History of The Musical Stage
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Since the early 20th Century, Broadway provided a business environment in which a small army of dedicated actors, stage hands and production staffers could count on annual employment in musical theatre. All one required was a dependable professional reputation, good health, and enough stamina to deliver eight performances a week. But in the mid-1960s, that environment faded away. As the number of new Broadway musicals dwindled, actors who occasionally worked as waiters gradually turned into waiters who occasionally took time off to act. As Jack Poggi noted in Theater in America (Cornell University Press, 1968, p. 277-278), "Broadway can no more provide a steady income to most professional actors than it can to most professional playwrights." By Poggi's estimate, only 3% of New York's professional actors earned more than $2,500 a year from stage acting -- a figure far below the poverty level.
What had happened? In simple terms, the world of popular culture had turned upside down. A chasm had opened between the hard rock/youth culture (of "drugs, sex and rock and roll") and the once dominant "establishment" culture that had long included Broadway. Producer-director Hal Prince later explained it this way
Showtunes were no longer found on rock-dominated air waves and pop charts. Without the once-lucrative income from sheet music and cast recordings, composers and lyricists had to settle for the two percent of a musical's gross allotted to them in a standard contract. New talent went into the more profitable fields of pop music, television and film. Some veterans like Irving Berlin retired in disgust, while those who labored on found that styles and formulas that had worked for decades were suddenly unacceptable.
No one among Broadway's old guard seemed to know what to do. Jule Styne (composer of Gypsy perfs) and E.Y. " Yip" Harburg (lyricist for Wizard of Oz and Finian's Rainbow) turned out Darling of the Day (1968 - 31 perfs), a musical about a British artist who switches identities with his dead butler to escape publicity. A strong score, witty script and good reviews did it no favors the public didn't seem to give a damn.
That same season, John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Happy Time (1968 - 286 perfs) found that a charming score, acclaimed performances by Robert Goulet and David Wayne, and several Tonys were not enough to keep ticket sales going for more than nine unprofitable months. Director Gower Champion's stylish staging brought him two Tonys, but a weak libretto proved fatal. Happy Time's cast album ad (seem at left) was seen only in Playbill, not national magazines. It no longer made sense to spend money pushing Broadway musicals to the general public.
Even legendary stars could not guarantee ticket sales. The lavish Andre Previn-Alan Jay Lerner musical Coco (1969 - 332 perfs) was inspired by Parisian fashion designer Coco Chanel's comeback career. Thanks to the presence of Katharine Hepburn in her only musical role, this show ran almost a year. The score was polished but unexciting, and a garish physical production did little to distract audiences from the weak story line. Coco never turned a profit, and was forced to close soon after Hepburn left the cast.
Rock: "The Age of Aquarius"
Most people in the theatre business were unwilling to look on Hair as anything more than a noisy accident. Tony voters tried to ignore Hair's importance, shutting it out from any honors. However, some influential individuals insisted it was time for a change. In particular, New York Times critic Clive Barnes gushed that Hair was "the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday." Over the next few seasons, Barnes used his powerful pen to attack musicals that did not fit this new criteria. But Hair defied imitation, and other projects with "mod" titles like Celebration (1969), Salvation (1969) and Joy (1970) soon disappeared. Paying audiences had little patience for mediocre theatre, even when it appeared under the cover of rock.
Less Rocky Options
As a popular folk song of the era put it, the times they were a-changin'. Neither Promises nor 1776 ran nearly as long as Oh, Calcutta! (1969 - 1,922 perfs), a small off-Broadway revue that enticed audiences with little substance but lots of full nudity. The skits were written by an all-star line up that included John Lennon and Sam Shepard, with forgettable rock songs provided by a group called "The Open Window." It was hard to believe that this sophomoric silliness was devised by the respected British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. At one point, one bare cast member announced, "Gee, this makes Hair look like The Sound of Music." (As if to prove the profitability of bad taste, a 1976 Broadway revival of Oh, Calcutta! ran for an even more amazing 5,959 performances.)
There were several contradictory trends in musical theatre as the 1960s ended. Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof were still running strong, but they were already relics of a passing era. At the same time that veteran talents were feeling clueless, newer talents were no better off. None of the composers freshly responsible for Your Own Thing, Promises, 1776 and Oh, Calcutta! would ever write another Broadway hit. Old or new, most stage composers had no idea what to try next. The inevitable crop of doom merchants insisted that the musical was dead. Luckily, the 1970s would bring more than a few "Little Things" that would prove to be "Singular Sensations." (If each of these allusions makes you say "God, I hope I get it," then read on. If not, that's all the more reason to read on!) The Broadway musical wasn't dead; it was just preparing to morph.
Next: Stage 1970s