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"The Lullaby of Broadway"
The first musical super-hit of the 1980s was a musical comedy based on a classic
film. 42nd Street (1980 - 3,486 perfs) re-united
producer David Merrick and
director Gower Champion. Both had suffered a
string of failures and very much needed a hit to restore their reputations. The
backstage plot about a chorus girl who takes over for the lead actress on opening
night ("You're going out there a nobody, but you've got to come back a
star!") was left in place, while the film score was augmented with other vintage
songs by composer Harry Warren and
lyricist Al Dubin.
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.
original cast Playbill for Nine.
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
Barnum (1980 - 854 perfs) was
a rousing circus-style bio of the legendary showman. The raucous
Michael Stewart score and leading man
Jim Dale got the raves, and co-star Glenn
Close got her first taste of stardom. "The Colors of My
Life" and other songs delighted audiences, but the rock-happy pop
music world had no interest in anything written for Broadway, and
Coleman's finest score never got the attention it deserved.
Woman of the Year (1981 - 770 perfs) boasted a fine
Fred Ebb score and Lauren Bacall in the
title role. However, the most memorable thing in this sophisticated musical
comedy was Marilyn Cooper, whose mousy housewife character stole the
comic duet "The Grass is Always Greener" from the glamorous Bacall.
Nine (1982 - 732 perfs) -
Composer/lyricist Maury Yeston
won acclaim with this adaptation of Fellini's semi-autobiographical film
8 1/2. Tommy Tune's innovative
production cast Raul Julia as an eccentric Italian director trying to
make a film while facing his mid-life crisis. Nine won all the major
Tonys, including one for Liliane Montevecchi, who stopped the show with
a seductive (and barely relevant) paen to the "Folies Bergere."
Little Shop of Horrors (1982 - 2,209 perfs) was
a hilarious Off-Broadway sci-fi spoof by composer
Alan Menken and lyricist
Howard Ashman. Based on Roger Corman's
low-budget 1960 film about a man-eating plant from outer space, its fresh score
and witty script made the show an immediate hit. It toured the country for years
and became a standard part of the musical theatre repertory. The serio-comic ballad
"Suddenly Seymour" remained a favorite in piano bars for years to come.
My One and Only (1983 - 767 perfs)
set vintage songs by George and Ira Gershwin in a new plot about a 1920s
romance between an aviator and an aquacade star. The show almost sank in
Boston, but star Tommy Tune took
over the direction with an assist from A Chorus Line alumni
Thommie Walsh. After exhaustive revisions and some rocky New York
previews, My One And Only opened to surprise raves. Audiences
cheered as Tune and Twiggy splashed through a watery barefoot
version of "S'Wonderful," and legendary tap star Charles
"Honi" Coles won a Tony as the whimsical "Mr Magix." After
almost two years on Broadway, it proved even more popular on national tour.
However, many book musicals including new shows and several high profile revivals
failed quick and hard in the early 1980s. Some examples
Onward Victoria (1980 - 1 perfs)
told the story of Victoria Woodhull, a feminist who ran for President in the 1800s
despite a scandalous private life. Lavish sets and costumes could not make up for
a lifeless score and humorless book, and the show closed on opening night.
Oh Brother (1981 - 3 perfs) had
plenty of laughs, a great cast and a good score, and those who saw it
in previews tended to love it. But re-setting the Shakespearean
plot used in Rodgers & Hart's Boys From Syracuse in the
strife-torn Middle East did not amuse the critics, and the show closed
Brigadoon (1980 - 141 perfs) returned in a
flawless production but lacked an established star to attract
attention. Martin Vidnovic and Meg Bussert's
passionate rendition of "Almost Like Being in Love" remains
one of the grandest things this author has ever seen on a stage, but
this Brigadoon faded into the mist without returning its costs.
My Fair Lady (1981 - 124 perfs)
returned for its 25th Anniversary with original star Rex Harrison
as Henry Higgins.
But "sexy Rexy" was in his 70s, and some of the supporting cast was
embarrassingly weak. To make matters worse, the show had enjoyed a far better
revival just five years before. Charitable reviews couldn't keep "the
greatest musical of the 20th Century" running beyond four months of
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
The Cats logo glowered over Broadway's Winter Garden
Theater for two decades.
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
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