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The Good Old Good Old Days

When Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse wrote about the good old bad old days in their 1972 musical, how accurate were they?

By New York City
I was recently listening to the cast album of the 1972 Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse musical The Good Old Bad Old Days! Newley played "Bubba," a cartoonish figure whose mission it was to convince God not to destroy the world once again -- even though people were "draining the cup, screwing things up," as the razz-ma-tazz title song that opened the show put it. "Some people say they long for the old days," Newley sang; "Still, I have a feeling, in the far-off future, people will say when they look back on today, 'These were the good old bad old days!'"

Given that almost a third of a century has passed since the December 20, 1972 opening of The Good Old Bad Old Days at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, I think we can say that we're now in that "far-off future." So I decided to look back and see what was happening on Broadway on that precise date; perhaps we were then, indeed, in the middle of good times and we didn't know it?

Well, those were bad days for Broadway in that the theater district was on a downward spiral, playing host to more than an occasional prostitute, pimp, and dealer plying sex and drugs. As early as 1963, Variety was writing that "Times Square sure needs a facelift," so you can imagine what a near-decade more of illicit activities had done to the area. If you walked down a street in the West 40s back then, you might have thought of that Anyone Can Whistle lyric: "Stores are for rent. Theaters are dark."

Many were. The Atkinson had been closed for one month, the Ritz (now the Walter Kerr) for two, the Golden for three, and the Billy Rose (now the Nederlander) for seven (though a touring production of Purlie would drop in the following week and stay for a fortnight). The Belasco was in the second month of what would be a year-long drought, and the Beck (now the Hirschfeld) was in the eighth month of what would be an equally lengthy period of darkness. The Broadway, empty since Dude's abrupt closing two months earlier, would be closed for a year and a half -- but that wasn't the worst of it. The Longacre had been shuttered for 11 straight months and would be empty for (gulp!) 23 more.

The Bijou, one of three theaters that would be razed to build the Marquis Hotel and Theatre, had just marked its second anniversary of emptiness. And the biggest blow of all was that the brand-new Uris (now the Gershwin), which had had its gala grand opening the previous month with Via Galactica, was already waiting for its next tenant. What's more, many people who'd been inside the theater were appalled by its architectural sterility. We were still three months away from the opening of the Minskoff (with Debbie Reynolds as Irene), so we weren't yet aware of the antiseptic look of that place. Meanwhile, the Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes) was a TV studio.

But what about the rest? As Otis Guernsey would write in The Best Plays of 1972-1973, "Disappointment must always follow naturally as September becomes October and November and December." Was he being too gloomy? Let's take a walk around the theater district to see what a theatergoer could have attended on Wednesday, December 20, 1972.

On 44th Street, the St. James had the Tony-winning Two Gentlemen of Verona, which has been excoriated for beating Follies but which was a fun show -- better than the musical across the street at the Majestic, Sugar. Next door, opening this very night at the Broadhurst, was a Neil Simon play that ranks among his very best: The Sunshine Boys. And while the Shubert was dark, it had its marquee up for a show to which most everyone was looking forward: A Little Night Music, by the composer-lyricist and director-producer of Company and Follies. (You know their names.)

If you scooted through Shubert Alley to 45th Street, you'd have found the future Pulitzer winner That Championship Season at the Booth. Sada Thompson was giving a Tony-winning turn as four different (and hilarious) women in Twigs at the Plymouth. Grease was celebrating the first month of what would be its more-than-seven-year stay at the Royale, and was not yet a cliché. Pippin was a smash at the Imperial, and already lots of young men were auditioning for musicals with "Corner of the Sky." Sleuth was still packing them in at the Music Box, while the not-yet-razed Morosco had Alan Bates as Butley. And if you looked across Broadway, you'd have noticed that the Lyceum was housing two shows in rep -- that's right, rep! Katherine Helmond, John McMartin, and John Glover were doing O'Neill's The Great God Brown one night and Molière's Don Juan the next.

Moving over to 46th Street, you'd have spotted the old Helen Hayes -- another eventual Marquis casualty -- sporting Jerry Orbach and Jane Alexander in Six Rms Riv Vu. No, No, Nanette was still at the 46th Street (now the Rodgers), and the Israeli revue To Live Another Summer -- To Pass Another Winter lit up the Lunt-Fontanne. On 47th Street, black musical theater was well-represented by Melvin Van Peebles' Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death at the Barrymore and Micki Grant's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope at the Edison (later The Supper Club , which is now apparently closed).

Looking over to Seventh Avenue -- which was easier to do then because there was not yet a TKTS booth -- you'd have seen the plastics up for Don Juan in Hell, just about to open at the Palace. (Did George Bernard Shaw ever dream that he'd play the Palace?) It would star Paul (Casablanca) Henried, Agnes (Bewitched) Moorehead, and Ricardo Montalban (who, six years later, would trade in the fantasy of Don Juan in Hell for Fantasy Island).

West of Broadway, 48th Street was utterly barren; but east of it, the Cort had installed the marquee for The Jockey Club Stakes, a droll British comedy. On 49th, The Prisoner of Second Avenue was in its second year at the O'Neill, with Art Carney now in the lead. The Ambassador still displayed the marquee for the just-closed The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild by Paul Zindel, which had starred no less than Maureen Stapleton, Doris Roberts, and Elizabeth Wilson. (In those days, the Shuberts kept up the marquees of closed shows rather than replacing them with the generic "See a Broadway Show -- Just for the Fun of It." Hey, why not lower the prices, just for the fun of it?)

Right on Broadway at 50th Street, underneath the Uris, was the equally brand-new Circle in the Square. It housed Colleen Dewhurst in Mourning Becomes Electra, the first of a four-play season that offered tickets at about half the cost of the usual price of a Broadway play. Across the street, a much-heralded production of Much Ado About Nothing was at the Winter Garden. (Think about it: Back then, this theater hosted Shakespeare but now it has Mamma Mia!) And whether you love or hate Jesus Christ Superstar -- or loved or hated Tom O'Horgan's controversially glitzy production -- it was at the Hellinger, which is more than we can say for any show now. (That is, unless you consider a Times Square Church service a show.)

On 52nd Street, the marquee of the Alvin (now the Neil Simon) touted Tricks, a musical version of Scapin, which was to open (and close) the following month. This small musical was a big hit at the Actors Theatre of Louisville but it didn't belong in the large Alvin. (Hey, guys, the Golden was available -- and, as recent events have proven, you can do a smash-hit musical at the Golden!) Across the street at the ANTA (now the Virginia), The Last of Mrs. Lincoln starred Julie Harris, who'd soon receive her fourth Tony for her performance in it. I can still see Harris as Mary Todd Lincoln, visiting a friend whose little boy piped up, "There were only two great presidents of the United States: Washington and Lincoln!" Harris indulgently smiled and said, "And I'm not so sure about Washington!"

I, however, am sure that Newley and Bricusse were right. I'll surely say, when I look back on that day, it was a good old -- much more than a bad old -- day. And if you still have doubts, be apprised that the highest ticket price for even the white-hot hit shows was $15.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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