For all these positive developments, this era was far from perfect. Theater snobs like to imagine these decades (particularly the Fifties) as some kind of theoretically perfect alternative to the supposed tawdriness of modern Broadway, to the point where calling this era “The Golden Age of Broadway” has become common parlance even among people who aren’t theater snobs. It does look like more was being accomplished in terms of producing classic shows, but that’s mostly due to the tempo of production being much faster in those days…they were producing far more shows each season back then, so of course they had five or six major titles in a year as opposed to one or two. The difference was economic, not artistic…and what the theater snobs don’t want to remember is that the tempo for producing absolute garbage was just as quick in comparison to today.
Six shows in particular prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, and are fun to bring up when you encounter a theater snob gushing about the Fifties “Golden Age”…Buttrio Square, Hit the Trail, Portofino, Happy Town, Ankles Aweigh, and Whoop-Up. The first four are known to today’s theatergoers only by reputation, but they are widely agreed by the experts in the subject to be the four worst musicals of all time…yes, worse than any of the modern disasters that theater snobs routinely point to as signs of Broadway’s artistic apocalypse. According to the unlucky few who saw them, the first two were perhaps the stodgiest, most blatantly inept Operettas of all time, while the latter two were basically just an insane string of random nonsense.
As for Ankles Aweigh and Whoop-Up, they actually lasted long enough for cast albums to be made, and between them they represent the Gold standard of hilariously awful Broadway fun-trash, sending generations of listeners into hysterics with their garishly horrible numbers. Ankles Aweigh, with a score by Sammy Fain (who had a fine career in Hollywood but never had much luck with stage musicals), features an indescribably cheesy opening, “Italy” (‘where the air is filled with pizza pie perfume’). This is followed by “Headin’ For the Bottom Blues” (which sounds for all the world like a drag-queen showcase), what may be the stupidest drinking song of all time, “Here’s to Dear Old Us”, and an Eleven-O’Clock song (literally called “An Eleven-O’Clock Song”) that cuts itself off before it climaxes. True, the tunes themselves are catchy, which helps explain the show’s value as an immortally terrible gem, but even the more tolerable items like the bouncy “Walk Like a Sailor” and the double-entendre comedy song “Nothing Can Replace a Man” can’t really be considered ‘good songs’ in the classic sense of the word.
Whoop-Up, based on the same novel as the equally terrible Elvis vehicle Stay Away Joe from the Sixties, had a somewhat classier team of songwriters. Composer Moose Charlap wrote several of the classic tunes in the Mary Martin Peter Pan musical, including “I Won’t Grow Up”, “I Gotta Crow”, and “I’m Flying”. His lyricist, Normal Gimbel, would go on to pen the lyrics to several enduring Pop standards, including “The Girl from Ipanema”, “Killing Me Softly with His Song”, and “I Will Wait for You”. And the score they contributed to Whoop-Up has its moments, with songs like “When the Tall Man Talks” and “Quarrel-Tet” actually being halfway decent. The show even produced a minor semi-standard with the overlapping charm duet “Flattery”. But there’s enough material in the score that makes you wonder what kind of drugs the writers were taking to doom the entire enterprise. “Nobody Throw Those Bull” and “Til the Big Fat Moon Falls Down” in particular defy description, and numbers like “Chief Rocky Boy” and “The Best of What This Country’s Got (was taken from the Indians)” are politically incorrect enough to shock even the most devoted historical relativist. One of the numbers, the crass redneck come-on “Love Eyes”, even seems to have pioneered the “Bro-Country” genre a good fifty years before it became the scourge of Country radio.
And lest you think all the terrible shows of this “Golden Age” were just bottom-dwelling flops written by nobodies and also-rans, there was plenty of embarrassing trash back then that involved major and even legendary names. Take, for example, the only Ethel Merman flop to actually come to Broadway with her in it, Happy Hunting (Merman normally had a near-infallible nose for sniffing out doomed shows and had quit more than one of them during rehearsals or tryouts, but her instincts seem to have failed her this time). The book, basically a happy-ending version of the plot of Stella Dallas set at a then-topical royal wedding, was one of the worst of the decade, and the score, by a pair of amateur songwriters who never did anything else of consequence, was so weak that even Merman couldn’t do much with it.
Merman got three good numbers…the opening showstopper “Gee, But It’s Good to be Here”, the clever “Mr. Livingstone (I Presume)”, and the minor Pop hit “Mutual Admiration Society”…and one passable number (the generic but inoffensive “This is What I Call Love”). But the rest of her numbers constitute the worst material of her career…the maudlin ballads “The Game of Love” and “I’m a Funny Dame”, the flat-out bizarre “A New-Fangled Tango”, and the corny title-song. The numbers for the other characters were even worse, such as “If’n”, which sounds like a filler song from a bad Elvis movie, or “Everyone Who’s Who’s Who”, which plays like an Abbott and Costello routine without the punchline. On top of that, Merman and her leading man, Fernando Lamas, hated each other so much that they proved utterly incapable of hiding it in their performances.
By the Beautiful Sea, a star vehicle for legendary comic actress Shirley Booth, wasn’t much better. In addition to its empty, unfunny and inconsistently-written book, it features a score even more barren than that of Happy Hunting. This is particularly disappointing given that, unlike that show, it was scored by a top-level composer and lyricist. Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields were both seasoned and distinguished veterans of the Musical-Theater canon, and they had written a perfectly lovely score for an earlier Shirley Booth vehicle, the musical adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but their work here is vapid and inane.
The score featured four completely irrelevant production numbers, three of them utterly generic and the fourth (“Hooray for George the Third”) downright bizarre. It also included a groan-inducing comic set piece for Booth, “I’d Rather Wake Up by Myself”, two overripe romantic ballads for the leading man, and a pair of tacky novelty numbers for a Black housekeeper whose racial sensitivity could be questioned even by Fifties standards. The only decent song in the show was “Old Enough to Love”, and that’s only because its tune was taken from a cut song from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn called “Tuscaloosa”.
Oh, Captain also deserves a mention here, though in this case the show is more notorious for its backstage antics and what they inspired than anything about the actual show. The musical in itself is actually quite a bit more respectable than the others I’ve named so far. Yes, it was a silly, vulgar Musical sitcom that was a reductive adaptation of a much classier and more intelligent movie (The Captain’s Paradise), but the score was highly enjoyable, the cast was full of talent, and the show was surprisingly non-sexist by the standards of Fifties Musical sex comedies, even retaining a hint of the forward-looking gender politics of the original movie. What makes the show truly infamous is that it was the inspiration for the plot of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Obviously the show was hardly a Springtime for Hitler-level comic disaster, but one of the show’s producers was caught selling phony shares of the show’s potential profits, and ultimately wound up in jail for it, something that has been tacitly acknowledged by Broadway insiders as a likely source of inspiration for Brooks’ film and subsequent musical.
The Sixties had their share of disasters, too. The most notorious of all of them was probably Kelly, which received a ridiculous amount of media attention for a show that was obviously going to flop from day one, and wound up the first musical of the post-war era to close in a single night.
Kelly was pretty severely mauled on the way to Broadway by its producers, but it didn’t really have a chance on Broadway anyway (which is probably why its producers were trying so hard to “fix” it). Put simply, it was designed to never really have a chance: this was one of the first examples of what I call a “hurt-the-audience” show, and it left a legacy that would be picked up by such aggressively avant-garde composers as Elizabeth Swados and Michael John Lachiusa. Like those composers’ shows, Kelly was far from artistically worthless—heard today in its pre-Broadway form, the score features some genuinely haunting melodies and interesting, at times even dazzling lyrics.
The problem is that the show’s premise (about a guy who plans to jump off the Brooklyn bridge, and ultimately does so) is deliberately designed to alienate the audience, and that, combined with the abrasiveness and inaccessibility of the score and the general unpleasantness of the show’s presentation, resulted in a fascinating and unique piece that absolutely no-one wanted to see. It bears a striking resemblance to another early “hurt-the-audience” show from a decade or so earlier, Marc Blitzstein’s Reuben Reuben, and indeed, may well have been specifically inspired by it, given that both shows feature the threat of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge as a key plot point (although even Reuben Reuben had to sense not to make the hero go through with it).
Bob Merrill, after doing the best work of his career early in the Sixties with Take Me Along, Carnival, and his lyrics to Jule Styne’s score for Funny Girl, became involved in two massively disappointing shows later in the decade. Henry, Sweet Henry, the better of the two (comparatively speaking, at least), has become the all-time byword for Broadway mediocrity.
Based on the movie The Secret World of Henry Orient, Henry, Sweet Henry was little more than a mediocre cosplay of the movie. The intention was for the music to deepen the film’s feelings, but the score added nothing, varying between the pleasant but undistinguished and the downright embarrassing. The former category includes some sweet but cheesy ballads for the heroine and her sidekick (“In Some Little World”, “Here I Am”, “I Wonder How It Is”, “Do You Ever Go to Boston?”), and two belted showstoppers for a young firespitter named Alice Playten, who played a kind of small-time villain and wound up stealing the show. Examples of the latter category would be the vulgar “Pillar to Post”, the cheesy Hippie production number “Weary Near to Dyin’” (especially inadequate given that this was the same season in which Hair debuted), and a stupid comedy duet called “To Be Artistic”. This last song is notable only for one clever line referencing then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, a line that has only become funnier in the decades since it was written.
The other of Merrill’s two Sixties bombs, the musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, started out as merely an obnoxious, unfunny failed recreation of a hit movie…not any good, certainly, but the kind of failure that’s a dime a dozen in musical theater both then and now. It was when Edward Albee was brought in to rewrite the book that it truly turned into a disaster.
The original draft of the musical had been based on the movie, rather than Truman Capote’s original novella, but Albee’s approach bore virtually no resemblance to either the novel or the film. Albee basically turned the plot into a story-within-a-story being improvised by a writer (played by Richard Chamberlein). Holly Golightly, the female lead of the book and movie (played here by Mary Tyler Moore), is thus turned into a fictional character created by Chamberlein who winds up rebelling against his control and taking on a will of her own.
There are ways to make this kind of idea work, but the result in this case was an insufferably pretentious piece of metafiction that made no sense and strangled any plot suspense or emotional involvement it might have risked producing. To make matters worse, Merrill’s score was only slightly better than his work on Henry, Sweet Henry and couldn’t begin to compete with the film’s famous theme song, “Moon River”.
Because of the source material and the stars, people had largely ignored the horror stories from the out-of-town tryouts and bought tickets anyway, and the show had enough advance sales to run over a year. But David Merrick, the show’s producer and one of Broadway’s biggest (and most hated) producing moguls, actually decided this show might be bad enough to ruin his career, and cancelled it three days before the scheduled opening, refunding all the ticket money and ensuring the show’s status as a legendary disaster. I mean, what other show with an advance that big has ever had to be withdrawn just to evade the potential public backlash?
Probably the two most notorious flops of the Sixties in terms of theatrical legend were Kelly and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but if you ask a serious theatre historian (especially one that was alive at the time) what the actual worst musical of the Sixties was, the answers you’re most likely to get are either Ilya, Darling or How Now, Dow Jones.
The former, based on the classic film Never on Sunday, was conceived as a stage vehicle for that film’s star, Melina Mercouri, by her husband, Jules Dassin, who had directed the original film. Mercouri was by all accounts a capable leading lady, even singing well, but almost everything else about the show was rock-bottom horrible.
The book was by all accounts unutterably stupid, and while composer Milos Hadjidakis, who had composed the iconic score for the source film, managed to come up with a few good melodies, Joe Darion’s lyrics were appalling, with song titles like “Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This” and “I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore”. I don’t know what happened to Darion…his two other major efforts, Man of La Mancha and the beloved cult flop Shinbone Alley, featured marvelous lyrics, but he seems to have abruptly lost his mind here.
Truth to tell, films with iconic scores rarely make for successful musical adaptations, even if this show attempted the now-common tactic of interpolating its famous theme song into the stage show. And frankly, even the few good numbers in this score pale in comparison to the other Bouzuki-influenced Broadway score that season, Kander and Ebb’s Zorba. Like a number of terrible shows in that era, Ilya Darling managed to eke out a surprisingly long run due to theater parties booking it on the strength of the source material and cast, somehow managing to make the 300-performance mark before finally shutting down.
Probably the absolute worst Broadway Musical of the Sixties, though, is How Now Dow Jones. First of all, the plot is so absurd, idiotic and utterly detached from reality that it makes the rest of the shows in this section look credible. Basically, the announcer of stock market averages is engaged to a wealthy stockbroker who says he won’t marry her until the Dow Jones industrial average hits 1,000 (which it had never yet done at the time this show was written). After she gets pregnant by another man, she makes a false announcement in order to get her fiancee to marry her, almost causes a stock market crash, gets saved by a nonsensical deus ex machina, and suffers no repercussions whatsoever for her actions.
On top of that, the score is the most laughably terrible collection of songs heard on Broadway since Ankles Aweigh and Whoop-Up, with even the showstoppers, “He’s Here” and “Step to the Rear”, being embarrassing. Given this combination of a terrible story and a terrible score, why did David Merrick (who was also the producer behind this show) let it come into town and run a wildly undeserved eight months on the advance sale, while cancelling Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the last minute? Simple—Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because of the source material and the glamorous television stars playing the leads, was by definition a high-profile disaster that was likely to attract undue media attention.
How Now, Dow Jones, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of turd that easily slips under the media’s radar. Its score was by a film composer (an acclaimed one, admittedly…Elmer Bernstein had written the scores to The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Ten Commandments, among others…but the general public rarely knows the names of film composers). Carolyn Leigh was the lyricist and had apparently come up with the whole stupid idea in the first place, but as much as I hate to agree with William Goldman, lyricists don’t matter that much in terms of publicity unless they’re living legends like Hammerstein or Lerner, and Leigh never quite reached that tier (possibly because she was involved in shows like this one). As for the cast, only one name (Tony Roberts) means anything today, and even he wasn’t famous yet when the show came out. So in any case, this show didn’t get withdrawn, and ran eight months almost entirely on the advance sale, which itself was based on little more than Merrick’s name and a catchy title.
Speaking of shows that ran longer than they had any business doing, Jule Styne (who had kind of run out of steam after Funny Girl anyway) contributed one of Sixties Broadway’s most persistent annoyances, Subways Are For Sleeping. In its original draft, Subways Are For Sleeping was transparently an attempt at a royalty-free adaptation of the classic early film musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum with a new title and score but virtually the same story. This is harder to discern from the version that actually made it to Broadway, primarily because the show’s two leads (Sydney Chaplin and Carol Lawrence) hated each other so much and were so bad at hiding that animosity in their stage performances that the show had to be completely rewritten to emphasize the secondary couple, played by Phyllis Newman and Orson Bean.
The show takes the romanticization of the dropout lifestyle seen in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and ratchets it up to patently absurd levels, portraying its homeless people as incongruously well-dressed free spirits who seem quite happy living from odd job to odd job and never knowing where their next meal is coming from. At least Hallelujah, I’m a Bum had some degree of connection with reality: this show’s portrayal of the experience of being homeless is so sugar-coated that it would be extremely offensive today (and I have to assume would have been in poor taste even at the time).
The score, by Jule Styne and Comden and Green, has two or three superb numbers: a fairly enduring hit tune in the extremely catchy “Comes Once in a Lifetime”, a hysterically funny comic narrative for Newman’s character called “I Was a Shoo-In”, and a title-song that ranks as one of the most ambitious and fascinating things Styne ever wrote.
But the rest of the score, while for the most part capable and tuneful, was conventional and not really all that interesting: a generic ballad of yearning for Lawrence, “Girls Like Me”, formulaic love songs like “Who Knows What Might Have Been”, “I Said It and I’m Glad”, and “How Can You Describe a Face?”, lively but empty production numbers in “Ride Through the Night” and “Be a Santa”, and an amusing but fairly obvious comedy number for Bean, “I Just Can’t Wait”. And “Swing Your Projects”, Chaplin’s narrative on how he ruined his own career in finance, is a complete dud, bizarre and embarrassing.
Like I said, thanks to a series of increasingly asinine publicity stunts by David Merrick (yeah, he was responsible for this one too), this show managed to stick around for six months, but even cult flop enthusiasts tend to all but ignore its existence these days, and save for an occasional echo of “Comes Once in a Lifetime”, it’s pretty much vanished into the ether.
Frankly, even some of the hits of this era weren’t significantly more substantial than those of the Twenties and Thirties. Take the Judy Holliday vehicle Bells Are Ringing: it had a luminous star performance and an excellent score by Jule Styne and Comden and Green, but its plot was implausible nonsense, and worse, totally devoid of any real content. Call Me Madam was even weaker, with a plot that, while topical at the time, was ultimately little more than an excuse for an Ethel Merman star turn, and a melodious but oddly generic score from Irving Berlin in his declining years (although it did produce three still-recognizable songs: “The Hostess With the Mostes’”, “You’re Just In Love”, and the campaign song for President Eisenhower, “They Like Ike”).
Slightly more respectable, but still an example of this phenomenon, is the second hit for the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Damn Yankees. Both of Adler and Ross’ hits were masterminded by director George Abbott, who had been the dean of old-style Musical Comedy but was becoming increasingly irrelevant in this new era. Granted, as we’ve previously discussed, The Pajama Game managed to transcend its potboiler beginnings and emerge as a genuine classic.
Damn Yankees, however, did not achieve this feat…its score left behind a few still-recognizable semi-standards, but there’s a reason no-one really performs it anymore. On paper, it had a much more interesting story than The Pajama Game…a middle-aged man makes a deal with the Devil (here going by the name of Mr. Applegate) in order to enable his favorite baseball team to win the Pennant, and is transformed into a young, unstoppably gifted baseball player. Despite the aid of Lola, a Satanic temptress who is sent to seduce him but instead falls in love with him, he very nearly loses his soul, but is ultimately saved by his genuine love for the wife he left behind.
Unfortunately, this colorful story was told by way of a cluttered, sloppily-written book that made it seem far more conventional and mundane than it actually was. And the score was much more uneven than that of The Pajama Game. There were gems, to be sure…the irresistible cheer-up ditty “You’ve Gotta Have Heart” was a massive hit for a reason. And Lola’s signature numbers “A Little Brains, a Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants” represent some of the best Musical Comedy writing of their time, as does Applegate’s deadpan villain song “Those Were the Good Old Days”.
But the ballads were on the dull side, with “A Man Doesn’t Know” in particular being stiffer and more stilted than any Operetta ballad. This impression was only enhanced by the casting of Stephen Douglas as Joe’s younger self…Douglas, a popular leading man of the era, had a fine voice but was so stodgy that he made Nelson Eddy look like Carol Channing. Even worse, Bob Fosse’s two big dance numbers, while splendid as choreography, were attached to some of the weakest songs he would ever be offered, with “Who’s Got the Pain?” in particular ranking as one of the worst songs to be found in any enduring hit musical. Damn Yankees serves as a good reminder that even many of the canonized classics of the so-called “Golden Age” are not really as perfect as some people like to remember.
Fosse was unquestionably a genius, but he spent most of the Fifties looking for material that was worthy of his talents, and he didn’t really find it until the Sixties. His follow-up to Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, was an awkward attempt to turn a typically tragic Eugene O’Neill play into a George Abbott-style Musical Comedy, and was one of the first really clear signs that Abbott’s approach was no longer working in the new Musical-Theatre environment. The parts of Bob Merrill’s score (his first for Broadway) that actually had something to do with the story had their moments, particularly the lovely duet “Did You Close Your Eyes” and the strikingly bitter “On the Farm”, but since half the score consists of empty, generic Musical-Comedy filler numbers designed to “lighten” the show, there was only so much Merrill could do. Fosse’s muse and future wife Gwen Verdon was marvelous in the lead, and Fosse did contribute an impressively racy and disturbing dream ballet (even if Abbott had done his damnedest to get the ballet cut from the show), but the whole thing was far less interesting than a musical based on an O’Neill drama should have been. Fosse followed that up with Redhead, his first outing as a director, which he and Verdon basically forced into a hit with superb staging and dancing even though its ridiculous book and mediocre score showed even less compositional merit than New Girl in Town.
There were also two more stereotypical Black-centric Musical Comedies in the Shuffle Along vein in the Fifties, albeit with significantly less interesting scores than Shuffle Along and its ilk. They were Mr. Wonderful and Jamaica, two flashy but insubstantial vehicles for Sammy Davis, Jr. and Lena Horne, respectively. Both were minor hits, but they were little more than star-spotting exercises. Meanwhile, the more ambitious and authentic Black shows did generally poorly, with even lovely pieces like Harold Arlen’s St. Louis Woman and House of Flowers and Langston Hughes’ Simply Heavenly amounting to little more than cult flops. Hell, St. Louis Woman produced two of the most inescapable standards in the Great American Songbook canon in “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Home”, and it still managed to bomb…but I digress.
To close out our look at the lesser lights of this era, let’s talk about what might be the two most disappointing “hits” to come from one of the “classic” names…Cole Porter’s last two stage musicals, Can-Can and Silk Stockings. Porter’s previous two scores, for Kiss Me, Kate and Out of This World, may have shown an unusual level of consistency in quality, but here he went back to his old formulas from the Twenties and Thirties—implausible, borderline nonsensical plots musicalized with a handful of hit Pop tunes surrounded by a bunch of undistinguished filler.
The book of Can-Can started off as first-rate Abe Burrows, a very funny and nicely pointed satire of censorship. Unfortunately, by the second act, the plot had completely disintegrated into random insanity, so that no-one in the audience had the slightest idea what was going on. That technique can be harnessed for deliberate artistic purposes, as it was in Yip Harburg’s Flahooley!, but here it just seemed the result of sloppy craftsmanship.
The score also caught Porter at less than his best. There were about a half-dozen songs in the show that were hits to some degree, but only two of them (“I Love Paris” and “It’s All Right with Me”) really qualify as top-rank Porter classics, although the title-song, more obscure today, does feature some of his wittiest rhyming stunts. Still, the filler numbers were extremely weak even by Porter filler standards, particularly “Every Man is a Stupid Man” and “Never, Never Be an Artist”. Even a few of the hits seem slightly questionable, with the uninspired “Ce’st Magnifique” in particular not having aged well.
Silk Stockings, Porter’s last show for Broadway, was even weaker: it featured superficially topical subject matter, a good cast, a few fine ballads, and virtually nothing else. The attempts at satirical humor regarding Stalinist Russia were so inappropriately light-hearted as to be arguably offensive to both then-contemporary and modern sensibilities, and the score was perhaps the most uneven of Porter’s entire career, with “Satin and Silk” and the tasteless “Siberia” being among the worst songs he ever wrote. Like all the shows in this section, it persists as an inescapable reminder that, if I may quote Billy Joel, “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”.