History of The Musical Stage
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Just when it seemed that traditional book musicals were back in style, the decade ended with critics and audiences giving mixed signals.
The most anticipated musicals of 1979 included three major new projects by veteran writers. To the theatrical community's general shock, each came and left with chilling speed.
To make matters worse, by 1979, most Broadway musicals cost $1,000,000 or more to produce, and weekly operating expenses were so high that even a two year run could not guarantee a profit. Some blamed the volatile economy, but Broadway was the only place where inflation (a widespread problem in the 1970s economy) had run at a rate of 400 percent. In this unsettled environment, two important musicals came to represent the forces that would compete for the soul of musical theatre in the decade to come.
Sondheim vrs. Webber: The Future, Round One
The original souvenir program for Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979). The show's logo was based on Victorian period drawings.
While Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979 - 557 perfs) used a conventional plot structure, its operatic score was Sondheim's most ambitious effort to date. Going further, this blood-soaked tale of an unjustly persecuted man's all-consuming quest for revenge in Victorian London explored emotional territory no musical had ever touched before. Not since Shakespeare had a poet of the theatre taken such an unflinching look into the darkest corners of the human soul. When Sweeney's cast pointed at audience members and insisted that they had a murderous hate like Sweeney's hiding inside them, it was bound to leave many theatergoers uneasy. Tony-winning performances by Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou added to the impact, as did a massive production helmed by Hal Prince. (Prince framed the action in the actual ruins of an old factory, trucked in from Rhode Island.) But this lofty accomplishment came at a crippling price. Despite a healthy run and numerous awards, the show was unable to turn a profit.
A far different musical came from England with advance hoopla that Gilbert and Sullivan might have envied. Following the pattern they had initiated with Jesus Christ Superstar, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice launched their stage biography of Argentina's Eva Peron as a recording. Working with director Hal Prince, they refined it on stage in London, sharpening the book's focus, toning down the rock elements and adding a touch of disco to expand the score's commercial possibilities.
By the time it reached Broadway, Evita (1979 - 1,567 perfs) was a slick and stylish smash hit, with breakthrough performances by Patti Lupone as Evita and Mandy Patinkin as Che. A disco version of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" became a hit single one of the last showtunes to reach the pop charts in any form. Evita was a calculated triumph of stagecraft and technology, undeniably entertaining but in some ways as vapid as any of Ziegfeld's Follies. Webber and Rice depicted Eva as a whore with flair and ruthless ambition, but gave no clue as to what made her complex character tick. Meaningful or not, people liked it. Running three times longer than Sweeney Todd, it made a massive profit from productions all over the world. With this flashy victory of matter over mind, the Mega-musical was born.
Both Sweeney and Evita were expensive productions with stunning stage direction by Hal Prince, and both won seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) in adjoining seasons. The key difference: Sweeney Todd lost money, Evita made money. This was not lost on producers and investors. It is easy for armchair critics to advocate artistic merit over financial concerns, but answer this: If you were investing $100,000 or more of your own money, would you prefer to lose it or make a profit? The inevitable answer to that question set the uneasy course of the Broadway musical for the remainder of the 20th Century.
Next: Stage 1980s