By David Foil
In the history of Broadway musicals, there are great years, vintage years, golden years. And then there is 1956.
Fans may argue this – 1959 was a pretty amazing year, as well – but was there ever such a brief time in which so many expertly crafted, entertaining and unforgettable musicals made their debut, as in the days between March 15, 1956, and the end of that year? In that time, the following shows had their Broadway premieres – My Fair Lady (March 15); The Most Happy Fella(May 3); Li’l Abner(November 15); Bells Are Ringing (November 29); Candide (December 1); and Happy Hunting (December 6). These six shows all happen to have been recorded by Columbia and RCA Victor, and are part of the Masterworks Broadway catalogue. They also completely dominated the Tony Awards® race for the 1956-57 season.
What an embarrassment of riches for the Tony® voters in the spring of 1957! There couldn’t have been much suspense about the big award. My Fair Lady had hit Broadway like a tidal wave; it was, if anything, more popular a year later. The other nominees for Best Musical were spectacular – Bells Are Ringing, Candide and The Most Happy Fella – but they didn’t stand a chance. In 1957, a nomination for Best Musical included the composer, the lyricist and the librettist (separate categories for them came later), as well as the producer. So among the “losers” in that category were Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Lillian Hellman, John Latouche, Frank Loesser, Jule Style and Richard Wilbur. My Fair Lady swept the awards, to no one’s surprise – Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Rex Harrison) and Best Director (Moss Hart), as well as the prizes for scenic design (Oliver Smith), costume design (Cecil Beaton) and the discontinued award for conductor/musical director (Franz Allers). The sweep was remarkable, when you consider that the director and design categories then included plays, as well.
It seems odd that the acting categories for musical performers in 1957 were limited to three nominees each (the featured-actress category had four, somehow). Harrison’s competition was both strong (Robert Weede in the title role of The Most Happy Fella) and weak (Fernando Lamas in Happy Hunting). Julie Andrews’ Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Ethel Merman – in full cry in Happy Hunting – lost the Best Actress in a Musical award to the reportedly incandescent Judy Holliday (Bells Are Ringing). In the featured actor category, Sydney Chaplin (Bells Are Ringing) trumped both Robert Coote and Stanley Holloway from My Fair Lady. The featured actress award went to Edith Adams for Li’l Abner, leaving empty-handed Virginia Gibson (Happy Hunting), Irra Pettina (Candide) and Jo Sullivan (The Most Happy Fella). Sullivan had the leading female role in her show; today she surely would have been honored in the leading actress category.
You have to wonder why they couldn’t have squeezed Barbara Cook into the leading actress race for what must have been an astonishing turn as Cunegonde in Candide. (She won the following year, for The Music Man.) Or, for that matter, Robert Rounseville in the title role of Candide? In the featured categories, Susan Johnson and Shorty Long in The Most Happy Fella, Stubby Kaye in Li’l Abner, and Cathleen Nesbitt in My Fair Lady would now seem like odds-on favorites.
A word about Happy Hunting – from our perspective, it seems like a complete ringer in this company, a lesser, now-forgotten Ethel Merman vehicle with an inconsistent score by a first-time songwriting team. Ironically, Bells Are Ringing had a featured character who was a dentist aspiring to write songs for Broadway musicals. The composer of Happy Hunting, Harold Karr, was … a dentist who aspired to, but actually did write songs for Broadway musicals.
Happy Hunting was fluff, with a silly plot inspired by Grace Kelly’s marriage earlier that year to Prince Rainier of Monaco. The show opened with a record advance – this was Merman’s first new musical since Call Me Madam six years earlier – and ga-ga notices for the star from the most of the critics. (A “mirthquake,” one of them called the show.) Happy Hunting was not a happy show, however. Merman and Lamas did not get along – in a TV interview, he made a hilarious but nasty comment about the experience of kissing Merman – and she seems to have been at odds with everyone else. The show lost money and did not tour. The experience soured Merman on first-time songwriters, and she is said to have nixed the idea two years later of the young Stephen Sondheim writing both music and lyrics for Gypsy. But the Happy Hunting original cast recording, long unavailable, is a gem of its kind. The score gave Merman a sensational number with which to make an entrance (“Gee, But It’s Good to Be Here”), plus it yielded a novelty pop hit (“Mutual Admiration Society”) and a truly wacky comedy number called “A New-Fangled Tango.”
Those other 1956 shows are legendary, of course. For me, the recordings have never failed to summon the excitement of that remarkable year. You can hear it in the performances – the drop-dead, spot-on perfection of My Fair Lady, the grand intimacy of The Most Happy Fella, the rollicking, breathtaking artistry of Candide, the blissful screwball charm of Bells Are Ringing, the craziness of Li’l Abner and the … oh, the Mermanity of Happy Hunting. They don’t make ’em like they used to. We can thank our lucky stars they recorded ’em.
– David Foil
David Foil is Senior Director, Product Development, for Sony Masterworks. In that role, he supervises A&R for the Masterworks Broadway catalogue and produces the Masterworks Broadway podcast series. Foil began his career in print and on TV as a film and performing arts critic. In the last two decades, he has compiled and annotated well over 100 Broadway and classical recordings, and has written twelve introductory books on classical music and opera.