Flop Sweat

By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)

My friend Cleo (real name Pam Gurenson—does anyone know where she is now; our mutual friend and Williamsville High School alumnus is Tony-winner Reid Birney) and I are all excited. I’ve received my first assignment to review a Broadway show. Heady stuff for a 17-year-old theatre nerd. Sure, I’d already reviewed college productions (one of my future professors really got pissed off at me when I slammed his godawful production of Everyman). But we were on our way to the final critics’ preview of an exciting new musical—Hurry, Harry.

Then we saw this musical in October 1972 at the Ritz Theatre (now the Walter Kerr). Cleo said it best as we were walking out at the end: “Well, I don’t think you have to worry about whether you agree with The New York Times. That was horrible.” (BTW, Clive Barnes in the New York Times wrote one his best pans ever; Google it.)

Hurry, Harry was a musical about a young man who is searching for his true place in life. His journeys take him to many places, until he finally discovers love in his own backyard. Sound familiar? Two months later, a musical with the same basic plot would open at the Imperial Theatre (albeit with its composer lyricist banned from seeing it—that’s a story for another time). That musical was the brilliantly directed Pippin. It certainly outlasted Hurry, Harry, which closed the night after it opened (which was two nights longer than it should have run).

Hurry, Harry was the brainchild of the same people who had created the then-popular game, Group Therapy. I don’t know what kind of hubris they had to think they had the ability to write a full Broadway musical. They didn’t.

And then there’s Dude. I’ve written about this show before. Again, on assignment as a second-night critic, I took in the wondrous show. Yes, I said wondrous, but bear with me. You need to step back to 1967, when an outrageous (at the time) new musical opened the brand-new Public Theatre. It was called Hair, and it took New York theatre by storm. By 1968, it had moved uptown (after a brief stop at a deserted disco) and took up residence on Broadway. The newest incarnation—with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, as well as music by Galt McDermot—featured wild direction by Avant Garde director Tom O’Horgan. It was brilliant. It should have won all sorts of awards. Instead, it spawned companies and tours around the globe, as well as a couple of Broadway revivals. (The first time I saw it was in Toronto, actually.)

Ragni and Rado had a falling out (many years later I asked Jimmy Rado about it, but he said it was still painful for him to talk about). So, Ragni forged ahead with a new musical (with him doing lyrics and McDermot doing the music) called Dude.

Dude has gained a certain notoriety in Broadway lore. Remember, this was 1972. It was the first musical to lose $1 million. It played less than a week at the Broadway Theatre, which had seen its interior torn out to create an environmental space, with the main playing area dead center in what would normally be the orchestra.

Here’s the thing. Dude had some wonderful moments, some great songs, and a complete mess of a book. Tom O’Horgan recrafted the material he had into some kind of fluid road show. Still, the sum of things didn’t add up to a great piece of theatre. My best memory of Dude is sitting across the aisle from Gerome Ragni and his son. Jerry spent much of the night with his head in his hands, softly whimpering.

Still, the worst thing I saw as a young (jeez, I was 17 years old—what the hell did I know? Apparently quite a bit) was a musical adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata. The star was Melina Mercouri, famous for her role as a prostitute in the movie Never on Sunday. Did I happen to mention she couldn’t sing? (Think Liv Ullman in I Remember Mama several years later for comparison.) Now, understanding Lysistrata is a pretty bawdy Greek comedy—the women of Athens refuse to have sex with their husbands until they end war—the potential for a musical was certain there (proven by Lysistrata Jones many years later, but I digress). But in this case, the director and designed went overboard, with all the men sporting huge phalluses under their costumes in the second half (one joke carried way too far). A lackluster score and a very unfunny book didn’t help matters. But it was at Lysistrata I learned a valuable lesson I would employ several times over the decades: when signs are up in the theatre saying the show will NOT have an intermission (though one is listed in the program), you can bet you’re in trouble. I was in trouble. It was so bad Melina Mercouri retired from acting altogether and became the Greek Minister of Culture.

And speaking of shows going without an intermission, I can’t leave out one of the more notorious, er, infamous, er well-known flops I’ve endured. Everyone was greatly anticipating the musical version of an infinitely charming French comedy—with a wonderfully talented cast (Oh, Pippa, why did you do this to yourself and tank your career after Hamilton?). The show was the disastrous Amélie. This was the wrong musical to do. The writers were out of their league in adapting a French film (they completely missed the whole charm thing). And the intermission listed in the program? Signs all over the theatre in Los Angeles saying Amélie would be performed without an intermission. Why? Because too many people were walking out (and if there had been one when I saw it, I would have walked out as well).

And speaking of French charm, I would be remiss without mentioning one of my favorite flops—Amour. Based on a French short story and musical, Amour oozed the very kind of French charm we want to see on stage. Perhaps that was its problem. It was too charming. I personally loved it. I don’t think the critics were in the right state of mind, which is a shame, because this tiny story about a man who can walk through walls (yeah, that’s what it’s about) was so touching and moving many of us in the audience were in tears by the end (think the last scene in She Loves Me).

I can think of one show I saw where I definitely left the theatre in tears, but not because I was moved by what I saw on stage. Starring Richard Kiley and Julie Harris, directed by Gilbert Cates, and designed by the legendary Jo Mielziner (sadly, his last Broadway effort), Voices was just as terrible a play as you can ever imagine. My friend Sloan and I stumbled into on a Friday night, just five minutes before the curtain rose. We walked in knowing it was a flop. But Julie Harris! Richard Kiley. We were poor theatre students and the box office was practically giving away student rush seats (like $3—even less than the $5 I paid to see the original Follies, and look how well that turned out). We were seated upstairs for the first act, but the ushers at the Ethel Barrymore asked us to move downstairs for Act II, since there were only a handful of people in the audience. One famous one, though. I recognized him from his appearances on television and in the newspapers. There was definitely a good reason why he was there—and why it would be the last time he ever stepped foot into a theatre.

The famous person was the ever-so-charming Mafia hitman, Joey Gallo. His flamboyant act around town made him the darling of the newspapers (think young Donald Trump, his contemporary in so many ways). Mr. Gallo was at Voices that night because his stepdaughter was a featured young actress in the play. (I’d try to explain the plot, but it wouldn’t be worth the effort.) Sloan and I saw him surrounded by a small group after the show (including his actress stepdaughter, who went on to no fame whatsoever; he had paid for the show so she could be in it). We went back to school and Joey and his entourage went to a restaurant in Little Italy. Joey—you should have come back to Long Island with us! Why? Because Joey met his doom in that Italian restaurant (talk about irate theatre critics). Gunned down because Voices was such a bad show.

“Yangpa as Rachael Marron”   by KBS is licensed under  CC BY 3.0

Speaking of gunned down, I must note The Bodyguard, touring the country but never to appear in New York City. I had the unfortunate experience of see this travesty two years ago. I really don’t want to go there, so I won’t.

Unfortunately, another show I didn’t want to go to see (but was talked into by some members of All Things Broadway) was the sequel (that should never have been written) to The Phantom of the Opera, the ill-advised, boring, unimaginative, playing-loose-with-the-facts musical dubbed Paint Never Dries by critics in the United Kingdom. I refer, of course, to Love Never Dies. There is no good reason for this show to exist except the greed of its creators. ‘Nuff said.

I might be one of the few people to have ever seen both musical versions of I Remember Mama. That’s not a distinction I enjoy. The episodic play upon which they were based does not lend itself to musicalization—even when Richard Rodgers and Martin Charnin are writing the score (for the second one). I saw the first one when I was recruited to help backstage at the late, lamented Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo. Again, I was a poor college student and the idea of participating in some way in a musical starring Celeste Holm in the title role was thrilling. Then I saw it on stage. I will say this, Celeste was charming. The score was light and breezy. The book was a disaster (but the same could be said of the Rodgers version). Hint: do not try to turn episodic plays into musicals; they just don’t work.

No, I never saw the original Carrie (though I wish I had). I was supposed to see Dance of the Vampires, but it closed before our tickets were scheduled. Bring Back Birdie closed before I had a chance to buy a ticket (my friend Jeff did see it and he said it was even worse than I thought it could be). But I did see one of the biggest, baddest, most terrible shows ever to grace a Broadway stage: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. There have been reams written about this disaster; nothing can do it justice. It went beyond terrible into new realms of bad musical writing (really—never let Bono and The Edge near a Broadway score ever again). Of course, the night I saw it, the show stopped for 25 minutes because an actor was stuck in midair (a surprisingly common occurrence).

From Dude to SM:TOTD, I witnessed some of the worst Broadway has to offer—expensive flops which should never have seen the light of day. But you know what? I’ve lived to tell the tale.


(Michael Kape a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy® has witnessed more bad theatre than anyone should. Is it any wonder he’s so Grumpy? Now get off my lawn, you young whippersnappers.)

The Stuff of Legends and the Two Guys Behind Them

I was sitting in the front row (one seat from the aisle, my reserved seat as a subscriber), waiting for Sheldon Harnick to do his hosting duties that night in 2010 for Lyrics & Lyricists, the wonderful lecture series at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. (If you live in New York and you’re not a subscriber you damn well should be—but I digress.) Little did anyone in the audience realize we were in for a legendary performance by one of the wittiest, most charming, most erudite, most brilliant man to ever have his work grace Broadway stages (and far beyond).

Of course, Sheldon being Sheldon, he made what he thought was an obscure 1953 Broadway reference, and the whole audience understood. “Oy vey,” he kvetched, looking down right at me, “you’re all just a bunch of alta kockers [Yiddish for grumpy old men]!” (BTW, I was actually one of the younger people in that audience—go figure.)

For over two hours, he regaled us with his views on crafting lyrics, how to write funny songs, and insight into working with that other legend, composer Jerry Bock. It was a night for the ages.

I mention all this as a way of introduction to this blog—a total appreciation of the work we’ve enjoyed by Bock and Harnick. (Sorry, no alta kocker kvetching from me today.) Specifically, I want to focus on five of their amazing musicals. (Okay, a little kvetching; if you don’t know these shows already, what is your problem? Get with the program because we’re talking about some of the most legendary shows—evah.)


The story goes director George Abbott and producer Hal Prince supposedly asked Bock and Harnick to write two songs on spec on a Friday to be delivered on Monday. They only said it was for a show they were considering about a figure from the New York Tammany Hall period. At that time, the guys had only written one show together, a notable flop called The Body Beautiful. So, Bock and Harnick returned on Monday morning with their two political songs—Little Tin Box as well as Politics and Poker. Remember, neither lyric makes any reference to LaGuardia by name. Of course, I’ve heard variations in this story, most with different song titles. But this one seems most appropriate (the truth is the songs were Till Tomorrow and Unfair; Politics and Poker was added on the road). Abbott and Prince hired them to write the score to their show about New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (you know, the guy named after the airport—just kidding). The show had a major impact on Broadway when it debuted in 1959.

Was it a good musical? No, it was a great musical. Sure, it played fast and loose with some of the facts (name a biographical musical that doesn’t). Unfortunately, it’s not performed as much these days as it should be (the last time I saw it was an amazing Encores production in 2013, which featured a new song—the last composition Jerry Bock ever wrote). The original score did contain one very uncomfortable lyric in “The Very Next Man” (“And if he likes me, who cares how frequently he strikes me? I'll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling, just for the privilege of wearing his ring”), which Harnick rewrote at the request of legendary chanteuse Barbara Cook (don’t worry, we’ll be getting to her soon enough).

Was it a good musical? No, it was a legendary musical. It tied with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music for the Best Musical Tony Award (though really, Fiorello is a much better show; The Sound of Music got a lot of sympathy votes due to Hammerstein’s death). It also nailed the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year (something only nine musicals have ever done).

She Loves Me

After their roaring success with Fiorello, Bock and Harnick wrote a now forgotten (but worthy) show about New York corruption in the 1890s called Tenderloin. Good score (including Artificial Flowers, a pop and punny hit in 1960), lousy book (credited to Jerome Weidman [John’s father] and George Abbott but actually by William and James Goldman [Follies]), and it made audiences uncomfortable. It had a modest run.

After Tenderloin, Bock and Harnick turned their attention to the 1937 play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklós László. MGM had already adapted it into the movie The Shop Around the Corner and the musical In the Good Old Summertime. (It would ultimately get yet another adaption, You’ve Got Mail.) Producer Hal Prince decided he would direct it (though he had not yet developed the deft hand the material required, and he often battled his leading lady).

Harnick, in the course of writing She Loves Me, says he screwed up his courage one day and approached legendary Broadway ingenue Barbara Cook. He did not know her at that time. “I’m writing a musical for you,” he told her. She was skeptical. He introduced her to “Vanilla Ice Cream”. She was hooked. (Indeed, it became her signature song as she transitioned into a cabaret star.)

I consider She Loves Me to be the perfect musical (don’t argue with me; you know I’m right). It’s a light confection. It’s also intellectually challenging (besides Great Comet what other musical uses so many references to Russian literature?). It’s funny. And it has the biggest heart of any show. If you’re not in tears by the end, then maybe you’ve had your heart surgically removed.

While not their most successful, She Loves Me is the best musical the duo ever wrote. Every couple of months, I sit down and watch the video of the revival on BroadwayHD.com just because I feel the need to see it again. And again.

Fiddler on the Roof

“You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” —Spamalot

Actually, in 1964, the thinking was you won’t succeed on Broadway if you DO have any Jews. The great fear then was Fiddler on the Roof was too Jewish for others to understand it. At the time of its opening, Bock and Harnick appeared on the Today show to say one of the first preview audiences consisted of a group of nuns. They understood it immediately. The loss of tradition is a universal story. And so, it is still going strong in some high school auditorium or local community theatre (and often in Broadway revivals).

Right after Fiddler opened, my family sojourned to the Catskills. Wouldn’t you know it. Every bad singer felt compelled to sing a song from the show, which left me feeling rather meh about the show. That is, until I actually saw it on Broadway and realized what an incredible feat Bock and Harnick had accomplished.

Nothing more need be said.


The Apple Tree

After the huge success of Fiddler on the Roof, Bock and Harnick took a decidedly different direction with The Apple Tree. It’s actually three one-act musicals focused on the theme of being disappointed when you get what you passionately want. The team also wrote most of the book (with assistance from Jerome Coppersmith)—an adaptation of three different stories. The first and strongest of the three musicals is The Diary of Adam and Eve, based on the Mark Twain short story. It’s funny (Adam is completely clueless) and it’s heartbreaking.

The strength of this show is in its highly literate and melodic score (the book not so much). Alas, it’s mostly forgotten these days (there was an Encores presentation some years back) and it does feel a bit creaky at times. No one is clamoring for a revival, but it’s a score worth hearing, nonetheless.

The Rothschilds

It’s big. It’s lush. It’s a mirror image of Fiddler on the Roof. Here the Jews start poor and end up as one of the wealthiest families in Europe. It should work better than it does. Personally, I love this score. It’s rich in texture (Bock composed some of his finest melodies for the show) and often moving (Mayer’s 11 o’clock number, “In My Own Lifetime”, helped Hal Linden win a Tony in 1970 as Lead performer in a musical over Larry Kert in Company). The book by Sherman Yellen was a complete mess, not only playing fast and loose with the facts, but doing some major time shifting which would have made Mayer over 100 years old by the end—go figure. (Yellen and Harnick would go on to do a similar disservice to history with Rex, the flip side musical to Six—or is it the other way around, since Rex came first?)

Still, it’s one of my favorite scores by Bock and Harnick. It wasn’t one of theirs. The Rothschilds marked the end of their collaboration. Was it this show causing the breakup? There are conflicting reports. One story has it Harnick was jonesing to turn Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life into a musical. Bock wasn’t interested (he might have been right if you’ve ever seen the travesty Harnick did with Joe Raposo many years later). Or it could be they fought over the firing of The Rothschilds original director (he was replaced by an uncredited Hal Prince). There’s no way to verify this.

And Then They Wrote…

After the collapse of The Rothschilds, Sheldon Harnick went on to write the lyrics to Richard Rodgers’ music for the aforementioned Rex, a flop so bad it wasn’t included in the R&H Library for many years. He contributed English lyrics to shows such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for its stage adaptation and Cyrano: The Musical. He also tried his hand at composing (he had studied to be a composer) with Dragon. In 2010, he wrote a new set of lyrics to Sunrise Sunset from Fiddler to be appropriate for same sex marriages (“When did they grow to be so handsome?”).

The two did reunite to write a new song for Fiddler, “Topsy Turvy”, for a revival (it’s since been dropped) and their final effort, a new song for LaGuardia in anticipation of the Encores revival (Bock did not live to see it done).


(Michael Kape a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy® a/k/a the resident alta kocker, is an opinionated old theatre nerd. In his opinion, Bock and Harnick are the stuff of legends.)

My Fair Lady's Biggest Problem...Solved

Elizabeth Bergmann

My Fair Lady closed its most recent Broadway revival on July 7. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, the Lerner and Loewe masterpiece first opened on Broadway in 1956 starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This most recent revival received critical acclaim and a Tony Award for Costume Design. It has been revived over and over with many stars of the stage and screen portraying these beloved characters all around the world. The movie (for all its casting controversy) is a breathtaking movie-musical that is so true to the original script that one can honestly run lines WITH THE MOVIE.

Outside these professional settings, amateur theatre groups have done the show over and over. My own Midwestern city saw three productions that all performed within two months of each other. Eliza Doolittle is a beloved role for sopranos everywhere (playing her was a dream come true for me). Higgins is a godsend for the sing-talking men of the world, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s song has been sung in auditions billions of times. The point is, the world would be a vastly different place without this amazing musical existing.


That does not mean that the show does not have its problems. By far, the biggest one is the ending, which differs from Shaw’s ending in a big way: Eliza comes back. We can bring up sexism, adding romance where it doesn’t belong, and a million other criticisms. All of these are valid issues to find within this musical, but the ending is definitely a contentious part of the show, especially with the changes this most recent revival added.

Higgins starves Eliza, threatens her with violence, and takes all the credit for her accomplishments. Eliza returns to him after he treats her horribly. I am by no means defending anything Higgins did, or saying Eliza was right to go back to him. So, how do we solve this problem? Simple: It isn’t a problem at all if you dissect these characters as much as I have.

My Fair Lady is based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, as I said. Pygmalion is named for the man with the same name from Greek mythology. Pygmalion was a man who was fed up and uninterested in women, so he sculpted his idea of a perfect woman out of ivory. When he falls in love with the statue, he prays and makes offerings to Aphrodite for a woman identical to his statue. When he returns home and kisses her, she comes to life and they get married. Many versions of the myth include her name as Galatea, and this story has inspired countless stories of an artist’s creation coming to life.

Shaw refused to give Eliza and Higgins an ending like the one in My Fair Lady because he saw it as opposing the point of the narrative. In a letter to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the first Eliza, he wrote:

“When Eliza emancipates herself – when Galatea comes to life – she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm on 'consort battleship' you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride; and this is the note until the final 'Buy them yourself.'”

Higgins rants against women because he believes none of them measure up to men in the way he wants. Rather than realizing his scope is limited, or that certain behaviors are forced upon women from a young age, he just sees them as non-intellectuals who don’t appreciate literature and the arts because they’re too stupid and emotional. As much as Eliza changes, Higgins changes even more. The best performances show his growth from a man-child used to getting what he wants to a man who learns to see the humanity in those that are different from him. The only person Higgins likes at the beginning of the show is Colonel Pickering, who is himself an educated linguist and gentleman. By the end of the show, Higgins has actually grown to care for Eliza, and even goes to his mother, a woman, for help when she disappears. He has created this incredibly strong woman out of the flower girl he found, and she is as perfect as any woman could be in his eyes. He exclaims “I like you this way!” when she defies him. Everyone focuses on Eliza’s change, but if we are to call this a coming-of-age story, a stronger case can be made for it being Higgins’s story.

This only works, however, if we are able to see him grow past his arrogance expressed in “You Did It” about Eliza’s progress. He takes all the credit for her, without seeing the admirable qualities that she already possessed, or that she cultivated in herself along the way. He can only grow to see her as a person, rather than a creation, when she stands up to him. The line he says immediately after “Without You” is so critical: “Five minutes ago, you were a millstone around my neck, and now you're a tower of strength, a consort battleship.” He needs to see her as a new, independent person, rather than just his project or pet. The best actors are able to make him see the error of his ways, without allowing him to apologize through words.

Eliza, meanwhile, comes into her own in the world of the gentry. She grows to a point of emotional maturity where she no longer cries when confronted. She learns how to navigate all parts of society, not just the working or lower classes. She finds value in herself and recognizes her abilities beyond being able to sell flowers. As freed as she can be when people don’t look down on her, however, she does also come to realize that upper class women don’t have as many opportunities as men, either. A very powerful moment comes when she’s faced with the dilemma of where she’ll go after the ball. Higgins’s immediate reaction is that she’s too good to work in a shop as planned, so he declares “You could marry, you know.” Eliza’s response to him saying that all she’s worth is marriage is heartbreaking: “We were above that in Covent Garden. ... I sold flowers, I never sold myself. Now that you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else.” The environment she’s in is impossible. So, she decides she will marry Freddy.

Now, Freddy Eynsford-Hill has a far larger role in My Fair Lady than he does in Pymalion. In the original play, he shows up once, is enchanted, and is only ever mentioned when Eliza tells Higgins her plans. His family, while certainly part of the gentility, no longer has the finances they once had, and Higgins tells Eliza that she’ll have to support him since he’s been raised to not work. In My Fair Lady, a lot of effort is put into Freddy’s devotion through “On the Street Where You Live.” He is an impressionable young man, and since many of the Eliza actresses are older, it’s not unreasonable to reach the conclusion that she can exert a certain amount of control over Freddy. She can accomplish a lot more as a respectable married woman than as a single one, and she knows this. While leaving Higgins to marry Freddy may not be financially advantageous, socially, it’s one of her best moves. There’s no reason marrying Freddy would be a terrible idea for her.

If that’s the case, then why am I not bothered by the return in My Fair Lady? Because of that power imbalance with Freddy and Eliza. I can’t think of many people who want a huge imbalance like that in their relationships, and does Eliza really want to spend the rest of her life with a man who says “I spend all my time here. It’s the only place I’m really happy” when she walks out of her house and sees him there? To me, the most important thing in My Fair Lady is the growth of Higgins and Eliza’s relationship. They grow to respect each other, and even to care, and while the script explicitly states there is no romantic attraction, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of cohabitating. By the time she leaves, Higgins sees her as an equal. He says he doesn’t treat her any differently than he does anyone else, and there is evidence of that (he’s rude to everyone regardless of his relationship to them). In fact, only Eliza seems to remember that he planned for her to move out after the bet was won. Higgins sees no problem with her continuing to live there and go about her life. He even expresses that he’ll miss her companionship in the final song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” which he has never expressed about anyone.

Okay, so Higgins wants her to come back. But doesn’t it undermine Eliza’s entire arc for her to come back to him instead of going out on her own and marrying Freddy? Well, that depends on why she comes back. There are plenty of bad reasons for her return. Is she coming back because Higgins has manipulated her into it? No. Is she coming back because it’s what he wants and she’s putting his needs first? No. Is she coming back because she can’t support herself in the world? NO (she has a plan to apprentice herself to Higgins’ rival and make money teaching phonetics). While we can’t pinpoint exactly why she comes back, I have several theories. Maybe she comes back because she’s found a home in 27A Wimpole Street. Perhaps she finds that while she doesn’t need Higgins, he seems contrite enough that if she wants to live with him, they could make it work (this especially works if his “Where the devil are my slippers?” is delivered with a smile to indicate a joke). Maybe she understands that manipulating Freddy into a marriage will just continue a sexist cycle that she’s been trying to break free from. Either way, if these are taken into consideration, Eliza can still come into her own and stay there while returning to the Higgins residence.

“But what about the new feminist ending of the revival?” I’ve not seen the revival (I’m a broke college student in the Midwest). I’ve heard various things, including a slap (which I have mixed feelings about), but from what I can gather, the gist is that Eliza does come back, but then leaves again through the audience when Higgins asks her where his slippers are. One post I read included that there is a blue light to indicate that maybe Higgins is imagining her, which I think would speak volumes to his arc. But if this is the real Eliza, her returning and then leaving again can still fit into her arc. Maybe she did come back expecting things to be different, but sees he refuses to change. She could be giving him one last chance to apologize to her. I’m sure each actress in the role presents it differently, and I’m sure each adds their own nuance. I’m interested to see if future productions keep this new ending, and how different directors and actors tackle it.

None of this changes the fact, though, that this ending is not what George Bernard Shaw would have wanted for these characters. After a 1914 production changed the play slightly to give a happier ending, he wrote a whole essay, “What Happened Afterwards,” that has since been attached to published versions of the script. To that, I have to say something that might seem obvious, but still needs to be said: My Fair Lady and Pygmalion are different shows. Yes, the scripts are nearly identical, and Shaw probably should be given a writing credit, but the shows are different. The original play didn’t include the pronunciation exercises we hear in “The Rain in Spain,” those came about in 1938’s Pygmalion film. This same film introduced the concept of a ball, rather than a party, being the test, as well as the idea of a Hungarian villain, and the musical really cemented Zoltan Karpathy as a character. If we are to say My Fair Lady must keep Shaw’s ending, then we must say the same of other adaptations that are not 100% faithful to their source material. Pygmalion alone would mean tackling all the film adaptations, as well as She’s All That, the end of Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and even the short-lived television series Selfie. Adaptations require changes, and if Lerner and Lowe wanted to change things, that is their prerogative. It doesn’t destroy Eliza’s arc. Galatea has still come to life.

Saluting Living Legends

Michael Kape

It saddens me, a lot. We honor so many Broadway people during the In Memoriam sequence at the Tonys—after they have passed away. Why the hell are we waiting until they’re gone? I mean, let’s give our LIVING legends their due. Are you with me? Good. Because all these people have dedicated their professional lives to making our lives better through their work.

And not just the performers, either. Let’s not forget the playwrights, the lyricists, the composers, the designers, the producers, all of whom have worked tirelessly over the decades to make theatre a better place.

So, the hell with the In Memoriam crap. We all have favorite memories and special moments. Here are some (and by no means all) of the living legends we should be honoring because of their body of work. By the way, living legend doesn’t necessarily mean so olde they fart dust. Some of these are people who are still vibrant and contributing every single day.

·         Chita Rivera—C’mon, gang, Chita Rivera is a national treasure, a triple-threat actor/singer/dancer who’s still going strong. She’s been gracing the boards since appearing in a touring production of Call Me Madam in 1951. Along the way, she’s done some other work like West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, The Rink, The Visit, and many, many more. If Broadway conferred sainthood, Rivera would have already been canonized long ago. Am I right or am I right?


·         Jerry Herman—Let’s just look at a partial list of the shows he’s written and/or performed in: Milk and Honey (a favorite of my parents, now pretty much forgotten except for the song Shalom, which is still stunningly beautiful); Hello, Dolly! (I think it can be classified as a mega-hit in its time and today); Mame (because, well, it’s friggin’ Mame); Dear World (an under-appreciated musical today); Mack and Mabel, probably his best score (he says so and I have to agree with him) surrounded by an unfortunate book; The Grand Tour, a kind of mixed bag of a show; La Cage Aux Folles, which is quite the award-winning musical; Jerry’s Girls, his salute to his own leading ladies in which he also appeared onstage; Mrs. Santa Claus, a charming television movie which should be a Yuletide classic; and A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine for which he contributed three songs.

·         Angela Lansbury—Forget for a moment she was already a Hollywood star and Oscar-worthy actress before she set foot onstage (and she’s still gracing movies like Mary Poppins Returns). Just look at what she’s done on Broadway to qualify for Living Legend status: Anyone Can Whistle, Mame, Dear World, Prettybelle (okay, let’s forget that one), Gypsy, The King and I, Sweeney Todd, Deuce, and Blithe Spirit. Multiple Tony Awards and some time spent doing a little television series, Murder She Wrote, in which she managed to feature many of her Broadway co-stars over eight seasons.

·         Sheldon Harnick—Not only an extraordinary lyricist, but truly one of the funniest and most articulate people you could ever hope to encounter. With late composer Jerry Bock, he managed to earn legendary status with such shows as Fiorello (Pulitzer Prize), She Loves Me (a perfect musical in my opinion), Fiddler on the Roof (currently being performed in Yiddish Off-Broadway), and The Rothschilds (oy, what a great score). He’s just amazing.

·         Andrew Lloyd-Webber—Give the man his due, from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to School of Rock, ALW has managed to eke out a few hits along the way. Do I really need to remind everyone of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Starlight Express, and the little show still at the Majestic, Phantom of the Opera? ‘Nuff said (as in don’t mention the duds because it’s not nice).

·         Patti LuPone—Is there anything she can’t do or hasn’t already done? There is only one Patti.

·         Mandy Patinkin—Because his voice has been touched by God and he’s been generous to share it with us in Evita, Sunday in the Park With George, and The Secret Garden. I’ll be nice and not mention Follies in Concert.

·         Bernadette Peters—I think the theatre list alone speaks for itself: George M; Dames at Sea; On the Town; Mack and Mabel; Song and Dance; Sunday in the Park With George; Into the Woods; Annie Get Your Gun; The Goodbye Girl; Gypsy; A Little Night Music; Follies; and Hello, Dolly! It can’t be matched.

·         Audra—That’s all I need to say.

There are many, many more I can name and will in a future installment. Two people I’ve intentionally omitted from this list because their careers are amazing separately and together; they deserve more intense examination—Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim.

So, who are your Living Legends? Who are the people who delivered performances so memorable over the years they’ve risen to legendary status? Who do you want to see included in this pantheon of the greats? Let’s not wait until they are gone before we honor the best of the best of Broadway.

(Michael Kape a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy® does his level best to honor the past, present, and future Broadway living legends. Sadly, he remembers when many of them were young up-and-comers. He is also administrator for Broadway Remembered on Facebook, which features a new tribute to a living legend every day.)

My 1776 Love, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Film Adaptation

David Culliton

If I’ve learned anything from the countless hours I’ve logged watching extremely nerdy, thirty-minute-plus video essays on YouTube, it’s that the theatre and the cinema are two VERY different beasts. While both share the basic aesthetic of longform entertainment, the creative processes and indeed the appealing aspects of said entertainment varies from form to form. This is relevant to the discussion of adaptations, whereupon the creative products of one medium are translated into another. It is the rule of thumb that, for various reasons, you cannot directly and exactly recreate those creative products between mediums, or else risk many of the best aspects of the original being lost in translation. For example, had the entirety of Victor Hugo’s revolutionary magnum opus been put into that little indie musical adaptation nobody’s probably heard of (something about a bunch of miserable French people?), the audience would be subjected to a 5-hour derge that nobody would ever want to sit through. Excess needed to be trimmed, character beats expanded to fit a more theatrical setting, etc. When it was adapted into a movie, changes were then made to make THIS adaptation fit the silver screen rather than a box stage & a turntable. While I’m aware that how effective these changes were is still up for debate even seven years later, Tom Hooper and crew at least recognized that the show had to be meaningfully transformed to fit the new medium to a point where many viewers were able to concede that the movie felt like more than just a boring retread of the show. Compare this with adaptations like the Phantom of the Opera or Rent movies, who don’t meaningfully change enough of their source material to fit (or even warrant) their cinematic presence, and consequently did NOT fare well critically upon release. I won’t dive into too much detail as to why (if you’re curious, go watch Lindsay Ellis’ videos on the two movies- I cannot recommend her content enough!!), but suffice to say the refusal to make changes to either show that fit the aesthetic and form of film makes their executions feel clunky and lackluster.

If this issue is prevalent in movie-musical adaptations of the last 10 years, it was even more so 50 years ago, and much more thorny to boot. Movie-musical adaptations then are comparable to Marvel movies today. They were the big spectacle blockbuster events of the season, and studios would sink millions of dollars into the production, promotion, and release of these films, even touring some of them on roadshows to build hype before wide releases. The problem was that not all of these big budget cinematic marvels were huge hits, and I’m sure it won’t shock you to know that two of the most infamous flops of this era, Camelot and Hello, Dolly!, were massive, $15-million-plus expensive attempts to recreate the magic of the original shows in order to squeeze as much money out of the prestigious movie musical genre that seemed while refusing to actually engage with the material in a meaningful way. They put the stage shows on screen, and while Camelot cut some things for time & Dolly added a Louis Armstrong cameo, not enough was done to either to make the musicals work as movies and both failed tremendously, both at the box office & with audiences. Dolly was so disastrous, in fact, that it became known as the one that maimed the genre into nonexistence for about 3 decades. There, of course, were still musical adaptations that popped up in the cinemas between 1970 and the late 90s/early 2000s, but they touted much smaller budgets, safer risks, and stories that worked well onscreen and kept up with the sensibilities of the times (as opposed to movies like Camelot and Dolly, both of which were accused of being outdated and out of touch with the prevalent social themes of the day). These films, such as Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hair, performed well and received well and kept the genre alive long enough to see the release of Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, both of which are seen as responsible for putting the movie musical back on the map. (Quick side not before we get to the main attraction that the history I just detailed is a GROSS oversimplification of how all of this went down in the industry and I once again refer you to Lindsay Ellis to give you a better picture in her video “The Death of the Hollywood Movie Musical”).

Amidst all of this came a modest little adaptation of a modest (though award-winning and well-received) musical three years after Dolly crashed and burned its way through its wide release. The musical, and subsequent movie, was, of course, Peter Stone’s 1776. While it didn’t boast the massive budget of the infamous flops that predated it (only clocking in around an estimated $4 million), it did sport some of their other trademarks. For one thing, it was a musical about the founding of America that doesn’t comment all that much on how that creation led to the America we have today/had in 1972. While the musical notably did premiere during the Nixon administration and Vietnam, being lobbied by the administration to remove the song “Cool, Considerate Men” for its less-than-glowing depiction of the American right wing, it didn’t comment all that meaningfully on the world around it, opting instead for traditional sensibilities akin to what got Dolly and Camelot criticised for being out-of-date. Most notably, the adaptation AGGRESSIVELY refused to change the script or score of the show, putting the entirety of what could be seen in the Broadway run on film and even ADDING a few moments to bring the film to a whopping ~180 minute run time. The film also brought a majority of the show’s original Broadway leads onboard to reprise their roles, only adding to the feeling of the movie simply replicating the stage musical. And while the original theatrical release of the movie did cut down the runtime to just over 141 minutes, the spirit of a direct adaptation that makes no significant alterations to the source material was still present, and you should know the punchline already. The movie only earned just over $6 million at the box office, thus obtaining a meager $2 million in profit after breaking even on the budget, and was received pretty tepidly by critics and audiences despite using the same script and score that won the original Broadway production the Tony Award for Best Musical. Once again, a movie-musical adaptation didn’t engage with its source material to consider how it plays on the big screen, and so audiences found themselves bored and not caring a whole lot about the story of the fate of our country. By all accounts this film is an overlong mess that has absolutely no right to exist.

President Richard Nixon with the cast of  1776  after a performance in the East Room of the White House

President Richard Nixon with the cast of 1776 after a performance in the East Room of the White House

So… is it bad that I deeply love the fact that we have this movie in all its near-three-hour glory?

First off, I should lay my cards on the table and say that the reason I have such a strong affection for this movie is due to my love of the musical itself. 1776 is a musical that has some risky elements that pay off gloriously. There’s an infamous 30 minute Continental Congress scene in the play solely dedicated to the goings on in that Pennsylvania meeting hall, both on and off the record. Said scene has absolutely no music, sung or instrumental, which is a tricky thing to pull off smack in the middle of act one of your MUSICAL. And yet, the scene is brilliantly written and really helps immerse the audience in the history their watching and give it personality and stakes with spoken word alone. In fact, the whole show often reads like it should be a straight play, which would make a lot of sense for a realistic retelling of the founding of the United States as jam packed with dry political conversations as this show is. And yet, Stone insisted that this show had to be a musical, giving it songs to add variety and levity to a more serious and dry book. The music that was added has a consistent-ish period feel but can be very bombastic in style. The “Yours, Yours, Yours” scene comes right out of nowhere and sounds like a modern-ish love ballad and “Molasses to Rum” plays like a Scenes-From-An-Italian-Restaurant-style mashup of different motifs. And yet, that gamble pays off, too! Sherman Edwards’ score, though bombastic, IS outstanding, the lyrics are clever-as-all-get-out, the music is powerful, and you’re guaranteed to come out of the show singing at LEAST one of the songs. The antagonist songs are honestly intimidating, the happy songs are thoroughly joyful, you get a fantastic feel for the characters with each song, and John’s power ballad at the end is impressively poignant-- you really feel for his plight. And that score combines well with the book to give us a libretto filled with witty exchanges between our forefathers and some strong characterization for all of the show’s MANY main and supporting characters. I think it also resonates with audiences because (to steal some more from Lindsay Ellis) it’s very assuring of the American experience, showing the resilience of its people to create our great nation from the ground up and fight off the advances of its mother country.

Now, if this all works so well onstage, where did it go wrong on screen? Like I said, perhaps the biggest problem was the people behind the movie not editing a single thing about the original script so as to keep movie audiences engaged, making scenes that are riveting onstage into se quences too long and dry for the average moviegoer. The overall effect of this is a long and often tiresome experience as a LOT of the length is due to the endless dialogue in these drawn out congress congress scenes which onscreen doesn’t always come across as particularly exciting despite some smart comedy and strong drama interspersed into the scenes. It’s a long slog that amounts to what probably doesn’t feel like an impressive payoff. There is no big final song, no mind-blowing final line of dialogue; it simply ends with members of congress coming up and signing the Declaration of Independence one by one as the liberty bell rings.

Sorry, spoiler alert.

There’s also nothing added to the historical ending we already know: the declaration is passed and signed, America officially strives to become the independent nation we know today and it ends exactly how you could picture it ending: a bunch of guys in a room signing a big sheet of paper. Sure, they’re important guys in an important room signing an important sheet of paper, but the imagery wouldn’t be too stirring to your usual audience member in the middle of the Vietnam era. This movie came to us at a time of increased cynicism about the American experience and the movie almost seems to be attempting to reinspire enthusiastic patriotism without showing the audience any sympathy for the political turmoil that so many people felt during the war, which I believe only helped to turn people off to the movie.

Now, when you adapt something to the screen, if you’re not going to change all that much about the material for the screen you should at LEAST try to visually engage with the material in a way that justifies its existence as a movie. Basically, you’ve gotta ask yourself what the medium of film can add to the pre-existing work, and showing off cool cinematography techniques to add to the visual storytelling of the piece is one answer you could have for that. 1776 seems to attempt this, but its cinematography has a bizarre dichotomy between neverending medium shots and weird attempts at different angles and tricks at what feel like arbitrary times. For instance, in the Lees of Old Virginia sequence, there’s this bizarre long take where Ben Franklin is persuading Richard Henry Lee to get a proposition for Independence from Virginia’s delegation. It’s not a shot that directly faces our main characters though, like a lot of long takes in modern cinema. It’s an overhead as they circle around this giant fountain and you can’t help but focus not on the scene, but on how the lines they’re saying HAVE to have been dubbed in because there’s no way the dialogue could be heard from that far away. It’s distracting. There are no other shots in the movie like it and it just strikes you as so out of place. In “Molasses to Rum”, there’s this bizarre edit where we see Rutledge from both the front and the back as he re-enacts a slave auction, both of the shots kind of transparently laid over each other in a slow fade from one to the other. Why do they edit the song like that? Why are his movements in the two shot so out of sync sometimes?? WHAT DOES THAT OVERLAY MEAN??? Who knows, that’s just how the director and cinematographer felt like dealing with this song sequence. These decisions serve to only take the audience out of the experience while they scratch their heads as to why exactly the movie has decided to look like this all of a sudden, so its attempts at interesting visual storytelling isn’t an improvement over the original in any way. This movie reads and acts like a filmed play. Minimal changes to the script means minimal changes to the general tone of the piece means a very theatrical feel persists, which would turn off a lot of moviegoers. 1776 the movie is 1776 flavors of wrong when it comes to stage-screen adaptations. So… why do I love it so much?

For one thing, I’m going to admit here and now that I am a bit of a purist. 9 times out of 10, I’m a proponent of a musical being superior to any movie adaptation that may come of it because there’s a magic to a live stage show that most movies either can’t capture or most Hollywood bigwigs are too afraid to ACTUALLY try to capture, although I think there are some exceptions (I’ll always prefer the movie version of Hairspray to the stage show, for example). But this is a direct translation of the stage musical and honestly? It just works for me. Because the movie has that very stagey feel to it, I find it hugely entertaining EVEN in the drawn-out scenes in the Continental Congress. And moreover, like I said earlier I love how this script is written. The dialogue is fantastic. Unexpectedly raunchy when the show needs some levity (there’s a quip early in the movie when a delegate is missing a vote because he’s gone to the restroom that “Rhode Island passes”), dramatically affecting when a critical moment is at hand (a great moment when Adams and Franklin are fighting over a contentious slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence comes when Franklin yells in Adams’ face that “THE QUESTION HERE IS INDEPENDENCE!”), and overall just intelligent. I don’t know if I’ve EVER seen something as intelligently written yet thoroughly comprehensible as 1776, except perhaps Hamilton which, by all accounts, is its theatrical successor.

Another thing is, even though I was complaining about some of the bizarre cinematographic choices, I personally feel like the medium of film does add some je nais se quoi for the betterment of this material. First of all, the ability to film in different locales gives all the settings of 1776 a very authentic feel, while most productions of the musical, especially the original Broadway production, have a much less diverse feel to their set design. The movie feels like the late 18th century. You feel immersed in the time and place. And the cinematography has some fantastic moments, especially in the songs. The congress scenes do a good job at mimicking the mood of the scene, though it’s more so with the negative moods than the positive, whether it be claustrophobic, chaotic, lonely, tense, or happy & energized. And those songs! “Sit Down, John” has the freezing and unfreezing congress members, the bits with Abigail Addams have the gorgeous veil of a dream sequence, “The Egg” has those great shots of our main trio coming to a conclusion about our future nation, “Mama, Look Sharp” has that dramatic lighting and the fading in backup singers of McNair and the Leather Apron and that harsh fade back to congress at the end, “Molasses to Rum”’s weird half-fade thing, however bizarre I think it is, looks really cool and makes it cinematically memorable, especially when it finally focuses on one shot when Josiah Bartlet jumps up and has his line (“For the love of God, Rutledge, please!”), “Is Anybody There” has those great shots where John Adams is alone in Congress but filling the space with his commanding presence and resolve, “But Mr. Adams” has the staircase, “He Plays the Violin” has the waltz and the playoff, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” (my favorite song in the show if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose), has the minuet while Thompson reads the letter and the shot as they all come out of Independence Hall and board their carriages, the finale has the fade to the painting and the gorgeous long take, OH, it’s all just so darn good! The only song I can think of that has major problems cinematically is Lees of Old Virginia because of its overhead shots feeling weirdly voyeuristic. One could argue the high angle is meant to reflect Lee’s high-soaring optimism (though I somehow doubt that was the point since of all the shots in the song itself that are grounded and standard). That’s just one miss out of close to 20, though. These songs make what should be a 3-hour slog feel like a dynamic look into the birth of our nation.

AND THE ACTING! BY GOD THE ACTING!! This film has no huge names in it, no one you’re going to look at and go “OH I KNOW HIM/HER FROM THAT ONE THING” unless you’re an overly-obsessed broadway buff like me, a fan of watching Prolia commercials, or are one of those 90s kids who never lets us forget about “Boy Meets World” and just loves you some Mr. Feeny (seriously, while William Daniels is known in the TV world mostly as that dude who played Mr. Feeny in “Boy Meets World,” the Broadway community knows him as that dude who played John Adams in 1776). But these actors make up for unrecognizability with LOADS of believability and well-constructed pathos. This is a musical that just feels REAL. Like, sure, Ben Franklin breaking out into song may not be the height of realism, but to a great extent it feels like you’re taking a peek in on congress on those fateful summer days. Not once do I find myself thinking “wow that moment seemed really forced” or “what an awkward line delivery.” These actors are dedicated and invested, and their performances come out as nothing less than organic. THAT, more than anything else, is what keeps me engaged for those 3 hours. I think it actually HELPS that the biggest name in this movie is young Blythe Danner. If they had thrown in random star power, I don’t think I would’ve been as convinced of these characters. If that were… ohhh let’s say MICHAEL DOUGLAS admonishing congress in the opening number I would be too distracted with thinking “wait why did they put Michael Douglas in ANOTHER movie musical” to recognize him as John Adams in the flesh. If Lucille Ball were singing about “violin bow joke here” instead of the woman best known for being Gwenyth Paltrow’s mother, I’d probably be laughing too hard at that vaseline filter over her to be like “oh how cute Martha Jefferson is singing an innuendo song for her dear Tom.” This is a perfectly assembled and perfectly not-famous cast for getting this to feel just right. I think above all, the strong performances across the board are my favourite thing about this movie that keeps me coming back for more. These performances, these flawless embodiments of our country’s historical figures, take an artsy, MUSICAL retelling of America’s founding, and gives it a surprising integrity that’s hard to find anywhere else.

Overall, this movie in its undoctored cut is a bit of an overlong, probably-boring-to-most-people hot mess. But that’s kind of what I love about it. For all its flaws as a cinematic adaptation, 1776 trades that for succeeding in a way that very few movie musicals do- preserving its obscure source material to a tee in ways that feel moving, engaging, and oh so real, with ne’ery a blemish of self-embarrassment or stunt-casting-fueled bad performances in sight. This film is a direct theatrical translation and proud of it, a feat that, in my mind, puts it among my favourites in the movie musical genre. And maybe, if you give it a watch either on DVD, Blu-Ray or Putlocker (sssshhhh you didn’t hear that from me), it will for you too. With the 4th of July coming up, I cannot recommend enough that you find this movie somewhere and give it a watch. While you won’t find any great insights about the America of today packed into this movie, it more than makes up for its refusal to provide relevant commentary with the experience of watching a history teacher’s valiant attempt at breathing humanity into the stuffy John Trumbull paintings and stiff textbook lessons all of us take for granted about the creation of America DECADES before Hamilton made it cool. In my mind, this alone, along with the smart writing, fantastic cast, and brilliant score, make the locating and watching of the mythical, near-three-hour extended director’s cut worth every single second of the time you spend doing so. Happy early 4th of July to all my American readers, and happy watching to everyone willing to give this forgotten little cinematic behemoth a try.

Till then, I am as I ever was and ever shall be: yours, yours, yours truly,

A History of the Tony Awards

At the time you’re reading this it is Tuesday, May 11th two days after the Tony Awards and it’s very possible all hell has broken loose. All pun intended but at the time of writing this the Tony Awards haven’t aired yet, I haven’t seen what opening James Corden has planned, whether the shows chose the right song to use or not (Ahem looking at you Mean Girls), or anything for that matter, all I have to go off of are nominations and the nominations I find most interesting are the nominations for Best Musical. Beetlejuice, Hadestown, The Prom, Ain’t Too Proud, and Tootsie are all great and it’s definitely going to be close. Or for you was close. This whole thing is kinda confusing so if you don’t mind I’d like to rewind from June 9th and June 10th and well 2019 in general to take a look back at some of the Best Musical winners in years past. A.K.A An excuse for me to talk about a lot of shows I’d like to discuss but don’t want to write a full article about.


A “Nicely Nicely” Place To Start

I wanted to start with something classic. Not controversial or interesting really, It gives us our bearings to go forward. The first Tony Awards I want to look at is 1951 when the winner for Best Musical, or at the time “Outstanding Musical” as it was called, was Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. The “Outstanding Musical” category was actually added in 1949 with Kiss Me, Kate but I’ll be honest I know very little about that show or the winner after it South Pacific. You can call me an ametuer but I just never really liked Shakespeare or Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I do love me some Guys and Dolls. This is a show I want to do a full article about sometime in the future because I find it highly interesting and it’s one of my top 5 favorite musicals so I’ll probably just touch on it here. Guys and Dolls is a highly entertaining comedy about Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit and the situations they find themselves in because of love. The show was adapted from the short story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” by author Damon Runyon which I promise that I will be reading in the future before that main article comes out because from what I’ve heard characters and plots from his short stories are all mixed together in the musical and if that’s true this makes Guys and Dolls the Runyon equivalent of Seussical and this needs to be elaborated on further in the future. Anyways, the show opened on Broadway in 1950 and obviously was a huge success running for a 1,000+ performances. Guys and Dolls is seen as one of the essential golden age musical and in my opinion one of four defining 50’s musicals. It’s hard to tell what officially was nominated and it ran against for the Tony Award since to my knowledge nominees weren’t made public until the 10th Tony Awards in 1956 but I can make my best guesses at the very least that it’s biggest contender was a Peter Pan musical, most likely not the one you’re familiar with though. There are a lot of Peter Pan adaptations. Guys and Dolls did pretty well over all too winning 5 of the 12 possible categories including Robert Alda as best actor in a musical, George S Kaufman as best director, and Michael Kidd as best choreographer. It’s scenic designer didn’t win which I’d debate for it’s incredible sewer set but the guy who did win is listed for 3 different musicals so I suppose at least one of those was probably jaw-dropping. I honestly can’t lie, I’ve never been too interested in the original production of Guys and Dolls. I mean it’s the focal point since it was the one that won best musical but it’s nowhere near as cool as all of the stuff that came after. Like, four years later MGM (Yikes, remember them?) would release a movie based on the musical starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in the lead roles which for people not adverse in 50’s knowledge, let me tell you that I thought long and hard of what if anything to compare that too or what a movie with that kind of star power would be today and I couldn’t. I just could not. The movie itself is great and it’s held up really well but it probably helps having one of the best singers and actors of all time in the lead roles. Then there was the all black revival in 1976 which I want to know a lot more about than I do, and the 1992 revival that brought the world’s biggest glo up to the logo. I mean go look at the paper cut out one on the album from the 50’s and then the new one with the dice in the logo. It’s gorgeous and I love it and then they tried a new thing in 2009, and it was a nice try but not quite the same. Have I mentioned yet I love Guys and Dolls? You know what, let’s move on before this section becomes any longer than it already is. Oh wait, why did it win best musical? Because it’s Guys and Dolls. It’s great.

Street Gangs vs Marching Bands

Seven years later we finally have knowledge of the official nominations and jeezus beheezus criminy christmas was 1958 one heated year. There’s two musicals you need to know (Oh, Captain, Jamaica, and New Girl In Town are cool I guess) but let’s talk about the fact that Music Man and West Side Story went head to head in the same year. Robert Preston vs no one, because West Side Story’s actors got no nominations, Leonard Bernstein vs Meredith Willson (doesn’t actually matter because Best Original Score still doesn't exist), Jerome Robbins vs Bob Fosse but we already stated that we don’t really care about New Girl In Town and that was the show Fosse was tied to but it’s still a huge battle overall and still easily one of the most controversial decisions in Tony history mainly because nobody knows what should have won. If you look at it there’s a lot of good to look at. Both have stellar scores, good books, great choreography, and are all around very good shows that have earned their place as some of the most important golden age musicals. So if I had to make a decision it would be really hard. West Side Story certainly had better choreography and the Tonys supported that. Robert Preston absolutely sold the show and the Tonys reflected that and so when it comes to everything else, the story and the score. It’s certainly hard. At first thought I wanted to give the music aspect to Berstein but Willson’s marching band-esque score was new and exciting and I personally think the music in The Music Man conveys its messages better than the music in West Side Story but even that is just barely my opinion and would certainly change from day to day. So when it comes down to its book that’s the aspect that makes the winner clear to me. The Music Man certainly has a very interesting and enjoyable story that is still as endearing today as it was then but West Side Story is incomparable. Yes, it is based on Romeo and Juliet which makes it not completely original but I find that brilliant. It uses a conflict in the past in a new way to express a conflict that was serious at the time and it does end up being a slightly subtle and well done look at immigration and racism. I say slightly because it is very clearly there but I feel like it fits into the show in a way that the story merges well with its theme. To talk in full about what West Side Story’s script does right would take a long time and get off of our topic entirely, but the thing that absolutely cements this show book for me is the ending. For those of you who don’t know a spoiler alert is in affect I guess, Romeo and Juliet was written 400+ years ago but whatever. Tony dies and then one of the most ballsy things in musical theatre history happens. Seriously, Les Misérables didn’t even have the gall to do this, they added an upbeat song at the end so the audience can leave on a good note. The show ends with nothing but a funeral procession. No final song to leave the audience with just some music and it’s over. Imagine if Jean Valjean just died and the lights came up, yeah that’s how insane West Side Story is when you really look at it. To give you an idea of how crazy  this would have been, My Fair Lady which opened 2 years prior changed the ending of the show to make it “more happy for the audience” when it wasn’t originally intended to be that way, but these gods came out here and said “No we’re not doing that”. Even Sweeney Todd ends with a reprise of the opening song, but West Side Story ends with nothing at all and is the ultimate spit in the face at the idea that “every musical ends with a happy ending.” It lost to The Music Man. The Music Man won Outstanding Musical in 1958. Bad decision? That’s up to you because I do really love The Music Man and plenty of people have stated they disagree with me. If you do see yourself in my party you can rest with the fact that both West Side Story and The Music Man would go onto be made into a movie in the early 60’s and only one would win The Best Picture at the Oscars...and it wasn’t the marching band one.

A Bloody Brilliant Breakthrough

By this point we’ve talked about Stephen Sondheim a fair bit, probably more than I should have to be honest but I hope you’re not tied because I plan to talk about him more, because we’re going to talk about his best show unless you think the other one is his best show which in that case go ahead and skip down to the next section and if you think I’m talking about Assassins or Company then dial your expertise back a bit because we’re not going that in depth. We’re talking about the 1979 winner for best musical, Sweeney Todd. Now back when I first joined the blog about a year ago, good lord time flies by, I had originally planned on a series discussing the history of Broadway by looking at the most influential musical of decade starting with Oklahoma, the one I did do. Not my best but what can you do. There’s several ones I had planned I’m really sad I never got to write about but the 70’s submission Sweeney Todd is one of the ones I was most excited to write. Now I don’t personally know how influential Sweeney Todd was overall. It didn’t usher in a new age of dance, or rewrite the musical standard, well wait maybe it did do that just a bit. No, the thing that makes Sweeney Todd easily the most important musical of the decade and by that standard one of the most important of all time is that it’s the musical that in my opinion definitively proved that you could have a musical about anything from a horror adaptation to a spelling bee and it could work and be well, kinda successful. It wasn't much at first but there’s absolutely no denying the success of it today and it’s a perfect example of the growth of musicals that we can go from one of Sondheim’s first ever works in 1958 which itself was an important break from a bunch of ritzy musicals that always had happy endings to a musical about a guy who splits people's throats and they show it in full graphic onstage, incredible! Sweeney Todd is easily one of the strangest adaptations and it was a significant first step because I don’t know that anyone but Sondheim and his music which is masterfully composed and deeper than just the face value of the lyrics could have made a show so certain to fail in musical format work to such an astounding degree. Sweeney Todd won Best Musical in 1979 against some competition like The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, but nothing that seriously stood against it and it’s award. It's a brilliant musical that defied all odds to become one of Sondheim’s best if not his best, but there's a camp of people you'll see that disagree.

Broadway's Biggest Battle

About ten years later It’s time for a rivalry to be born with two nominees specifically that are going to clash for Best Musical, one that many would consider the best musical theatre composer of all time’s Magnum Opus, Into The Woods. The other a similarly established composer with some big names under his belt who is about to make his magnum opus as well also known as the single most successful musical of all time that will lead to him becoming the most successful musical theatre composer of all time with his musical, The Phantom Of The Opera. It’s the Broadway battle to end all Broadway battles. Stephen Sondheim vs Andrew Lloyd Webber. Sondheim’s submission, Into The Woods, is an interesting take at fairy tale characters who find themselves tied together with the threat of giants looming overhead. The other an epic about a masked man who lives beneath an opera house and longs for one of the singers. When it comes to music, Sondheim is known for his complex scores and Into The Woods is no different. Webber also creates a great score with Phantom that conveys the dark and heavy mood of the show well. Phantom is a much bigger show overall especially with it’s showstopping scene where a giant chandelier crashes into the audiences and Into The Woods is very minimalistic and relies heavily on its music and story.  In the end despite Sondheim’s tony winning history, Phantom took home the award. One of the first milestones in it’s long line of success. In a way Webber dethroned Sondheim and they’ve never had shows line up to have a rematch to this day. Do I think this decision was right? Well, yeah probably. Into The Woods is a beautiful show that I discover more about every time I see it but Phantom is bigger in just about every way. It doesn’t have the same meaning and depth to it’s music I’ve come to love Sondheim for, but it makes up for it with an epic and overwhelming story and score. There simply was no stopping Phantom once it got rolling, not even by the great Stephen Sondheim and the debate that pins Sondheim against Webber for best musical theatre composer still goes on to this day.

The Worst Tony Awards Ever

Ok, alright let’s just talk about this for a second because holy good lord this is just the worst year, the single worst Tony Awards of all time. I don’t care what you guys think of Dear Evan Hansen vs Great Comet because this one is the worst decision of all time. The year is 1991 and several musicals have just opened on Broadway and are prepared to be adjudicated for the Tony awards. In the end several musicals will get nominations but only 4 will get nominations for the most prestigious award of all, The Best Musical unless you don’t have music then it’s Best Play but also sometimes plays have music like Choir Boy or Peter and the Starcatcher so I mean… It’s the one that ends it so it’s the best, there. That’s a good enough reason. Anyways there were 4 musicals up for this award and odds are you’ve heard of all of them. The first one was Once on This Island by Ahrens and Flaherty. Another one was The Secret Garden based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett with music by Lucy Simon, who didn’t do any other shows but didn’t need to because The Secret Garden is a magnum opus and a musical that was written by a composer known for previous shows and wasn’t his Magnum Opus, Miss Saigon by Boublil and Schonberg. Anyways some seriously good musicals against Will Rogers Follies by Cy Coleman. Now a lot of you probably don’t know that musical. Before researching some things about The Secret Garden I didn’t either. I do know Cy Coleman but better for his musical Barnum so I can say at least that he has good music but nothing that could ever compare to The Secret Garden...oh and the others. Alright, now just listen because you’ve probably heard of The Secret Garden. It’s kinda like Parade in the fact that you may never have listened to it but you’ve heard someone talk about how good it is and it really is. All of the music is gorgeous and it’s orchestrated so that each character has a different type of sound. I don’t have to sell you on Miss Saigon because it’s music is pretty much Les Mis and you are lying to me if you say you haven’t listened to that and then there’s Once on This Island with music by composers who have a lot of other musicals I like a lot more, like My Favorite Year. Underrated classic, no one talks about but some of the songs are amazing. Anyways, the point is to tell you that those 3 musicals are solid and even more so with their music all to lead up to the winner of the 1991 Tony Awards for Best Musical...Will Rogers Follies. Now you’re probably asking the same question I am right now which is how? Well hold on, I’m not done, because even though it beat all of those other way better shows for Best Musical it’s onslaught was greater because it also won Best Score which if you have listened at the very least to The Secret Garden or Miss Saigon you know is absolutely ridiculous. So, back to that question of Why? Well, there’s a lot of speculation but the most popular reasoning is that Will Rogers Follies was bigger with Tony voters because it represented an older age of Broadway. whatever the reason I not agree with it and it just goes to teach the lesson that even when you think a show has no competition, that anything can happen.

Oh man, I don’t really want to end it there because 1991 was so long ago and that’s kind of a sour note but thats really i have Well maybe not everything. Alright, I've got an idea, let’s just do a speed round of a few more history facts…

Ready set Go!

Fact #1 In 1996, four years after their first musical Disney got a Best Musical win with The Lion King.

Fact #2 In 1999 Fosse and Parade fought for Best Musical. Parade being a superior show won Best Book and Best Score but lost Best Musical which is incredibly odd.

Fact #3 In 2001, The Producers won Best Musical and basically everything else leading it to become the musical with the most Tony won. A record it hold to this day.

Fact #4 In 2003 Avenue Q beat Wicked in a surprising turn of events for Best Musical. With Avenue Q recently closing Wicked got the last laugh outlasting it

Fact #5 In 2012 Disney had good odds to get their second Best Musical win with Newsies, However controversially the show lost to Once

...And that basically puts us to today where only a few years ago Hamilton swept, fans cried out when Dear Evan Hansen beat Great Comet, The Band's Visit had zero chance of losing and now it’s time for a brand new battle...for me at least. For you that battle is over and history.

I love the history of the Tony Awards and there is plenty more I’d love to talk about but I think I’ll leave that for another year, As always I’d really like to thank you for reading, It really means a lot to me and I try to write monthly so I hope to see you again the next time i do and even though I’m a day late I would like to wish you a Happy Tony Awards whether you watched it at home or saw it live in person. Me, I'll be just a few blocks away...so close yet so far. Anyways, that is it Thank you again, look for some finishing Tony stuff soon from talented writers on the blog and I hope you all have a fantastic day. Goodbye.

Tripping Over My Own Feet as I Go Fleetingly Down Memory Lane

By Grumpy Olde Guy® (a/k/a Michael Kape)

One thing I hate more than seeing bad theatre (and I’ve seen a lot of bad theatre) is moving (one of life’s great traumas, I’m told, along with losing a spouse—which has also happened to me; more about that shortly). Right now, I’m pulling up stakes and leaving my cozy retirement abode in Palm Springs to face life again in New York City (sounds crazy, but I’m not known for my rational, sane moments; if anyone has a lead on an apartment, let me know—please!).

The realtor is on my case to “declutter” my place. I mean, how can you declutter decades of memories—some even older than me (if that’s even possible)? As I write this, I’ve just packed away 60 some odd years’ worth of Playbills and theatre programs. Those are NOT clutter! I swear they are not clutter. You might as well say my right arm is clutter. (Okay, it does get in the way sometimes, but I still need it. I need my programs and Playbills.)


Theatre has always been a part of my life—good, bad, or indifferent, it’s always been there for me. Even in the worst of times. I have had a worst of times: My partner of 23 years died in my arms on Thursday, March 27, 2008. It was all kind of sudden—and devastating (my collapse in the hospital after it happened was something out of a bad Lifetime movie). The worst [expletive deleted] moment of my life. So, what did I do? A week later, I was at New York City Opera seeing a production of Candide directed by an old friend from college. (Artie never could direct comedy, and I walked at intermission—probably because it wasn’t funny, and I just wasn’t in the mood yet for bad theatre.)

Don’t think of this as cold-hearted. If the situation had been reversed, my late partner would have been at the theatre too.

Over the next few weeks, I grew increasingly morose (understandable under the circumstances) yet continued to go to the theatre as often as I could. This was New York City, and you could get tickets to everything from the flashiest and most-expensive Broadway shows to an Off-Off-Broadway show presented in a loft. Tickets could be had for cheap from the seat filler services (Theatermania Gold Club, Play-By-Play, etc.). And in truth, I just couldn’t face the prospect of going home to an empty apartment every night. Could you?

The research psychiatrist in the office next to mine saw me one day (had I been crying?) and said, “You look terrible. I’m sending you to see my friend Bill.” He did. Turns out Bill was the leading psychoanalyst in New York City. He listened to me talk for 45 minutes and then said, “You don’t need me. You just need to remember three words: MAKE NEW MEMORIES.” And so I did—seeing as much theatre as I possibly could. A total of 245 shows in the space of 12 months. Sometimes three shows on weekdays and five on weekends. Making new memories.

Except now, in packing away those Playbills in anticipation for my move home, I discovered I’d lost a lot of those new memories. Yikes. It isn’t Alzheimer’s, I swear. I was tested six months ago and ended up showing the doctor where he was wrong. Okay, I’m still a smartass. But as someone who used to educate doctors (yeah, me with a degree in theatre), I know when I’m right.

I’ve culled several Playbills from the bad years to try to remember something about the shows my memory has lost. Some of them featured well-known names in the cast. Some of them are just not memorable. So, I’m hoping some of you can help. These are from my bad period. Do you know them? And if you were connected to any of them, my apologies in advance.

·         A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, Playwrights Horizons. It had an interesting set. That’s all I can remember.

·         All New People, Second Stage Theatre. Remember Zach Braff from Scrubs? He branched out into writing, first a movie, Garden State, and then this play. All I can remember about this piece is my friend Dean was the general manager. That’s kind of sad.

·         Antony and Cleopatra, New York City Opera. This piece by Samuel Barber has an interesting history. It was written for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. It received terrible reviews then and was largely forgotten. New York City Opera was having a bad time; it had lost use of its home for a year (while it was being reconstructed). So, it resurrected Antony and Cleopatra in a staged concert at Carnegie Hall. Sometimes, things are better left dead. The first act was painful, which is all I remember of it now. But the most memorable thing about the night was intermission, when half the audience ran in droves for the exits, never to return for the second act. I was right there with them.

·         Boy’s Life, Second Stage Theatre. Featured Jason Biggs, Betty Gilpin. Directed by Michael Greif. No clue.

·         Compulsion, The Public Theater. I don’t remember this at all, despite it starring Mandy Patinkin with direction by Oskar Eustis.

·         Cradle and All, Manhattan Theatre Club. Written by Daniel Goldfarb. I think I vaguely remember something about two parents who can’t handle a screaming baby.

·         Dust at Westside Theatre. I should really be ashamed of myself. I actually saw this opening night. It starred Richard Masur (who was a couple of classes ahead of me in college) and Hunter Foster (post-Urinetown and pre-[title of show]). My friend Hugh was promoting it. Again, I remember nothing about it.

·         Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco. The buzz was super strong about this production. It starred Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose, and Andrea Martin. What could go wrong? Even my BFF was urging me to go from the other side of the country. I took my friend Jill (a big macher in the Fringe Festival) to see it with me. I don’t remember much about it because the creative team managed to take fascinating Ionesco and make it sleep-inducing.

·         Kin, Playwrights Horizons. Featured Bill Buell. Directed by Sam Gold. I’ve got nothing.

·         Made in Heaven at Soho Playhouse. Nothing. I do know my friend Hugh was promoting it. Maybe I should ask him.

·         Mindgame at Soho Playhouse. One of the lead producers was Michael Butler, the original producer of Hair on Broadway. The lead was Keith Carradine (The Will Rogers Follies). The direction was by Ken Russell—yes, that Ken Russell—in his first break from directing movies. Can’t remember it at all.

·         Romantic Poetry, Manhattan Theatre Club. Actually, I do remember some things about this one, mostly it being one of the most misbegotten ideas for a musical, with book, lyrics, and direction by John Patrick Shanley, and music by Henry Krieger. Mark Linn-Baker was in the cast. It was not a good evening of theatre, sad to say. It was Mr. Shanley’s first—and last—outing with a musical.

·         Séance on a Wet Afternoon, New York City Opera. Libretto, lyrics, music, and orchestration by Stephen Schwartz. Let’s put it this way: this production is what killed New York City Opera. Really. It wasn’t long but felt like it went on for two weeks instead of two hours. It was extremely expensive for City Opera to produce. It just was not good. It just was not memorable. It was the final dagger in the back of City Opera (which had just one good production that entire season, and this wasn’t it). BTW, this is not me being vindictive about Mr. Schwartz (I have plenty of reasons for that); this is about a substandard piece of work.

·         Side Effects, MCC Theatre. For those of us of a certain age (i.e., children of the ’60s), Moonchildren by Michael Weller was an anthem play. It defined us in so many ways. Alas, not even Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith could make this piece by Weller register in our brains.

·         The Book of Grace, The Public Theatre. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Nope. Nothing. Completely gone from my memory banks.

·         The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, The Public Theatre. The cast included such notables as Michael Cristofer, Steven Pasquale, and Stephen Spinella. Direction by Michael Greif. Written by Tony Kushner. All I can remember is being incredibly bored and looking at my watch—a lot. Not one of Mr. Kushner’s better efforts (I think I’m being kind but I’m not sure).

·         The Kid, The New Group. I remember the build-up of this musical, based on the book by Dan Savage. It starred Christopher Sieber (pre-Shrek) and Jill Eikenberry. The New Group invited subscribers to a talk-back with the creative team before the show opened. Directed by Scott OMG Elliott. Do I remember anything about it? The set is about it.

·         The Language of Trees, Roundabout Underground. This is embarrassing for me. I received an email from Roundabout thanking me for the lovely comments I made after seeing the show. I don’t remember the comments. I don’t remember the show. Help!

·         The Other Place, MCC Theater. This is one show I really do want to remember better. It starred Laurie Metcalf in a stunning performance as a woman losing her mind. It was directed by Joe Mantello (one of his best efforts). I just wish I could remember it. I do recall walking out of the Lucille Lortel Theatre sobbing.

·         The People in the Picture, Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. I know it’s a play about the Holocaust. It starred Donna Friggin’ Murphy, and featured Alexander Gemignani, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Joyce Van Patten. It was a musical, but I can’t recall a single song from it. (Some of the songs were in Yiddish, if that helps.)

* * *

And that’s only half of the Playbills I culled. I’ll spare you the rest. It does go to show some talented people can do some terrible things when they try (not intentionally, of course). And if you remember any of these better than I do, please let me know.

I guess this proves there is such a thing as seeing too much theatre. I know there is such a thing as seeing too little. A co-worker of mine during this period boasted how he had only seen three live theatre performances in his life. When I told him I had seen five in one weekend, he looked at me like I was out of my mind. Maybe I was. Maybe I still am. To wit: For four years I took a generic blood pressure medication called valsartan. This generic was manufactured in a Chinese factory and distributed in the United States by three different companies (one of which was an old client of mine).

Last July, I started having horrible spasms, sometimes violent, for no apparent reason. Having done years of medical research for work, I started on a quest to find out the cause. I plowed through tons of medical literature, touching briefly on a study done by Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in 1999. It mentioned a mere 22 cases uncovered in the course of the study, all causing a rare form of Tourette’s Syndrome due to a poisonous substance known as NDMA. It was interesting but of no help to me—or so I thought. Then I received a letter from my pharmacy. The valsartan I had been taking was tainted with NDMA. A doctor on the same campus as La Jolla Playhouse (where a few of us recently saw the premiere of a new musical, Diana) finally diagnosed me as someone living with Tourette.

My biggest fear about having Tourette isn’t the spasms. I don’t do the verbal (so no inappropriate cussing). No, my biggest fear is I wouldn’t be able to go to the theatre anymore because my episodes would be disruptive to the rest of the audience (and I’d be asked to leave). For me not to be able to go to the theatre any more? A fate worse than death. Really. So far, knock on wood, I can control the spasms pretty well (not completely) and I’m still attending. Go figure.


(Grumpy Olde Guy® a/k/a Michael Kape has haunted so many theatres he’s applying for membership in the Theatre Ghost Society. He has been known to use theatre as therapy when his world is at its darkest.)

Rodgers and Hammerstein? No Thanks.

By Grumpy Olde Guy® (a/k/a Michael Kape)

When I was three years old (yes, I really was—once in 1957), my mother, the late, great Frumah Sara(h), bought me a box of 45 rpm records filled with Rodgers and Hammerstein for Children. And I played those 45s until they wore out—even the songs from Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet and Allegro. No Flower Drum Song or The Sound of Music; those had not been written yet.

Got older, wiser, and learned a thing or two along the way. Played the Professor in South Pacific in my junior (and last) year in high school. Did my senior thesis in college about the impact of Oklahoma! on American musical theatre. Actually saw productions of Allegro, Me and Juliet, and (*gasp*) Pipe Dream. Cringed through the stage version of The Sound of Music (a/k/a Life With Father in Austria). Read the biographies of both men as well as Musical Stages, Richard Rodgers’ autobiography. Was even accused of reporting a wayward production of Oklahoma! to the R&H Library (it was indeed wayward—setting the show in a rehearsal hall on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed; don’t ask but we at Atlanta Theatre Weekly carried the review in 1997).

No one can say what I’m about to discuss comes from a place of ignorance.


* * *

I was maybe 10 years old; the television remake of Cinderella was airing (with Lesley Ann Warren in the title role). She starts singing, “In my own little corner,” and I remark to my family (gathered around our giant 24-inch RCA color television at the time), “That sounds just like all the other Rodgers and Hammerstein songs!” Same exact music. Same cadence. My 10-year-old self had called it. It’s pretty damn sad when a 10-year-old can see through the miasma and deception now known as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

* * *

The first (and only) time I saw The Sound of Music onstage, I couldn’t help but notice something very odd about the song, Do Re Mi. It’s a song filled with English language puns (“Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun”). So far so good. But here’s the rub. The characters singing it (seven children and their governess) only speak German. They don’t know from English language puns. Just one of the many things I dislike in Austrian Life With Father.

* * *

Richard Rodgers wrote incredible scores with Lorenz Hart. Some stunning work. American Songbook classics. Rodgers wrote the music first, and Hart then supplied the (often-brilliant) lyrics. In Musical Stages, Rodgers spend two-thirds of the book on his collaboration with Hart. It was about the art of creating Broadway musicals and how much it thrilled him. Then he gets to his time with Hammerstein. Just a few scant chapters. It was a business deal. And he got bored after Carousel, which might be why all his subsequent shows with Hammerstein began to sound the same (even the melody to Me and Juliet’s No Other Love, arguably the best song in the musical, was actually a cutout from an earlier effort, just as The King and I’s Something Wonderful sounds so much like Love Look Away from Flower Drum Song). Is it any wonder my 10-year-old self could immediately identify an R&H song? After all, the songs for the “slightly-older-but-wiser” alto they wrote all sounded the same from show to show to show.

* * *

Ever notice how the best music Richard Rodgers wrote had no lyrics? I mean Carousel Waltz. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Ballet. Victory at Sea scoring. March of the Siamese Children. But when he did his own lyrics in No Strings, they were pretty lame (except the opening number, The Sweetest Sounds).

* * *

There is the matter of R&H racism. Before you start citing South Pacific, let me go further back and cite Oklahoma! Even in my college thesis I called out the racist approach Hammerstein used with the character of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. I’m not Iranian, but I found the characterization to be extremely offensive and, yes, racist. It was meant to be funny; it was not. Racism is never funny.

Likewise, examine the casting of African American actress Juanita Hall. First in South Pacific, because her skin was darker than others in the show, she played Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese proprietress (and pimp—more about that shortly). A few years later, R&H cast her again, this time as an Asian American in Flower Drum Song. Really? What about the casting of Jewish actor Larry Blyden as Sammy Fong? Another case of “Oh just give them slant-eyed makeup and the audience will think they’re Chinese.” Yeah, not racist at all (bullshit).

Bloody Mary is a character in the short story Fo’ Dollar, one of the pieces in Tales of the South Pacific R&H used as the basis for their show. She also pimps out her 14-year-old daughter Liat to Lt. Joe Cable. Liat’s age is never discussed in South Pacific, but it sure looks like pedophilia to me (not unlike one of the storylines in ALW’s Aspects of Love—but I digress). Can we say this is just oh-so-distasteful? I knew we could.

I even question the pseudo-liberal bent of South Pacific (You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught). I’ve checked and anti-Tonkinese discrimination is not now nor then running rampant. Just me, I guess.

* * *

When the last revival of Carousel (the one R&H show I can stand) was playing, a lot of discussion arose (finally) about the matter of spousal (and child) abuse. Billy strikes Julie. He strikes Louise, his daughter. He’s a sexist pig (Soliloquy) who would much prefer having a song to a daughter. The problem here is simple—what worked in 1945 doesn’t work 70+ years later. It definitely makes an audience uncomfortable—and not in the intended way.

* * *

For 62 of my 65 years, I’ve had Rodgers and Hammerstein drummed into my head. I want them out. Gone. Vamoosed. If I could reach out to my 10-year-old self, I’d say, “Kid, you’re smarter than you realize.” (I’d say smarter than you look, but I was a bespectacled geek back then and I looked pretty damn smart.)

I know people will start raining venom on my head because I just don’t like the work done by these two. “It’s classic American musical theatre,” they’ll cry. It might be classic but it ain’t good. “But I love [fill in the name of any R&H show]. How can you not like it?” After all this time, believe me, it’s very easy.

Similar Musicals; Different Successes: The Music Man vs 110 In the Shade

David Culliton

The following is a transcript of a surreptitiously recorded dialogue between rainmaker Bill Starbuck and music man Harold Hill in no particular place during no particular time.


Starbuck: Say, ain’t you that fellow who became a music man for a little town in Iowa without knowing a lick of music?

Hill: That certainly sounds like me! Professor Harold Hill at your service, my friend. Who might you be?

S: The name’s Starbuck, Bill Starbuck. I’m a rainmaker, ending droughts and bringing that sweet water from the sky for only $100 per location!

H: Truly a pleasure, sir. Can’t say I’ve ever met a rainmaker before.

S: Oh no, sir, we’re a rare breed. Though I reckon you might be more familiar with my way of business. We may be of vastly different professions, Mr. Hill, but something tells me we’re in the same line of work. Or at least were, ‘till you settled down with that sweet little librarian.

H: Ohhhh a con man, then! Perhaps I have—

S: I ain’t never said that, my friend.

[Transcription note: a brief pause in the audio followed by a slight chuckle from Hill seems to indicate a wink from Starbuck after his ostensibly coy rebuttal of that label]

H: Oh, yes, you must excuse me, my tongue has the nastiest habit of slipping on occasion.

S: [laughing] Oh it’s quite alright.

H: Now how can it be that I’ve never heard of a man of such unique talents as yourself?

S: You tell me. I’ve had my story told a few times; some northern theaters thought it would be a keen idea to bring my tale to the stage set to some quaint music. I always enjoyed the little show they wrote about me. Now keep in mind, I got a brother with the voice of an angel, so you best believe I grew up with an appreciation for the musical arts; this ain’t no untrained ear’s opinion…

H: I seem to be the king of untrained ears, my friend, I’ll trust your judgment.

S: Well, they gave me some mighty fine songs, some good ones too to the wonderful spinster I met in the southwest, and to her family, too! The script they wrote is nice and simple, accurate to how it all happened, some good performers have been in it over the years, and yet with all that, the good people of the world barely know my name!

H: Fascinating! Now what is this theatrical piece of yours called?

S: 110 in the Shade. Damn accurate title, too. The town I was in when that story of my life took place was about as hot as could be, on account of the drought I had rode in to cure. There was actually a non-musical play about that same story of mine BEFORE my musical, called The Rainmaker, but even fewer people done heard o’ that one.

H: How truly ignorant of them! You know, I’ve had my own stories told in a similar medium…

S: Oh I know, it’s how I heard o’ you in the first place! The Music Man, one of the most popular musicals of all time.

H: [chuckling] Very good! Yes, truly an honor to have such a wonderful piece written about me, and to have it reach such success! It’s won awards, been seen by millions, even brought to the cinema a couple of times.

S: Must be nice…

H: Oh well, yes, don’t mean to brag, another one of those bad habits of mine.

S: Hey, we all got our vices.

H: I thank you for understanding, friend. But you must understand, it is nice to have such a legacy!

S: Well naturally; it’s what we all want from life, really.

H: Exactly! And mine is quite rewarding. When my story was first put on stage, it was heralded as a veritable modern masterpiece! People called it funny and inventive, comparing it to some other popular theatrical piece about gamblers or something.

S: No kidding!

H: You wish I were. I’m telling you, this musical play had everything! I was portrayed by some dashing fellow called Preston, my lovely wife by a gifted soprano whom I believe was named Barbara Cook; she even won an award for it!

S: For playing your wife?

H: Only she!

S: Hell of a world we live in…

H: Well that’s not even the best part! The whole piece itself won some sort of huge award that only the best of the best of these kinds of things do. Erhm… did yours win an award like that?

S: Not as far as I remember.

H: Oh, pardon me, I hope you took no offense at that.

S: None, friend; just the facts of the case. I don’t think we won any such awards, but that doesn’t mean folks didn’t like it.

H: Well I should hope not!

S: No, no, people certainly have said nice things about my story over the years! They seem to enjoy its simplicity, theatrical journalists callin’ it things like charming and sturdy. Almost everyone who knows about it seems to like the music at least. The guys who made the music for it I guess created some other show that holds some sort of fantastick record, like longest running ever somethin’ somethin’, so they’re known for solid tuners.

H: What kind of music, pray tell?

S: Oh, it’s all some sort of simple, rural, classical style. Originally, they wrote it more like one of those operas you always hear about, but they ended up changing it to how it is now. You got your ballads and a showstoppin’ song or two, but it mostly is all straightforward and melodical, a real southern, folks-of-the-land flavor, ya know?

H: I think I follow, yes.

S: How about you? What’s the music in yours like?

H: Well it’s got a flavor for the folks of the land as well, but bear in mind these are northern folks, as you might call them. It’s simple, too, like yours, but they like their music big and brassy! It was written to try to reflect the kind of American band music of which I became the purveyor in River City.

S: Same stew, different spices.

H: My thinking exactly! Makes me wonder then why my spices ended up making my proverbial stew so much more popular than yours.

S: Beats me, seems both the pieces based on our lives have so many similarities.

H: A dashing con man rides into town…

S: [chuckling] Dashing, nice touch.

H: Well I certainly thought so.

S: The charismatic fella promises a miraculous solution to a problem, falls for a skeptical young woman…

H: [gasps] You fell for the spinster, didn’t you?

S: Harder than Icarus when he lost his wings.

H: Ouch.

S: Didn’t end quite as perfectly for me as it did for you, either, but I hear she’s all happy and fulfilled with her town’s sheriff so at least she’s not lonely no more…

H: But regardless, fell for her, changed her mind about the man…

S: …AND the whole town’s minds while he’s at it, even if they don’t find the gentleman’s business practices totally… legitimate.

H: Well it doesn’t matter; he brought joy and excitement to a somber little American town!

S: And the girl…

H: And everyone learned something about themselves in the process.

S: Those sound a hell of a lot alike to me! And yet…

H: Curious, isn’t it? So similar and yet one vastly more well-known than the other! But why?

S: Well, maybe it doesn’t help that my story was first being told around the same time as some much bigger stories about people like some matchmaker and a popular comedienne who came after my time, Fanny something…

H: And the people liked it bigger and flashier than just a simple piece about some folks in the south, didn’t they?

S: I reckon. I think the one about the matchmaker won that award you were talkin’ about. It’s a shame, really. There weren’t all that many worthwhile stories being told when mine first came out, but just a few months down the line those other one overshadowed us. Suddenly no one cared much for the tales of a town in a drought.

H: But I don’t understand! My story is the same simple idea: a small town and a man with a big personality, and no one could get enough of it! It was said to be a “fresh slant on Americana,” a loving send up to a bygone era—just like yours!

S: From what I remember of YOUR story, though, it was first being told at a time that wasn’t as crowded with these mega-tales. The only other theatrical piece I really can recall comin’ across at the same time as yours was some big, sad tale about fighting gangs and starcrossed lovers. It was damn good, but it was far from enough to overpower your story.

H: And mine was big, too. Bigger than yours, at least. I think the first time it was shown, the crafty fellows telling it had an actual smokestack blow onstage at the beginning of each telling.

S: Now you’re gettin’ it! Like you said, the people of the north like it when things are big. You had big, brassy music, my friend. There were probably a lot more people up on that stage than mine had, you even had some impressive technical effect to kick it all off! People remember that, especially when there’s only one other really good story to remember any way.

H: It might have had something to do, too, with that fantastic talente who portrayed me in the first go-round. He had told some other stories in the past but hadn’t had the chance to really tell a good one in a while. Portraying me is what really made him a star, especially as… do you mind if I brag a little more?

S: [laughing] Go on ahead, Hill.

H: Well, especially as someone like me, full of bombast and charisma. People love a man with confidence and swagger, and as I think we both know they LOVE a good success story. With that Preston fellow in the lead, the people who heard my story got both of those things rolled into one!

S: That sounds like it’s got some merit. The guy who played me when MY story premiered was already well known. I’m about as charismatic and memorable as you are, but it was another solid spangle in an already well-decorated belt. Not quite as exciting as your Preston.

H: My word… is it really all down to that? Timing and a single well-placed man is what makes people know who I am and draw a blank on you?

S: Certainly sound like that to me, but it’s hard to draw solid conclusions in such a metaphysical plane of existence...

H: Oh, undoubtedly. Mr. Metaphysical Author, would you kindly conclude for us?

David: Gladly, thanks guys! The Music Man had a lot of things going for it upon its opening: an exceedingly strong cast and creative team, relatable success stories in the form of Preston and Meredith Wilson (himself finding great success on his first big Broadway foray), a nostalgic but still large and impressive homage to an idealized (if not a little silly and puritanical) old Americana, not a lot of overwhelming competition, memorable bombast, technical prowess, the works. It came out at the perfect time with all the right pieces in place to create one of the most iconic American musicals of all time. 110 had some good stuff going for it, too: the composers responsible for New York’s longest-running musical EVER, two powerhouse stars, a solid and emotionally-driven book, but it showed up too late for what it was. It was TOO small and TOO simple in a time when Broadway was coming back from a slump better than ever with musicals that were large and complex. It didn’t have room to breathe and so it petered out, a sweet little gem undeservedly lost to the ages. There are so many little intricacies and details that can’t be covered with a speculative dialogue like this, and I encourage you all to look into both shows (and generally look up and listen to 110 if you never have before) and see if you can draw your own conclusions based on what you find.

S: Neat trick!

H: Oh, that was nothing. The con man’s greatest talent, you know it! When you’re not sure where to go next, you can always pull that extra ace card out of your sleeve.

S: Hell of an ace card, though.

D: Thank you, I take that as a compliment!

S: You gotta teach me how to pull that one, Hill.

H: Well hey, you need to show me how to conjure some rain first, Starbuck.

S: With pleasure! Now, your “think method” ain’t bad, but I find props come in real handy. Let’s see if we can find you a hickory stick…

[the two voices fade away]

[end transcript]

Race and Representation in Theatre: The Most Commonly Questioned Shows

Zachary Harris
On the heels of MLK Day, we start to look a bit closer at some shows that continuously come up in the race debate in our group. Before diving into this I wanted to share an opinion of mine that will be a helpful segue into this dialogue. I will also note that these are all my opinions as a Theatre/African American Studies graduate and I would love a dialogue!

 In many cases these conversations on race, representation, and what that means turns into a very black and white dialogue. It is very important to understand that more people are in the line of fire when it comes to underrepresentation than just black people or African Americans that audition for shows. However, I do truly believe that the idea behind telling authentic stories does then too extend to not having the broad stroke of people of color playing roles they shouldn’t because they are of color or having roles that in actuality should be played by white people. How often does a script actually call for a white person specifically? Not that often, however in an effort to to authentically tell these stories (given circumstances aside) these are all things that we must keep in mind when tackling plays or musicals of any type.

If I’ve missed shows that you think should be discussed, please let me know and down the line I can make another one of these! Before beginning I’m going to define two words that I’ll be tossing around a ton:

 Classism: prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class.

 Colorism: Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.



 But Zach, why this show? Recently news broke that a company in the UK was searching for the first ever black Eva Perón. The show does not (to my knowledge) specifically discuss the characters race, which in many cases then becomes the standard of “should this be cast regardless of the color of the actor”, however in the case Eva Perón we hit a cross road - for those of you who don’t know Eva Perón was a real person. You can google her, there are books on her, and she did indeed exist (http://bfy.tw/H0vr for those of you curious). As you can tell, she wasn’t black. Now certainly she wasn’t white in the American sense either, because being from Argentina makes her South American or Hispanic. Historically speaking Eva Perón has been played by a white person, most notably by Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone, and Madonna (in the movie!) so what does that then mean? For me personally that then means that we should be casting Hispanic women in the famed role, along with the other roles in the show. However the show isn’t ABOUT race, but more so about the woman. This gives me pause, however I do truly believe that when picking shows to produce we have to be conscious of these decisions/what they then mean. In the same way many argue that Eva Perón is not black, she certainly wasn’t white either. There are HUNDREDS of shows, why pick this one?


Now I will note that my opinions on this show do differ than my strong opinions on similar casting decisions discussed later, and very plainly the reason is because the show doesn’t revolve around her race. While again I personally believe the show should be authentically cast, this rubs me less in the wrong way than other shows on this list. By no means does this imply cast the show with people ONLY from Argentina due to a lot of what I had mentioned in the previous article, however this is an opportunity to create a platform in musical theatre that (outside of works by Lin-Manuel Miranda) don’t really exist for Hispanic/Latinx people.



 Oh boy! Based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Elton John and Tim Rice wrote a musical depicting this love story between Aida (played by the impeccable Heather Headley) and Radames (played by Adam Pascal!). The focus of this show are the Egyptians and the Nubians, who are longtime foes, and how that comes to head. The show in many cases is about love transcending time and culture, and honestly in many ways this musical is incredible (though, not my favorite). The question I kept asking myself is how Adam Pascal (or any of the Egyptians for that matter) look anything like Egyptians? Well, they don’t. Now this is an interesting thing because in many cases people who are from that region can really range in appearance. However, the stark difference between Nubians (all played by black people) and the Egyptians (you guessed it! White!) is really staggering to me and I think in this case really unnecessary. Why not cast the show with black people? What does stark difference do? In my mind the casting of white people as Egyptians is to create a stark contrast between the cultures and the people by connecting it to modern day race issues… I think the show and the text speak for itself when creating those differences (along with whatever dramaturgy would then be available to them). Is the concern that audiences can’t tell difference between the people onstage? Can people really not tell the difference between black people on stage? Sass aside, a show in Africa should probably have people who could generally look like the people in the story. Though this show differs from Evita in the sense that these people aren’t real historical figures, we should quite definitely be aware as to where the show takes place.

 Again, as artists and creators we are continuously at the helm of a platform, and a lot of the disparity in casting can be fixed with a bit of awareness. Aida, while not in the same spectrum as a historical piece like Evita should be looked at carefully. Why would we cast this show with someone other than people who look like Africans?

 Once on This Island

 I’ll begin this section with this - if you missed the revival you certainly missed some incredible theatre. Now, this show centers on the idealisms of colorism, colonization, and classism. The skin differentiation between Daniel and Ti Moune are incredibly important to the story and to these characters. To quickly quote a line from the song The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes “They despise us for our blackness, It reminds them, Where they’re from”. For those of you who don’t know the show the Beauxhommes are people who descend from France AND the French Antilles. They long for France and French culture, and the peasants are not able to access the same sort of luxury. Daniel is a Beauxhomme and Ti Moune is a peasant, the colorism and classism presented in the show really creates the obstacles that Ti Moune face within this show. White people playing Ti Moune in the original version of the script makes no sense. The whole script is about their struggle and classism created by their blackness, so doing it other ways is really missing the point. In the case of Daniel, he’s supposed to be biracial as the story says, however casting Daniel as white (which Isaac Powell is not, before you go there) really is missing some of the most important parts of the story. Here we should consider a fairer skinned black man before erasing the anchor to the island that the curse of the Beauxhommes gives to Daniel/his people.

 In the alternative version of the script (that apparently exists, however it’s not advertised on the MTI website), they remove all mentions of race and focus on the idealism of class… So problem solved? Not really. The classism here is all great and dandy, there are a ton of love stories that focus JUST on classism. However dramaturgically speaking, have we forgot the show still takes place on an island in the French Antilles? The island would still be inhabited by black people, and the sanitation of the materials inherent blackness is also missing the point. Again, there are LOTS of shows about classism, so why pick one that you don’t have the diversity for?



 This one always baffled me as to why this becomes such an argument. The show takes place in the 60s and uses a faux Civil Rights Movement as a platform the integrate a TV show. The obvious points to race being instances such as “though the night is as black as my skin”, “only see the color of my face”, and “the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”. With this in mind, people always get up in arms about Hairspray when an all-white cast comes along. Now I will note, though I don’t have the copy of this that came in my scripts any longer, that the creators of the show state that disallowing anyone of any color to play any of the roles is racist and the suspension of disbelief should be used when watching (wrongfully) alternatively cast productions of Hairspray. I wholehearted believe that this is incorrect in this instance, and just people a particular majority has had most opportunities to do what they would like to does not then mean that everything needs to be universal. This story isn’t about some sort of universal grief, but of a white girl who gets fat shamed and black people who are facing segregation.

 Many note that their productions have used shirts, hairstyles, and (god forbid) blackface to get around such an issue, which I find odd. Obviously with these adjustments everyone involved then is realizing that they lack the people of color to do the show, so they do what they can to do what they can to fill the gap in a modern minstrel-adjacent way. What I then must bring up is that black and African American people can’t peel their skin off, and have to live with the harsh reality of what society gives to them on a day to day BECAUSE of their skin color. No t-shirt or other concept can really encapsulate what the symbolism of the black body on stage can stand for.


Miss Saigon (and other shows involving Asian heritage/culture)

 Admittedly, this is a show I knew far less about than the others mentioned. However first I would like to send you to when it comes to the (now corrected) yellowfacing history of the production.


 Outside of this, let’s talk about Asians/Asian Americans in musical theatre. From The Mikado to Miss Saigon there is a history of yellowface when it comes to shows based in Asian culture. I’m taking this moment to then also note that in many of these cases these shows revolve around a white person either saving or teaching or conquering the people of this area. Outside of the Jonathan Pryce scandal of sorts, Miss Saigon revolves around Chris (an American soldier there for the Vietnam War) and Kim (a prostitute). It has in many instances been protested against for being racist/sexist, and to quote Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, dedicated to African American theater, states "It gets a lot easier to wrap your head around all of this for folks of color when we remember a key point: this work is not for us. It is by, for, and about white people, using people of color, tropical climes, pseudo-cultural costumes and props, violence, tragedy, and the commodification of people and cultures, to reinforce and re-inscribe a narrative about white supremacy and authority."

 Returning specifically to the point of the importance of casting, though I can discuss the potential problems within works written by white people for Asian Americans, we need to continuously remember that these stories are usually deeply entrenched in a portrayal of their culture and it’s incredibly important to give Asians and Asian Americans that opportunity to tell those that are previously written. Instances like The Mikado (which is historically done in yellowface) don’t have a space in an ever evolving society where authentic storytelling (read: not denying people of color to tell their own stories) should be at the forefront of every conversation. These dialogues are SO important, and in many cases the default is black or white… However the representational struggle of minorities is MUCH more than just that.




 When creating works you get to set the rules for your world, in many examples things like race and gender get turned on their head to make a point (such as in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, which I highly suggest) … So why does Hamilton get people all in a rut? Obviously when looking at history books, portraits, etc. of the founding fathers none of them are of color, so why here? Lin-Manuel Miranda through his hip-hop storytelling and the standard created in casting by having everyone (outside of a few ensemble members and King George) being of color to show that they (like the immigrants of yesteryear) can “get the job done”. The link between the present and past creates a really strong image that is a huge part of what makes Hamilton great in my opinion. This then means that any use of Hamilton to backup the reasoning behind not casting people of color in other things is less than supported. Miranda created a unique world that then has no bearing on other things, and any fundamental understanding of the material would bring you to a similar conclusion. The artistic foundation with Hamilton is built is deeply rooted in that idealism, which isn’t present in other shows, is why George Washington can be played by someone like Christopher Jackson. That then doesn’t mean Motormouth Maybelle can be white, because George Washington certainly wasn’t black. While I understand that then means a huge group of people may never get the opportunity to be in a production of what many consider the soon to be (if it isn’t already) biggest hit in the history of Broadway that doesn’t then mean spaces that should be for people of color should disappear.

 For every Hamilton there are hundreds of shows that don’t have a single person of color in them, for every Lion King there are hundreds of shows that are long running that are just now having their first black principles, and while I understand the strife that may be caused by this reality the use of Hamilton to attempt to whitewash other works is very specifically working against what the story is meant to be about.

 Overall, I think theatre has come a long way, however we are chasing ourselves in circles many times in the comment sections of these debates. These dialogues are incredibly important and until we as individuals look at the privilege we each have (or don’t have) we can never really make headway in this department. Theatre is supposed to be accessible to everyone, however cultural appropriation and accessibility are not one in the same. In the same way I would never want to tell a story that wasn’t mine (or like mine, outside of the given circumstances) I hope that we continue to move forward as a community when going about casting. Race in theatre continues to be a hot topic, however we need to continue to work towards listening to our fellow artists on the matter instead of figuratively (or literally, who knows) smashing our heads against a wall. This series is a particular perspective, not the only perspective, and I will be more than to continue the dialogue in the comment section.




RENT: An Imperfectly Perfect Musical

Jonathan Fong
It introduced thousands to Broadway. Every night it played at the Nederlander Theatre, it touched the souls of hundreds. It did so with one simple message – no day but today.

I am, of course, talking about the rock musical sensation of Rent. Born of Jonathan Larson’s creative ministrations and orphaned just before its first preview by Larson’s unfortunate passing, the musical about a band of young bohemians trying to navigate life riddled with death, bills and AIDS is loved by millions, and for good reason. For its brash, coarse yet utterly real content matter – not many musicals unabashedly yell odes to “mucho masturbation” in their Act 1 finales – it truly touches the heart too. The harsh electric guitar and frenetic energy of “Out Tonight” is tempered by the soft guitar melody and haunting repetition of “Will I”, inspired by one of Larson’s own visits to an AIDS support group, while the lighthearted romance of “I’ll Cover You” is turned on their head by its reprise in the second act. Not to mention, of course, the joyous, life-affirming finale with everyone belting their hearts out to affirm the show’s message and show that all does, indeed, work out in the end and that there truly is no day but today. And that is truly among the show’s biggest flaws.

Thing is, Rent is just too perfect. Everything, all the dramatic tension, the underlying question of “will I lose my dignity” and the ever-present fear of death within all the scenes, is thrown away quite simply on a whim in those last few moments; a true deus ex machina, if I’ve ever seen one. Angel’s death leaves a grim, stark impression on the cowed audience; that one of the most beloved, kindest and most selfless of people the audience sees in the show can so easily be taken away is one of the most grim reminders of the true dangers of AIDS back then, in a time when the epidemic was so widespread and few knew what to truly do to contain it. In light of that, Mimi’s sudden, seemingly magical (or rather, illogical) revival and second wind comes across as a scoff in the face, a ‘whatever’ moment. It makes for a heartwarming ending to the show, sure, but it doesn’t make the touching, heart-wrenching one we as the audience have been led to expect from the show. Not to mention how some parts of the show simply don’t quite make sense – dogs do generally know not to jump off buildings, even when in extreme auditory discomfort from a street drummer’s fierce drumming – while others do feel a tad awkward (“Your Eyes” isn’t the most touching goodbye song, not in the same way “One Song Glory” or “I’ll Cover You Reprise” are heartbreaking ballads setting near-impossible standards to match, at least).

And yet, does that change the perfection of the show one bit? Does it make the tears of joy as Mimi and Roger embrace any less heartfelt or the joyful reunion of the cast – plus Angel – at the end to belt out the final lyric “no day but today” any less beautiful? Does it mean that “One Song Glory” suddenly loses its meaning, ceases to remind one of our inner fears, of death and failure and of making a mark? Does it make the show as a whole any less poignant and coarse and utterly real? The answer, in my opinion, is no.

Sure, Rent’s ending leaves something to be desired. Sure, there are a couple of songs – particularly in the second act – which fall a little flat, perhaps somewhat explainable by the fact that they simply couldn’t be revised or replaced by their original composer between the show’s initial Off-Broadway debut and its inevitable record-breaking run on Broadway. Sure, the show as a whole could have been made more watertight had Larson had more time to work on it or simply written it with another ending in mind (he was, after all, insistent on Mimi living in the end, though who knows if time and additional previews/performances might’ve changed his mind). But nothing changes the fact that the story and message of the show are just so incredibly necessary in a way that one cannot comprehend unless they’ve seen or heard it and so perfect in that they, even in spite of being imperfect and flawed, make you feel a whole rollercoaster of emotions and then some in a mere two and a half hours of runtime (plus the obligatory 10-minute intermission). If you were to ask me to choose between a technically perfect yet bland show and the raw, imperfect truth of Rent – made ever more poignant by the fact that its composer and writer lived, breathed, and died in the same world as the musical he wrote was set in – I’d choose Rent any day as an example of what a truly perfect musical should be. For it, unlike any other show, truly reminds one that there is no day but today.

The (Really) Lower Depths

There once was a king named Oedipus Rex.
You may have heard about his odd complex.
His name appears in Freud’s index
’Cause he loved his mother.
His friends all used to say quite a bit
That as a monarch he was most unfit.
But still in all they had to admit
That he loved his mother.

Tom Lehrer

Michael Kape

Here was the challenge. A recent ATB blog examined the decidedly dark side of some famous musicals. Could I do the same thing with plays (i.e., tragedies)? Well, harrumph. Theatre was created by the Greeks from tragedies. Now, I know many of you prefer discussions about musicals here (and I can discuss them for hours on end), but it’s good to broaden your horizons and get down to the lower depths (more about that later). I’ve done a little time travel to pick and choose some of the great ones for your consideration.

The Greeks invented tragedy (and comedy), as I noted. To me, the “Oedipus Trilogy” by Sophocles is perhaps the greatest extant set of Greek tragedies: Oedipus Rex, which was followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. (I have special affection for Antigone having once played the Grumpy Olde Guy in the show, but Oedipus Rex is the best.) Oedipus accidentally kills his real father (he was adopted), solves the riddle of the Sphinx, marries his mother, has four children, discovers the truth, his mother/wife hangs herself, he plucks out his eyes, his children war on each other and their Uncle Creon, and ultimately kill each other and/or themselves. It’s a devastating story, based on mythology, with no happy ending in sight. And yet it’s great theatre.

In Greek mythology, Electra was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, and princess of Argos. She and her brother Orestes plot revenge against their mother Clytemnestra and stepfather Aegisthus for the murder of their father. She appears in two Greek tragedies, Electra by Sophocles and Electra by Euripides. She is also the central figure in plays by Aeschylus, Alfieri, Voltaire, Hofmannsthal, and, our own great tragedian, Eugene O'Neill (more about his version shortly).

(Just a note for you musical purists: all Greek tragedies were actually sung and danced by the actors and chorus.)

After the Greeks (and their inferior Roman copycat tragedies), theatre came under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church—which pretty much frowned on the artform. It was the age of morality plays (like Everyman), which weren’t really tragic or comic but instead served to keep the unwashed masses in check (really—theatre as political propaganda; ah, well, that’s a subject for another blog which I’m not supposed to write). And then, well, Welcome to the Renaissance, as they sing in Something Rotten.

The greatest tragedian (oh, hell, playwright) of that age (or any other) was, of course, William Shakespeare. His plays have been classified into four categories: the comedies, the histories, the romances, and the tragedies. And what tragedies they were:

·         Hamlet—Arguably the greatest play Shakespeare wrote (and certainly his longest), this is the tragic story of a young Danish prince whose father is killed by his uncle (who then marries Hamlet’s mother). He seeks revenge when challenged to do so by his father’s ghost. He employs a troupe of wandering players to perform a dumb show in front of the new king, who realizes Hamlet is on to what he did and exiles the young prince. In the end, just about everyone dies in the last scene and Denmark is conquered by Norway. Hamlet certainly contains the most exquisite language Shakespeare wrote. I fear you can’t call yourself a true theatre person without knowing Hamlet.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet in 1870

Edwin Booth as Hamlet in 1870

·         Julius Caesar—It’s about greed. It’s about ambition. It’s about murder. And a funny thing happened to poor Julius on the way to the Forum—he was stabbed multiple times by the Roman senators, including his beloved Brutus (“Et tú, Bruté?”). It’s another Shakespeare play where almost everyone ends up dead, except Mark Anthony (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”), who lives to show up in another tragedy.

·         Anthony and Cleopatra—Middle-aged Will Shakespeare set his sights on mature love in this tragic tale of a beautiful Egyptian queen and the two Romans who come to control her (though she really controls them), love her, and ultimately doom her. In his time, onstage lovers were usually portrayed as comic foils and not tragic characters. In this play, Shakespeare completely turned the tables on the contemporary norms (he had started to do that in an early play discussed below) and made this the stuff of tragedy.

·         Romeo and Juliet—My late, great college Shakespeare professor, Dr. Irving Ribner (of the Ribner-Kittredge acting editions) made us change our thinking about this play. As I noted above, in Shakespeare’s time, love—especially young love—was the stuff of farce. And the first two acts of R&J are some of the funniest material Shakespeare wrote. Romeo is a foolish cad. Juliet is a silly young teenager. The balcony scene is actually very funny (with Juliet trying her damnedest to get Romeo to leave). But when Mercutio dies, the play goes from farce to tragedy in a heartbeat. A series of misunderstandings and miscommunications kills the main characters (ironically in a tomb). And this is the true brilliance of this tragedy. It completely upset the theatre norms of the time, making Shakespeare a truly revolutionary playwright. We don’t consider R&J to be a comedy because Shakespeare so skillfully changed the way we look at young (and foolish) love.

·         King Lear—“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” But nothing could be worse than to have a foolish old king (along with his fool) divide up his kingdom based on which of his daughters professed undying love for him. A great tragedy, yes. Easy to pull off as an actor? I’ve seen Lear many times with great actors and I’ve never liked it.

·         Othello—Someone once described this play (Shakespeare’s shortest) as a lesson in how wives should be careful with their personal linen. Othello is a great but foolish and jealous soldier who loves his wife Desdemona. Iago is his evil lieutenant who hates Othello (racism definitely fuels the engine of this play) and plots his downfall. While Othello and Desdemona die tragically, Iago essentially gets away with his evil doings, which makes this yet another revolutionary moment for Shakespeare.

·         The Scottish Play—If you don’t know what play I mean, then stop reading. Seriously, one of the greatest tragedies ever written, this is another story of greed, ambition, revenge, and a moving forest.

·         And more (Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus).

(Around the time Shakespeare was creating his tragedies, another artform arose, closely akin to the original Greek drama—the opera. Tragic stories sung to beautiful music. But opera is fodder for a different discussion, so I’ll let it go at that.)

The late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to stark realism in the theatre, perhaps to counterbalance the frivolous romanticism of the age. Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths is perhaps the greatest of these tragic plays, depicting a group of impoverished Russians living in a shelter near the Volga. It is stark, humbling, difficult to watch without being moved. Gorky is said to have been inspired by the denizens of a Russian homeless shelter. The play was initially slammed for its pessimistic outlook (not much happens and everyone who starts out poor ends up poor), but still, The Lower Depths is a masterpiece.

Henrik Ibsen plays often bordered on tragedy, though they depicted more political themes than real tragic ones. But one of his plays does stand out, Ghosts. No spectral characters, but the tragedy of the father is visited upon the son, with an underlying story of venereal disease (never stated but firmly implied) making this one of the playwright’s most controversial works.

Two playwrights came to dominate American tragedy in the 20th century—Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

It has been argued Miller’s greatest play is Death of a Salesman. In this piece, Miller takes the majesty of Greek tragedy and applies it to a humble traveling salesman (He argued strenuously for tragedy not always being about people of noble birth, which I believe to be a correct stance). Willy Loman is one of the great figures of American tragedy. His frustrating life (for both himself and his family) makes for a towering work. Still, it can be hard to like this piece for some of us. It creaks. It’s verbose. But the story itself is infinitely sad. (I would argue The Crucible the better and more tragic piece, and certainly better written.)

O’Neill simply turned tragedy on its ear. He made it compelling. He paid tribute to its Greek roots in plays like Mourning Becomes Electra (based on the Electra plays), moving the Orestes tragedy to 19th century New England. But perhaps his greatest tragedy (one of the rare tragedies where nobody dies) is his most autobiographical one: Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This intimate look at the disintegration of a family tells a tale of frustration, drug addiction, serious illness, and alcoholism. And it all plays out in less than one day. It is perhaps the greatest American tragedy ever written.

There are hundreds more tragedies out there and I’ve barely scratched the surface. One of the great joys I had growing up as a theatre nerd was discovering new tragedies written long before I was born. They speak to universal truths beyond their settings—the foibles of human beings and the unfortunate consequences they can cause.


Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a great tragedy. Lighten up. It’s only a play.

Haunted Theatres

Taylor Lockhart
Ah, October. ‘Tis the season for scary things isn’t it? You may or may not decorate your house with cobwebs and styrofoam gravestones. Perhaps at one point you trick or treated, or like me didn’t have a choice because from freshman year on, Halloween lined up with a run thru or with a tech rehearsal. Despite spending the holiday every year with the Gershwins, in 1889 attire, or costumed as a british schoolboy, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and since it’s this Wednesday, I’m excited to be able to give you one last spooky article before the end of the month.

Whether only slightly through the Phantom Of The Opera or historical documentaries you've probably heard of a haunted theatre before. Perhaps have your own experience of what may or may not have been a spectral encounter or a noisy janitor in a theatre of your own. However the actors and actresses in these theatres all over the world tell you their ghost’s are no joke.

The Real “Phantom Of The Opera” - The Palais Garnier

Odds are you’ve all seen, or at least heard of, the only musical that can give Les Miserables a run for its money. But if the words like Star Wars, Michael Jordan, and Mickey Mouse don’t ring a bell to you, it’s time to get out from out under that rock you’ve been living under. I for one can say that most of the time I should've been busy writing this I spent getting sidetracked watching chandeliers crash. You may or may not be surprised to know that the famous crash may have happened just not quite the way it does in Phantom. No, it didn’t involve a man cutting the chandeliers chains and it ripping through the ceiling before crashing into the stage and making a giant fire that quickly consumes the theatre (though the author has gone on to state the Phantom is and was real). In reality the story is believed to be that a counterweight fell killing someone. Who knows though, maybe a deformed man named Erik dropped that counterweight. Probably not, but if you’ve ever worked Fly Crew for a show, then you know that if those things ever drop from the catwalk or even higher than the catwalk it isn’t pretty and it lead to one person's death. Before we get off Phantom though, I want to address there is really an underground lake of sorts under the theatre. More of a water problem the theatre can’t do anything about, but you probably could possibly ride a gondola through it. Anyways with at least 1 death being confirmed and popularized in the the 143 year history of the theatre that it isn’t surprising the theatre is counted along with other more haunted theatres.

Ghost’s Of The Blaze- The Oriental Theatre

Today it’s called The Ford Center for Performing Arts Oriental Theatre. Once upon a time it was called the Iroquois Theatre, a theatre deemed absolutely fireproof, but as you may know calling anything along the lines of indestructible will almost always lead to its destruction and the fire at the Iroquois Theatre in 1906 claimed at least 602 lives when the doors leading outside of the theatre were barred shut and is the single most devastating fire in any american theatre. Its unsurprising then it’s often considered one of the most haunted theatres in the world. It was torn down years later and replaced with the Oriental theatre. It’s most haunted spot is often considered the alley behind the theatre given the nickname “Death Alley” because of how the dead bodies were stacked up there after the fire. There hasn’t been much more than things that can be chocked up to coincidence and the stories we have received from people apart of the production of Wicked there which have since been stated to be exaggerated. It’s no doubt that a disaster like that if not truly haunted the memories stick around as such.

The Iroquois theatre before the tragic 1903 fire.

The Iroquois theatre before the tragic 1903 fire.

Cut That Out! -The Huguan Huiguan Opera House

During World War 2 a man nearby the opera house built housing for the poor however in something straight out of a horror movie he destroyed a burial place to do so. You may if you travel to this theatre be able to hear sounds that have been pondered by people to be ghosts and most famously if you decide the throw a stone in the courtyard you may hear someone tell you to, Cut it out! Sounds to me less like the ghost of an ancient native, or of a poor man, but of one of the theatre’s previous stage manager. If anyone ever find gaff tape laying around and no one knows where it came from we’ll know thats true.

Spirits On A Bridge -The Colorado Creede Repertory Theatre

So, I’m just going to say this and you tell me if its stupid or not. You’re performing in a show and you hear the theatre may be haunted so you go out onto the bridge behind the theatre and shout, spirits come join me on stage! Thankfully since then, Annie Butler the actress on the bridge would agree. She hired an exorcist and may or may not still be haunted but the theatre that was built to entertain miners is theorised to be. The director has gone on to state its not a surprise the theatre is haunted and that they’ve observed most of the stuff haunted theatres are known for footsteps when no one’s there, whispering, etc. The real reason I chose to write about this was just to let you all know if something is haunted never ever invite them in. Seriously just don’t try to talk to ghosts. Real or not, why would a Ouija board ever be a good idea.

Bones Under A Music Hall- The Cincinnati Music Hall

Throughout the entire history of this theatre, through excavations and remodels, human bones have been discovered. It is believed the theatre was built over a potter's field. It should be stated building anything over a burial site is always a very bad idea. Those working at the music hall claim that it is in fact very haunted. There have been numerous sightings and experiences but the one that stood out most to me was of an employee who brought his 3 year old boy Charlie in one day. Charlie enjoyed pretending like he was performing. Charlie stopped and asked his dad who was that in box 9. He looked up and the father said no one’s in box 9. The 3 year old then said yes there is, he’s waving at me. They then quickly left. This seems a possible coincident for its only one of many experiences that you can find on the Music Halls own official site and possibly for yourself in one the halls guided ghost tours.

Goodnight Olive Part 2- The New Amsterdam Theatre

The New Amsterdam Theatre, currently home to Disney’s Aladdin is my favorite haunted theatre in America and the entire world and its due entirely to the woman who haunts it, Olive Thomas. Avid readers of the blog may recognize this is not my first time talking about Olive previously including her in my top 13 superstitions article and how cast and crew of the theatre often say goodnight to a picture hanging up of Olive Thomas. However Olive is not a feared spectre or unwanted guest like other theatre ghosts on this list. Olive is akin to New Amsterdam’s Casper. She has been heard replying to conversations in various ways, seen sliding across the stage blowing kisses to the crowd. Historically Olive was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies, the theatres most popular show at a time. She later married Jack Pickford and when the two went on a vacation she was later found having overdosed on mercury bichloride liquid solution, a medicine prescribed for syphilis pain. It is unknown and a matter of controversy whether the death was accidental confused with sleeping pills or drinking water, suicide, or even possibly murder. What is known is that Olive is not resting in peace. Perhaps at peace but like all great actresses never resting. The story of Olive’s ghost is interesting and is very hard to not run into when researching the theatre’s history. You can find a picture of Olive Thomas on the right in the main 42nd Street entrance. I encourage you if you see Aladdin or visit the theatre soon, to either give Olive a compliment or say Mary Pickford her sister in law was the best actress of the silent film actress. Either way, you may get a little reaction.

I want to take a brief minute to tell you about a recent creation around the Olive Thomas story that I think some of you may find interesting. I am talking about, Ghostlight The Musical. Not much has happened with this since 2015 and it even originally starred Phillipa Soo as Olive. It seems like the creators of this musical have since moved since its performances but I’d still love to see the rights available to this musical at some point. There’s not much more I can say just that I thought it important while we talk about Olive Thomas again to inform you of an incredibly interesting musical that I’d love to see more done with.

I had planned to talk about others ghostly theatre experiences here but unfortunately didn't receive enough responses. So here’s my backup.

It’s October 29th, Halloween is, as previously stated, in 2 days and you don’t have a costume. Well let me help you with 10 last minute DIY Halloween costumes.

A Newsie

This one is pretty easy, the most important thing is definitely the hat. You may be able to find one at a thrift shop for cheap but they still sell them at JC Penny’s and other clothing stores. Then a plaid shirt, vest, and perhaps a pair of cargo shorts that are too big and finally some boots. This is all stuff you may be able to find at thrift stores or may just have lying around.


All you need to pull off everyones favorite gravity defying witch is a black cape, some sort of black dress or cloak, a witch’s hat, and green face makeup. All of this can be found at stores that sell Halloween supplies or you may already have.


I’ll be doing the movie version since the broadway version is more complicated. You’re going to need a red jacket preferably suit like and a white button down shirt. Now you need a black tie make sure to leave it loose, Enjolras is rebellious and refuses to wear it properly and black pants and black boots. Bonus points if you can find some red fabric to tie around your waist and use the remainder of that fabric to make a cockade.


Ok so a tan jacket, white button down shirt, a really skinny tie, and black pants. Congrats you’re now Tony. Now just walk around all night singing Maria and terrifying little kids and you got it. Don’t accidentally stab someone though. Oh hold on, is that spoilers? Is it spoilers if the shows over 50 years old? What if it’s source material is hundreds older than that. Well uh, sorry if I did.


Which one you ask? That’s up to you. The fun thing about the Heathers is nothing has to be an exact copy just kinda similar. Try to find a green, red, yellow, or blue (if you’re going for Veronica) jacket, It doesn't really matter what you wear under it but the costume looks best with something white and a necklace. Next a skirt, again not all that important as long as the color choice looks good with the jacket. You will also need tall socks preferably with a bit of green, yellow, blue, or red. Finally a pair of stylish shoes, and if you can manage to find one a Croquet mallet. If you’re going as Chandler though the red scrunchie is very important. However if you want to pull off our other lead JD, all black and a black overcoat is really all you need or if you do need a bit of color keep it dark. The edgier the better.

“Ghost Light”

Have to tie it all in somehow. All you need is a white sheet and to cut out three holes for the mouth and eyes. You now have the classic ghost costume but wear a headlamp or hold a flashlight under it and suddenly you’ve become a “ghost light”. Warning: joke may not be very effective around non theatre people/

Well, you have a costume, you know where to, I’d say you’re ready for Halloween. If you’re a kid go out and enjoy yourself, trick or treating is one of man’s greatest achievements after all and if you’re an adult take advantage of the November 1st markdowns. I hope you all learned something today and that sometimes a haunted theatre is just a series of coincidences or a disturbing past and sometimes it’s all completely real. Who knows maybe you’re theatre is haunted. Perhaps it’s the ghost of a harmless actress or maybe its a malignant old director who was murdered and is back for revenge and will bring your entire proscenium crashing down to the stage. Probably not though. Happy Halloween! See you next time.

Attend a Tale for Halloween

By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)

It was a frigid February afternoon in New York City. My BFF was dragging me to a seedy cinema uptown to catch a British horror movie from 1936. If I remember correctly (and he can always correct me on here if I’m wrong), a friend of his had suggested seeing it.

In hindsight, it was a strange movie. Very 1930s British horror/melodrama. Greed was the motivation behind the monster doing all the killings. He’s caught in his murderous ways. A string of pearls and other valuable jewels stolen while men come in for a shave are recovered. All is right with the world once again. Or is it?

As we near the holiday of All Hallows Eve (a/k/a Hallowe’en), it’s time to drag out the scariest of scary stories, and certainly this movie—in its cheesy way and hammy performances—is a scary story. It’s based on an urban legend told often in penny dreadfuls, with British children in the 19th century warned if they didn’t behave, this villain was going to swoop down and eat them up—with eat being the operative word here, perhaps.

A successful barber with premises at 152 Fleet Street, this villain would seat his unsuspecting victims into his specially constructed barber's chair while lathering their faces. The trick chair would then flip around, throwing the victims through a trap door into the cellar below. If the fall didn’t kill them, the barber would polish them off with his razor. Then he robbed them and dragged their bodies to the basement of his mistress. In turn, she turned these victims into tasty meat pies, which she sold at her pie shop. The demons would relieve the victims of any valuables, including a string of pearls—which ultimately led to their undoing. A determined judge and a pair of lovers help bring the dastardly duo to justice, and they are put on trial at the Old Bailey.

Was this urban legend based a real person? Probably not (despite claims to the contrary). But it’s a great story. And perhaps indicative of the times; even Dickens refers to popping pussies into pies in Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit.

The movie version starred a British actor named (seriously) Tod Slaughter in the lead role of the lustful, villainous, greedy, demon barber on Fleet Street who slit the throats of his customers. Indeed, Slaughter had changed his first name after playing this role on stage because he became so enamored of the character; once a serious British actor, Slaughter had taken a career turn into British horror. In this film, the murderous barber and his next-door neighbor steal valuables off the dead gentlemen (who never thereafter were heard from again?). The trick barber’s chair is essential to the story, of course.

Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd

Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd

I’m hoping some of this is beginning to sound familiar.

Having seen well over 1000 musicals over six decades (including the revised and bloody Carrie), I believe Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (based on the play by Christopher Bond) is probably the scariest and bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen onstage (and I’ve seen plays with onstage simulated leg amputations—don’t ask). So, with Hallowe’en fast approaching, what better time is there to take a fresh look at slimy, vengeful Benjamin Barker, er, Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

In the 19th century penny dreadfuls and urban legends, Sweeney is just a greedy barber with an evil and equally greedy neighbor. The brilliance of the Christopher Bond play (well worth reading if you can track it down) is giving Sweeney a more human and humane motivation—revenge for the loss of his wife Lucy and daughter Joanna by the truly evil Judge Turpin and his beadle.

Still, as my mother asked when I first described this story to her, “That’s a musical?”

Yes, that’s a musical:

·         A musical featuring an evil dentist/barber (long before Little Shop of Horrors had its own singing and horrifying dentist)

·         A musical with a song of self-flagellation—the Judge’s “Joanna” (Mea Culpa), cut from the original Broadway production but subsequently restored in the opera house version)

·         A musical requiring a gallon or so of stage blood spurting out of a specially-rigged prop razor

·         A musical ending Act I with “A Little Priest” and starting Act II with “God That’s Good” (what, you never made that connection before? It was intentional)

·         A musical ready to rhyme butler (subtler), potter (hotter), but not locksmith; with a “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top”

·         A musical with more onstage deaths than Hamlet

Well, it’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein (thank goodness).

At heart, it’s kind of a twisted love story. Nellie loves Sweeney, who loves his lost Lucy, while Joanna and Anthony love each other, while the Judge lusts after Joanna, and poor Tobias loves Nellie (until she tries to kill him, that is). And does anyone know whatever happened to Mr. Lovett? Just curious.

I first saw Sweeney Todd in the cavernous Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre two weeks after it opened with Len Cariou as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as Nellie Lovett. Hal Prince decided it was a story about the grinding down of the working class in Industrial Age London (though there is only one oblique single reference to this in the script: “How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below”), perhaps with the Dickens allusions in mind. Designer Eugene Lee moved a Rhode Island factory to the stage, and every set piece had originated in that factory. It was friggin’ huge.

I returned to the Uris three more times: once with my mother; once to see the last performance with Carious and Lansbury (poor Len had completely lost his singing voice by then, and he had to croak his way through “Epiphany” that night); and once to see George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon as the leads. My BFF and I subsequently traveled to Philadelphia to take in the national tour and to NYC Opera to see the opera house version staged by Prince. Since then, I’ve seen big productions and teeny productions—and they all work no matter what. Sweeney Todd is indestructible.

It is a Grand Guignol-like masterpiece by virtuoso composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In subsequent productions of Sweeney Todd, Prince’s original indictment of the British class system (and decidedly Dickensian turn) has been swept aside—for the most part—with greater emphasis placed on the twisted humanity of the characters. And I could easily argue it is one of the greatest musicals (not operas, to be sure) ever written, as revolutionary in its own way as Show Boat and Oklahoma (both written by Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II).

Which brings us back (don’t ask how) to Hallowe’en. There are plenty of Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett costumes available online. Sweeney Todd themed parties are a favorite on Pinterest. Haunted houses decorated like a tonsorial establishment in 19th century London are easy to create (with a little imagination and a trick barber’s chair to lure unsuspecting trick-or-treaters to their “doom”—or maybe worse if those damn whippersnappers don’t stay off my lawn). Even cosplay events for Sweeney Todd readings have been staged by regional theatre companies (okay, I suspect they’re just using their costumes from their annual Christmas Carol productions—but these are a lot more fun).

Your good friend Sweeney is waiting for you this Hallowe’en. Are you ready to take up his challenge, bleeders? His chair awaits.


Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a great musical. He also assiduously avoids horror movies though he’s been called a monster by those damn young whippersnappers when he tells them to get off his lawn.

Acknowledging the Past While Looking to the Future

Darren Wildeman
, Flower Drum Song, My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, South Pacific, etc. The list goes on. Many of these shows are beloved classics by many, yet many other people take issue with these shows. From white washing, to blatant portrayal of domestic abuse, to outright sexism and antiquated themes. We’re living in 2018. We’re living in a time when founding fathers, their spouses, and cohorts are being played by people of colour. We’re living in a time when a Disney princess doesn’t have to find her happily ever after in a prince. We’re living in a time when while theatre still has a long way to go, there are still more roles now for minorities now than there has been, we’re living in a time of #MeToo and when women can share their stories of assault, abuse, and harassment. This begs the question; how can we recognize and enjoy pieces of theatre as being transformative to the art and as an objectively well written piece when it has so many problems? Or can we?

The first aspect of this question becomes what are the big issues of the show? Is it something that’s written into the script? Or is it more of a perception on how a character is presented? The answer to this question goes a long way in how you perceive or take on a piece of musical theatre. To some extent you can do the same thing for both, but there are other answers that go in wildly different directions.

In both instances, whether the offending content is written right into the script or if it’s a perception thing. Directing, lighting, and staging can go a long way. For example, if the issue of the show is domestic assault (i.e. Carousel) where it is obviously right in the script that Billy is abusive a director can put everything around the show in a darker, more reserved context that is more appropriate for domestic abuse today. Kristina Dorsey of theday.com writes about such a production where some modifications have been made. You can read that article here https://www.theday.com/article/20160228/ENT10/160229294. This musical is presented in a light that is more appropriate, and this can be done with more musicals. Direction can go a long way. Another thing you will notice is a script change.

If the issue with the show is written in a script sometimes the rights holders will allow for special changes to be made in a production. In fact, the recent production of Carousel did have one of the songs removed. Whether it’s an offending slur or a song with just a putrid message that is unacceptable by today’s standards sometimes script changes can be made to bring a production up to date. However, this begs the question. What if there’s too much to change in the script or a script change will screw up the story too much? Or what if a simple change isn’t enough and it’s still too problematic?

In this case you need to ask a really important question. Is this piece important enough to musical theatre and its history that it is still worth being watched or even performed today?

Keep in mind that even in these instances the direction of a show can go a long way. However, on the flip side in some circumstances direction can only go so far. There are shows where problematic messages are just woven in. What should be done in this case? Should that piece of theatre just be buried to never see the light of day again?

While some might say yes, I think this view is also problematic. Can we just ignore a piece of theatre history? Some pieces that are now considered problematic are huge pieces of theatre that did wonders for advancing the art. From a historical stand point I’m not sure if we can just ignore something that means a lot to history. Not only this; but ignoring these shows is also ignoring prejudices that used to run rampant and to some degree still exist today.

Is Billy Bigelow being abusive uncomfortable? Good. Is seeing yellowface or blackface done in old shows cringey to see and something you never want to see done ever again? Good. Is the stereotypical portrayal of Asians in Flower Drum Song make you mad? Good. You see to some degree seeing these things done in old shows also serves as a reminder of things that used to exist. A reminder of what we shouldn’t and cannot be, a reminder of a route that we should never travel down with modern theatre.

It’s also worth noting that watching something does not equal supporting it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing if a person likes an old show and appreciates the music, how it’s done, and depending on the show- even the story in some cases. I don’t think it’s wrong to appreciate what a show is and does as long as you also realize and understand the problems the show has and why certain messages are hurtful to some people or why some people can’t or won’t watch the show. For example if someone who has been in an abusive relationship- or for another reason the subject hits close to home- can’t stomach watching Carousel, or if someone with close ties to Vietnam finds Miss Saigon to be offensive or too much; rather than calling the “Snowflake” or some other nasty modern day name we need the be respectful and understanding that not everyone can stomach watching or having an objective view of certain shows. On the flip side I don’t think it’s fair to immediately condemn someone if they enjoy an old show that has some problems. As long as they understand the issues and don’t turn a blind eye to things like abuse, racism and sexism.

Overall these shows can be appreciated as classic pieces. They did some things really well that helped shape musical theatre as we know it. I don’t think that can be ignored. However, if other people struggle with them or for one reason or another can’t stomach them or just find them too problematic to study too much in full that is understandable as well. We need to have a healthy respect for the past, while moving forward and adapting for the future.

Photo by benjaminec/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by benjaminec/iStock / Getty Images

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.

Write Your Very Own R&H Musical

Steven Sauke
Several years ago, I watched a monologue by Anna Russell giving detailed instructions on writing your very own Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. She had much of the plot worked out for hers, detailing the exploits of the lovely maid Pneumonia. There was a patter song and a contralto involved. She observed that most of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas were basically the same, with all the same elements.

You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYCXO_FZj5k

It got me thinking… Rodgers & Hammerstein were another classic pair of composers. They also had similarities in style and story elements in all or most of their musicals. A few years ago (more recently than when I watched Anna Russell), I wrote some tips on writing your own Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Unfortunately, I don’t know where I put it, but I remember enough that I think I can recreate it from memory (all alone in the moonlight… oh wait, wrong composer).

First of all, the music. Your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical must have the same style as every other Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. It can have varieties in instruments (for example, The King & I uses a Thai-sounding style, and The Sound of Music involves yodeling), but the songs from one musical to another must sound like they could easily be from the same musical.

The plot. Your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical must involve a somewhat controversial plot. South Pacific addresses interracial relationships (more controversial at the time than it is now), racism and a “good” character who had to flee for his life because he killed a man. Flower Drum Song involves a mail-order bride. Oklahoma! sees a main character taking a hallucinogen, and also involves abuse and a fight to the death. Carousel also addresses abuse, adding murder and stealing to the mix. The King & I involves slavery, a harem, and violent punishment (although Tuptim being whipped was less violent than the real story, in which she fled the palace, posed as a monk, and was subsequently beheaded). The Sound of Music involves Nazis.

The vocabulary. There are certain words that must be used in your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical:

Cockeyed. This can mean crooked, askew or absurd.
“They call me a cockeyed optimist.” (South Pacific)
“While somersaulting at a cockeyed angle, we make a cockeyed circle round the sun.” (The Sound of Music)

Dope. This is the older definition of the word, as in a silly or stupid person.
“I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope.” (South Pacific)
“I sit around and mope, pretending I am wonderful and knowing I’m a dope.” (State Fair)
“The gentleman is a dope!” (Allegro)
“The world is full of zanies and fools who don't believe in sensible rules, who don't believe what sensible people say, and because those daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day!” (Cinderella)

Gay. Again, this is an older definition of the word, as in happy or fun.
“I feel so gay in a melancholy way that it might as well be spring.” (State Fair)
“Younger than springtime am I. Gayer than laughter am I.” (South Pacific)
“The games they played were bright and gay and loud! They used to shout, ‘Red Rover! Red Rover, please come over!’” (Flower Drum Song)

Louise. It is important for a character to be named Louise or a variant on that. Julie Bigelow names their daughter Louise in Carousel. Anna’s son in The King & I was Louis. When writing The Sound of Music, none of the children’s names were anywhere similar. We can’t have that! The solution was to change the names of all seven children so that one of them could be named Luisa. (I’m more inclined to believe that their names were changed because the real “Luisa” was named Maria, and that could lead to confusion in the storytelling. It caused enough confusion when she died a couple years ago, and a lot of people thought it was a different Maria von Trapp who died. I’m not sure why they changed the names, but that’s my theory.)

The haunting plea. In South Pacific, Bloody Mary decides that Lt. Joe Cable would make a great husband for her daughter Liat, and thus expounds on the virtues of her island “Bali Ha’i” to him. The tune is slow and haunting. In The King & I, Lady Thiang realizes that Anna is the only person who can help the King in his current predicament, but as Anna is currently angry with the King, Lady Thiang sings a haunting ballad about how the King can be infuriating at times, but sometimes he can do “Something Wonderful.”

The advice. In The King & I, Anna advises Louis to “Whistle a Happy Tune” when he is afraid. In The Sound of Music, Maria reveals her strategy in a similar situation is to think about “My Favorite Things.”

The lovers. Their song(s) must start with one lover singing a verse. Then the other lover must repeat back almost verbatim what the first lover sang. Certain adjustments are all right. For example, “You are sixteen going on seventeen” in the first verse becomes “I am sixteen going on seventeen” for the second verse. Sometimes the verses are almost completely identical. For example, “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in a Shadow” from The King & I, “Do I Love You Because You’re Wonderful?” and “Ten Minutes Ago” from Cinderella. The Sound of Music mixes this one up a bit with the song “How Can Love Survive,” as the duet is about the lovers, but only one of the lovers in question is actually singing. Interestingly, that love does not survive, as the Captain later realizes that the Baroness is far too willing to compromise on important matters. Flower Drum Song flips the formula, in which two characters try to convince the other: “Don’t Marry Me!”

Denial. In Oklahoma!, Curly and Laurey give each other advice on how to behave, as they aren’t willing to admit publicly that they’re dating. They worry that “People Will Say We’re in Love,” so they decide to pretend they are not. In Carousel, Billy and Julie (played by the same actors as the previous couple in the classic movies) aren’t willing to admit to each other, let alone publicly, that they’re in love, so they tell each other what they would do “If I Loved You.” It just so happens that what they sing about doing is exactly what they are doing. They end up not verbalizing their love for each other until it’s too late. (“Make Believe” from Show Boat also fits in this category, and that musical was by Oscar Hammerstein, though he composed it with Jerome Kern rather than Richard Rodgers.)

The breakup. At least one of the lovers decides they can’t go forward in this relationship. After learning of his children by a Polynesian woman in South Pacific, Nellie decides she cannot get past that and resolves to “Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair.” Emile quickly manages to help her get over her racist attitude, and that resolution falls flat. In The Sound of Music, Maria counsels Liesl what to do when she realizes that Rolf doesn’t love her as much as she thought, in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen (Reprise).” (Again, Show Boat fits into this category, as Gaylord Ravenal leaves and Magnolia must raise their daughter on her own. He eventually returns, but their daughter has grown up by then.)

The breakup sometimes leads to the women singing about their frustrations with men and marriage. “Give It to ’Em Good, Carrie!”, “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone”, “Many a New Day”. These songs often don’t work to convince her to foreswear her love. Either the lovers get back together, or they never stopped loving each other in the first place and were just in denial or pretending.

The soliloquy. A character should ponder their options, as they have a difficult choice ahead of them. In his “Lonely Room” in Oklahoma!, Jud Fry considers how to proceed in his relationship with Laurey and resulting rivalry with Curly, having just been taunted and threatened by Curly. Jud’s decision ultimately leads to his death. In Carousel, Billy Bigelow walks along the beach singing his “Soliloquy” dreaming about his child and pondering how he is going to provide for him or her. Again, his decision ends up resulting in his death. On the other hand, the “Twin Soliloquys” in South Pacific combine the love song and soliloquy. Nellie and Emile are pondering their options related to their budding romance. They sing nearly verbatim what the other person sings, but they are pondering these things to themselves rather than singing to each other. Unlike the lone soliloquys mentioned above, their decisions do not end up in their deaths. Another variation is near the beginning of the musical, as the character sings a soliloquy about their current situation, such as “In My Own Little Corner” from Cinderella and “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair.

The ballet. Carousel, Oklahoma! and Flower Drum Song have dreamy ballets. The one in Oklahoma! is particularly important to the plot, as it helps Laurey realize the extent of the danger she is in from Jud’s abuse.

Careful, awkward wording. A character is put in an awkward situation where they must word their requests very carefully. In South Pacific, Nellie is set the task of asking Emile why he killed a man. This is a red flag in the mission the US army has in mind for him, and they need to be sure he is trustworthy. But for Nellie, who has feelings for Emile, she doesn’t want to damage their relationship, and she can’t reveal why she is asking. In The King & I, Anna must give the King advice without seeming to. She resorts to “guessing” what the King is going to do, thus preventing an international incident. In Cinderella, the title character tells her stepfamily about the “Lovely Night” she just had at the ball, but can’t reveal that she was actually there. So she acts like she’s dreaming about how it would have been had she gone.

Singing about the location of the musical. Oklahoma! has an enthusiastic song about the virtues of their territory that will soon be “a brand new state!” State Fair has a similarly enthusiastic song about “All I Owe Ioway.” In both of these examples, they spell out the name of their state/territory in the song. When State Fair was revamped and reset in Texas, “All I Owe Ioway” was replaced with “The Little Things in Texas.” The similar tribute in The Sound of Music doesn’t mention Austria by name, but “Edelweiss” does ask to “bless my homeland forever.” Flower Drum Song gets very specific with its song about “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA!”

The smaller story within the story. Characters tell a story. Sometimes they reenact it. Tuptim composes a play called Small House of Uncle Thomas, based on the classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in The King & I. Maria and the children sing the story of “The Lonely Goatherd” (using marionettes in the movie, but not in the stage version) in The Sound of Music. We learn (very briefly) about “Fan Tan Fanny” in Flower Drum Song.

The big dance. This is different from the ballet. It is much more enthusiastic, and is accompanied by a song sung partially or entirely by the full company. I’m talking “The Farmer and the Cowman” (Oklahoma!) “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” (State Fair), and others

The finale. No matter the subject matter, the title of the song must be “Finale Ultimo.” While not necessary, it is a good idea to have the audience incredibly moved at this point. They could be grieving a lost main character. Maybe the wedding was just that powerful. It could be any variety of reasons.

I hope this gets your creative juices going, and I look forward to seeing everyone’s Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals on Broadway someday!

Steven Sauke grew up watching Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. He has performed in two of them.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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!


Come From Away: Stories and Lessons of Those who Lived It

Steven Sauke

The news came as a shock. That morning, I was emerging from my room when my mom met me in the hallway. “Steven!” she said. I could hear in her voice that something serious had happened. I wondered if I was in trouble for some reason. Her voice trembling, she said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”

Surely it must have been an accident. But what a catastrophic accident! We rushed into the living room and watched as they showed the horrifying footage on the news. Someone in a building near the Twin Towers called in to the news and told the anchors that they had seen it from their window. A plane had deliberately flown into the Tower. Deliberately? Who would do such a thing? It occurred to me that this was the “JFK” event of my generation, where everyone remembers where they were when they learned of it. I looked at my watch to take note of the date. September 11, 2001. I needn’t have bothered.

As we watched in horror, a second plane slammed into the other tower, causing a massive fireball. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Two planes crashing into two of the tallest buildings in New York within a few minutes of each other doesn’t just happen by accident. By this time it was getting time for me to start preparing for my work day, as Seattle is 3 hours behind New York due to time zones. I took a small radio into the bathroom to listen while I prepared and prayed desperately. The radio announcer related that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. We later learned that a fourth plane crashed in a field near Pittsburgh, as the passengers tackled the hijackers.

American Airlines Flight, over the North Atlantic

Meanwhile, an American Airlines plane was flying westbound over the Atlantic Ocean, en route from Paris to Dallas. Captain Beverley Bass got word on their air to air radio frequency that the towers had been hit, and New York airspace was closed. The airspace for the entire country was closed soon after. They knew then that they would need to divert to Canada, initially considering Toronto or Montreal. They then got word that a remote area would be wiser in case something happened, so they were ordered to land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland.

Air France, over the North Atlantic

The plane bound from Paris to Newark suddenly dropped in elevation, and passenger Kevin Tuerff, accustomed to flying, looked up at the GPS map on the ceiling of their jumbo jet. He wondered why they were suddenly flying due north rather than due west. Were they flying to the North Pole?

Continental Airlines, over the Atlantic

The flight was bound from Gatwick, England to Houston, Texas. Diane was returning home from visiting her son Mike and his family, stationed in the US Air Force in the UK. On the same flight was an oil industry professional named Nick, whose business took him to Houston. Neither of them knew that tragedy would bring together two strangers from opposite sides of the ocean.

Gander, Newfoundland

Gander Academy French immersion teacher Diane Davis heard of the attacks that morning. She went home for lunch and watched live as the towers fell. She would return to school to teach that afternoon. Her colleagues asked her to help mobilize help, possibly preparing food, and she readily volunteered as a point person for staff. With a staff phone list in hand, she registered with the town of Gander, telling them she had about 50 names and could probably count on half of them helping out. They moved desks and set up computers in the front at three schools, starting with the local high school. By the time they got to Gander Academy, they had about 100 volunteers setting up. After being up for 72 hours straight, she was ordered home to rest. She slept three hours and went back to work. By that time, they had 770 people who needed help.

As the people of Gander prepared, so did the nearby towns of Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Gambo. Six towns got ready to welcome thousands of people diverted to Newfoundland. Janice Young, a nurse from Lewisporte, worked 12-hour shifts to help people in need. Members of the local media, including Janice Goudie and Brian Mosher, would work tirelessly over the next few days, splitting their time between reporting the news and bringing aid to those who needed it.

“The world changed today, for the worse. Our flight from Paris to New York missed an international terrorist disaster in New York and Washington, DC. (Hijacked planes crashed into WTC & Pentagon. We’ve been sitting on our plane now for 12 hours (7 now on the ground). All we can do is wait patiently for news about the tragedy, for a place to try to talk to our families. We’ve been told we may have to sleep here overnight (on board). We are fortunate to be alive. Many on the plane cried when we heard the news. Everyone is shell-shocked. No one can imagine what is next regarding our national security. Who can we trust now? Will this heinous crime start a war? All we can do is pray. P.S. Just learned we will soon depart plane and perhaps spend night in school here. At least 30 planes here waiting with stranded passengers aboard.”

So wrote Kevin Tuerff on his in-flight menu, having landed at Gander Airport. He was travelling with his partner, also named Kevin. Very few people had working phones on the plane, though Tuerff was able to attempt making calls from a first-class seat that someone in first class graciously allowed him to use. He didn’t get through because most people in the US were calling each other to make sure everyone was all right. He finally got through to a friend in Amsterdam, who was able to fill him in on what he had heard on the news. He then went back to their seat and told everyone what he had found out. Between trying to call out, watching Shrek twice, and dealing with an upset passenger behind them (Kevin J. offered her some medication for her nerves, which she declined), they passed the long hours. Their plane was on the tarmac for 15 hours before they were finally allowed to deplane, one of the first of the 38 planes, containing a combined total of 6,579 passengers. They had to leave their checked luggage on the plane, so they were only allowed their carry-on items. So Kevin and Kevin had only their bags containing cameras, passports and two bottles of Grey Goose vodka that Kevin J. had managed to procure in Paris.

In his book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11, Kevin relates what happened when they left the plane. Security at the airport was tight. Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were stationed there. (As another character in the musical comments, “There were soldiers everywhere.”) They went through immigration and customs, and Kevin says, “And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party!” The people of Gander had stepped up and provided help and food for their thousands of guests. People had homemade baked food, chicken from KFC, and everything in between. Kevin managed to find a pay phone and call his parents, but had to go, as his ride was there. He watched people at the airport put “Out of Order” signs on the phones so they could get people to the places they were to stay.

Captain Bass’s plane deplaned early the morning of September 12, having been on the plane for 28 hours. She tells me that they “walked into the terminal building in Gander. I was shocked to see all of the food that had been prepared for the nearly 7k passengers and crew members. It was evident the folks of Gander and the surrounding communities had stayed up all night preparing and cooking for all of us. It was so heartwarming. During our 5 days there nearly 285,000 meals were served to the come from aways…as they call folks who are not from Newfoundland.”

The come from aways were housed all over Gander and the surrounding communities. Beverley Bass and her crew stayed at Gander’s Comfort Inn. She mainly stayed put at the inn, as she did not have a cell phone at the time and she needed to know right away if they were ready to leave. Kevin and Kevin were among a large group housed at the College of the North Atlantic. A Ganderite teenager gave them an air mattress, and it deflated the first night. The Society of United Fishermen Hall in nearby Gambo welcomed Nick, Diane, and the other passengers from their plane. Janice Young of Lewisporte hosted a couple British women in her home and helped out at a local church. Gander resident Beulah Cooper aided passengers from an Irish Aer Lingus flight, and filled four rooms of her house with passengers. The people of Newfoundland welcomed strangers into their schools, churches, businesses and homes with open arms. As Mayor Claude Elliott points out in his foreword to Kevin Tuerff’s Channel of Peace, they came from over three dozen countries. (Kevin tells me there were people from more than 90 countries.)

Among the passengers on the Aer Lingus flight was a couple named Dennis and Hannah O’Rourke, returning to New York from visiting Ireland. Beulah Cooper helped them as they desperately attempted to contact their son Kevin, a firefighter back home in New York. She developed a friendship with Hannah, which would be invaluable later when the O’Rourkes arrived home and found that their son didn’t make it. His name is inscribed on the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero:

Photo by Jodi Parks Disario. Used with permission.

Photo by Jodi Parks Disario. Used with permission.

Diane Davis tells me, “As one of hundreds who helped at the school, I fell into an organizational role. I helped with general information in the office of the school for passengers. Like others, I helped passengers make international phone calls, I did announcements and took notes for Captain Burgess when he met his flight. I organized bulletin boards for communication for each flight and helped to answer questions. Other teachers organized food and clothing. Some planned games and activities for children. Some took people home for showers, to sleep, or for laundry. We did not do things that were out of our skill set or extraordinary. We did the same thing we would do for anyone needing help. What is remarkable is how many need help and how many came to give it in the most basic of ways. Food, clothing, a drive somewhere, use of a phone.”

Kevin Tuerff relates that wherever they went in Gander, strangers stopped and offered to drive them to their destination. Others had similar experiences.

Stop the World!

On September 13, as Nick and Diane had been getting acquainted, they decided to take a gander (pun intended) at the nearby Dover Fault. Nick brought his camera, which he pulled out at the lookout. Diane suggested getting out of the way so he could photograph the beautiful scenery, but she didn’t realize that he was more interested in her than the scenery. With this single photograph, he “stopped the world” and preserved a memory that would be a turning point in their lives:

Photo by Nick Marson. Used with Permssion

Photo by Nick Marson. Used with Permssion

They would return a year later, on their honeymoon, and again in 2017 when the town of Dover updated the plaque at the lookout with their story:

Photos by Nick and Diane Marson. Used with permission.

“What Was That Ungodly Screech?!”

During that time, some of the come from aways were “screeched in.” Kevin Tuerff would not have this privilege until 2011 at the 10-year celebration, and his (now former) partner would be screeched in later. The musical explained some of the background behind the Screech In ceremony, but I was still curious about it and asked Diane Davis. She tells me, “The Screech In had many variations. A Google search will get you some info but the Screech is a rum based drink that harkens back to when our salt fish was shipped to Jamaica and the ships came back with rum and molasses. It’s a bit of fun and when well done, it’s a good laugh. Kissing the cod is perhaps similar to the effort it takes to kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland. You really need to want it bad to do it. I love the Screech In song. Another song of the musical genius of Sankoff and Hein. Folks will be thinking it’s a traditional song.”

Departure, Tributes and Reflection

After five days in Newfoundland, the planes were finally allowed to leave. Kevin’s Air France flight returned to France, and they found themselves stranded once again, this time in Paris. At the airport, they witnessed a deeply moving show of support there and on the TVs as Europe came to a standstill, cars stopping on the road and people getting out of their cars to observe a moment of silence for the people of America. Europeans stopped what they were doing and stood at attention as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.

For Diane Davis, “The most moving experience for me was helping to count money from a donation box to put it in the school safe. We were exhausted and my vice principal and I began to cry. There were so many denominations from 4 aircrafts that we had to sort it by colour first to try to recognize currencies. There were 2 personal cheques for 1000 made to Gander Academy. When I see the scene of the collection on the aircraft and the passenger writes a cheque, I cry. We were overwhelmed with the gratitude of passengers. I still am by the hugs from strangers.”

A grateful American businessman welcomed by the town of Lewisporte took up a collection to fund scholarships for students there. It lasted for years, and both of Janice Young’s daughters benefitted from it.

Come From Away

Years later, the 10-year celebration and the musical Come From Away would serve to bring many people together. Mayor Claude Elliott met Kevin Tuerff at the celebration. Beulah Cooper and Diane Davis met when they learned that they had been combined into a single character named Beulah Davis for the musical. (They laughed about having never met before that.) Sankoff and Hein combined reporters Janice Goudie of the Gander Beacon newspaper and Brian Mosher of Rogers Cable into one person named Janice Mosher.

Kevin Tuerff finds the song “Prayer” from the musical particularly moving. He tells me that the “Most moving part of Come From Away for me is the song, “Prayer”, based in part on the Christian hymn “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”  I’d always loved that hymn. It had played in my head for days after 9/11, and was sometimes the only consolation when I would see the continuous loop of TV footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Its lyrics were on my heart when I attended Mass at Notre Dame in Paris on September 16th, 2001. The first time I heard it, I immediately started crying. I never remembered telling the writers about this, Air France lied to us, saying we would leave Gander for New York, but instead they flew us back to Paris. We should’ve just stayed with the kind people in Gander!”

I must say I concur with his assessment of the song. The first time I heard it, I was in tears. I love the combined Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu prayers, in addition to multiple languages in one song, all praying for the same thing: Peace (Shalom in Hebrew, Shaantih in Hindi) and praise to God (Allah in Arabic).


Kevin founded an environmental marketing firm called EnviroMedia in 1997, and after his experiences in Gander, he started a new initiative called Pay It Forward 9/11. You can learn more about it at www.payitforward911.org. Basically, as described in the musical, every year on 9/11, he distributes $100 to groups of his employees and sends them out to do random good deeds for strangers. In this way he hopes to remember the horrific acts of 9/11 and the incredible selfless outpouring of love he was shown by strangers in Gander. He describes some of the truly moving deeds his employees have done in his book. In this way he hopes to combat xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and racism and replace them with compassion. He calls it a “jump start to the heart.” I highly recommend ordering his book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 on Amazon. I now own it in audiobook form (read by the author), as well as Kindle and the physical book. In addition to his story in Gander, and that of many of the others mentioned in the musical, he includes practical tips about how you can do good deeds for strangers. (You can also view the tips on the website for free.) It doesn’t have to be expensive, but he has seen lives changed for the better by some of the simple acts performed.

Similarly, since her retirement from teaching, Diane Davis has been instrumental in helping displaced Syrian refugees in Gander. Kevin Tuerff recently moved to New York so he can help his church to welcome immigrants and refugees there. Beverley Bass enjoys picking up the tab for first responders and others at restaurants. She paid airfare for the family of a member of Come from Away’s band when their homes in Dominica were destroyed in Hurricane Maria. Last summer she took her family to Newfoundland and personally thanked every mayor of every town that helped out. According to Nick and Diane Marson, “It has renewed our faith in humanity and given us a new family. It certainly changed Nick’s life, he threw his life up in the air, moved to Texas and married Diane. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t!”

Accuracy and Repeat Viewings

One thing I asked everyone I interviewed was how accurate their characters were represented in the musical Come From Away. The consensus was that they were very accurate. As mentioned above, some characters were combinations of two people. Kevin Tuerff told me that “The Kevins” actually lived in Austin, Texas rather than Los Angeles. Sankoff and Hein made this change so that they wouldn’t have “too many Texans” in the musical. (He also mentions in his book that they did not go to the Legion for a drink while stranded in Gander, and they were not Screeched In until years later). Nick and Diane Marson pointed out that they made some minor changes to put everyone in one airplane and one shelter. Beverley Bass is deeply impressed with the way she is portrayed. She tells me that Jenn Colella is an ideal actress to play her. “First of all, she is adorable and has the most amazing voice. She belts out ‘Me and the Sky’ which is my aviation life compacted into a 4:19 second solo, the only solo in the show. Her body language and everything is just the way that I am. We both have similar haircuts and she used to have blonde hair like me, but has decided to let it go natural and is no longer blonde.” Diane Davis tells me that she personally observed most of what happened in the musical, and it brings back the memories of those events actually happening.

Another thing I asked everyone was how many times they have seen the musical. I believe Beverley Bass holds the record at 106 times as of the time she responded to my questions. Diane Davis hasn’t counted, but she believes it has been at least a dozen times, in Gander, Toronto, New York City and Winnipeg. It makes her cry every time. Kevin Tuerff recently attended his 26th performance over the course of five years, with his nephew and an African friend who was recently granted asylum in the US. Nick and Diane Marson are at second place among the people I interviewed, at 75 times in six cities and two countries. They tell me it is rewarding to show people who are older and yet have not found their “special someone” that there is still hope. Nick and Diane were “both into middle age, not 20 somethings” when they met. They also feel it is like renewing their vows every time they see the musical

Relating to Come From Away

One thing I love about Come From Away is how much I can identify with it. I grew up in the Philippines, but I currently live in the Seattle area. I have also lived in Hong Kong and Montana. Having lived on opposite sides of the Pacific, I often feel like a come from away wherever I go. (“Where are you from?” is a complicated question for me.) In addition, I distinctly remember the events of 9/11. I remember the uncertainty of what would happen. That horrible morning, the hits kept coming. A plane hit one tower. A plane hit the other tower. A plane hit the Pentagon. A plane likely bound for the White House crashed in a field near Pittsburgh. Where would the next plane hit? After I got to work in a Seattle highrise that morning, I wondered if it would hit our building. Would a plane crash into the Space Needle? Our employer gave us the option of going home just in case. I decided that, worst case scenario, a plane would hit our building, and I would be killed and go to heaven. Heaven didn’t sound so bad right then. When I listened to the cast recording of the musical years later, it brought back those memories and left me in tears.

With that in mind, I also asked everyone if there was a way they could relate to the musical like I could.

Diane Davis shared that “9/11 was the hardest I worked ever to do something good, to volunteer, to be a contributing citizen. I am also on Gander Refugee Outreach Committee now and the time and energy involved in welcoming 4 Syrian families to Gander has renewed and polished all those citizen skills. Part of teaching our families was telling them the story of 9/11 and again, David and Irene selected stories that emphasize inclusion, compassion, empathy and community. For me though, the memory that always strikes me is the passengers seeing it on TV for the first time and when I see it on stage I cry. It’s the sense of helplessness, no matter how willing we were, that there was nothing we could do to make this not true or better.”

Nick and Diane Marson tell me, “As we travel to other cities where the show opens, and meet so many new people, we feel like we still are come from aways. One of our favorite aspects of the show is meeting new people and sharing stories with them.”

Kevin Tuerff says, “As a gay Catholic, I know what it’s like to be marginalized. When I see the scene when the Muslim man (Ali) is scared because of how others are treating him simply because of his religion, it makes me sad. No doubt there was tremendous anxiety about who was a terrorist because the ones who hijacked the planes came from Muslim countries. But they were extremists who disobeyed their own religion. Virtually every religion in the world has one common teaching: The Golden Rule­–Treat others as you want to be treated. I hope as Come From Away goes on tour around the world, people are reminded of this, and take their experience in the theater and incorporate it into their daily lives.”

Tips for Visiting Newfoundland

Another question I asked everyone was where they would recommend going when visiting Newfoundland.

In addition to Gander, Beverley Bass recommends visiting Gambo and Lewisporte, as well as the other “adorable little towns” in the area. As far as restaurants in Gander, she recommends Bistro on the Roe, Rosie’s, and The Gander Bread Box Bakery & Café. “Everyone is so incredibly nice that you really never want to leave.”

Diane Davis says, “There is a Beyond Words bus tour that will take visitors to the various sites around Gander and does a great job of telling Gander’s 9/11 and aviation history. I like to make sure people see Gander Heritage Memorial Park and read some of the letters at the town hall in Gander. I also recommend the Peace Park in Appleton and visiting all the town halls in the communities where passengers were housed. Gander, Appleton, Glenwood, Lewisporte, Norris Arm and Gambo. Everyone should visit the Dover Fault and sing “Stop the World” too.”

Kevin Tuerff says, “The best place to start a tour of Gander is at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. They offer a seasons tour of the Gander International airport and several scenes in Come From Away called Beyond Words. I recently took a self-driving tour of other beautiful town across Newfoundland from Maxxim Vacations, called the Come From Away Experience. The island has absolutely stunning beauty and remarkably kind people.”

Nick and Diane Marson have a rather unsurprising yet exciting suggestion: “Do we ever! Of course we like to see our Newfie families, but ….   Our visit to Dover Fault on Sept. 13th, 2001 highlighted the budding feelings between us…Nick wanted a photo of Diane, not the beautiful scenery, so that meant he was as interested in me as I was in him...  It is the “Stop the world” moment in our lives and is portrayed as such in the play.”

Go See Come From Away!

Come From Away is currently playing on Broadway and Toronto. The musical is kicking off its national tour in Seattle in October. (I can’t wait!) The tour is currently slated for Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Costa Mesa, Las Vegas, Portland (Oregon), Vancouver (British Columbia), Edmonton, Calgary, Omaha, Appleton (Wisconsin), Pittsburgh, Greenville, Baltimore, Hartford, Milwaukee, St. Louis, New Orleans, Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago and Ottawa. The show also opens in Melbourne, Australia in July 2019. Tickets are now on sale for the Dublin production, and it runs in London starting January 20, 2019. Tickets are now on sale there as well.

The show lasts 100 minutes, and there is no intermission. It is recommended for ages 10 and up.

You can get more information on the musical’s website, www.comefromaway.com. I also highly recommend visiting www.payitforward911.org for ways you can help spread the kindness that the people of Newfoundland showed to strangers.

Doing the Dark Side Shuffle

Michael Kape

I spent seven years as one of the most hated, hateful, grumpy, delighted, even-handed, fair, miserable people in theatre. It’s no secret—I was a theatre critic in Atlanta, first for WABE-FM and Southern Voice, and then for Atlanta Theatre Weekly. I refer to this as my time on the Dark Side.

Yet I would never trade the experience, even though it was soul-crushing having to give honest reviews (some good and some bad) to people I liked and respected. Yes, even theatre critics have souls. They might be hard to find (nearly impossible, some would say), but we have them.

Just don’t do something stupid. That can incur our wrath.

Photo by nito100/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by nito100/iStock / Getty Images

* * *

One of my fellow critics at the time had a tendency to go off on tangents, and the tangent would become the main thrust of his reviews. He was a nice guy in real life, but you’d never know it from what he wrote. (As long as I knew him, he was trying to write a biography of actress Piper Laurie; I don’t think it ever was published.)

I tried very hard not to do this, and I succeeded—except once. A local company was doing a production of Pump Boys & Dinettes, a musical I genuinely like. It was going well until the middle of Act II. From out of nowhere, a character holds up a logo and says, “And I buy all my stereo equipment at Hi-Fi Buys,” the local chain serving as a sponsor of the theatre company. Totally broke character. Totally not in keeping with the script or spirit of the show. Just. Plain. Wrong.

I was pissed. I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the show. I was seeing red. When it came time to deliver my review, I went off on a tangent—and couldn’t come back. Hi-Fi Buys banned me from its stores.

(BTW, not the first or last time I’ve ever been banned. Soap opera actress Deirdre Hall—who hated being called a soap opera actress but that’s what she was—once had me declared persona non grata at NBC for a year. A local theatre company here recently banned Grumpy Olde Guy® because I told the truth about its production of the highly-offensive Jewtopia.)

* * *

The late Robert Goulet was touring in South Pacific (a show I genuinely don’t like) playing Emile. In my review, I referred to him as the “dipsomaniacal Robert Goulet,” because, well, frankly, he was the night I saw him. His wife (and fierce protector) pointed out to him what I meant: he was drunk as a skunk onstage. He decided he liked the other reviewer better. Okay, I pissed him off, but he was really inebriated, and you could tell by his performance.

* * *

Speaking of pissing off famous people, there was the time I reviewed Marla Maples (soon to become Wife #2 to Donald Trump) as Ziegfeld’s Favorite in The Will Rodgers Follies. Okay, so I called her a “celebrity by osmosis.” Sure, I noted how you could see her counting steps to herself when she tried (unsuccessfully) to dance. But was that any reason for Mr. Trump (not POTUS then) to call the station and demand I be fired? (BTW, I wasn’t fired.)

* * *

Sitting next to me right now as I type this is the London cast recording of Hot Mikado, conceived, written, and directed by David H. Bell. It’s a terrific show, and it deserves a Broadway production. Of course, I’ve been saying this for 20 years. Yet before he did Hot Mikado, David wrote a musical loosely based on the history of the Beach Boys. It was awful—a show with no conflict (every minor dispute was resolved by the end of each scene, with no reason to lurch forward to the next one). Yes, I panned it, and David wouldn’t speak to me again until the glowing review of Hot Mikado made it into print. No, I wasn’t surprised. But it was kind of soul-crushing.

* * *

Can a critic really kill a show? I truly do not believe so. Yet I know from first-hand experience a critic can definitely do in a cast. I was seeing Les Misérables for the fourth time. The first time (and not as a critic) I saw it, I thought it was fantastic. So, this was not a matter of me not liking the material. The opposite is true—when it’s done well. The tour of Les Misérables pulls into town, and the cast is clearly tired from being on the road too long. Opening night. Everyone is dragging their collective asses on stage—leads and chorus. Even the orchestra seemed to lack enthusiasm. So, I gave this production a bad review for the reason I cited. The theatre was furious at me (the people there had not seen the show the night before). They decided to go see for themselves how wrong I was—but they concluded I had been justified in what I said. The next morning, they called Cameron McIntosh, who flew in to see for himself that night. After the performance, he gathered the cast together on stage—and fired every single one of them (he subsequently did the same thing to the Broadway cast). Oops. (Yes, I feel badly about this. I keep telling you being a critic can crush your soul.)

* * *

One review landed me and my partner in Atlanta Theatre Weekly in a whole lot of trouble because it was totally accurate—and that was the problem. One of our friends works at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Library and has for many years; he was also a subscriber. For a long time, I had been hearing about this radical idea an artistic director had for Oklahoma, which he finally was able to present. While there were many problems with the production, the main one was he had added a prologue, epilogue, and interpolated dialogue into the musical. He had also reset the show in a rehearsal hall on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed (BTW, Oklahoma opened nearly two years after Pearl Harbor). It was totally going against the spirit of the show (I consulted Rodgers autobiography, Musical Stages, to verify this). The R&H Library saw the review and threatened to shut the show down immediately if the changes weren’t cut. A brouhaha ensued. Our review was at the center of it. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution damned us. We were blamed for doing our jobs. Indeed, a few years later, a book about gay theatre came out, and the first chapter blasted us for publishing a review critical of this “daring concept.” More than 20 years later, I stand by that review.

* * *

There are some things a critic may never do. You can’t go to a show drunk (not a problem for me since I never was much of a drinker, and these days not at all). You may never express an opinion about a show until it appears in print or is aired (the producers of the Miss Saigon tour tried to get us to break that rule—and were sorely disappointed as a result). And no matter how bad the show is, you can’t walk at intermission. Well, almost never. I saw over 600 shows during my time as a critic, and I only left at intermission twice. It wasn’t my idea either time. The first time, I had initially been asked to come to dress rehearsal to do my review. Frankly, the show wasn’t ready to be reviewed. At intermission, the producer came up to me and asked if I could come back at a different time, half-expecting me to laugh and turn him down. He forgot I had spent many years on the other side, so I completely understood the dilemma. I told him I would gladly return at a later date to do my review—and I did (I gave the show a good review, too).

The second time I walked I did not return. A theatre company had imported a show—sight unseen—from South Africa. The first act was ghastly (to be kind). Indeed, it was so bad I really did not want to review it because I could see nothing redeeming about it. But I still planned to stay for Act II. Again, the producer came to me and asked me not to review what I had just seen. I couldn’t grab my coat fast enough.

Having now come back from the Dark Side, the ability to walk at intermission of a truly awful show is a luxury. I savor those moments when a show is so bad I don’t want to come back (wish I had done that for Love Never Dies, which I knew was going to be dreadful from the first five minutes; it didn’t get better after that).

* * *

One of life’s great ironies is I studied to be a theatre critic (major in theatre, minor in journalism). Once I did it, I never wanted to do it again. Now I just kibitz from the audience like everyone else. And I’m okay with that. At least my soul is still intact. I think.


Michael Kape is an opinionated, miserable, and decidedly grumpy decrepit olde guy. Other than that, he’s a pretty nice person.


Never cross a critic. It can get ugly.