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Rooney and Ann Miller on the Playbill cover for Sugar Babies (1979),
a burlesque-inspired revue that became a surprise hit.
Just when it seemed that traditional book musicals were back in style, the decade ended
with critics and audiences giving mixed signals.
- In a superb revival of Peter Pan (1979 - 550 perfs),
actress Sandy Duncan became the
longest-running Peter in theatrical history.
- MGM veterans Mickey
Rooney and Ann Miller
scored an unexpected smash with Sugar Babies (1979 - 1,208 perfs),
a mildly risqué revue of classic burlesque skits interlaced with vintage songs
by composer Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Dorothy Fields. Between the
Broadway run and international tour, Rooney
and Miller shared the spotlight for the next nine years.
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.
- Jerry Herman's
Grand Tour (1979 - 79 perfs perfs) offered
Joel Grey as a Jew escaping Nazi persecution
in a warm-hearted adaptation of Jacobowsky and the Colonel. The underrated
score featured the gorgeous ballad "Marianne."
- Burton Lane and
Alan Jay Lerner's
Carmelina (1979 - 28 perfs) starred
as an Italian mother who told three American veterans that had fathered her
child during World War II -- and must face the music when all
three come back to town.
Even critics who dismissed the show admired the score,
particularly "It's Time for a Love Song" and the
ravishing trio "One More Walk Around the Garden."
- Richard Rodgers' I Remember Mama (1979 - 148 perfs)
offered film star Liv Ullman as a
Scandinavian immigrant using love and ingenuity to raise her family in the
early 1900s. Preview audiences cheered, but after critics dismissed it
as corny and old-fashioned, ticket sales quickly petered out. Rodgers died soon after
Mama closed, ending an extraordinary career that stretched over more
than six decades and fifty Broadway scores.
It's not so much that the public disapproved of these well-written but
imperfect shows. Most Americans were not paying attention to the musical
theatre anymore. Rock
and disco were the predominant sounds in popular music, and neither genre had
more than a token presence in most Broadway scores. Musicals had become a sort of
subculture, and the potential sales for cast
albums fell so low that major labels stopped recording them altogether.
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
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