The Saturday List: 1946 in Musical Theatre

Scenes from ST LOUIS WOMAN (featuring Pearl Bailey), LUTE SONG (featuring Mary Martin) and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (featuring Ethel Merman).
Scenes from St Louis Woman (featuring Pearl Bailey), Lute Song (featuring Mary Martin) and Annie Get Your Gun (featuring Ethel Merman).

Where were you when the first bikini was modelled in Paris? I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s eye. In fact, my parents weren’t born yet. It would have been my grandparents taking note of that first appearance of the bikini in 1946, the year chosen for today’s “Saturday List.” This was the year of Eva Perón’s Rainbow Tour, an event dramatised in the musical Evita three decades later. A good portion of the year was engaged with the Nuremberg trials, which had started late in 1945, and the subsequent executions during which ten prominent political and military leaders from Nazi Germany were put to death by hanging. Elsewhere, the first meetings of the United Nations, an institution established to prevent future world wars, took place. MENSA, a society with non-political aims for an IQ-measured “intellectual aristocracy,” was founded at Lincoln College in Oxford, England, in 1946. As is usual in history, we see people create forces that drive us apart even more quickly than those which might bring us together. At the movies, three musicals would place among the year’s top-grossing films: The Jolson Story and Night and Day, biographical musicals about Al Jolson and Cole Porter, and Blue Skies, an Irving Berlin jukebox musical. The top spots on the music charts belonged to Eddy Howard and His Orchestra for their rendition of the title song from the film To Each His Own and Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five for their blues and country-flavoured “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” Words-wise, 1946 was the year that a mistranslation of the Bible fuelled the biblical basis for prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people. The assertion that homosexuality was sinful impacted politics and human rights with deadly consequences. I had to take a beat to process that fact once again when writing this – it’s a lot – and moving to what was happening in musicals in this first year following the end of World War II.  

1. The Award Winners for Best Musical

1946 is a year that pre-dates the Tony Awards – so there’s not much to discuss here. There’s no doubt which show would have taken the Best Musical prize – look no further than Annie Get Your Gun. One hopes, though, that in true Tony Awards style, St Louis Woman would have appeared across the board when it came to the nominations and even taken home some of the prizes.

2. Most Overrated

It might be considered unfair to name a flop from the season as an overrated show, but 1946 had only a few shows that gave their net margins a run for the money. There’s also a difference between what a show was and what it means, which is why this week, I am going to take the unusual route of naming the same show as the most overrated and the most underrated of the season: Lute Song. While Lute Song lost something like $100 000 of its initial investment, it was considered by many critics to be a succès d’estime. It appeared on lists naming the best plays of 1946, and even critics who could not access its gentle pace raved about its aesthetics. Its 142-performance run was just short of the average run of musicals that opened in the same year, well ahead of the median show, which ran about half as long. The aspects of the show that are overrated in terms of its legacy really have to do with the typical yet problematic ways of representing China at the time: the use of yellowface and the sense of generic so-called Oriental pageantry in its dramatic structure, musical approach and design. It’s in recognising the way that the ending of the source material, Pipa ji, was shifted to suit the American standard of marital monogamy and to placate the egos of the show’s star, Mary Martin and her husband, Richard Halliday, who claimed that sharing a man was unworthy of a star of Martin’s status. It’s in understanding how songs like “See the Monkey” land(ed) on the year – then and now. It’s picking through the stories about co-star Yul Brynner’s heritage (leading to the follow-up question of whether minorities are interchangeable when it comes to casting) and life experience (did he really see Pipa ji in China, leaving such an impression on him that he simply had to do this show?) as ways of justifying his casting in the show, which had no Chinese American cast members and only a Japanese American choreographer, Yeichi Nimura, as a gesture towards any kind of authenticity. And that’s before we even get to the yellowface, the designer gowns created for Martin’s character when she is at her poorest in the narrative’s arc, and the Chinese ideography used randomly to infer some kind of overall integrity in the design. This list includes what many white American theatre critics referenced as the show’s positive aspects. In that sense, the critical reaction to the show was most certainly overrated. Had it not been for an article I read while preparing this column, Josh Stenberg’s “How far does the sound of a Pipa carry? Broadway adaptation of a Chinese classical drama” in Volume 14: 2 of the journal, Studies in Musical Theatre, that is where I might have left things.

3. Most Underrated

If you have not read Stenberg’s article, I urge you to seek it out. It really gets to grips with the idea of what Lute Song means despite what it was. He puts it better than I ever could in his abstract for his essay.

The 1946 Broadway premiere of Lute Song represents a milestone in reception of the Chinese dramatic tradition in the United States…. (I)t must be situated at the beginnings of a more respectful relationship to China and Chinese people, as the American stage began to move beyond treatments of China dominated by racist vaudeville or fantastical fairy tales. Instead, Lute Song emerged from a classic text, the long drama Pipa ji…. Lute Song, one of several indirect adaptations of Chinese dramas in the American mid-century, represents a milestone as the first Broadway show inspired by American immigrant Chinatown theatre and the first Broadway musical to be based on Chinese classical drama, mediated through European Sinology.

What Stenberg does well in his piece is explore both sides of the story convincingly. What he has to say gave me a great deal of food for thought and reminded me of the complexities existing in cultural texts from the past – a solid reason for Lute Song to be the most underrated show of 1946.

4. Hidden Gem 

Two shows might have taken this spot: St Louis Woman and Beggar’s Holiday. There might have made a nice moment to select the latter, which is derived from one of the root texts of the musical theatre format, The Beggar’s Opera, and which is jazz great Duke Ellington’s only stage show in this format – but one’s access to the show as it was is quite limited and severely mediated through a 2004 rewrite by Dale Wasserman, which is significantly different from the original in structure and tone – which means, I suppose, that the original truly is a hidden gem. On the other hand, St Louis Woman benefits from having both an original cast album and a recording of the score from a 1998 Encores presentation, which was by its very nature an attempt to represent the musical faithfully in a concert format. The crowning glory of this show is its score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Listening to standards from the score, like “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” alongside its other pleasures, including “Legalize My Name,” ‘I Feel My Luck Comin’ Down’, ”It’s a Woman’s Prerogative,” “I Wonder What Became of Me” and “Leavin’ Time,” it’s hard to imagine why this show hasn’t survived the ages like Oklahoma! or Carousel. Of course, the reason is its book, which doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be an operatic tragedy (the comparisons with Porgy and Bess at the time are an insight into this idea) or a more traditional musical comedy of the period (which is what, sadly, was the more common expectation for musicals focused on the African American experience on Broadway, and part of the reason that the NAACP criticised the musical). All of this shows the weight of expectations that theatre-makers must face, particularly with stories like the one told in St Louis Woman in the context of the 1940s. Could it be time for a revisal to transform material in the great musical play that it should have been?

5. Show of the Year

One show dominated 1946: Annie Get Your Gun. It ran longer by a third than its closet rival, the post-war revue, Call Me Mister, and is still one of the top 100 longest-running Broadway shows. In revival, it has proved just as successful, albeit in a revised format, with the 1999 production trailing only 15 spots behind the original. Would the show have been as successful with a Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score as was originally intended? Who knows? It would have certainly been a different show, but Kern’s sudden death opened a door for Irving Berlin into a new musical theatre world, one that he feared. Berlin was initially concerned that he could not write songs to suit a show differently structured from those he was accustomed to. After all, this musical was being created post-Oklahoma!, and the writers of that smash hit, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, were set to produce Annie Get Your Gun. But after an intervention by Hammerstein, Berlin delivered the first three songs of what would become a hit-filled score: “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” With the songs that established the leading character’s journey in place and tailored to the talents of the show’s star, Ethel Merman, Berlin was on his way. There’s nary a misstep in the subsequent material Berlin drummed up, although the songs for the secondary couple, Tommy and Winnie, are arguably the least inspired. In fact, there’s only one song that never needs to be heard in a contemporary production of Annie Get Your Gun ever again, the racist “I’m an Indian, Too.” (Sorry, folks, the counterargument that the song is a satirical take on racial stereotyping just doesn’t wash, and it certainly doesn’t play.) The accompanying “Wild Horse Ceremonial Dance” and “Adoption Dance” can be jettisoned too. That’s just what happened in the 1999 revival, along with some retooling of the book to adjust how the Native American characters were portrayed. Did Peter Stone hit the mark? Not quite, but it was a step in the right direction. What’s missing, perhaps, in the attempt to create an ideal fictional word for Annie Get Your Gun is a criticism of the stereotyping and treatment of Native American groups in the real world in which this fictionalised biography is set. Nonetheless, Annie Get Your Gun is a cultural touchstone. On paper, it shows us what 1946 – rather than 1876, when the show was set – was like in the USA. In the sense that it is a show of its time, it certainly is the musical of the year.

All things told, 1946 was an interesting year in musical theatre and perhaps more of a cultural reflection point than it first might appear to be. The musicals from this year, even beyond those mentioned in this column, show the theatre-makers of a dramatic form grappling with the world around it, willing to hold up the mirror and reflect what they were seeing, but not to smash the mirror itself and rebuild something magnificent from the fragments.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: Don’t Leave THE BODY BEAUTIFUL Well Enough Alone!

Brock Peters and Steve Forrest in THE BODY BEAUTIFUL
Brock Peters and Steve Forrest in The Body Beautiful

It’s been said across multiple social media platforms: this season’s Some Like It Hot is a great old-fashioned musical comedy hit. Nonetheless, two things can be true simultaneously, and it could also be said that Some Like It Hot feels a lot like most of the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman collaborations: undistinguished. This Friday’s Forgotten Musical takes us back in time to a musical of which almost the opposite could be said. The Body Beautiful, which was Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s debut Broadway musical as a songwriting team, has the reputation of being undistinguished when compared with other similar musical comedies of the 1950s – but compared with the score of Broadway’s latest musical wannabe comedy smash, it offers a score that actually sounds like it could be a great old-fashioned musical comedy hit.

The Body Beautiful ran for a season a little shy of two months in 1958. Despite a short run, it was a bright spot in a year of slim pickings for musical theatre presentations. While it didn’t leave a lasting impression on Broadway history, the score was good enough to prick the ears of a young Stephen Sondheim, who recommended it to Harold Prince. Prince went to see the sho. Although he acknowledges that The Body Beautiful had its problems, he appreciated the talent of this young songwriting team. Prince then signed up Bock and Harnick to write Fiorello! – and the rest is solid gold musical theatre history.

When contemporary critics look back at The Body Beautiful, the major criticism, as it was back in the 1950s, is of Joseph Stein and Will Glickman’s book. Dealing with boxers and prizefighting, it has a lot of action but not much going on underneath the frenetic events of the plot. It hints tantalisingly at more substantial ideas – and why not? Many musical comedies use a light story to make some pertinent social observations. The Body Beautiful doesn’t get that far, although it flirts with themes like the cost of fame, outer vs inner beauty, race and the dynamics of marriage. The show might have worked better with a book by a writer like George Abbott, who had balanced sports and social observations so deftly in 1955’s Damn Yankees and would indeed collaborate with Bock and Harnick on Fiorello!

The score of The Body Beautiful has a reputation for being pedestrian but showing promise. A fresh listen reveals that it has a lot more to offer than that. Close to the top of the show, the upbeat title song delivers a hummable melody and allows the audience to connect immediately with the character who’s doing the singing. This is followed by “Fair Warning,” a characterful duet-cum-ensemble piece that jauntily sets up the second couple’s primary conflict in a typically musical comedy style. There’s lots of fun too in “All of These and More,” The Honeymoon is Over” and “Gloria” – and each has this ability to land character and situation in addition to delivering on smiles and chuckles when it comes to the lyrics. And anyone who doubts Bock’s musical sophistication at this early stage of his career needs to look no further than how he builds “A Relatively Simply Affair” into an impactful musical moment.

While the ballads that populate the more introspective moments in the show, like “Leave Well Enough Alone” and “Hidden in My Heart,” perhaps don’t hit home like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Hello, Young Lovers” or “This Nearly Was Mine,” they’re actually no worse than Bock and Harnick’s “Now I Have Everything” from the acclaimed Fiddler on the Roof – and perhaps they’re an indication of the exact thing that is missing from something like today’s Some Like It Hot.

The major problem with Some Like it Hot is its onslaught of relatively generic music and wall-to-wall lyrics, neither of which the audience into the story and its characters and which don’t give the jokes time to land. That task is left to the performers. Songs like “I’m California Bound,” “Zee Bap” and “Let’s Be Bad” fail to develop the situations they dramatise beyond the initial setup. That problem is left to Matthew López and Amber Ruffin to solve in the book and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw to address in his staging. The real lesson of The Body Beautiful, whatever its other flaws are, is just how well Bock’s music lets Harnick’s lyrics sing. Bock and Harnick don’t hit you over the head in the hope of leaving you giddy; the score engages you on its own merits. If ever there was a musical ripe for retooling, it’s The Body Beautiful. Compared with most contemporary musical comedies, it could be ‘all these and more!’

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The Saturday List: 1958 in Musical Theatre

Scenes from OH, CAPTAIN! (featuring Abbe Lane), GOLDILOCKS (featuring Elaine Stritch and Flower Drum Song (featuring Miyoshi Umeki).
Scenes from Oh, Captain! (featuring Abbe Lane), Goldilocks (featuring Elaine Stritch and Flower Drum Song (featuring Miyoshi Umeki).

Picture it: planet Earth, 1958. 65 years ago. It was a slow year for new musicals and perhaps even a slow year in history. Nonetheless, it’s the subject of today’s “Saturday List.” One of the greatest inventions of the year was the peace symbol, created by Gerald Holtom as part of the British nuclear disarmament movement. Over the next decade, it would be adopted as the international symbol of peace it now represents. Another significant creation this year was the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which United States President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower founded in response to the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik the previous year. On the sports scene, Bobby Fischer won the United States Chess Championship at age 14. At the movies, a musical – South Pacific– topped the grosses, with another – Gigi, which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture the following year – not far behind in fifth position. Some of the chart-topping pop music releases of the year included Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” and “All I Have to Do is Dream” by The Everley Brothers. The most popular word in the slang terms of the year was “nuke,” a clear indication of just how newsworthy the nuclear tests in the United States were. But let’s get to why we’re all here and look at what happened on the musical theatre scene all those years ago.  

1. The Award Winners for Best Musical

If there’s any evidence needed that 1958 was not a great year for new musicals, here it is. In 1958, the Tony Award went to a musical that bowed in 1957, The Music Man. In 1959, the award went to a show that had debuted that year, Redhead. Of the 1958 musicals, only three scored nominations for the top prize: Oh, Captain!, La Plume de Ma Tante and Flower Drum Song. Did Redhead deserve the award over La Plume de Ma Tante, which first opened in London in 1955 and was a smash hit on Broadway, or Flower Drum Song, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s penultimate stage presentation? I think hindsight has given us the answer. (It’s a no.)

2. Most Overrated

In a year where very little landed, how does one pick a show that is the most overrated? Perhaps the fairest way to do this is to name one of the shows that had enough impact to earn a Best Musical nomination at the Tony Awards: Oh, Captain! But this approach presents something of a problem. This nomination of its five-strong total aside, Oh, Captain! did not receive unanimous raves. While the cast drew good notices, the show was viewed as being unremarkable compared with the greatest hits of the day, including The Music Man and My Fair Lady. Adapted by Al Morgan and José Ferrer from the 1953 British film, The Captain’s Paradise, Oh, Captain! feels a little old-fashioned. Ray Evans and Jay Livingston’s score has some jaunty moments, particularly in songs like”You’re So Right for Me,” “Double Standard,” and “Give It All You’ve Got.” But it also stalls in songs like the opening number, “A Very Proper Town,” which harks back to the style of British comic opera and sets up a show that isn’t quite what you get. Still, nobody has said that Oh, Captain! is the show to end all shows, making it hard to call it overrated – except in the broadest of terms considering its achievements in relation to those of the other musicals debuting in that year.

3. Most Underrated

While it’s difficult to choose a show from 1958 that is overrated, one is possibly spoiled for choice when it comes to shows that might be considered underrated. There’s one that leads the pack, though – a show that, despite its problems, caught the attention of a young Stephen Sondheim, who then encouraged Harold Prince to rush to the theatre and see what first-time collaborators Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock had on offer. The show was The Body Beautiful, which, uncharacteristically for the team who would go on to write Fiorello!, She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof, was an original story set in the present day. The Body Beautiful isn’t in the same league as those shows by any means, but perhaps, it is trying to be something different. It’s more a follow-up to shows like Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game than a Pulitzer Prize-winning political observation, a charming romantic comedy or an internationally successful cultural touchstone. While the plot about a couple of boxers, their manager and their romantic interests doesn’t offer much in terms of its execution, there’s a great deal in the score that is instantly listenable and likeable, including a winning title song that really shows the potential this show could have had with a better book than the one created by Joseph Stein and Will Glickman. There’s certainly more about The Body Beautiful than meets the eye.

4. Hidden Gem 

The Body Beautiful might well be 1958’s hidden gem too, but in the spirit of showcasing a series of musicals of the year, how about Goldilocks? This show received some praise in its season, particularly for the score by Leroy Anderson, Walter Kerr, Jean Kerr and Joan Ford. Elaine Stritch and Don Ameche’s performances also drew praise from the critics. On the other hand, the book (also by the Kerrs, telling a farcical behind-the-scenes showbiz tale) drew criticism for its forced contrivances and lacklustre humour. It is not surprising, then, that one doesn’t generally hear much about Goldilocks today. Even so, the cast recording is worth a listen as a record of the show’s eclectic score. There are some gems here, including “I Can’t Be in Love,” “I Never Know When,” and “Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair?” – all characterful pieces that are wonderfully entertaining. Perhaps the most momentous thing captured on the cast recording is this pivotal step in Stritch’s career, a transition into a star around whom a role could be built. Listening to her put across her numbers is reason enough to excavate Goldilocks.

5. Show of the Year

Could the show of the year be anything but Flower Drum Song? While it is in some ways standard 1950s musical comedy fare, it is a piece that represents so much more. It is a show that numbers great wins, on the one hand: it was a show that focused on Asian American characters and their experiences, particularly issues of race and identity that caused conflict between Chinese immigrants and their American-born children. On the other hand, as time has passed, the show has drawn criticism for its idealisation of the Chinese-American experience, its perpetuation of Asian American stereotypes, and its reinforcement of the myth of the model minority. A 2002 Broadway revisal by David Henry Hwang attempted to address these issues. Warmly embraced in Los Angeles, the show was panned by the critics in New York and did not sustain a substantial run. Perhaps it was the timing? Maybe the changes between Los Angeles and New York shifted things too much? Who knows? Still, there is something about the story that resonates today. Perhaps another iteration will hit the mark. One thing you can bet, though, is that for every person who argues for a reimagining, there’s another who will suggest that it should be left in the past as a relic of its time.

1958 was a slow year if we are looking for musicals that made the same impact as other 1950s shows like West Side Story or Gypsy. Nonetheless, it is a year that offers a series of shows with – if nothing else – enjoyable scores that are great to listen to when lining up a playlist on your music player of choice. Still, I’d argue that there is a lot more potential in some of these shows than we’ve seen in the six-and-a-half decades that have passed. There is some first-rate material to mine here, especially in a world where old musicals can be adapted and reimagined as new ones.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: Blithely Broadway with HIGH SPIRITS

Bea Lillie in HIGH SPIRITS, sits on her pink bed with a ouija board.
Bea Lillie in High Spirits on Broadway

This Friday, we’re heading to the legendary Broadway season of 1963-1964. Hello, Dolly! won 10 of the 11 Tony Awards for which it was nominated. They all coloured her Barbra after Funny Girl opened, and even the most-esteemed flop of the season, Anyone Can Whistle, is remembered and beloved by Stephen Sondheim’s cookies, myself included. 110 in the Shade has its rainmakers; She Loves Me has devotees who love it as much as Amalia loves “Vanilla Ice Cream.” The show we’re celebrating as today’s Forgotten Musical opened on 7 April 1964, 58 years ago to the day of this column: Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s High Spirits, based on the hugely popular Noël Coward play, Blithe Spirit.

Like the play upon which it is based, High Spirits tells the story of a writer, Charles Condomine, who invites a medium, Madame Arcati, to his home to provide post-dinner entertainment in the form of one of her famous seances. During the seance, Charles’s dead wife, Elvira, is manifested, which leads to all sorts of romantic hijinks – particularly as Charles tries to explain what’s going on to his new wife, Ruth, and Elvira’s plan to bring Charles into the afterlife to join her goes awry.

Martin (of Meet Me in St Louis fame) and Gray (who also penned the Daddy-Long-Legs musical Love From Judy) hewed pretty closely to the original play in their adaptation, which Coward loved so much that he agreed to direct it. Their main departures from the source material are in building up the role of Madame Arcati into a star turn and in the adjusted ending of the show. It’s all very charming and was warmly received in New York – less so in London, where the battle of wills between Coward and Cicely Courtneidge, who played Madame Arcati in the West End, seemed to seep into the production and rather spoil things. On Broadway, that role was played by Beatrice Lillie, who delivered a performance that was appreciated by critics and audiences alike.

The score is just delightful. Even on a first listen, it greets you like an old friend, with three of Madame Arcati’s big numbers, “Faster Than Sound,” “Talking to You,” and “Something is Coming to Tea,” extending the most generous hand. Evira also has a wonderfully camp showstopper in “Home Sweet Heaven.” The material for Charles and Ruth is endearing, her “Was She Prettier than I?” and their “If I Gave You” beautifully grounding the everyday world that contrasts all of the supernatural silliness.

When it comes to that silliness, I dare say that Jerry Herman wanted the quirkier sections of Dear World to land like this. In High Spirits, the offbeat characters, wit and whimsy feel effortless, while Herman’s effort from a half-decade later – more often than not – sounds like work. It’s true that there isn’t an anthem like “I Don’t Want to Know” in High Spirits. Everything in High Spirits is tailored to the show and its characters and is thus more difficult to extract for show-tune-friendly albums and events. It may be a limiting factor in terms of the show’s popularity, but on its own terms, High Spirits is all the better for the integrity of its internal logic.

The factor that perhaps holds back High Spirits from being a better-remembered musical is that it is based on a fantastic play that is still produced quite often today. Nonetheless, if ever there was a case to be made for a Broadway show that has never had a revival that needs one, here it is. It may not have the razzle-dazzle or weighty enlightenment of Moulin Rouge or Hamilton, but it could certainly hold its own next to something like the twice-revived She Loves Me. Yes – High Spirits needs its own Madame Arcati to come cycling in and restore it to our memories!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: Laughing Matters WHEN PIGS FLY

The original production of WHEN PIGS FLY in Howard Crabtree's fabulous costumes. The cast members are each wearing a dress in the shape of a vanity.
The original production of When Pigs Fly in Howard Crabtree’s fabulous costumes.

We’re headed Off-Broadway for today’s Forgotten Musical to celebrate the life of the composer, musical director and accompanist, Dick Gallagher, who passed away on this day in 2005. The show is When Pigs Fly, a revue conceived by Howard Crabtree and Mark Waldrop, the latter of whom wrote the sketches and lyrics. Crabtree would also design the costumes for the show. Of the shows that Gallagher would compose, this was his most successful.

When Pigs Fly celebrates the gay experience. On the surface, it is playful and delightfully camp. The show glitters with joy. But underneath the veneer, there is irony. There are nods to the tragedy of the closet, although the show never becomes tragic. There is also a proud resistance to homophobia in the show’s use of drag and its reclamation and celebration of stereotypes and tropes. It’s a response to gay history as well as the then-present context of the late 1990s and when revisiting it in 2023, When Pigs Fly feels as fresh and relevant as ever. The times have changed, but there is still a long way to go.

Listening to the cast recording of When Pigs Fly offers delight after delight. The title song gets things off to a jaunty start before the show dips into some delightful puns and witty observations in “You’ve Got to Stay in the Game.” There’s a playful defiance in “Light in the Loafers,” which in its staging had shoes that lit up, one of the genius costume conceits for which Crabtree was famous in New York. A delightful trio of torch songs gives voice to people in the queer community who are sometimes invisible to their own. That When Pigs Fly is unafraid to take on the biases held by the very people the show celebrates makes it all the more brilliant.

This all happens before one even arrives at the gay anthem, “A Patriotic Finale,” which recentres the gay experience in US states and settings. It’s insistent and bursts with pride. In fact, celebrated musical theatre writer Peter Filichia once said it should be an official anthem for gay Americans. Perhaps, the most poignant of all the numbers is “Laughing Matters,” a reminder of the need for and power of laughter in a world where so many hateful things happen. Laughter can be weaponised, and we should all arm ourselves with it for our own good.

A 2017 Off-Broadway revival of When Pigs Fly never came to fruition, which is rather devastating. It is a show that deserves to be in our consciousness, an entertainment that holds profound meaning. Seek it out, my pretties!

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The Saturday List: 1998 in Musical Theatre

Scenes from A NEW BRAIN (featuring Malcolm Gets and Penny Fuller), RAGTIME (featuring Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and PARADE (featuring Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello).
Scenes from A New Brain (featuring Malcolm Gets and Penny Fuller), Ragtime (featuring Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Parade (featuring Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello).

For our second “Saturday List” of 2023, let’s jump back 25 years and see where contemporary musical theatre was back then. 1998 was the International Year of the Ocean. It was the year that United States President Bill Clinton was impeached due to the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. While The Troubles in Northern Ireland were coming to an end thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, protests erupted in Indonesia following the collapse of President Suharto’s government. In 1998, the Winter Olympics were held in Japan, while the FIFA World Cup was held in France. The only movie musical to have an impact at the box office – the second-highest-grossing family film of the year and the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year overall – was one of the second-tier films of the Disney Animation renaissance, Mulan. Pop music was bop-tastic in 1998, with songs like Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” and Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” featuring in the charts. The prefix “e-” was the most significant contribution in terms of new words of the year, indicating the world’s accelerating shift towards digital literacy. Let’s look at what was happening on musical theatre stages.  

1. The Award Winners for Best Musical

In 1998, a show from 1997, The Lion King, took home Tony Award for Best Musical. This phenomenon isn’t unusual, as theatrical seasons on Broadway do not follow calendar years. The following year, the revue that was the first Broadway show to open in 1999, Fosse, was presented with the award – so none of the new 1998 Broadway musicals, which include Ragtime, The Capeman, High Society, Footloose and Parade, earned the highest recognition for a musical theatre production from the American Theatre Wing. The situation was similarly bleak across the pond at the Olivier Awards, which saw four 1997 West End shows nominated in 1998, with the winner being Beauty and the Beast, which had made its Broadway bow in 1994! In 1999, things looked a little better in London, although the top prize was taken home by Kat and the Kings, a show that had opened on the West End in 1998 but was first produced in South Africa in 1996 and had already had a UK debut in 1997. The other nominees included some bona fide 1998 shows, including Saturday Night Fever (a jukebox musical of the standard typically expected of such fare) and Whistle Down the Wind (which had received a kind of out-of-town tryout in Washington, where it flopped but prompted the kind of rewriting that happens when a musical is being made).

2. Most Overrated

It almost feels sacrilegious to say it, but an overrated musical will rarely be bad; by definition, it will be a beloved one. For me, the most overrated musical of the year was Parade. While there is no question that the show is impressive, with several highlights in Jason Robert Brown’s score, it’s all too – I don’t know – straightforward. Going into Parade, there’s no doubt about how it will end, which keeps everything at an emotional distance. The trajectory of Alfred Uhry’s book tells the audience what it needs to feel when it should be stirring up the audience’s emotions. We should be churning at the end of this show because of the injustices it has the power to interrogate. Instead, we’ve been led to an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for positioning ourselves on the moral high ground in viewing this telling of the story of Leo Frank. But in a tale that features gender-based violence on the one hand and antisemitism on the other, there are layers and layers of potential narrative complexity that the show just cuts through. There’s no question that the show has been improved over time, with several revisions made for the Donmar Warehouse production in 2007, which were retained in the recent New York City Center concert presentation of the show, which will transfer to Broadway next month. Perhaps Michael Arden holds the key to unlocking more of what Parade has to offer; the word from last year’s run is that he has.

3. Most Underrated

Many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows don’t quite get their due. While musicals like Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White aren’t among the composer’s best works, each has something to offer. Whistle Down the Wind has some really memorable songs, for which Jim Steinman wrote the lyrics. The show certainly has its flaws, particularly in the way it handles its plot in the book (which is credited to Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards as well as Lloyd Webber himself), but some of the songs in the show are simply fantastic, including the devastating “Unsettled Scores,” the gloriously camp “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts” and the utterly unpretentious title song. Even when the cheese factor amps up in something like “When Children Rule the World,” Lloyd Webber and Steinman’s work yields a fun, modern Christmas carol. Whistle Down the Wind may not be perfect, but it doesn’t deserve the sheer dismissal and even hatred that some musical theatre critics and fans have sent its way.

4. Hidden Gem 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were more to Paul Simon’s The Capeman than audiences first thought? Unfortunately, there isn’t – despite a couple of musical delights like the song, “Bernadette.” The two most worthy contenders for 1998’s hidden gem come from Off-Broadway in the form of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and A New Brain. Given its subsequent film adaptation, Broadway revival and successful international productions, the former can’t really be said to be hidden. A New Brain, written by William Finn and James Lapine, has popped up here and there, notably in a 2015 Encores! staged concert, but it still hasn’t caught fire in the way that some of Finn’s other shows, like Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, have. A New Brain is, in some ways, a tough sell, dealing as it does with a
songwriter who lives through surgery to fix an arteriovenous malformation and rediscovers his
potency as a creative being after walking through the fire of his ordeal. The style of the show is heightened as the cartoonish fever dream of Gordon’s neurosis and illness threaten the unaffected emotional truth of his “Heart and Music.” The two energies’ meeting remains the show’s greatest challenge to both theatremakers and audiences. Still, even if it had nothing else to offer – and it does – “Sailing” would make it all worth it.

5. Show of the Year

The world was a complicated place in 1998. If theatre is a response to the world around it, no show embodied the spirit of 1998 more than Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally’s musical about America in the early 20th century. Dealing with racial tension, xenophobia and privilege, the show is as relevant now as it was a quarter century ago. Given that it dramatises a milieu from which time only a very few individuals survive today – the oldest people in our world – Ragtime reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A society that offers equality and parity is somehow as evasive now as it was in the world of Ragtime; even though significant advances have been made, the road to be travelled remains long. In the opening number of Frank Galati and Graciela Daniele’s original Broadway production, there was a glorious moment of staging as the three social castes move around the stage like the gears of a clock, the clockwork jamming each time they face off. The image explodes, the groups mix, and no one knows where they’ve landed. That’s what Ragtime is. That’s the world Ragtime is in.

1998 was a somewhat quiet year for new, high-profile musical theatre. It was perhaps a time of transition with shows that looked to the past in terms of how they told their stories, some that captured the moment as it was, and others that looked towards the future of storytelling in his genre. What a perfect reminder that musical theatre is a living art form, ever adapting to the shifting sands of human existence.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: The Merely Marvelous REDHEAD

Gwen Verdon, standing on a ladder in a white Victorian dress with blue stripes, speaks with Richard Kiley, in a black suit, in REDHEAD.
Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley in Redhead

Today is Gwen Verdon’s birthday! What better way to celebrate it on Forgotten Musicals Friday than to take a look at one of her key shows, Redhead. Although it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1959, Redhead has never had a revival on Broadway, been adapted for film or played on the West End – nor is it likely to do so any time soon. Many Broadway fans will tell you that this is because of how well the show was tailored to Verdon’s strengths and that there simply isn’t anyone who could do what she did in the original production, which also marked Bob Fosse’s debut as a director-choreographer. While it is true that Redhead was moulded to Verson’s talents, it’s also true that the show is just not great, little more than a passable musical comedy of its time elevated by a fantastic performance and virtuosic staging.

Redhead was first conceived in the 1940s by Dorothy and Herbert Fields after a visit to Madame Tussauds. At that time, the show was called The Works, the core idea being a musical murder mystery set in and around a wax museum in Jack the Ripper-era London. It was thought that the show might be written for Beatrice Lillie, but the project never came together. Years later, it was picked up as a potential vehicle for Verdon, a Broadway superstar following her appearances in Can-Can, Damn Yankees and New Girl in Town, each of which earned her a Tony Award. Verdon now had the power to shop around for roles and directors and used her influence to secure Fosse his directorial debut on the show. Herbert Fields had died, so Sidney Sheldon joined Dorothy Fields to write the book, along with David Shaw, who had to be on board due to a contractual requirement that Verdon was to have appeared in a show written by him. Fields also wrote the lyrics, with Albert Hague providing the music.

Listening to the cast recording today, the “Overture” sums up the production well. Following a thrilling and evocative opening, the melodies shift into standard Broadway mode, alternating with tunes in an Americanised version of the English Music Hall style. There’s some irony in the appropriation of an essentially British musical form in an American show, given a number like “Uncle Sam Rag,” which spoofs British attempts to master American music. At any rate, the point is that the “Overture” shifts into something quite generic and unmemorable, much as the book and score do. The book is convoluted in its plotting, and the score is too reliant on novelty numbers – although Fields’s lyrics are generally a delight. She comes up with some great rhymes, not the last of which is ‘much more gore than they saw at Elsinore!’ And yet, the weakness of the material provides the space for Verdon’s star turn and Fosse’s brilliant staging ideas. What a conundrum!

As the show was created, some of the most prominent elements of Fosse’s style would come into play, including the signature white gloves and neutral black costumes. As was his wont, Fosse developed sequences for the show that were simply for entertainment, for example, “Essie’s Vision,” which – to paraphrase the master – was a dream ballet that did nothing to further the plot. No apologies were made for diverging into musical and movement languages that journey far beyond the boundaries of Victorian London in numbers like “The Pick-Pocket Tango,” which recalled the spirit of Verdon’s Lola in Damn Yankees, or the climatic chase scene that was more reminiscent of the silent film antics of Charlie Chaplin or the Keystone Cops than anything that came before the heyday of the silent film era. Because Fosse guided Verdon and the cast through such sequences with such skill, audiences of the time had no problem suspending their disbelief regarding such inconsistencies. It is difficult to imagine this approach working for today’s audiences.

Redhead winning the Tony Award for Best Musical can be attributed to two things. Firstly, it was a weak season. Its only real competition was Flower Drum Song, which only won one award for Salvatore Dell’Isola as Best Conductor and Musical Director. The offerings of the third nominee, La Plume de Ma Tante, were much more suited to the Special Tony Award it won, while Whoop-Up and Goldilocks were shut out of the Best Musical race altogether. Secondly, what Fosse and Verdon had done was so masterful that it seems there was no choice but to reward the most innovative and virtuosic achievements of the season, even if these made for a show that didn’t hold together as well as it was written. At this time, there were no awards given for the Best Book or Best Score and looking at what’s on paper, one just can’t make a case for presenting these accolades to Redhead over Flower Drum Song.

In its original form, Redhead is an unrevivable show. Part of this is about Verdon and Fosse, but many shows have overcome the memories of an iconic performance or staging. In this case, what’s left once you take Verdon and Fosse out of the equation just doesn’t cut the mustard – which places us in “revisal” territory. And when it comes to Redhead, would a “revisal” really be worth the effort? Could the piece be elevated beyond what it is? My feeling? No, it could not – and it is better left in the musical theatre history books, recognised for what it is rather than shown up for what it can never be.

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The Saturday List: 2013 in Musical Theatre

Scenes from KINKY BOOTS (a close up of Billy Porter's face as Lola), A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER (Monty - played by Bryce Pinkham - stands between the two women who wish to marry him - played by Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham) and HERE LIES LOVE (Jose Llana and Ruthie Ann Miles dressed up as the Marcoses.
Scenes from Kinky Boots (featuring Billy Porter), A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (featuring Lisa O’Hare, Bryce Pinkham and Lauren Worsham and Here Lies Love (featuring Jose Llana and Ruthie Ann Miles).

This year, we’re stepping away from the kind of ranked lists we have done in the past, looking instead at different years in musical theatre history. Each week, we’ll look at the big award winners of the year and the legacy of some of the shows that lit up stages on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in the West End, with occasional leaps into what other countries had to offer.

For our first column of the year, let’s jump back a decade to 2013. Designated as the International Year of Water Cooperation and the International Year of Quinoa, 2013 was also the year that saw Edward Snowden’s rise to international fame, the tragic Boston Marathon bombing and the election of Pope Francis to the Papacy. At the movies, Frozen, which would become a stage musical in the years to come, was top at the worldwide box office. “Thrift Shop,” “Blurred Lines,” and “Radioactive” were top of the charts when it came to pop music, and the most popular new word of the year was “bingeable.” Let’s take a look at what was happening on musical theatre stages around the world.  

1. The Award Winners for Best Musical

Kinky Boots was named Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 2013, having opened on 4 April of that year following a developmental run in Chicago in 2012. Its biggest competition came from Matilda the Musical, which premiered on the West End in 2011. At the following year’s ceremony, another 2013 Broadway musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, would take home the prize. Across the pond, the Olivier Award for Best Musical went to Top Hat, a new stage adaptation of the 1935 film, which featured a score by Irving Berlin. As is usually done in adaptations of this nature, several Berlin songs written for other projects augmented the song score from the movie. Following a tour of the United Kingdom in 2011, the production made its West End bow in 2012. The following year, an American musical from 2011, The Book of Mormon, took home the top prize, beating the only nominated musical from 2013 in both seasons, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All in all, it was not a great couple of years for new British musicals.

2. Most Overrated

I’m sad to say it, but the most overrated musical of this year for me is Kinky Boots. It’s a good musical, but not a great one. Cyndi Lauper’s score stays with you for the night but not for the ages. Harvey Fierstein’s book is aware of the ideas with which it grapples, but it never distils these fully into the plot and characters. In short, Kinky Boots never quite gets to grips precisely with what it wants to say about gender or race. There is a distinct sense of everyone hedging their bets. While Jerry Mitchell’s innovative staging distracted audiences from that shortcoming, the cast’s performances truly elevated this show in its original run, a trend that seems consistent wherever it travels. This is especially true of Billy Porter’s Lola. What Porter did with songs like “Not My Father’s Son” and “Hold Me In Your Heart” turned what could easily be played as sentiment into pure emotion, creating moments that really mean something in a world like ours.

3. Most Underrated

Hands on a Hardbody is a somewhat unconventional musical. It’s like A Chorus Line, but instead of dancers auditioning to be part of a Broadway ensemble, a group of working-class Americans competes to win a hardbody truck. Whoever keeps their hand on the vehicle for the longest time goes home with the prize. What’s amazing and perhaps even surprising about this show is how well it captures moments of people just being human in songs like “Alone With Me” or scenes like the one in which Norma breaks into uncontrollable laughter before transitioning into “Joy of the Lord.” That sense of empathy is one key element of the theatrical act. It invests the show with stakes in which an audience can invest. It’s a pity that high schools and community theatres don’t produce this show more often, as it has a lot to offer.

4. Hidden Gem 

After Evita but before Six, there was Here Lies Love. Presented as a concept album before its premiere as an immersive Off-Broadway poperetta, Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. Created by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, the show offers 90 minutes of great bops with some fantastic hooks. While the concept album showcases a range of pop artists, the cast recording features Ruthie Ann Miles, Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora in their stage roles. The concept for the production was a club party, during which a DJ and the club’s staff presented the story of the Marcoses. As the clubbers, the audience was encouraged to dance along as the show progressed. What a brilliant way to illustrate our complicity and relative distance in the political processes that shape our lives!

5. Show of the Year

For me, the show of the year was A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. With an award-winning book by Robert L. Freedman, who collaborated on the score with Steven Lutvak. This musical is a delightful romp through Edwardian-era London, poking fun at the conventions of class with some delicious nods to the conventions of the theatre of the time too. Witty and droll, the show is entertaining from curtain to curtain as Monty Navarro works his way to an earldom by bumping off the eight relatives that stand between him and his aristocratic right as one of the D’Ysquith dynasty. There is great fun in numbers like “Poison in My Pocket” and “I’ve Decided to Marry You” and outstanding character work in songs like “Foolish to Think” and “Inside Out,” which balances the drive of the farcical book. It’s outstanding work all around. The show bears repeated viewings and the cast recording, many listens.

2013 was certainly a good year for musical theatre – not the strongest ever, perhaps, but one in which several enjoyable shows left their mark on the world. Kinky Boots is among the thirty longest-running Broadway productions of all time, and the Tony Awards ceremony opened with one of the best numbers in the history of the awards, “Bigger!” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt. What a tribute to a solid Broadway season!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE TOREADOR

Edmund "Teddy" Payne in THE TOREADOR. Payne is costumed as a toreador, with a black hat, jacket and tie, a white shirt, golden waistcoat and red belt.
An illustration of Edmund “Teddy” Payne in The Toreador.

For this January, we’re heading back into some short-form Forgotten Musicals Friday columns. This week, we’re celebrating the anniversary of the Broadway bow of The Toreador. This British musical comedy held the distinction of being the final musical produced by the Gaiety Theatre in London. In England, The Toreador debuted in 1901 and ran for 675 performances, with the Broadway premiere following in 1902 for a 121-performance run. An international success, the show would also be staged in Australia, South Africa, Austria, France, Hungary and Gibraltor.

The Toreador featured a book by James T. Tanner and Harry Nicholls, with music by Ivan Caryll and Lionel Monckton and lyrics by Adrian Ross and Percy Greenbank, all of whom barring Greenbank were established members of the Gaiety Theatre team. This was to be their most successful hit.

Set against the backdrop of Spain’s Carlist Wars, the plot of The Toreador followed Sammy Gigg (played by Edmund “Teddy” Payne in London and Francis Wilson in New York), who gets involved in a bombing conspiracy led by Donna Teresa (Queenie Leighton in the UK and Jennie Hawley in the USA), all in the name of love. Also caught up in the story is Dora, who avoids a blind wedding to Augustus, by disguising her best friend, Nancy, as a dummy husband. Meanwhile, Mrs Malton Hoppings plays off two beaus, while Archie and Susan add to the flirtatious fun that lurks beneath the bullets and bullfights.

While there is no cast recording of the show, the vocal score of The Toreador is readily available. Playing through some of the songs (notably “Everybody’s Awfully Good to Me”), it’s easy to spot the kind of ideas that would be developed in the musical comedies of George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter a little more than a decade later. And while the influence of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s comic operas is evident in the score, so is a clear sense of movement into the musical comedy style that the Gaiety Theatre popularised in the United Kingdom. The Toreador is also a fantastic example of how the Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart musical comedy popularised in the United States developed into a form that is more recognisable to us today. (One also has to credit the composer of the Harrigan and Hart shows, David Braham, as a fundamental part of this journey.)

While The Toreador is perhaps not much more than a footnote in musical theatre history, it seems as though it was a great show in its time, certainly one that is interesting to read about and consider in the context of the development of musical theatre over the past 150 years.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: Way Back to MARIE CHRISTINE

Audra McDonald in MARIE CHRISTINE. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Audra McDonald in Marie Christine.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

For December’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we’re looking at the “Miracles and Mysteries” of Marie Christine, the second Broadway musical from one of contemporary musical theatre’s most thrilling voices, Michael John LaChiusa. As the month speeds by, we’ll explore the background of the show, its book and score, its staging and design and finally, the show’s legacy. In today’s column, we’ll shine a spotlight on how the show came to be.

The Lincoln Center Theater features strongly in the making of Marie Christine. LaChiusa’s Hello Again (1993) premiered under its banner, while the star around whom the show was crafted, Audra McDonald, won her first Tony Award for the Lincoln Theatre’s presentation of the Royal National Theatre’s stateside transfer of their production of Carousel. Marie Christine also reunited LaChiusa with the director-choreographer of Hello Again, Graciela Daniele. A blend of Euripides’ Medea and the legends surrounding Marie Laveau and her daughter, two famous so-called Voodoo queens from the nineteenth century, Marie Christine sees its eponymous character telling her story from a New Orleans prison in 1899. It is not a story that is easy to tell or hear, and LaChiusa was up to the challenge of writing a score that reflected the complexity and intensity of the tale.

Following a few workshops over more than three years, Marie Christine premiered in the final season of the twentieth century. Running for only 42 performances, the show received a mixed-negative reception from the press and its audience. Nonetheless, it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Book and Best Original Score – missing out on a nomination for Best Musical in the year that Contact, which was a dance show and decidedly not a musical, took home the big prize.

Today, on the 23rd anniversary of the show’s Broadway opening, it is clear that Marie Christine is a challenging and layered musical. It’s not perfect; how many musicals are? It’s also a difficult musical to stage. The ever-encircling darkness of the piece requires an epic romance to be established as a counterbalance to the show’s relentless pursuit tragedy. If the passion between Marie and Dante doesn’t land, neither does the show. The action develops slowly, requiring a keen sense of what’s beneath the text and an understanding of how to translate this into imagery on stage. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore the extent to which the original production met these challenges – join us for five weeks of what is sure to be a fascinating discussion!

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