Crazy for You on PBS

by John Kenrick

October 1999

Please note: In the years since I posted this article, I have received literally hundreds of emails regarding the video. It has never been commercially available, and I do not make illegal copies. It is up to PBS to either rebroadcast it or start selling it – please send all inquiries to them.

This month's PBS/Great Performances broadcast of Crazy for You was one of the best things to happen to television since Mary Martin flew into America's living room back in 1954. What a delight! I adored Crazy For You on Broadway, with its mindlessly militant proclamation of the joys of musical comedy. After seeing the first New York preview, I returned to cheer it again five times, followed by pilgrimages to see it on tour and in the Paper Mill Playhouse production that PBS eventually filmed. TV is no replacement for live theatre, but it’s a real treat to have this wonderful show on tape – a guaranteed pick-me-up in the cold months ahead.

And yet, it is also kind of depressing. Crazy for You was the last of it's kind. No show since then has strapped on its tap shoes, turned on a million-watt smile and proclaimed that a showtune is all you need to put any problem in perspective. There was a time not so long ago when Broadway turned out such shameless musical comedies on a semi-regular basis. That why many of us fell in love with musicals in the first place - they were filled with humor and creative fun.

And now? Now we have syrupy melodrama (Phantom of the Opera), turgid soap opera (Miss Saigon), hoards of ghosts (Les Miz) and over-amplified exercises in self-pity (Rent). All are terribly moving and emotional - but where is the joy? I suppose there is joy (of a kind) in Footloose and Saturday Night Fever, but whatever happened to minor considerations like wit or intelligence? This is not what my generation of musical theatre fans bargained for. We were suckered into loving this genre by a very different breed of show.

I'm not just talking about shows from half a century ago. When I started going to Broadway in the 1970's there was a steady stream of sensational musicals year after year. In my first decade of theatergoing, I saw A Little Night Music, A Chorus Line, Annie, I Love My Wife, Ain't Misbehavin', On the 20th Century, Barnum, A Day in Hollywood, They're Playing Our Song, 42nd Street, Sugar Babies, Woman of the Year, My One and Only, Nine, Baby, The Tap Dance Kid, and La Cage Aux Folles! (And that's not counting nearly as many revivals of older shows.) I grant you that not all of these were strictly musical comedies, but they all took an essentially joy-filled look at life. You felt better after seeing one of these shows, as dazzled by their humanity as by their artistry. Alan Jay Lerner once wrote that a musical can not realistically hope to intellectually change a spectator:

One service, however, that the theatre is ably equipped to perform is to transport the ticket holder to a cloud of enjoyment so that when a curtain falls, he walks up the aisle and back into life refreshed from a brief holiday from himself. Returning to his own skin, he may even feel a little more comfortable in it - at least for a while. (The Musical Theatre: A Celebration. McGraw Hill, New York. 1986)

The shows I mentioned above gave me that feeling, a giddy sense of release that made reality tangibly easier to deal with once the show was over and I exited to the all-too real world of Times Square.

In the last few years, I am sad to report that I rarely get that feeling anymore. There have been some powerful shows that I enjoyed – including Ragtime and Titanic, both of which moved and enriched me from start to finish. But I fear that more and more I must turn to revivals to get that old musical rush. The magical revival of Guys and Dolls gave me that feeling, as did the surprisingly lovely Sound of Music starring Richard Chamberlain. (Both times I saw it, "Do Re Mi" brought the house down!) Carol Channing's last revival of Hello Dolly was not the strongest production that show ever had, but when she descended the stairs and warbled the title tune, I remembered what it's like to levitate. When she promised she'd "never go away again," I found myself standing and screaming as insanely as everyone else around me.

I know it's wildly out of fashion to say it, but I want that kind of musical again, the kind that makes life brighter and sets you beaming - if only for a little while. Yes I know that the critics are dead set against such shows, and that most theatrical professionals are desperately suspicious of anything that could be remotely classified as a "musical comedy." Sondheim claims his new show is one – I hope to heaven he's not kidding.

However many somber spectacles come to Broadway and re-shape my beloved art form, I will keep hoping for that seemingly impossible moment when a new musical comedy gives an audience a chance to stand up and scream with joy.

Till then, having Crazy for You on video sure as heck helps

Review: Crazy for You at Paper Mill

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