Would we see a picture of Abraham Lincoln in a casket?
Rumor had it that such a photograph was enclosed in a time capsule that was 134 years old.
In 1887, it had been placed in the pedestal that supported the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. After the statue had been removed in September, efforts began to retrieve the capsule.
One was found that had been planted much later, but more digging revealed the one that was expected. For better or worse, any ghoulish picture of Lincoln at rest was not included.
Instead, there were buttons, bullets, books, badges and nothing of any true interest. Let’s make sure that when we put together our Broadway musical time capsule that we do a better job. Those who open our capsule in 2256 should see that we gave serious thought to what might interest them.
Time capsules are, by their very nature, small. So although there would be enough room for a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, just try getting a cow as white as milk in there.
Recordings, on the other hand, could be accommodated. So let’s show the people we’ll never know how cast albums looked and advanced from the 1940s until the turn of the century.
We’d start with records that were played at 78 rpm (meaning the number of revolutions per minute that spun on one’s phonograph). Sure, OKLAHOMA! would seem to be the logical choice, for it was the first original cast album to be taken seriously. Proof of that is its selling millions of copies even at a whopping $5.85 each – equivalent to $94 today.
Let’s pick a less obvious choice: ALLEGRO, the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that was so anticipated after their OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL. The five-record set only gave a smidgen of the score, but very few cast albums of the forties were able to give listeners much more than that.
We’d pack ALLEGRO in plenty of bubble wrap, for anyone who dropped a 78 from a height of even three inches would soon be retrieving a broom and dustpan. Hence, we’d include the next recording innovation that America embraced: the33 1/3 r.p.m. 12-inch non-breakable vinyl record that was said to be long-playing.
Comparatively speaking, it was. FINIAN’S RAINBOW, Columbia’s first cast album in this format – for which we’ll make room – allowed a musical to leap from multiple records that might each hold three minutes of music to a single record that offered six songs per side. That alone would make the FINIAN’s experience something sort of grandish, but such felicitous Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg songs as “Something Sort of Grandish” made it extra special.
Meanwhile, RCA Victor, Columbia’s major rival, thought the future of albums was in box sets of 45 r.p.m. records. The company’s latest models of television (which the company also manufactured) included phonographs to the right of the screen.
These seven-inch records only held a couple of songs to a side, but you could stack the records atop each other and get a good half hour’s music out of them. For our time capsule, let’s include the box set of MAKE A WISH. No, it wasn’t a long-running 1951 hit, but underrated composer-lyricist Hugh Martin should be remembered and cherished.
Although SOUTH PACIFIC 1949 monaural recording offered more than just some enchanted music, it was in the early sixties “electronically re-recorded to simulate stereo.” Frankly, that sound resulted in an echo chamber of horrors. Many who bought their first pre-stereo-era cast album in electronic stereo made it their last; they meekly returned to the original monaural from then on. However, a time capsule should acknowledge this attempt to update single-channel sound.
WILDCAT was a 1960 musical that enjoyed genuine stereo. It’ll always be remembered for starring Lucille Ball after she’d finished being a Ricardo. Equally worth remembering is that it was Cy Coleman’s first Broadway score; lucky for us, there would be ten others, including his three Tony-winning compositions for ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, CITY OF ANGELS and THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES.
Before eight-track tape had had its day, DARLING OF THE DAY, the 1968 Jule Styne-E.Y. Harburg musical, was released in this format. If you don’t believe that this 32-performance musical made it to this short-lived medium, well, as Hildy sings in ON THE TOWN, come up to my place.
Bookwriters always grouse that their musicals are defined by their songwriters: The Cole Porter musical; the Stephen Sondheim musical. But in this case, it was the Styne-Harburg musical, and not merely because the illustrious composer of GYPSY had collaborated with FINIAN’S RAINBOW’s wordsmith. Librettist Nunnally Johnson insisted that his name be removed from the credits of this musical after it experienced one problem after another. It had one title after another (MARRIED ALIVE during the Toronto and Boston tryouts) and one director after another (Steven Vinaver, who’d steered THE MAD SHOW to what would soon be the sixth-longest-running show in off-Broadway history, gave way to Noel Willman. Yes, he’d staged two prestigious plays – A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and THE LION IN WINTER – but fine directors of plays often do poorly as directors of musicals. That all three properties took place in England didn’t mean Willman was the man for the job).
Then came one review after another: Clive Barnes, chief critic for The New York Times, couldn’t make the premiere, so another reviewer attended and didn’t much like what he saw. A week later, Barnes dropped in and called it “effortlessly the season’s best musical.” Alas, he mentioned this only in passing in another show’s review, so much of the public missed this endorsement.
There wasn’t, however, one leading lady after another. Once the staff had Patricia Routledge (the future Hyacinth Bucket), they wanted no one else. She won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony, which doesn’t often happen with a show that runs a month. If you don’t know her showstopper “Not on Your Nellie,” don’t wait for a time capsule to be opened.
Even if we’re running out of room, there’ll be space for HAIR on cassette. These four-by-two-inch tapes helped its original Broadway cast album (as opposed to its original off-Broadway cast album) reach Number One on the charts and stay on the lists for more than a year.
42ND STREET on compact disc is a historical must, for it was the first new musical to be simultaneously released on CD as well as on record, cassette and eight-track tape. Its song “We’re in the Money” was prescient; even David Merrick must have assumed that no musical he’d ever produce would outrun his HELLO, DOLLY! But 42ND STREET did.
Let’s fill out the capsule with a DVD of “Recording THE PRODUCERS: A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks.” The York Theatre Company offers a “Musicals in Mufti” series – meaning it produces shows in street clothes. In a sense, that’s what you get here, because you see almost every song from the Tony-winning score sung by actors who left their costumes in their dressing rooms.
Those in the future can learn what Nathan Lane thought of Elaine Stritch during the infamous recording session of COMPANY as well as his feelings on that TABOO musical that Rosie O’Donnell championed. They’ll still be funny 134 years from now.
Brooks has a great deal to say, which will be fortunate for all who’ll listen. When he says that he’d like to see the THE PRODUCERS’ Broadway cast in a film version, Lane and Matthew Broderick give a “That’ll never happen” look. But indeed it did.
Incidentally, what occurred in Richmond last week brought LI’L ABNER to mind. And how could it not?
The 1956 musical’s plot had government officials taking over Abner’s hometown of Dogpatch in order to use it as a test site for nuclear bombs. When a statue of a Confederate general – one Jubilation T. Cornpone – is removed, in its pedestal is found, no, not a time capsule, but a proclamation:
“Because of his lack of strategy, his military blunders and general ineptitude which almost single-handedly enabled the North to win The Civil War, a grateful government proclaims this statue a national shrine.” So Dogpatch is spared.
And who signed the proclamation? No less than our sixteenth president. No, there was no photograph of Abraham Lincoln in the pedestal under Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue, but his signature was on that proclamation in the one below that monument to Jubilation T. Cornpone. For that alone, we should find room in our time capsule for an LP, four-track tape, cassette and CD of LI’L ABNER.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.