Archive | March, 2014

Tony Award Winners, 1970, Applause

31 Mar


For whatever reason 1970 was the battle for the aging movie stars from the 40’s who cannot sing for best musical.   There were three real contenders:  Coco (with Katherine Hepburn who cannot sing), Applause (Lauren Bacall, who cannot sing either but does a decent facsimile of it), and Purlie (the odd man out.)     Applause won.

In a way I can see it.  Applause is a retelling of All About Eve, but incredibly stylishly–Lauren Bacall is perfect to play Margo Channing, and the show is just campy and fun–a true cocktail hour classic.   The problem is that the songs mostly have very little character–But Alive is the best of the bunch, the rest are all talking and posing.   What we’re listening to is the Laugh-in version of All About Eve, and while it can be a hoot, I don’t think it’s all that engaging.

The musical that should have won was Purlie,  Its mixture of gospel, blues, and rock is overflowing with energy.     While Applause is amusing, Purlie is damn good, handling Jim Crow America with a deft touch–using it as an excuse to make a wonderful sonic quilt, homey and wonderful.

Tony Award Winners: 1969, 1776

30 Mar


The late sixties were not kind to the Broadway musical–more and more, musicals seemed to be irrelevant.  Rock music was peaking in becoming an artistic artform, and  Broadway was not prepared to take that on.

Not that I have anything against 1776–it’s a good work–it just seems like it was written by your high school history teacher.   You see people doing their best impressions of the founding fathers as we know them through paintings, copying many famous scenes.  Through it, you can see the show pointing at things like “see, see?  These people aren’t all that different from us!  They still were lustful, and silly, and political.”   To give it credit, the show was a hit.  However there was that other hit that nobody wanted to talk about–Hair.

Hair was the biggest hit of the previous season, still going strong.  Hair wasn’t eligible until 1969 due to a technicality.   (It really should have won the year before, where Hallelujah, Baby looked quaint in comparison.)   Funnily enough, despite the rock music soundtrack and lack of a real plot, Hair met all the other qualifications for a smash.  It was the first show in a long time to have hit songs on the radio (and many of them), it had a very successful tour, and it really met the zeitgeist of the time.  I’m not saying that Hair is the best musical ever, in fact it dates quite badly, but at that time it was the most important thing on Broadway, and by turning their backs on it, the Tony awards set Broadway for a whole series of failures.

You see, rock music was desperate (like the generation that listened to it) to be taken seriously.  The stage is a place that can give a type of music a sense of legitimacy.  It should have been a marriage made in heaven.  However, faced with aging theatre owners, and composers much more comfortable with the Jazz/pop type of composition, the theatre community was not about to encourage this sort of thing.

In the end, Hair was a one-off anyway, the trend in musicals didn’t really move in that direction in the long term.   However by embracing this new sort of music, rather than shunning it, they could have opened up Broadway to a greater range of options long before they were forced to.

As for 1776, it’s a pleasant enough show, and I bet the Tonys were very relieved that they had a bona fide hit to put over Hair that year.   They could even justify that 1776 because of its historic content was the one  more likely to last.   The songs are ok (if a bit corny).   However, even though the Hair style musical was not the wave of the future, the History in Action piece certainly was not either.

Tony Winners, 1968, Hallelujah Baby

28 Mar

hallelujah baby

After all the great musicals of the huge, thoughtful musicals of the mid-sixties, Hallelujah, Baby is a little bit of a disappointment.   It starts out as an evisceration of race relations in America, and then it flinches, turning into a melodrama.  Even the soundtrack seems split in two–the first half, serious about being held down and trying to get ahead, and the second part being these big show tunes that could be in almost any musical.   While the songs are all very nice, very few of them have very much character.    Also, when about half the songs sound contemporary, and half sound like they could be from Hello Dolly.     Originally Lena Horne was supposed to be in this show, and that makes sense, because she has character to spare that you want songs that don’t distract from that.   Leslie Uggams might arguably be a better singer, however she doesn’t have the charisma to back it up.

I can’t say there’s anything else that year that was any better.  The odd tonal shifts to this piece end up hurting it in the end.  It’s actually a perfect piece for that year, Broadway struggling to keep the old tradition while awkwardly bringing in new styles.  This trend would only amplify in the coming years.

Tony Awards, 1967, Cabaret

27 Mar


We leave the last of the dark musicals of the mid-sixties with the darkest of them all, Cabaret.   I really like Cabaret better than Chicago–it’s deeper, and braver, and more ambiguous than the giant film noir cartoon of Chicago could ever hope to be.   It’s also more difficult.   What’s the most interesting is how the show has grown since its original inception.

Many musicals are the same no matter who puts it on or when.  Like Oklahoma–yes there’s varying degrees of talent involved and you could endlessly discuss the merits of this cast album vs. that cast album–however, the songs will be the same, the characters the same, the message the same.   Cabaret has changed, and you don’t notice it until you go back to the original cast album.   There’s a lot more real life moments and less of the actual Cabaret represented there.   Also the Nazi references are softer and there’s very few gay references at all.

As the shows (and movie) progressed the Nazi references become more blatant, and with that this group of misfits who make their little imaginary worlds in a cafe are the ones under criticism.   By being ignorant of what was going on in the real world, they become victims of it.

Really, whatever version you get is going to have some good things going for it–by far my favorite is the 1998 version (though a new one is coming out next month–we’ll see).  It’s the one which knits the story almost perfectly together, balancing the tragedy and the escapism into something that really has a solid punch.

Tony Winners, 1966, Man of La Mancha

26 Mar

man of la mancha

I think the mid sixties was one of the high points of Broadway, bringing out works of high artistic merit, while still keeping a finger on popular culture.  Man of La Mancha is the story of Don Quixote as told by Cervantes in jail.  There’s something about this story, about a person being a knight and protector in a twisted world, that really resonates.   While there is some humor, this story is dark, exploring greed, lechery, insanity, and old age.

There are many stories about a crazy man bringing the world to life with his imagination, however they usually fail–because for this to be a heroic deed the world he is imagining himself from needs to be a place you need escape from.   If you escape from life’s dullness–that’s not heroic at all.  Don Quixote speaks to the part of us that wants to fight something solid and real, rather than muddle through life day by day.

The soundtrack is absolutely brilliant.  The original has some roughness at the edges, which really is necessary–there’s been attempts to make it more operatic, and that’s a mistake–opera is far too refined for the world that this play (and the original book) exhibit.   The songs are absolutely perfect–first there’s The Impossible Dream–a song that has turned into a standard, and it alone would make this show worth it, even if the rest of the songs were drivel.  Fortunately they’re not–the songs really echo the topsy turvy world in which Don Quixote lives in.  Little Bird sounds sweet but is a song that precedes violence, I Like Him is the only real love song in the show and it’s a friendship song.   I’m Only Thinking of Him is sung by the most selfish characters in the show.

A true classic in every sense of the word.  Visionary and sad.  A story for the ages.

Tony Award Winner: 1965, Fiddler on the Roof

24 Mar


I have a horrible story to tell about Fiddler on the Roof.  When I worked in the college library, we would do a fair share of helping with student papers, particularly the 100 levels.  One such composition class had its students every year watch Fiddler on the Roof and write a paper about it.  Very simple, almost high school level.    Most of the papers were incredibly boring, but one student’s paper was one of the most judgmental, ignorant things I ever read. In it she talked about how lazy all the people were there, how they all just sat around singing, how their traditions were stupid, and how her father was a Baptist minister and if they were not going to worship the one and only Jesus Christ, then they deserved whatever treatment they got.

This really doesn’t have to do with the musical, but I just had to put that story out there, because although I knew there were ignorant people in the world, I never thought I would come face to face with such meanness that went along with it.

Fiddler on the Roof is one of the great musicals of all time, in fact I can say if there is one Broadway musical that will be saved from the 20th century, it will likely be this one.   It’s a literary show, filled with allegory, messages, intelligence, and a huge breathtaking scope.   As a kid I didn’t really like it because I did not understand it–that’s one thing about this show, many musicals are easily keyed into by children because they are that basic–not Fiddler, this is very adult, and its meditations on change, on suffering, on aging, on tradition are ones that still resonate today.

The music in it is almost too well known–Tradition; Far From the Home I Love; Sunrise, Sunset; If I Were a Rich Man–you’ve likely heard these songs before.   The music is rich and deep and I have to give Zero Mostel huge kudos for playing the lead–this is not the character he normally plays, and he just wins it.

This is well worth your time.   This is the show you need to see, not necessarily the one you want to–and it will change you.

Tony Awards, 1964, Hello Dolly

23 Mar

hello dolly


While everything that became popular in 1964-1965 is usually attributed to the Kennedy Assassination, there’s a strong case for Hello Dolly.   I wasn’t alive then, but after any national trauma entertainment tends to go into an escapist comfort food place.   So while satires on contemporary times were all the rage the last three or four seasons, Dolly is a very traditional musical, not all that different than a Rogers and Hammerstein production.  Not that I’m complaining, the music is incredibly solid, Carol Channing is delightful, and this musical broke a ton of records.

I must mention something about the records here–now on Broadway shows tend to have very long runs–5 years+ for a successful show, back in the mid-sixties a big show might run 2 years, most shows ran less than that.  If you look at listings of Broadway productions around that time, it wasn’t unusual for there to be 20-30 new musical productions a year.  Now we’re lucky to get more than 7.  I’m not saying that this is better or worse, though very often things stick around on Broadway much longer than they deserve to these days.

Also I have to warn you about the movie–people will watch it and get the wrong impression.  Don’t get me wrong, Barbra Streisand sings great here (though Walter Matthau is not a great singer at all.)   However, the movie Hello Dolly is completely different–trying to revive the old style MGM musical–and it ends up looking like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.   The Broadway Musical is much more fun and interesting and just oozes personality.

There’s rumors of bringing this back to Broadway, and while there are oodles of women who would just love to play the part, I’m wondering if they could pull it off.  It’s turned into one of those community theatre shows that has been done nearly to death.    I hope they would work hard to find a fresh new take without ruining the central character.   Nothing else could have possibly won the Tony that year.

Tony Award Winners: 1963, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

22 Mar



Ah yes, Sondheim.   Forum was Sondheim’s first show on Broadway by himself, and it was a huge smash.   One interesting way to look at all these shows is as a time capsule for the year they were first produced.   It won’t work for all of them, but for Forum, it certainly does.   Forum bases most of its humor on the mid-sixties sex comedy.   Generally, that’s not my favorite sort of thing.   Imagine Benny Hill, and you’ve got all the basic materials for any sex comedy–scantily clad women, a comically horny man, an authority figure, slapstick, drag, and very broad humor.   I don’t really enjoy these sorts of films/shows, in fact I find them vaguely icky and not funny at all.

So it’s a miracle that I like Forum at all, because it has all those things and more, but the music is really good.   Of course there’s Comedy Tonight–but the other songs like Everybody Ought to Have a Maid, or Lovely both are equally as good.   So this has improved to a degree in my estimation.

However, the musical that should have won that year was Oliver!  I used to hate Oliver! thinking it full of winsome children and basically like throwing 20 Annies in victorian times.  It’s not–the music is first rate, and the show is much more universal than forum.   Many many other Sondheim works won or should have won Tonys, Oliver really should have had a day in the sun.

Tony Awards: 1962, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

21 Mar



If you want the original version of Mad Men, here you go.  How To Succeed…was the pinnacle of the late fifties/early sixties satirical musical, and this one has the most bite of all of them (not that it’s very much in the end, but I digress.)  This sort of musical had a simplistic plot (climbing the corporate ladder), an overall theme (corporations), and very soft satire, more like gentle cultural critique towards an American institution.  Earlier examples of this are Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, and Bye Bye Birdie.   Unlike a book musical (like Oklahoma) the story and the music are secondary to the satire shown, and this grew more and more prominent in the early sixties.   The theme would always drift into the music and dancing, so you’d get songs like A Secretary is Not a Toy, and Coffee Break.  Unlike star vehicles (like anything Merman was in) there wasn’t usually a showstopper song either.

So as it stands, How to Succeed is rather clever, sometimes schticky, sometimes a little too clever for its own good.   I don’t think it has anything really significant to say about corporate culture other than how silly it all can be sometimes.    The music is mostly good, some of it having a little bit of a throwaway feel.   It doesn’t date too well, but this was the last big hit of this kind of musical for awhile.   This was the big hit of the season with nothing else coming close to its success on Broadway, so there’s that.

Tony Awards Winner 1961: Bye Bye Birdie

20 Mar

bye bye birdie


Frankly I was quite surprised to find that Bye Bye Birdie won the best musical for 1961, not that it wasn’t deserving–far from it, but Camelot was such a big deal I would have figured it would have been a shoo-in.   As it was, Camelot wasn’t even nominated for Best Musical.

Let me dispel one big myth about this show:  Bye Bye Birdie is often touted as the first rock and roll musical–it isn’t.   Most of the songs are standard showtune fare.   Birdie only sings a few tunes, and while he might talk and act like Elvis, he sings like Pat Boone.  Honestly, if the show was ten years earlier and starred a Frank Sinatra clone nobody would be able to tell the difference.

As a kid I loved this movie, and watched it over and over.  As an adult, I’m a little mixed.  There’s a huge difference between writing catchy songs and good songs, and quite a few songs in this show are obnoxiously catchy.  Added to that, the teenagers in this show sing in shrill squawking voices that really makes the soundtrack almost intolerable at times.  Even The Telephone Hour starts out as clever and eventually outstays its welcome.   Two songs are classics:  Put On a Happy Face, and Kids.

What I was surprised did not annoy me was Dick Van Dyke.  In the movie he drives me nuts because he’s perpetually mugging for the camera, while in the show he seems to be doing more actual acting.  Also his voice is surprisingly strong.   Chita Rivera does a decent job, though Spanish Rose is a little over the top.

All in all, only Camelot could have really given serious competition, and that show has its own share of weaknesses.   So I guess I’ll take it.  Bye Bye Birdie is rambunctious, fluffy, silly, and ultimately disposable fun.