. Is it their best? To some people, yes. To me, the honor goes to The Mikado (despite the inherent and unintended racism of the piece since Gilbert really knew next to nothing about Japan). American audiences took The Pirate of Penzance to heart because its world premiere was in New York City. And then there’s always Patience. Oh, hell, just learn your Gilbert and Sullivan already.

·         How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: In its time, this show was hilarious, irreverent, and inventive. It won a Pulitzer. Today, it’s cringe-worthy, sexist, and horrifying in light of the #MeToo movement.

·         Kiss Me, Kate: Cole Porter tackles William Shakespeare and wrestles him to the ground. Though ostensibly a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, it’s really the ultimate backstage musical, with two major storylines overlaid on the Shrew story. Why? Because ultimately the Shrew story defied being turned into a musical. Its two leading characters are quite unlikable.

·         Lady in the Dark: Until this 1941 show by Kurt Weill (music), Ira Gershwin (lyrics) and Moss Hart (book, based on his own experience), psychoanalysis had never been the fodder for a musical. This brittle, brilliant piece breaks convention everywhere it can (it’s been called a straight play with three musical dream sequences). Alas, the movie version doesn’t do it justice, and the performance rights have been highly restricted, so it isn’t done often.

·         Mame: If you don’t know this show, I can’t help you. But whatever you do, don’t look at the movie version starring the totally miscast Lucille Ball (she bought the film rights). But take heart. Somewhere someone is coming down those stairs, with trumpet in hand, singing It’s Today.

·         Man of La Mancha: Again, if you don’t know this show by now, I’m taking away your Musical Fan Club card. That’s right. Hand it over. Even as you read this, some lousy lounge act singer is crooning “The Impossible Dream” (in any of dozens of languages), even though no one can sing it as Richard Kiley did originally (I speak from experience here; you’d never know it was the same song). Whatever you do, do not view the movie version with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren—both of whom had to be dubbed. (There are some rumors as to whether Mitch Leigh really wrote the music. It’s thought it might have instead been composed by a few music students, with Leigh taking credit and buying them off. This has not been confirmed, but I should note he never had another successful Broadway musical though he sure tried. His last effort, Home Sweet Homer, opened and closed the same night.)

·         Most Happy Fella: This is a show you should know but many of you likely do not know. I think that’s a crying shame, because this is truly Frank Loesser’s (book, music, lyrics) masterpiece above all others. Based loosely on Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, it tells a story of an old man in love with a young woman (who loves a young man—who gets her pregnant). One of those rare three-act musicals. The story is simple yet infinitely moving. The show has moved into the opera realm, though it’s really still a brilliant musical drama. It’s actor-proof (trust me on this) and even orchestra-proof—it’s been done successfully with just two pianos. (Whatever you do, don’t judge it by that I Love Lucy episode, which is hardly indicative of the show itself. Remember, three acts, not two, which the Lucy episode alludes to as its plot device.)

·         Oklahoma: I wrote my senior thesis in college on Oklahoma—not about the show itself (more about that shortly)—but rather about what it did. First, it brought Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein together again (they had written one song together when Rodgers was still at Columbia). It created the model for the integrated musical—in this case I refer to the integration of music, book, lyrics, and choreography. Most important, it saved the Theatre Guild from extinction. The Theatre Guild was the most daring and inventive producing organization of the 1930s, but it had fallen on hard times until it produced Oklahoma. (The Guild finally did go bust many years later.) So far as the piece itself, it’s way too long (clocking in at nearly three hours), it completely sanitizes the source material, the latently homoerotic Green Grow the Lilacs. It adds a level of unneeded racism (the Persian peddler). And the leading man literally gets away with murder. Really? The show itself did a lot of good, but I personally can’t watch it.

·         On the Town: Once upon a time, choreographer Jerome Robbins created a ballet with music by fledgling composer Leonard Bernstein called Fancy Free. It was about three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City. Everyone loved it and said it should be a Broadway musical. Bernstein called in his pals Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Thus, a classic musical came into being. Even now, decades after its 1940s debut, it’s an amazing piece. Whatever you do, DON’T even think about looking at the Hollywood version, which jettisoned most of the score and starred a woefully miscast Frank Sinatra.

·         On Your Toes: One of my two favorite shows by Rodgers and Hart, this musical about jazz dancers mixing it up with a Russian ballet company has a particular relevance today. It’s détente played out in the title song. It’s some of the best music Richard Rodgers ever wrote (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue). It’s a string of classics in the Great American Songbook (There’s a Small Hotel). You really need to know (and love) this show.

·         Pal Joey: My other favorite Rodgers and Hart show. It’s decidedly different from all their other works, and it was a major departure from typical Broadway shows at the time. The leading character is the ultimate anti-hero. He’s mean, sexist, and thoroughly unlikable—and really is not redeemed at the end. (It still made a star out of Gene Kelly.) But with a score including such standards as Zip as well as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (if you really listen closely to the lyrics, it’s really a racy song), how can you go wrong?

·         Porgy and Bess: It’s George Gershwin’s greatest Broadway show. It’s Ira Gershwin’s crowning achievement. Even the 1957 movie isn’t bad. If you don’t know Porgy and Bess, once again, I’m taking away your card.

·         Promises, Promises: Why did I include this show from 1968? It’s a likable enough musical, but it subversively broke new ground in its own way. It was the first musical (and only Broadway outing) written by Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics). The producers took a chance on an up-and-coming choreography named Michael Bennett. The orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick included voice parts in the orchestra (something he’d go on to do again with Company). And it’s the best musical book Neil Simon ever wrote. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend time in the theatre.

·         She Loves Me: In the pantheon of perfect musicals (there are a few), She Loves Me is the best. It features the best score ever written by Bock and Harnick, and an extraordinary book by Joe Masteroff. So why wasn’t it a success in its original production? I think part of the problem was director Hal Prince, who at the time lacked the deft hand needed to stage such a light confection of a musical. It’s been revived successfully—without any need to change the score or book. It’s perfect as written. If you’re not crying at the end, you have no heart. Period. Not going to discuss it.

·         Showboat: This landmark musical was the epitome of the operetta era (both Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern came right out of the genre), yet it broke entirely new ground with its integrated storyline of racial prejudice, vaudeville, and a traditional love story in a magnificent score. Integrated might be the operative word here. Until Showboat, racially mixed casts were basically not common on Broadway (there were musicals with strictly African American casts—a practice continuing until the late 1930s). Showboat is significant for another first: it was the first musical cast album ever recorded. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the original Ziegfeld production (ah, to have heard Helen Morgan) but the original London production (so we do get Paul Robeson on record singing Ol’ Man River).

·         Street Scene: Okay, this is strictly in the opera realm now, but its origins are strictly Broadway musical, with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes, and a book by Elmer Rice, based on his play. My professor in college referred to this as a “slice of life” drama. People come. People go. They love. They laugh. Life goes on. And that’s pretty much the plot. Still, it’s an extraordinary piece.

·         The Boyfriend: It’s fluff. But it’s really good fluff. Another one of those rare three-act musicals. Sandy Wilson took London and then New York by storm with this light-hearted send-up of 1920s musicals. And the original production gave us one special gift: Julie Andrews in her first starring role.

·         The Fantasticks: It’s still the longest-running musical ever (is ALW keeping POTO open just to beat this record?). Based loosely on Rostand’s The Romancers and written in a blindingly fast (by today’s standards) six weeks, it is the epitome of charm.

·         The Merry Widow: Alas, this is another great show, right out of the operetta era, decidedly gone from the Broadway musical scene (actually, the Lehar piece came from Germany) and sent packing to the opera world. But it’s not an opera. It’s light and merry, totally ridiculous, and full of plot twists and comic intrigue. But when the NY Metropolitan Opera has shanghaied a piece, you can bet we’ll never see it on Broadway again. Too bad.

·         The Music Man: Come on, is there a high school, college, or summer musical camp without a production of the Music Man in its past? From its opening rap number (what, you thought rap was relatively recent?), to the final strains (and I do mean painful strains) of Minuet in G (“Think men, think”), it’s a joyous throwback to earlier times in a fictional Iowa town, bamboozled by the ultimate con man.

·         The Pajama Game: The first musical outing of Adler and Ross (see Damn Yankees above), it’s just a fun show with a great score (who wrote the music and who wrote the lyrics is a mystery we’ll never solve).

·         Threepenny Opera: Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill adapted an old English piece, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, into a socialist tract on oppression—albeit with a jazz score (and a few songs lifted from a French author). Notably in the original production was Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya playing Jenny. She would go on to play the role again years later in the Off-Broadway production (as well as appearing in the original cast of Cabaret). Threepenny Opera is definitely a subversive piece—even by today’s standards (Beggar’s Opera is pretty benign by comparison).

·         West Side Story: Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins wanted to adapt Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a musical called East Side Story (really). They fussed with it but dropped the project until Robbins suggested moving it across town and changing the warring factions into rival street gangs. And so, they began, with Laurents adapting Romeo and Bernstein writing the score (music AND lyrics—a few of which survived in the final version; remember, Bernstein wrote the lyrics to “I Can Cook Too” from On the Town as well as both music and lyrics to his version of Peter Pan). Then Laurents ran into a young composer/lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, who’d recently completed his first musical, Saturday Night. Laurents had attended a reading of the show. So, when Sondheim inquired as to who was doing the lyrics, Laurents smote his head. He hadn’t liked the music much, but he admired the lyrics to Saturday Night. “You are,” replied Laurents. The result, of course, was West Side Story. Bernstein graciously removed his name as co-lyricist, giving Sondheim sole credit. Currently, West Side Story is being given an entirely new and reimagined production soon to open in London, as well as a new movie version being directed by Steven Spielberg. Is it a great, landmark musical? Of course it is (though Sondheim would like to ignore some of his lyrics, especially the ones in “I Feel Pretty”).


 Original Cast of West Side Story singing “I Feel Pretty”

Original Cast of West Side Story singing “I Feel Pretty”

·         Wonderful Town: “Why, oh why, Ohio. Why did we ever leave Ohio?” So sing sisters Ruth and Eileen. Good thing for us they did. Once again, Bernstein teamed up with pals Comden and Green to adapt the play My Sister Eileen into a great musical. It’s worth going out of your way to know this score. Yeah, it’s that good (though somewhat forgotten these days).

 

Are there others? Of course. I deleted more than 20 from this list even before I got started. I omitted The Black Crook—even though it started everything—because we have only some of it extant today. Still, these are the shows people should know if they want to steep themselves in musical theatre.

 

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a good musical. He’s also the administrator for Broadway Remembers, a Facebook group dedicated to theatre old and new—when he’s not telling young whippersnappers to get off his lawn.