History

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
Carousel
, 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.

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!

 

Putting the Tony in the Tony Awards

Tonys.jpg

For a little over a month, we here at The All Things Broadway Blog have been preparing you for the single biggest night in theatre, and now it’s just about time to wrap up Broadway’s Award Season and look into the future. However, I’m sure just like you, it will take a while for us to debrief from all this madness, and there will still be plenty to discuss, but for now the time for preparation has come to an end. If you’ve not finished planning your tony parties yet, or made your predictions on who the winners will be, or if you still don’t even know what the heck I’m talking about, then you are almost out of time because this Sunday June, 10th at 8/7 Central, only on CBS, it’s finally time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for...The 72nd Annual Tony Awards!

The History of Broadway And The Musicals That Call It Home- The Tony Awards Special!
Have you ever wondered how award shows came into being? Or where the awards came from? I mean, who even designed the physical Tony Award? All good questions and well, I’m sure there’s a book somewhere that will tell you all that because that’s way too much for me to research. I’m kidding of course, it was legendary Art Director Herman Rosse. However, there is one question I really do want to get to the bottom of today and that is, why the Tony Awards? I mean have you ever thought about why our award shows are named what they are, I mean sure there named after people, but who? Who was the original Oscar, is he the guy the statuette was based off of? What about the Pulitzer Prize, I mean, why do we have an award based off a guy who swindled a bunch of kids just trying to sell papes? I mean, who even is this “Tony”? Well, every name has a story as you may know, and the story of the Tony Awards goes way back to 1917 in where else, but New York City.

Charitable Beginnings
In 1917 right before America would enter World War I, the country was feeling patriotic and everyone was doing their effort in the war, including Rachel Crothers who decided to create the Stage Women’s War Relief. She and several other theatre women made uniforms, collected food and clothing, and sold Liberty Bonds, but of course being actresses and playwrights, they also raised money the best way they knew how to - through performing. They built a makeshift Liberty Theatre outside of the New York Public Library, and in total, the group ended up raising a ton of money for the war effort, and you might not know Crothers today or her small organization, but you might know it by its updated name.

 The Birth Of The American Theatre Wing
The Stage Women’s War Relief was abandoned after the end of World War I, but as you all may now, it wasn’t very many years after the first war that we discovered just that. It was only the first, and once again at the beginning of World War II, Crothers was ready to get back to work and re-established the organization as a branch of the British war relief. However, when America decided it was time to enter the war, Crothers renamed the organization to something you might know a little better today- The American Theatre Wing - which focused on the American war effort and got straight to work, getting back to its New York roots and opening the stage door canteen to entertain servicemen in America. They raised money, boosted ally spirits, and once again did what they did best, put on shows. However, after the War ended suddenly, the Wing had once again lost purpose. But unlike after World War I, it didn’t disband and instead kept going stronger than ever, and though the war was over they still assisted veterans on their way home and helped in the effort to move on from the war. They then started to establish themselves and help grow the expanding world of theatre and in 1946, The American Theatre Wing was about to make one of its biggest contributions to theatre history yet, after the call for an award banquet for New York's distinguished actors was made. The award would be given to those working on Broadway, The Tony Award, named after who it was dedicated to.

 Antoinette Perry And The Tony Awards
Why the Oscars? Why the Oliviers, why do we name awards after people, and who even are the people we name them after and in this case, who is Antoinette Perry? She is, as you may be able to guess, the namesake of the Tony Awards but, who is she? We haven’t discussed her yet and odds are the name isn’t ringing a bell. Well, she is an integral part of not only the story I just told you but also of theatre history. You see, as I said, Crothers established the organization, but when she brought it back after World War I as the all new, American Theatre Wing she didn’t do alone and I purposefully left out one of her key new members, the co-founder Antoinette Perry.

Perry is known as an actress, producer, and director, but most of all for her role in the wing in World War II. She created scholarship opportunities, funded works of new plays, and supported the theatre in every way possible. To give you an idea of who Perry was, when she died in 1946, she was $300,000 in debt, and that was purely because Perry gave everything she had to theatre. Her daughter described her as a bit of a gambler but that all her winnings went straight to providing for the theatre wing. Once a reporter asked her, “Why do you give so much time and money to such thankless activities?” to which Perry replied, “Thankless? They’re anything but that, I’m just a fool for theatre.” Perry was anything but a fool, though. It was clear to her friends and coworkers that she had a passion for theatre like no other, and that’s exactly why when she did die in 1946 from a heart attack, it was no question to Brock Pemberton, head of the Wing at the time, that the new award would be named “The Antoinette Perry Award For Excellence In Theatre”, or as it would catch on, The Tony Awards.

So, if you get anything from the article get this, winning the Tony Awards isn’t the huge deal we make it out to be because it’s exclusively for Broadway, or it’s so hard and exceptional, but because it’s something reserved for only the most passionate and exceptional individuals: those who represent what Antoinette Perry stood for and would gladly give their life for theatre. So, if any of you reading this ever do win a Tony, maybe skip the note cards, and skip drawn out speeches and simply say, “I’m just a fool for theatre,” because it means so much more than the audience may ever know and if you do end up thank anyone, thank Antoinette Perry, the war supporter, theatre legend, and woman who lived her life to help grow this wonderful artform into what we know today.

And ever since that first Awards Banquet in 1947 where no medallions were even given out just jewelry and other valuable accessories we have had 71 ceremonies since. With changes to awards, changes to locations, and changes to theatre in general, the Tony Awards are now able to be seen by everyone since they've been broadcast on CBS since 1967, and its brought everyone a little closer into the world of theatre we know and love and given everyone the chance to get involved in the event. As we approach the 72nd show, it’s nice to look back onto humble beginnings in times of war and at those often unheard who paved the way for not only The Tony’s today, but theatre in general, and as well to look forward to the future as The Tony Awards is looking into the digital age and may soon find another home outside of just television, but also Broadway and the bright future of this ever growing artform.

So that’s the history of the Tony Awards! Do you enjoy this history stuff? I mean love it, but I want to see what you think, do you want more of this or should I write about other things tell me in the comments below and as always, make sure to be there or be square, unless you’re Ethan Slater who has to be there AND be square. Make sure to tune into The Tony Awards on CBS at 8/7 Central this Sunday! Wait, though I know what you’re already saying what about all of us not in America, worry not friends overseas because I got your back. I’d like to refer you to https://www.tonyawards.com/en_US/tonynight/international_viewing.html which tells you everything you need to know about overseas watching. But for those of us in America, tune into CBS, jump on the couch, pop some popcorn, and get ready to either hate or love the American Theatre Wing, you know, the ones who decided The Producers was absolutely worth a record number of Tonys and they are totally right, but also that Big Fish couldn’t even get a nomination. What?!? Sorry, Darren already covered that one, still mad about it though. I love Big Fish if you can’t tell. I mean would it have won, no probably not. But not even a nomination? I mean Nice Work If You Can Get It got a nomination for Best Musical in 2012 and that’s just a jukebox musical featuring an already done Gershwin plot and the absolute worst of Matthew Broderick practically being carried by Kelli O’ Hara, but Big Fish featuring my favorite boy, Norbert Leo Butz, can’t even get a nomination for Best Musical, and speaking about 2012, don’t even get me started on Newsies losing to Once, because we will be here all day.

Well that’s it for me, thankfully. I’ve been Taylor and I can't wait to watch the Tony Awards with all of you guys. So, thanks for reading. I encourage you if you’re just finding the blog to go back and read the other entries the team has made over the past month and make sure to keep up to date, as we all have much more to talk about and of course, if I haven’t said it enough, make sure to tune into The 72nd Annual Tony Awards Live on CBS at 8/7 Central! Thanks once again and have a great Thursday everyone.

 

 

 

Very Superstitious (13 Theater Superstitions)

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Taylor Lockhart

I’d like to start off with a story, It all starts in 1991 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, New York. When a man named George Isaac Roberto Stevenson The Second was working backstage as stage manager for the play, Lost In Yonkers. George had been with the show since its opening and was a long time worker of the theatre about to retire after this final show. Many of the cast and crew at the time had planned a surprise party for George’s final day with the theatre to bid him goodbye. He walked in prepared to tell the cast to get into their places just when they were about to cut a cake that said, Good Job Getting Out Of Yonkers George! The surprise should have gone great except George and the crew were running late and the show should have already started. Running down the hallways he entered into the green room ready to yell places when the person cutting the cake had the knife positioned in the wrong place at the wrong time and George came bounding into the room. If it hadn’t had been for an askew prop causing him to trip he would have ran face first into the knife. He ended up breaking his left leg in the process but remarked how close the blade was to his face and actually credited the trip for saving his life. He of course had to bring up the safety concerns later but ended up staying another year before retiring, and every night before the cast went on would say, Break a Leg. No one understood why until they heard the story and when he left slowly the story stopped being told but the tradition just stuck, and now it’s highly likely you two have said Break a leg before opening a show

So Now might be a good time to let you know that everything you just read was a lie, but it probably made you think about where the phrase, “Break a Leg” actually comes from and why it’s considered bad luck to say good luck before a show. Well you’re in luck. See what I did there, because today you’ll be learning that and the meaning of 12 other theatre superstitions. Why 13? Well, It’s supposed to be a friday the 13th thing but im like 12 days late so pretend your reading this 2 Fridays ago. Anyways Follow me, read along and we’ll gather round the ghost light and get very superstitious.

#13   No Wearing Blue Or Green On Stage
This is one you probably haven’t heard before and most likely never will, because it would make productions of Wicked, Shrek, Beauty and the Beast, Heathers, and many others near impossible to do. However, there is a very good reason why it was once considered bad luck to wear blue on stage and that is blue dye back in the day was somewhat rare and very expensive and some theatres even went bankrupt putting on a wealthy facade by having actors and actresses adorned in blue clothing. As for green, back when shows were frequently done outside wearing green clothing acted as an accidental camouflage and caused actors to not stick out and be noticeable on the stage. There have also been times yellow clothing has been considered bad luck because of its connection to satan, you may have heard before that a yellow bird means a bad omen, this is because of that connection. Of course today, blue dye is abundant, shows are performed inside, and hardly anybody would associate yellow with the devil.

#12   Bad Dress Rehearsal
This superstition is fairly easy to see where it comes from, It is believed that if you have a bad dress rehearsal before opening night than it is actually a sign of good luck that your show will do well. Obviously this isn’t always the case, and if you’re having severe problems the day before a show they most likely won’t just disappear because there's an audience. When your a director though it can be just as dangerous to go into opening night with fear and uncertainty so with a bit of superstition and white lies, You may give the cast just what they need to believe they can have an incredible opening and then some of the problems may seem to just fix themselves with a bit more confidence. I don’t know, I generally think it’s pretty terrifying to go into opening on a low note so whatever you can do to boost morale is probably the best thing.

#11   No Peacock feathers
This one is rather short but it was once believed that the peacock represented the eye of evil and that using and wearing them on the stage would lead to sets collapsing, fires, and other horrific disasters

#10   No Mirrors
This is one is actually quite practical and less superstitious, it is considered bad luck to use a mirror on stage because breaking one will cause seven years of bad luck for the theatre and while that most likely isn’t true using mirrors on stage can lead to reflections of light shining in the eyes of the audience, and cast and crew member which may not cause the stage to catch fire but can be quite annoying and lead to problems or technical difficulties.

#9   No Real Money
This superstition comes from the fear of cast members stealing props and is still widely used today because why would you even use real money

#8   No Real Jewelry
This holds the same purpose as the former but isn’t as widely used today. Both items being used are said to cause bad luck, and if you consider having a valuable prop stolen bad luck then yeah, I guess you’re right.

#7   No Whistling
It is said to cause bad luck whistling on or off stage and just in a theatre in general, this must make Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle fun to figure out how to perform. In reality like the others this comes from a time when headsets didn’t exist and some crews consisted of sailors due to the similarities of ropework. They would often use whistling as cues and so if an actor or actress whistled at the wrong time it could mean disaster and a possible date with death and sandbags.

#6   Sleep with your script
Have you ever heard someone say sleeping with your textbook under a pillow causes the information to somehow enter your head. Well, that’s just simply stupid and not true but theatre has its own version of that. It is said that sleeping with your script under your pillow can help you learn lines faster, but don’t try this out hoping to learn all your lines the day before your show. You may find it surprising to learn you won’t be able to catch up on practice in your dreams.

#5   Flowers Before a Performance
It's likely everyone who has performed has received or at the very least watched someone else receive flowers once before, and if that’s the case please go out and buy yourselves some flowers you really deserve it. Well, while that’s for some a pivotal part of opening night. Many actors and actresses wouldn’t accept flowers until after curtain call because they believed receiving them before led to a bad performance. I can’t say I disagree, It’s not going to cause your show to go terribly wrong but it’s good to be rewarded after you’ve finished the job. It is also commonly believed you should leads flowers from a graveyard, but don’t do that. Seriously please don’t go steal flowers from someone's grave.

#4   “Break a Leg”
And now maybe one of the most famous sayings and superstitions of all and we have no idea why we say it or where it comes from. I know that’s kinda anticlimactic but its the truth, there is no definite origin. Its believed it may come from understudies jokingly saying to break a leg so that they can go on. It might have its roots in greek theatre, or it might be referring to the actual curtain called the leg, in which breaking the leg meant to go on and perform. These all work pretty well as origins. It could also be rooted in the idea to wish good luck is bad luck and so you wish bad luck in order to receive good luck. That makes about as much sense as it sounds but superstitions aren’t generally smart. All you need to know is never say good luck or you may cause your performance of the worst most disreputable musical in existence to go horribly right and  turn into a fun satire. If you don’t know the reference just look it up something should come up.

#3   Goodnight Olive
These final 3 aren't so much outdated practical rules, or weird beliefs as they are theatre’s ghost stories. I mean one of them will literally have ghost in the name so that might hint to something. Anyways, Goodnight Oliver is a superstition rooted in the New Amsterdam Theatre. That Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas haunts the theatre. There have been numerous occasions of security guards feeling a tap on their back like someone was playing a trick on them but when they turn around no one is there. One security guard ended up calling the president of Disney Theatricals and owner of the New Amsterdam theatre after an encounter. Once while a group of people were talking about Olive backstage, while talking about the film The Artist one person asked what Olive would think about the film causing then several dvd’s to fly off a table. People believe she likes the attention her haunts cause. They now keep a picture of her backstage and say goodnight to it every night as some sort of gesture of respect.

#2  The Ghost Light
Mostly the ghost light is used for safety purposes, and the to keep away from the danger of walking off the stage into the pit. It is one singular light left on in the theatre when the rest are turned off. However, because theatre people are very superstitious the ghost light is said to ward off ghosts, including very famously the mischievous ghost of Thespis a greek actor credited as the first to step out of the chorus. It is also used to help ghosts see in the dark and keep from bumping into scenery. Many theatres use it and The New Amsterdam theatre previously listed actually has a lot more than just a single light because people are very very sure that Olive haunts the place.

#1  The Play That Should Not Be Named
Oh come on, you all knew this would be #1. By far the most famous theatre superstition of all time, the forbidden word, referred to as the Scottish play. Macbeth, now the superstition goes it causes extreme amounts of bad luck to say the words Macbeth on stage or in a theatre. I don’t think it’s bad luck to type it and I’m not in a theatre so it should be fine, but if you’re in a theatre reading this currently you may not want to read this out loud. The origin of the superstition comes from the belief that the spells in the Three Witches scene are real or were real and used by Shakespeare unknowingly until a group of people made him rewrite it. The accidents caused by uttering the forbidden name date back all the way to the shows opening when it was said an actor died when a real dagger was used instead of a prop one. The difference between and the others though is that this one is widely believed and though many myself included simply have fun with the theatre inside joke there are many who believe it ruins shows and curses theatres. Many hardcore believers even make you perform a cleansing ritual that varies but often involves spinning around three times and reciting a line from one of Shakespeare's other plays. Since it is a superstition there is really no way to prove or disprove it and it remains one of theatres unspoken rules, Never say the name of the Scottish play. Just about every theatre can list an instance of accidents happening afterwards or commotion caused by fear of the curse. While it’s fun to watch non theatre people scratch their heads when the room goes silent after its nothing to let get in the way of a show and when working with little ones can cause quite a commotion. So often it’s best to just refer to it as the Scottish play to avoid fear and people making you do a cult like ritual, which to be fair theatre is sort of a cult isn’t it?

Are there any superstitions I missed? Do you have any stories of ghosts or ghost light mishaps in your theatre, and do you believe in the Macbeth superstition? Tell me down below and remember to check back in the future for more history, theatrics, and possibly spooky ghost stories.

 

Oh and don’t turn off that light when you leave, I’d hate to leave our friends alone in the dark.

The History of: Broadway and the Musicals that Call it Home

Consisting of 33 miles, or 55 kilometers the Manhattan road known as Broadway is home to many of New York’s treasures. The area its most known for though is the Theatre District that runs from 42nd Street to 53rd Street and emcompesses Times Square, often reffered to as The Great White Way of Broadway. Musical theatre has become synonymous with Broadway and it’s easy to say the art form holds a ginormous presence in all of New York City. Your clearly here because you love the place or at least the shows it gives home to. Whether you’ve listened to Hamilton once or are one of the 7 people alive who have seen Legs Diamond you’d probably like to know a bit more about this whole broadway thing.  So if you’re as ready as I am let's right into it and talk history, of course not the actual road itself though im sure you’re very interested in reading about how the Wickquasgeck (try pronouncing that right) trail eventually came to be known as Broadway, I’ll give you a clue it involves stealing it from the Native Americans. No, I’m sure you’re much more interested in what’s on the streets- it’s many diverse and entertaining musicals! Also occasionally plays but the history of theatre in general is terrible because it actually starts from almost the beginning of time so we’ll just be crash coursing through the history of musical theatre as we know it today. Going from where I believe is a good place to start and showing you how we got to shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Newsies and the chain of ideas and influences that led to the Broadway we know today. So without any further ado. My names Taylor, There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. And this is- The History Of: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

But What Is Oklahoma?

I assume most of you know what Oklahoma! Is, but considering I still have friends that shake their heads when I mention The Music Man I guess I can’t be too sure. Nevertheless Oklahoma! Is a 1943 Broadway musical by American composer Richard Rodgers and American lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, I’ve noticed nobody really names their children after themselves anymore, probably a good thing. You should probably know these two because they are probably the most famous musical theatre duo of all time, let alone possibly one of the most famous duos of all time and definitely some of the most famous in their respected jobs. Bottom line is Rodgers and Hammerstein is a huge name in musical theatre. One we’ll definitely focus on a ton in this article, and their show Oklahoma! Is about the Oklahoma territory before its become a state and the lives and romances of the people who live there. You can read a full plot synopsis down below. Right there, just scroll down a bit. It’s really long, has a bunch of parenthesis, you can’t miss it.

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A “Brief” Plot Synopsis of Oklahoma!

Alright, Good you made it. Anyways Its 1906 in the Oklahoma territory and cowman Curly Mclain is just out and about singing about how great a day it’s going to be ("Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'") as he wanders into Laurey Williams yard to kinda sorta if the two can stop teasing each other ask her to the box social dance that night where they’ll be auctioning off picnic baskets to help raise money for the school house. Laurey upon him finally asking her refuses because he’s waited till the literal day of. Curly tries to persuade her claiming he has the best ride money can buy and she should just imagine what it would be like going with him in it ("The Surrey with the Fringe on Top") she continues to tease him though and Curly getting frustrated tells her he made the whole thing up, this upsets Laurey and she forces him away unaware he actually has rented such a ride. When the farm hand Jud Fry asks Laurey out for the social she accepts his offer to spite Curly even though she’s somewhat afraid of Jud. Meanwhile Cowboy Will Parker has recently returned from the city with all sorts of news to share (“Kansas City”) He also has won 50$ in a steel roping contest which is what Ado Annie’s father needs Will to possess in order to marry her. However in a blunder he spent all of it in order to buy gifts for Ado Annie and a tube holding scandalous pictures for Ado Annie's father unaware there’s a hidden blade inside of it. Later, Ado Annie confesses to Luarey that she’s been seeing a persian peddler Ali Hakim. Laurey pushes her friend to choose one of them but Annie claims she can’t choose because she loves them both (“I Cain’t Say No”) Laurey and her friends prepare for the box social and when Gertie Cummings a local girl flirts with Curly. Laurey claims to her friends she doesn’t love him. (“Many A New Day”) Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father finds Annie and Hakim together and forces at gunpoint Hakim to agree to marry her, Hakim and a few other towns men are very outraged by this (“It’s an Scandal! It’s an Outrage”) Then Laurey tries to convince both herself and Curly that the two aren’t in love (“People Will Say We’re In Love”) hurt by Laureys refusal Curly goes off to find the guy she is going with and... convince him to kill himself?!? Wait hold on is that right? Thatt cannot be right. No, No Yeah that’s right. Curly actually tries to convince Jud because he’s not appreciated and no one really likes him he should hang himself and taht way people would care about him after he was dead and the song of course is appropriately titled (“Poor Jud Is Dead”) Like Curly, I get it rejection is hard but isn’t that a bit far. That’s like JD levels of overreaction. Anyways, Laurey not sure whether she should go with Jud or Curly purchases a “magic potion” which is actually a form of opium and has a dream about it. In the dream she is about to marry Curly and when her veil is uncovered Jud is standing in front of her. She realizes Jud would be a terrible husband and then Curly comes back to defend her and then Jud kills him. Laurey wakes up just for Jud to stroll on by and pick her up for the social. There's a fun square dance in which everyone realized the Farmer and the Cowman who tension is high between should just be friends ("The Farmer and the Cowman") Ali Hakim in an effort to rid himself of Ado Annie buys all of Wills souvenirs from him for 50$ and Jud buys the viewer with the hidden blade from him. Will then bids all of his 50$ on Ado Annie’s basket leaving the peddler to have to bid 51$ so Will can marry Ado Annie. Jud and Curly both compete for Laureys basket, Jud bidding his entire life savings and Curly bidding everything he needs to be a cowman, his horse, his saddle, and his gun. Curly wins the auction and later Will and Ado Annie have a conversation about staying faithful to each other (“All Er Nuthin”) Jud tries to discreetly kill him with the hidden blade. Aunt Eller stops this and Jud goes off to see Laurey. They have an unpleasant conversation and when Laurey feels uncomfortable with Jud she fires him and orders him off her property. Jud leaves and Laurey runs to Curly afraid of what Jud might do next but Curly promises to protect her (“People Will Say We’re In Love (Reprise)”) The peddler bids Ado Annie goodbye telling her Will is the man she should marry. Three weeks later, Curly and Laurey are married and the territory finally becomes a state (“Oklahoma!”) Hakim returns with his new wife Gertie who he was once again forced by shotgun to agree to marry and a drunken Jud returns and harasses Laurey. He and Curly get into a fist fight with Jud ultimately falling on his knife and dying. There’s a quick trial where Curly is found “Not Guilty!” by means of self defense.and he and Laurey ride off to their honeymoon in a surrey with fringe on the top (“Finale Ultimo”)

 

Rodgers and Hammerstein before Oklahoma!

Okay, So now if you’re still here you know full well the story of Oklahoma! And obviously that synopsis doesn’t do it justice. I’d still try to go see it for yourself of watch the 1955 movie. Actually you can go do that right now. Go on, you can walk away and watch it and I’ll still be here when you get back. It really is great piece of classic cinema, We’ll talk about it later obviously...Oh are you back? Ok, by now you know full well the story and it might be surprising to you that this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first show together. They were in now way new to broadway though, not at all. In fact by 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were already veterans to the broadway scene. Rogers having notably worked on Pal Joey in 1940 and Hammerstein having worked on Show Boat in 1927. A show we will definitely talk about later. They weren’t huge world known names  yet either. Because before Rodgers and Hammerstein, they were simply Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, well to be fair Rogers was Rodgers and Hart but that doesn't matter yet. Going back to the very very beginning Richard Rogers was born to Mamie and Dr. William Abrahams Rodgers in Arverne, Queens, New York City. He began piano at age six and composed some of his first songs in his teenage years. He studied at Columbia University where he eventually transferred to the Institute of Musical Art now known as Juliard and in 1919 Rogers met Lorenz Hart, there you see Rodgers and Hart now it matters. The two of them over the next couple of years went on to write several mediocre musical comedies struggling in that field. However eventually they broke out Rogers having said to have believed the song “Manhattan” made their names known. They worked on more broadway shows and also worked in Hollywood looking for greener pastures however their last show, By Jupiter marked the ending of Rodgers and Hart partnership and the beginning of something much bigger. On the other hand Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II was born in New York City, the son of Alice Hammerstein (née Nimmo) and theatrical manager William Hammerstein. His father though a theatrical person was opposed to is son going into the arts and pushed him to study law at Columbia University. When he was 19 his father died of Bright’s disease. After his father's death  he went on to write and star in several shows eventually making it to broadway with first musial, Always, You. Throughout the next 40 years he collaborated with many people doing lyrics and book writing the huge theatrical breakthrough that is often credited as the first book musical, Show Boat which would lead to the creation of Oklahoma! Among all of those collaborations though was his most famous, Richard Rodgers


 

The Dirt Road To Oklahoma!

The idea for Oklahoma came about when The Theatre Guild produced Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grow The Lilacs. The play was rather unsuccessful however ten years later Theresa Helburn co director of the guild saw a production done with folk music and square dances seeing it she had the idea to revive the struggling guild using a musical of the play. She contacted Rodgers and Hart who were interested in doing it. Rodgers asked Hammerstein as well to collaborate in the process who had said a few years earlier in By Jupiters if Hart were unavailable to work he would gladly step in and soon Rogers decided to take Hammerstein up on his offer after Hart overcome by alcoholism and no desire to write anymore forced the two to split paths. Rodgers and Hammerstein was born and the two worked incredibly well together.They both preferred to write lyrics before music and the new risky partnership proved to be a success as the two frequently agreed with each other and decided to an incredibly innovative move that music should dictate the source material, a change from the usual style of the time. They both got to work and soon Lynn Rigg’s Green Grow The Lilacs started to turn into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, Away We Go?

 

From Territory To State

Yes, the show wasn’t given the name, Oklahoma! Until right up into its opening on Broadway.It was originally titled Away We Go. A lot less memorable isn’t it? Once the show had its music layed down and its story ready to be performed the two got to work on casting it and bringing the whole thing to life. Roles in musicals at the time were generally filled by actors who could sing but Rodgers and Hammerstein instead chose to cast singers who would act. Director Theresa Helburn suggested they cast Shirley Temple as Laurey, and Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim. Though Rodgers and Hammerstein pushed for performers more appropriate to the show as a result no stars were cast, a very unusual thing at the time.The show ended up being choreographed by Agnes de Mille a ballet choreographer who never had worked on broadway up until them. Agnes de Mille decided to cast dancers based on talent rather than looks another very unusual and innovative thing for time. She also added in one of the shows most famous features, The act 1 finale or The Dream Ballet. The show opened with out of town tryouts at New Havens, Shubert Theatre on March 11th, 1943, expectations were low with the musical not being a comedy and Hammerstein having worked on 5 flops in a row. After the number, “Oklahoma!” was added which also gave the show opened on March 31st 1943 and despite review initially being just fair. Oklahoma on broadway was an unexpected and unprecedented hit.

 

Oklahoma! To Broadway and Beyond

The musical soon was frequently sold out with enormous lines in order to buy tickets. Never had a musical became so successful as Oklahoma! In a time where the most successful musicals ran 400-500 performances, Oklahoma! By the end of its 5 year run had done 2,212 performances. It wasn’t until My Fair Lady in 1956 a show beat it out for longest running musical. It still stands today as the 31st longest running broadway show of all time. It was safe to say Oklahoma was a smash hit. Originally consisting of Alfred Drake as Curly, Joan Roberts as Laurey, Celeste Holm as Ado Annie, Howard Da Silva as Jud Fry, Betty Garde as Aunt Eller, Lee Dixon as Will Parker, and Joseph Buloff as Ali Hakim. Just one year later the first of several National US Tours began and in 1945 the US sponsored the show to perform for troops in the war, The show had the first of 4 broadway revivals in 1951 and another just two years later in 1953 for the tenth anniversary. A production also opened in the West End in 1947 being the first postwar wave of musicals to reach the West End. There was then another broadway revival in 1979 at The Palace Theatre which was directed by William Hammerstein, Oscars son. The show also had two West End revivals one in 1980 and 1998 this cast featured little known at the time Hugh Jackman as Curly Mclain who would go on to star as The Wolverine and eventually return to musicals with Les Miserables and The Greatest Showman. There have also been many London tours. Another Broadway revival opened in 2002. The show has also been done in Japan as well as in Sand Springs, Oklahoma The Discoveryland theatre would show the musical nightly over summers from 1977 until 2011 eventually causing Mary Rogers and William Hammerstein to designate the theatre the, “National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!”

Oklahoma also had a film adaption in 1955, seven years after the original broadway production though it was produced with Samuel Goldwyn it was the first movie musical of its time where direction was in complete control of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The movie was one of the firsts to be shot in Todd-AO. The film omitted the songs “Lonely Room” and “It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!” and sensored several lyrics to pass movie ratings. It went on to win 3 oscars for Best Music, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Best Sound.  Between being the first musical to have a record released with the original broadway cast, the incredible success of both the musical and the movie. Oklahoma! Went for a critics choice for failure to the biggest musical of its day but it did a lot more than just acquire fame. It expanded on the previous idea of a book musical set down by shows like Show Boat And created a new standard, a new artform all together- Musical Theatre.

 

The legacy of Oklahoma! 75 year later

I’ve set out to show you the history of musical theatre and to start anywhere else would be silly. Although the credit for the first book musical typically goes to Show Boat, Oklahoma! Is the breakthrough of everything happening in theatre in the 1930-30’s. I’ve mentioned before a lot about war and it should be a friendly reminder that when Oklahoma opened it was only two years past Pearl Harbour and America entering the war. A time marked with The Great Depression and people looking for an escape within the theatre from the struggles of everyday life, was coming to an end and even though these problems and more loomed over people’s head. It was time for America to grow up and face its problems head on and that’s all the same for musical theatre. I know when I mention Oklahoma! It certainly doesn’t come to mind as a serious play, but for the time it was. It came down simply to Oklahoma! wasn’t a comedy. When Jud threatened to kill Curly it wasn’t for laughs it was real. There were real stakes and real drama and the music and dance rather than show off for the audience reflected that. It was used simply to drive forward the plot. When Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to put the source material first and work off of that it was maybe the best decision they ever made. The book musical, a thing that thankfully nowadays doesn’t even need to be said was finally here to stay. Rodgers and Hammerstein would go on to make some of the most well known broadway musicals of all time like Carousel and The Sound Of Music. Hammerstein would go on to mentor another well known composer Stephen Sondheim. They worked on countless shows and helped establish a new artform known as musical theatre. Oscar Hammerstein II died on August 23rd 1960 and Richard Rogers died on December 30th, 1979. There legacy is unfathomable and some would argue they are the best Broadway composers of all time. Oklahoma! though nowadays perceived as an old out of date musical is maybe one of the most inspirational and important musicals of all time. Oklahoma! and definitely Rodgers and Hammerstein helped created musical theatre. It’s possible to argue that without them no musicals today would exist and Broadway would look a lot different. Agnes de Mille helped tear down the chorus line by being one of the first to cast by talent instead of looks. The dream ballet was used quite a bit throughout shows after Oklahoma though isn’t used much anymore. Oklahoma this year is 75 years old. It celebrated the anniversary of its opening night 5 days ago and still 75 years on its frequently performed and a staple of the golden age of Broadway. To most it issued in the golden age of Broadway. The show led to the creation of many others that would go on to inspire those after it and through that line we eventually get to today and what broadway looks like now. We’ll continue down that line by discussing a show that took large amounts of inspiration from Oklahoma! And went on to inspire countless musicals of its own, all that and more Next time on. The History Of: Broadway And The Musicals That Call It Home

 

Heres three quick little Oklahoma facts that I didn’t get the chance to discuss

-The song “Oklahoma!” is in fact the state song of Oklahoma

-There are a lot of parodies of Oklahoma in popular culture, I will leave you to look those up

-For a very long time the peddler Ali Hakim was played by a white man, although its said multiple times he’s persian. That's the 40’s for you and basically every era up until the civil rights movement.

Do you want to go see Oklahoma! now? Not sure where it’s playing? Well luckily for you I might have a solution

The Marriott Theatre in Illinois April 11 - June 10, 2018- http://www.marriotttheatre.com/

Derby Dinner Playhouse in Kentucky April 11th - May 27th, 2018 https://derbydinner.com/show/oklahoma/

Iowa State University April 5th - April 8th http://www.theatre.iastate.edu/

Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota July 13th - July 29th  https://www.blackhillsplayhouse.com/

Bauxite High School in Arizona April 13th - April 15th 2018

Fort Frye High School in Ohio May 10th - May 12th

Even more listed at http://www.rnh.com/more-productions.html?item_id=OK



Hint for the next article:

Our next musical recently had a high school version premier at the International Thespian Festival last year. What musical am I talking about? Hope you can find out, until then shout a yipeekayay! Your doing fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma, Yeow!


 

Picture credits- Courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein: A Concord Music Company, www.rnh.com