So does Hugh Jackman’s appearing as The Greatest Showman in the current movie musical remind you of a Broadway show?
Yes, me too: Barnum, the 1980 hit musical that spent twenty-five months at the St. James Theatre.
Both properties do indeed concern Phineas T. Barnum (1810-1891) who was famous for saying “There Is a Sucker Born Every Minute.” That iconic line spurred composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart to make that the title of their opening number which gave the show a terrific jump-start.
From there we went to a semi-ragtime, demi-Dixieland number in “Thank God I’m Old.” Barnum’s first big attraction Joice Heth brought in the customers who wanted to see a 161-year-old woman who’d been a nurse to no less than George Washington.
Well, Barnum would admit later in another up-tempo song that he was “The Prince of Humbug” and indeed he was: Joice Heth was actually less than half that age, clocking in at a mere seventy-eight.
Needless to say, Terri White was much younger still when she sang the wonderfully infectious number. No matter how old you are and how poor the circulation in your legs, this one will have even your most long-dormant foot tap-tap-tapping.
The first time I ever saw an ad for a Barnum musical was in 1962. No, the show that Coleman and Stewart did with librettist Mark Bramble didn’t take eighteen years to get on; this was another and different Barnum.
I still remember standing under the Eighth Avenue marquee of the Hotel Manhattan (now the Row Hotel) and seeing the empty spot at 301 West 45th Street – across from what was The Martin Beck Theatre then and is The Al Hirschfeld Theatre now. By 1966, that hole-in-the-ground would be filled by the Camelot apartment building, but four years earlier, all I saw were two bare brick walls. On one were two painted ads for a couple of upcoming Alexander H. Cohen productions with scores by Broadway newcomers Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel: Baker Street, “The Sherlock Holmes Musical” and Barnum – “The World’s Fair Musical.”
The latter was an obvious tie-in with the upcoming 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a stretch to link it with Barnum, because he often called his extravaganza “P.T. Barnum’s Travelling World’s Fair.”
What’s more, in 1853, in association with Horace (“Go West, young man”) Greeley, Barnum held not merely a World’s Fair but an International Fair in what is now Bryant Park. Twenty years later, he also oversaw the construction of what he called “The Great World’s Fair Building” on 14th Street.
Baker Street was a bust, so Cohen lost faith in Grudeff and Jessel’s abilities and a musical about Barnum had to wait until the new triumvirate took up the challenge and delivered.
Stewart had had a terrific early ‘60s, what with Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival and especially Hello, Dolly! Even his George M! that came later in the decade had a more-than-respectable run.
But for each of those, he wrote a libretto. For I Love My Wife, his only ‘70s hit, he did double duty with book and lyrics. Perhaps doing both jobs fatigued him, because for Barnum, he left the bookwriting to Bramble.
His lyrics hit the spot and put Jim Dale in the center-ring spotlight as Phineas (which almost rhymes with “zinnias,” used in that aforementioned first song. You try doing better).
Dale would be one of the few Broadway performers to star in a drama (Joe Egg; Tony nomination), a comedy (Scapino; Drama Desk Award) and a musical (Barnum; Tony Award). He had the panache, grandness and style for The Greatest Showman and the ability to sing Stewart’s lickety-split lyrics to the equally swift melodies. (Case in point: “The Museum Song,” a laundry list of this, that and the other things that Barnum brought to his customers.)
In addition to being magnificent, Dale was dependable and rarely missed a performance. His standby was Harvey Evans (the original Young Buddy in Follies) who told me the worst thing about being in that position: Evans would arrive at the theater long before showtime, inevitably run into Dale and, without thinking, automatically say what we all say when we see someone we know: “How are you?” But as Evans said, “But when you’re itching to go on and you’re talking to the star, ‘How are you?’ sounds as if you’re hoping he’ll say he’s sick.”
Playing Mrs. Chairy Barnum in her sixth Broadway appearance was the not-yet-well-known Glenn Close. Chairy’s marriage to Phineas came after the two opposites had attracted … but then they had to live together.
Although both could admit “I Like Your Style,” a terrific jazz waltz, Chairy was meat-and-potatoes while Phineas was champagne and truffles. That dichotomy was well-expressed in “The Colors of My Life,” in which he trumpeted the bright hues and she preferred the ones that didn’t blind her with brightness. However, when Phineas’ brand-new museum collapsed in a heap of brick two days before the show was to open, Chairy was the one to give him the inspiration to rebuild “One Brick at a Time” in a stirring Coleman march.
Close stayed with the show for eleven months and then tried her luck in Hollywood. She found it immediately, for she was soon cast as Garp’s mother in The World According to Garp and the adulterous wife who’ll find a novel way of having her husband commit adultery in The Big Chill. So when Close returned to Broadway in 1984 to do Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing she was now billed over the title and received the first of her three Tony Awards.
Barnum did cheat on Chairy with his big discovery: “The Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind who, through newcomer Marianne Tatum, expertly sang “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All.” (How true!) If you know the song, pay close attention the next time you see Coleman’s Sweet Charity; that’s the musical for which he’d originally written it, and you’ll hear a wisp of it midway through the first act as incidental music.
What is arguably the best number in the show wasn’t introduced by either Dale or Close, but by Peter Howard, who usually was behind the scenes as an expert dance music arranger. (Don’t you love what he brought to “Hot Honey Rag” in Chicago, “He Plays the Violin” in 1776 and, last but hardly least, “Hello, Dolly!”?)
Here Howard got on stage and introduced “Come Follow the Band” to open the second act. If you’re in a terrible mood, you’ll find it one of those oh-so-rare songs that’ll get you out of your funk and make you feel good again. You’ll feel your heart boom-booming along with the big bass drum that punctuates so many of the lyrics.
Barnum also marked the Broadway debut of a performer who would open three of the top ten longest-running shows in Broadway history. Terrence Mann may not have had much to do in Barnum, but he was the first American Rum Tum Tugger in Cats and Javert in Les Miserables. Later he originated The Beast on stage in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Coleman didn’t have juggernauts as long-running as those, but in his future were his two biggest hits, both Tony winners and Best Score winners, too, and in consecutive years yet: City of Angels (1990) and The Will Rogers Follies (1991).
As for Stewart and Bramble, they didn’t have to wait as long for their greatest success. For a mere 118 days after Barnum had opened, the pair had the biggest hit in town: 42nd Street: the first show to raise its prices to the become the costliest ticket twice. For no sooner had producer David Merrick raised them from the then-current $25 to $30, only weeks later he upped them to $35.
(Sounds like a bargain today, no?)
Would Stewart have ever believed when Hello, Dolly! closed as Broadway’s longest-running musical that he’d ever have a bigger hit? Indeed, 42nd Street ran more than a year-and-a-half longer. But Stewart once told me that the chaos with Merrick during that show’s tryout in Washington didn’t make it his favorite Broadway experience. That, he said, was Barnum.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.