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Many of the most popular musicals of the 1950s were tailored
for specific leading ladies. In fact, Broadway's leading ladies of this
period arguably had a greater effect on the development of new stage musicals than
performers have at any time before or since.
Gwen Verdon: "Aces in All The Right Places"
Gwen Verdon struts her stuff in an ad for the original cast
recording of Redhead (1959).
Can Can (1953 - 892 perfs) and Damn Yankees (1955 - 1,019 perfs) brought
Gwen Verdon two Tony Awards,
as well as an extraordinary professional and personal partnership with Damn
Yankees choreographer Bob Fosse. Verdon proved
she was far more than a dancer in New Girl In Town
(1957 - 431 perfs), a musical comedy based on Eugene O'Neill's powerful drama Anna
Christie. Some critics complained that the libretto prettified the darker aspects
of the story, and none of the songs made the pop charts, but composer/lyricist
Bob Merrill's score made O'Neill's bitter
dockside characters sing with surprising heart. Playing a prostitute discovering real love,
Verdon won her third acting Tony, sharing a rare tie award with co-star Thelma Ritter,
who delighted audiences as the scruffy wharf doyenne Marthy. Fosse's sensuous choreography gave
New Girl in Town a much needed edge, but he felt restricted by George
Abbott's conservative direction. After a major disagreements, including the
deletion of a bawdy whore house ballet, Fosse decided to be both director and choreographer
for all his future projects.
Redhead (1959 - 452 perfs), the tale of a 1907 London girl
who helps her boyfriend catch a Jack the Ripper-type serial killer,
was a so-so show that relied heavily on Verdon's charms and Fosse's
sensational choreography. The dances included "The Uncle Sam Rag" and
"The Pickpocket Tango." Redhead picked up Tony Awards for best musical,
actress and choreography, among others. With Verdon's first four Broadway roles,
she had become the first performer ever to win four Tonys -- an accomplishment
very few have matched since that time. Fosse and Verdon took their relationship
a step further, secretly marrying soon after Redhead opened.
Verdon and Fosse triumphed again with
Sweet Charity (1966 - 608 perfs),
the touching story of a taxi-dancer who refuses to stop believing in love. Her limber,
jubilant renditions of "If They Could See Me Now" and "I'm a Brass Band" became
the stuff of theatrical legend. More than a decade later, Verdon co-starred with
Chita Rivera and
Jerry Orbach in Chicago (1975 -
a cynical vaudeville-format tale of murder and legal huckstering in the 1920s. Its difficult
pre-Broadway tour nearly killed director-choreographer Fosse, who suffered a heart attack.
Overshadowed by the massive acclaim for A Chorus Line, this innovative masterpiece did
not get its full due until more than 20 years later, when it would become the
longest running revival in theatrical history.
With a career consisting of just six Broadway musicals (five choreographed by
Fosse), Gwen Verdon was one of the greatest stars of the Broadway musical's so-called
"golden age." In later years, she appeared in various films and television projects,
leaving a gap no other stage performer could fill. Professional revivals of New Girl In Town
or Redhead are unthinkable without Verdon providing her unique innocent
sensuality. Maybe someday a star with similar qualities
will come along, but if so it will be a great surprise.
Mary Martin: "Do You Believe?"
Mary Martin as Peter Pan. She and her her co-star Cyril
Ritchard both earned Tonys and starred in three televised versions of this enchanting
Jerome Robbins production.
From the moment Mary Martin
stole Leave It To Me (1938 - 291 perfs) by singing Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs
To Daddy," this previously unknown girl from Weatherford, Texas was a Broadway star.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s she starred in a succession of stage musicals, culminating in
her creating the role of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. The 1950s brought
her two more landmark roles.
Los Angeles-based producer Edwin Lester secured the American rights to James
Barrie's Peter Pan and reconceived it as a musical for Martin. (Because of the flying
apparatus used at the time, it was physically necessary to cast women as Peter.) Despite
having Cyril Ritchard as a comically effete Captain Hook, staging by
Jerome Robbins, and a Carolyn Leigh-Moose
Charlap score that included "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up,"
more was needed. Lyricists Betty Comden and
Adolph Green joined composer
Jule Styne to add "Neverland,"
"Hook's Waltz" and several other numbers that showcased the two stars.
Martin and Ritchard gave their all, and Peter Pan
(1954 - 152 perfs) became a first class hit.
The sold-out Broadway run of Peter Pan was cut short so that NBC could
broadcast the show as a live event, drawing such massive ratings that the cast reunited for a
second live broadcast two years later. Thanks to continued public demand, Martin and Ritchard
videotaped the show in 1960. This color version was re-run several times through the early
1970s, becoming a lasting favorite. Hidden away for years due to legal complications,
it was released on home video in 1989, becoming an instant collectable. Martin often said Peter
was her favorite role. Sandy Duncan (whose 1979 production became the longest running
Peter Pan of all time) and Cathy Rigby have revived this entertaining musical
with great success, but Martin's performance in the classic video has remained a favorite with
several generations of fans.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music (1959 -
was based on the real-life story of the Von Trapp Family Singers, who left Austria in the 1930s
to escape Nazi persecution. Dismissed as
sentimental operetta by many critics, the show thrived thanks to a superb score
and Martin's deft portrayal of Maria. Although twice the character's age, she
captivated audiences even when the unexpected happened.
During flying rehearsals for the video version of Peter Pan,
handlers lost control of the equipment and Martin hit a brick wall. Her arm was
broken, but she was unwilling to miss a single performance of Sound of Music.
She performed in slings created by designer Mainbocher to match his
costumes. When Martin recovered and resumed rehearsals for Peter,
she found that stagehands had nailed a mattress to the site of her accident
with a sign that read, MARY MARTIN SLAPPED HERE.
After the disappointing Jenny (1963 - 82 perfs), Martin teamed with
Robert Preston in
the acclaimed two character marital study I Do! I Do (1966 - 560 perfs).
She then retired from the musical stage. After the death of her longtime husband
Richard Halliday, Martin appeared in the stage comedies Do You Turn
Somersaults and Legends, and had her own talk show on PBS. Her fame
as a musical theatre legend proved lasting. Her son, Larry Hagman, tells of a visit to Las
Vegas in the 1980s, when his TV series Dallas at the height of its popularity. People
initially recognized him but
not his mother. "Oh well," he quipped, "that's show biz, Mamma."
When they attended longtime friend Joel Grey's act, Grey introduced Hagman from
the stage, to warm applause. Grey then said, "And here is Larry's mother,
who you all know as Peter Pan, the incomparable Mary . . ." and before
hearing her last name, the audience leapt to its feet cheering. When the prolonged
outburst died down, Martin
whispered in her son's ear with a native Texan drawl, "And that's showbiz too,
honey!" When she died in 1990, newscasts and headlines carried images of
this beloved actress -- in full flight as Peter Pan.
Ethel Merman: "Stand the World
on Its Ear"
A jubilant Ethel Merman in
Ethel Merman was the golden age Broadway musical
personified, the genre's brightest, boldest star for most of the 20th Century. Her
brash personality and booming voice made her a target for parody, but that is
to be expected when someone is one of a kind. While Call Me Madam
(1950 - 644 perfs) had an outstanding Irving Berlin score, Merman was the key to its success.
A rights dispute kept her off the cast album, where she was replaced by pop
singer Dinah Shore. Merman's separate recording of the score sold far more
copies. To the public, there was no Madam without Ethel.
After filming Madam in 1953, Merman retired to devote time to her third
husband in Denver. When the marriage failed (Merman a Denver
housewife?) she was coaxed back to Broadway for Happy Hunting
(1956 - 508 perfs). Thanks to "The Merm," the charming "Mutual Admiration
Society" became a hit tune, and the mediocre show managed a profitable run.
Oscar Hammerstein II convinced
protégé Stephen Sondheim to
collaborate as lyricist with composer Jule Styne
on a vehicle for Merman. Gypsy (1959 - 702 perfs)
was based on the memoirs of famed burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, but the exquisite
Arthur Laurents libretto focused on Gypsy's
showbiz-obsessed mother, Rose Hovick. Styne and Sondheim wrote what is now recognized a classic
score, including "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Let Me Entertain You," "Together
Wherever We Go" and the searing "Rose's Turn." ("Here she is boys! Here she is world!
Here's Rose!!") Merman took a gamble and played Rose as a full-fledged monster,
receiving the best reviews of her career. The ultimate musical comedienne proved she
could be an actress of devastating power.
Acclaimed as a masterpiece today, Gypsy's score and book were not even
nominated for Tony Awards. Adding insult to injury, Merman lost the Best Actress award to
Sound of Music's Mary Martin. Merman bore no grudges. Her affectionate professional
assessment of longtime friend Martin: "She's okay, if you like talent."
After scoring a personal triumph with a 1966 revival
of Annie Get Your Gun, Merman took over the lead in the long-running
original production of Hello Dolly, a show which had been originally
conceived for her. She extended her stay, helping Dolly become the longest running
Broadway musical up to that time. Thereafter, Merman limited herself to concert and
television appearances, claiming that the lifestyle required during a Broadway
run was "like taking the veil." (For more, see
our special feature Merman 101.)
With only one hit musical, Judy Holliday was one
of Broadway's most beloved stars seen here as she appeared on the original
cast Playbill for Bells Are Ringing (1956).
Several leading ladies of this period had spectacular but
surprisingly brief reigns as Broadway stars. A short list:
- Judy Holliday was
primarily known as a comic actress until her musical triumph in
Bells Are Ringing (1956 - 924 perfs). The ill-fated Hot Spot
(1963) was her only other stage musical.
- Dolores Gray had
fine looks and a socko voice, won a Tony in the flop Carnival in Flanders
(1953 - 6 perfs) and co-starred with Andy Griffith in Destry Rides Again
(1959 - 473 perfs). But she went off to a few decades of stardom
in London, and was nearly forgotten by the time she toured the USA in
42nd Street in the 1980s.
- Vivian Blaine (1921-1995) knocked Broadway for a loop as the original Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls,
but Say Darling (1958 - 332 perfs) was her only other original musical vehicle. Her
last assignment was as a vacation replacement for Lila Kedrova in the revival of
- Isabel Bigley (1926-2006), Ms.
Blaine's acclaimed Tony-winning Guys and Dolls co-star, didn't do much better,
disappearing after Me and Juliet (1953 - 358 perfs).
- The vibrant Nanette Fabray showed
great promise in High Button Shoes (1947 - 727 perfs), but the brief runs of Arms
and The Girl (1950 - 134 perfs) and Make a Wish (1951 - 102 perfs) drove her
into television and film. After returning to Broadway in the poorly received Mr. President (1962 - 265
perfs), she turned down the title role in Hello Dolly.
- Shirley Booth's
child-like voice and disarming way with a comic line wowed audiences and critics alike
in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951 - 270 perfs) and By The Beautiful Sea (1954
- 270 perfs), but after the failure of Juno (1959 - 16 perfs) she settled in as
television's Hazel. She appeared in a few plays, but after the disastrous
Look to the Lillies (1970 - 25 perfs) and a short-lived revival of Noel Coward's
comedy Hay Fever, Booth disappeared into a prolonged retirement.
- Carol Lawrence
made theatrical history as the original Maria in West Side Story, but the
failure of Saratoga (1959 - 80 perfs) and Subways Are for Sleeping (1961 -
205 perfs) left her playing Las Vegas, television and summer
theatres, returning to Broadway only as an occasional cast replacement.
Why were these talented women unable to find lasting stardom at
a time when others flourished? Part of the answer lies in the inscrutable
fluctuations of public taste, part in the equally inscrutable effect of timing
-- or what some in the theatrical profession call "fate." The special
qualities that made Judy Holliday the perfect "Ella" or Carol Lawrence the
perfect "Maria" made them hard to place in other leading
parts, while Merman and Martin could both play a wide variety of characters. On
the two occasions when these two actresses took on the same star role (Annie
& Dolly), both gave those roles unique personal interpretations, winning
The Broadway musical was thriving at the end of the 1950’s,
but rock and roll was changing the tastes of the Western world. From here on,
Broadway's story takes a somewhat rockier path. But as Rose advises in Gypsy,
"You gotta take the rough with the smooth, baby . . ."
Next: Stage 1960s