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Some sources may suggest that the "Golden Age" of the Broadway musical was
over, but the 1970s brought a vigorous three-sided battle for pre-eminence between rock
musicals, "concept" shows and conventional post-Oklahoma musicals. Each of these sub-genres had
virtues and flaws, just as each had hits and misses. And each had its champions, bringing a
new generation of composers to the forefront. From an artistic standpoint, it proved to be
one of the most innovative, exciting decades the stage musical had ever known.
Just when it seemed that the three way conflict was resolved,
yet another type of musical came from across the Atlantic -- one that would dominate
Broadway through the end of the century.
Rock Musicals: "Could We Start Again
In the wake of Hair, Clive Barnes (then the powerful chief critic for the New York Times)
proclaimed that rock music was the one hope for the Broadway musical. Since rock
dominated the popular music scene, and since the musical theatre had long
thrived by staying attuned to popular trends, this was a reasonable suggestion.
Intelligent rock musicals with solid production values did well. Several outstanding
- The Me Nobody Knows (1970 - 794 perfs) was a revue-like
collage of songs based on poems by inner city children. Performed by a youthful cast of
unknowns, it became a celebration of the human spirit triumphing over squalid circumstances.
A rave review in the NY Times sparked audience interest, and word of mouth did the rest.
After seven months Off-Broadway, the production moved to the Helen Hayes and ran
profitably for twenty more.
- Broadway's first
full-fledged rock opera came from two British newcomers, composer
Andrew Lloyd Webber
and librettist Tim Rice.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971 - 720 perfs) began life as a best-selling British
studio recording. The intriguing premise was to examine the role popular fame played in
Christ's fate. At times fresh and impertinent, and ponderous at others, JCS
was a world away from the rock musicals of the late 1960s. With all dialogue
set to music, this work qualified as the first rock opera.
Broadway audiences didn't much mind the high-powered staging by Hair
alumni Tom O'Horgan, but a more effective London production ran for
a record-setting 3,358 performances. With this hit, Webber and Rice initiated
a new creative era for the British musical theatre. Before the decade was out,
this team and their new form would be back with a success that would
redefine the rock opera genre.
- American critics were far kinder to composer-lyricist
Stephen Schwartz's take on the same subject,
Godspell (1971 - 2,651 perfs), which started off-Broadway on a meager budget
and became a phenomenal success. The upbeat score included "Day By
Day," "Turn Back, O Man" and "Prepare Ye the Way of the
Lord." Unpretentious and charming, it remains a staple in schools
and community theatres on both sides of the Atlantic.
This NY Shakespeare Festival brochure offers a grand
full stage view of Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The Tony Awards had blatantly snubbed Hair in 1969, but in the early
1970s the growing presence of rock on Broadway proved impossible to ignore.
- Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971 - 627 perfs), a multi-racial
rock version of the classic comedy had a score by Hair composer
Galt MacDermot and a plot by
Shakespeare. Playwright John Guare's
solid book and lyrics veered between the Bard's poetic tone and pop verse. The production
took a playful approach to multi-ethnic casting, with delightful results. Like Hair,
it was nurtured by Joseph Papp's NY Shakespeare
Festival. After a limited open-air run in Central Park, the show moved to Broadway and
received the Best Musical Tony for 1972. Despite its initial popularity, this show is
rarely staged today.
The original Playbill for Grease, which opened on Manhattan's
Lower East Side at the Eden Theatre before audience demand led to a record-setting run
- Grease (1972 - 3,388 perfs) won America's heart with a
1950s rock n' roll pastiche score and a hokey story about white trash high school kids
finding friendship and romance ("rama lama lama, ka dingy dee ding dong!")
during their senior year. It had enough low comedy, coarse language and general
goodwill to entertain millions. After opening to good reviews at the Eden Theatre
on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the show soon moved to Broadway, becoming the most
commercially successful 1970s rock musical. Thanks to a low operating
budget, Grease set a new record as Broadway's longest running musical a
distinction it would hold until A Chorus Line surpassed it in the 1980s. It was
the only successful theatrical project by co-creators Jim Jacobs and Warren
Casey. As the years went by, the New York production interpolated obscenities to
amuse teenage theatre-goers, but these changes were never added to the approved script.
The 1978 big screen version became the highest-grossing screen musical up to that time,
and a 1994 Broadway revival supervised by Tommy Tune
ran for 1,503 performances. An ongoing favorite with community theatres and school groups,
Grease remains one of the most popular musicals of all time.
- The Wiz (1975 - 1,672 perfs), an all-black retelling of
The Wizard of Oz, had a score brimming with rock and rhythm & blues.
Geoffrey Holder's flamboyant production turned an okay show into a Tony winner for
Best Musical. As Dorothy, Stephanie Mills won raves with her rendition of "Home."
The Wiz was the last American-born 1970s hit that could be called a rock musical.
The over-produced movie version starring Diana Ross was a financial failure, and a 1984
Broadway revival lasted less than two weeks.
The Beat Fades
In time, Broadway producers and audience members turned against rock. This may have been at least
partly because of personal musical tastes, but mainly because too many rock musicals were
amateurish embarrassments. Few rock composers had a clue as to how to write a coherent
musical, or how to give a raw idea professional polish. Composer
had succeeded with Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, but his shortcomings
as a craftsman became apparent when he penned two expensive disasters
that opened within weeks of each other.
- Dude (1972 - 16 perfs) was a muddled story of
God and Satan battling over a man's soul. The Broadway Theatre was converted
into an arena-style performance space, but this expensive gesture
could not make up for Dude's amateurish book and score. Despite
having most of Hair's creative team on hand, the confusing show closed in
two weeks, losing over a million dollars.
- Via Galactica (1972 - 8 perfs) offered
a futuristic story of social outcasts living on an
asteroid. It was so incoherent that even a plot synopsis inserted in the
program could not clarify what was happening on stage. Via Galactica
was one of the first Broadway flops to lose more than a million
MacDermot would not see another new work reach
Broadway for more than a decade, by which time his style was far more
traditional. In the meantime, others turned out a crop of rock
musicals that met equally dismal fates. Two outstanding disasters --
- The Lieutenant (1975 - 9 perfs) was a rock
opera inspired by the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese citizens
in My Lai. Some critics raved for this passionate work, but few Americans wanted
a musical reminder of one of the saddest atrocities committed during a long, demoralizing war. It would be another
before a musical set during the Vietnam conflict would achieve
- Rockabye Hamlet
(1976 - 7 perfs) was probably the most embarrassing nail in the rock musical's coffin.
As the title suggests, it was based
on Shakespeare's tragedy about a fictional Danish prince avenging his royal father's
death. Director Gower Champion staged the show
like a rock concert, and the result was such an incoherent mess that
some found it hard to believe Champion was responsible for it. The score included
"He Got It in The Ear" and evil King Claudius singing
"The Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Boogie." Disgruntled audiences
laughed when the despairing Ophelia sang the title song and then strangled herself
with a microphone cord. Bad rock and bad theatre, it closed in one week.
It was not until the late 1970s that rock and other pop idioms would again
reach Broadway in an effective theatrical format.
Next: 1970s II - Concept Musicals