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!’