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.

This entry was posted in The Saturday List and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s