History of The Musical Stage

1970s: Part IV - Book Musicals

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

New Rhythms

ApplauseLauren Bacall starred in Applause (1970), the first major musical hit of the decade.

The book musical had been a Broadway's staple since Oklahoma, and the format managed an impressive comeback in the 1970s. Several writers took the common sense approach of adding contemporary musical flavoring to otherwise conventional musicals.

Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who used early rock and roll effectively in Bye Bye Birdie, had similar success with Applause (1970 - 900 performances), which re-set the back-stabbing plot of the film All About Eve in the theatrical world of 1970. This time, rock rhythms and orchestrations gave a "mod" sound to traditional showtunes, and the presence of 1940s movie star Lauren Bacall cemented the show's success with mainstream theatergoers. She couldn't sing worth a damn, but her star power sold plenty of tickets. Tonys went to Bacall, director-choreographer Ron Field, and the show itself as Best Musical.

Two black dramas were adapted into popular book musicals, both with mostly white creative teams and scores packed with contemporary pop style.

Despite decent runs, both Purlie and Raisin wound up losing money. At the other extreme, Ain't Misbehavin' (1978 - 1,604 performances) revitalized the revue format with an all-black cast in beguiling vignettes built around songs either written or performed by jazz legend Fats Waller. Created by lyricist/director Richard Maltby, it brought stardom to rotund comedienne Nell Carter. She and Maltby won Tonys, and the show received the the award for Best Musical. The long, profitable run put the production's nonprofit birthplace, the Manhattan Theatre Club, in the commercial spotlight

Nostalgic Misfires

New musicals written in period style such as the Andrews Sisters vehicle Over Here (1974 - 341 performances) had appeal, but most of the new book musicals in the mid-1970s met with disaster. Some fizzled despite good scores and distinguished casts.

Palpable Hits

AnnieWhen Annie (1976) opened to extraordinary critical acclaim, the producers celebrated with this full page ad in the NY Times. (This is a large image – if clicked, it may take some time to download.)

Some suggested that the standard book musical was an endangered Broadway species. Then an orphan girl and a scruffy dog re-energized the genre. Both critics and audiences melted for Annie (1976 - 2,377 performances), a shamelessly old-fashioned musical inspired by the comic strip Little Orphan Annie. It told how a penniless tyke met and captured the heart of billionaire Daddy Warbucks, finding love, adventure and a loveable mutt named Sandy along the way. Newcomer Andrea McArdle gave a disarming performance as the title orphan in search of "Tomorrow," and Dorothy Loudon copped the Tony with a hilarious performance as Miss Hannigan, the harried orphanage director who has come to loathe "Little Girls" and wants to enjoy life on "Easy Street."

Composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Martin Charnin and librettist Thomas Meehan made Annie's success seem deceptively simple, but it was so skillfully written and produced that few could follow in its creative footsteps. This multiple Tony winner became an international sensation, proving that the traditional musical could still win audiences. Annie was the first Broadway musical to gross over $100 million, astounding for a show which opened with orchestra seats at a mere $16. (Note: By the time it closed six years later, the same seats went for $45.)

Towards the end of the decade, two more variations on the traditional book musical topped the 1,000 performance mark.

As the decade ended, change was in the air, including the vanguard of a European invasion that would dominate Broadway into the end of the century.

Next: Stage 1970s V - Storm Warnings