History of the Musical Stage
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"The Lullaby of Broadway"
Champion's seamless, stage-filling sense of spectacle made this the biggest, boldest musical comedy in decades. When the curtain slowly rose to reveal forty pairs of tap-dancing feet, the star-studded opening night audience at the Winter Garden cheered. With the help of co-choreographer Randy Skinner, Champion (who had no tap training) followed this number with a series of tap-infused extravaganzas larger and more polished than anything Broadway really had in the 1930s. Jerry Orbach (as the dictatorial director), Tammy Grimes (as the temperamental star) and Lee Roy Reams (as the bright eyed juvenile) added to the dazzling impact of the show. After years of frustration, Champion was back on top.
When David Merrick came onstage after multiple curtain calls to say, "This is a very tragic moment," the audience laughed. Then Merrick explained that Champion had died of cancer hours before the performance. Cast and audience were plunged into shock, and Merrick took leading lady Wanda Richert (said to be Champion's real-life love interest) into his arms as the curtain fell. Merrick made sure that this all took place before an army of reporters and cameras, guaranteeing headlines and network news coverage the next day. Merrick manipulated a tragedy to give 42nd Street extraordinary press coverage. As the years went by, he had the gall to advertise the roduction as "David Merrick's 42nd Street," but it was Champion's (and Skinner's) triumph.
The early 1980s saw some exciting new book musicals both on and off-Broadway. In a variety of styles from flashy spectacle to intimate spoof, each was fresh and entertaining. Some were authored by seasoned professionals, some by exciting newcomers all were reassuring signs that the American musical theatre was thriving. The more memorable success stories of the era include several musicals that are still frequently produced
The problem with these failures was that the producers had not bothered to ask why anyone would pay $25 to see their particular project. Lost of folks wanted to see Rex Harrison in his most famous role, but when word got out that the production surrounding him was uninspired, theatergoers took their dollars elsewhere.
Cats: "The Wind Begins to
Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn reshaped the theatrical landscape with Cats (1982 - 7,485 perfs), a musical based on T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. They emphasized aerobic dance, high-tech effects and heavy-duty marketing tactics. Cats premiered in London, then came to New York where it forced 42nd Street out of the Winter Garden and over to the Majestic Theatre. Lloyd Webber was so certain of the show's success that he co-produced it with Cameron Macintosh, a move which made both men millionaires.
More a revue than a book musical, Cats depicted a gathering of felines in a garbage-strewn alley where one cat will be allowed to ascend (on an oversized hydraulic tire) "the heavy-side layer" i.e., kitty heaven. The first and last fifteen minutes were so dazzling (thanks to heavy-duty lighting effects and prancing pussies) that few complained about the two tedious hours that yawned in-between. Cats cleaned up at the Tonys, with Best Book going to the long-dead Eliot, and Best Featured Actress going to Betty Buckley as the bedraggled feline Grizzabella.
The revolutionary thing about Cats was not the show on stage it was the marketing. Before this, most musicals limited their souvenirs to photo programs, songbooks and T-shirts. Cats splashed its distinctive logo (two yellow-green feline eyes with dancing irises) on coffee mugs, music boxes, figurines, books on "the making of" the show, greeting cards, baseball caps, satin jackets, Christmas ornaments, stackable tins, stuffed toys, matchboxes, key chains and pins, to name just a few. The overwrought ballad "Memory" and those feline eyes were damn near everywhere.
Like a theatrical cancer, Cats spread to places that had not seen professional theatre in years. From Vienna to Oslo to Topeka, dancers in furry spandex and garish make-up proved that "Jellicles can and Jellicles do" rake in a fortune, and that auxiliary marketing can boost a show's profits by millions of dollars. Cats was that increasing rarity, a musical one could take children to -- a fact that added millions of dollars to (pardon the pun) the kitty. The kids might die from vapidity poisoning, but they wouldn't be exposed to anything dangerous like a coherent idea. The show ran into the next century, becoming the longest running show in Broadway history.
The American theatre responded to this mammoth "meow" with a glorious roar, and the 1983-84 season brought a clash of Broadway titans.
Next: 1980s - Part II