THE EIGHT WONDERS OF THE MUSICAL THEATER WORLD
At a reading of a spectacular new musical called BROOKYLN’S BRIDGE, a line of dialogue came between one of Ray Roderick and Joseph Baker’s majestic songs – a remark that made me smile.
Actually, I was smiling throughout, for this recounting of how the bridge was built was unstintingly compelling. Who’d expect that a woman in 1870 would be invaluable to the bridge’s construction? However, Emily Roebling (beautifully played by Savannah Frazier) indeed was the major force. After her husband Washington, its chief engineer, fell ill, she supervised the completion of a bridge that still stands.
“It’s the Eighth Wonder of the World,” said one character – and that’s what made me smile, even smirk. How many times have we been told that something is the Eighth Wonder of the World? It’s been attributed to everything from The Astrodome in Houston to Lake Rotomahana in New Zealand.
Yet, how many have dealt with musicals?
Yes, there was a 2015 play called THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD, but among Google’s 757,600 entries, there’s nothing that details The Eighth Wonder of the Musical Theater World, let alone the seven that would have preceded it.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that the books you write are the ones you can’t find on bookshelves. That goes for columns, too. Although you’ll undoubtedly have your own eight, I’ll give you my octet.
Note the way I define the term: I don’t mean The Best Musicals Ever, ones that had smash hit written all over them from the moment they were announced. I’m talking about shows that longtime musical theater observers assumed would amount to nothing. Such as:
1–MY FAIR LADY (1956). A leading man who couldn’t sing? A leading lady who’d done one not-so-demanding Broadway role would now need to go from a guttersnipe to struggling student, to an almost-success who blew it at the last minute, to a woman who’d be mistaken for a princess?
More to the point, Rodgers and Hammerstein had tried musicalizing PYGMALION, and if they, who’d had four hits in five tries, couldn’t do it, how could it be accomplished by Lerner and Loewe, who’d had four Broadway outings and only one hit (and that one, BRIGADOON, hadn’t run as long as any of R&H’s four successes)?
You know the rest.
2–BYE BYE BIRDIE (1960). A musical by nobodies starring near-nobodies (Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke) who couldn’t command over-the-title billing? Add in a composer who’d only provided the incidental music for SIXTH FINGER IN A FIVE FINGER GLOVE and was now trying to do a musical with rock ‘n’ roll.
Then came the bad news that Broadway royalty Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were preparing a musical about rock ‘n’ roll, too. On many occasions, composer Charles Strouse has recalled that once he’d heard the announcement of that musical, he immediately felt that his show was doomed; these seasoned pros who’d recently had a smash-hit with BELLS ARE RINGING would wipe his show off the face of Forty-Fifth Street.
And while DO RE MI wound up getting seven raves from the critics, BYE BYE BIRDIE has certainly had the better afterlife – “despite our being so naïve,” Strouse has said. “We didn’t have any trouble out of town because we didn’t know we were supposed to.”
3–OLIVER! (1960). When the musical was announced for London, British naysayers thrusted their thumbs down. Their reasons: 1) Lionel Bart had had some success as a lyricist, but now he was writing the book and score, too, although he couldn’t read or write music, or even play it; 2) Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST was a dark and dour story;. 3) The out-of-town tryout went disastrously, as Bart wanted Ron Moody and Georgia Brown fired, but lost the battle; 4) There was virtually no advance sale in London.
And yet, by the time OLIVER! opened on Broadway on January 6, 1963, it had been a London sensation for two-and-a-half years. Miraculously, that was less substantially than half the run it would eventually have in becoming the longest-running musical in West End history.
4–MAN OF LA MANCHA (1965). A musical of DON QUIXOTE that would be adapted from a TV special that millions had already seen without spending a dime? Music by a jingle-writer? A leading man who’d never had top billing? A leading lady who hadn’t done a musical in a decade when her husband hired her for KISMET, and was not hiring her again? A tryout in an obscure Connecticut town in a small theater that was otherwise doing ancient musicals?
“The Impossible Dream” came true. And while we’re at it, let’s consider those rumors that occasionally crop up that composer Mitch Leigh didn’t write the music, but parceled out assignments to his jingle staff. How else, naysayers have reasoned, could someone with no Broadway experience – and who’d have two subsequent musicals close out of town and one that came in for a single performance – have written such glorious and appropriate music?
Nah. Leigh died in 2014, so after all this time, someone would have stepped forward to make that claim. Leigh must have done it himself, and we’re very glad that he did.
5–CABARET (1966). The producer, composer and lyricist had worked together once before on an eleven-week flop. Now the producer is going to play director after having had four flops in that role? And the musical is about Nazis and anti-Semitism?
Director Hal Prince saw three Broadway revivals of the Kander and Ebb classic. The four productions that have amassed more than 4,300 performances speak for themselves.
6–1776 (1969). You knew this one would have to be on the list, didn’t you? ‘Nuff said.
7–tick, tick … BOOM! (2001). Off-Broadway audiences first learned the story over twenty years ago, although filmgoers only discovered it in the past year.
Yes, that Jonathan Larson had died hours before the first preview of RENT is a well-known fact, but few knew how he’d struggled to no avail with his previous show, SUPERBIA. After its workshop, his agent cavalierly said, “We’re interested in what you’ll do next.”
So was everyone else when RENT opened.
Who’d think that a musical about writing a show that wasn’t produced would be produced? Count the number of off-Broadway musicals that have become feature films and you’ll be shocked at how few there have been. Who would have expected that one of them would be the Jonathan Larson musical that he didn’t quite write himself?
8–AVENUE Q (2003). It opened in July to some raves, yes, but even Michael Riedel, who certainly has had his finger on the Broadway pulse for thirty years, said in the documentary SHOW BUSINESS: THE ROAD TO BROADWAY that it would be gone by January.
Actually, it would see sixteen Januarys. And who would have thought that Robert Lopez’s first Broadway outing would turn out to be just the beginning of one of the most successful musical theater composing careers of all time?
As for BROOKLYN’S BRIDGE, I won’t be surprised if one of these days we’ll be calling it The Ninth Wonder of the Musical Theater World.
Peter Filichia is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly, a columnist at www.broadwayselect.com and a commentator on www.broadwayradio.com.