Forty years ago today, producer David Merrick woke up with a scowl on his face. His new musical had opened the previous night at the Shubert Theatre and Howard Taubman of the Times had called it "commonplace and repetitious," while John Chapman of the Daily News declared it "overly precious." Merrick knew he could use "wonderfully invigorating" in his ads for the show, but that quote came from Norman Nadel of the less widely read World-Telegram and Sun.
Nevertheless, Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off became a Broadway hit, as well as a genuine idiom. Even now, it's paraphrased eight times a week on Broadway and on the road as Leo Bloom of The Producers yells, "Stop the world -- I want to get on!" So how did a show with lackluster reviews wind up as (then) one of Broadway's longest-running musicals?
Maybe theatergoers were in the mood for a "new-style musical," as Stop the World proclaimed itself. It was an Everyman Morality Play about a little chap called Littlechap who had to brave the big, bad world. All the characters were dressed in stylized, circus-type uniforms. Littlechap -- the only man in the show -- was in a clown's baggy pants while all of the women wore leotards. The set was simple - just bleachers in a circus tent -- and the story was told with a good deal of mime. A bassoon in the orchestra turned out to be a genuine character, representing Littlechap's boss as it boomed out low notes to suggest displeasure and high notes to display delight. Littlechap would occasionally turn to the audience and say "Stop the world!" so that he could stop the show and give us a few interior monologues.
Part of the appeal of the production was that Anthony Newley was not only was starring as Littlechap but also staged the musical and co-wrote its book, music, and lyrics (with Leslie Bricusse). And what music and lyrics they were! Decca Broadway recently re-released the Broadway cast album on CD and it's still a riveting score. Certainly, much of the nation knew three of the show's songs through Newley's recordings long before the musical reached Broadway: "Once in a Lifetime," "Gonna Build a Mountain" (the last word of which Newley enjoyed pronouncing "moun-tayne"), and, of course, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" which was covered by dozens of singers.
Perhaps theatergoers were impressed that Stop the World came with the pedigree of a London hit -- though, Lord knows, that didn't mean as much to Broadway as it did in the period from the late '70s through the early '90s. Still, Stop the World remains one of those few London imports that actually ran longer here, racking up 485 performances in the West End and 555 performances on Broadway. Word-of-mouth must have been good, though that seems hard to believe, for the majority of theatergoers are women and they couldn't have been pleased with what Stop the World had to say: It's one of the few musicals that speaks primarily to a male audience. Many a man must have nodded in acknowledgment when Littlechap, mired in an entry-level job, finds that Evie, the object of his affection, won't give him a second glance -- presumably because he's so low on the corporate food chain. This makes him want to succeed at any cost. (At this point, Littlechap doesn't know that Evie is the boss's daughter, so he can't be accused of using her to get ahead.)
But get ahead he does, and here's where Stop the World took an interesting turn. Instead of using the usual inept-son-in-law cliche, Littlechap turns out to be an excellent employee and wins over his father-in-law. It's truly poignant at the end of the show when he retires and says, "You spend your whole life working hard so you can retire, and the moment you do, the thing you most miss is work."
Stop the World emphasizes that the average man is more interested in his career than he is in True Love -- a sentiment that would strike a chord with men but wouldn't involve female theatergoers. The show appealed not only to the proverbial "tired businessman" but also to male chauvinist pigs, for it's astonishingly sexist, even by early '60s standards. Littlechap is disappointed when Evie bears him not one, but two daughters instead of a son. In one shocking scene, as he's about to leave on a business trip, he kisses Evie and then his first daughter but totally snubs the heartbroken second child. While on his various trips, he has extra-marital affairs with a Russian, a German, and an American woman.
So, how did this musical succeed? Well, the real answer had to do with its budget and operating costs. In an era where the average musical cost $300,000, Stop the World came to Broadway for an astonishing $75,000. Today, that's one theater party at The Producers paying for their tickets at that disgusting Broadway Inner Circle rate of $480 per. Aside from Newley, there were no stars in the smaller-than-average cast. And Anna Quayle played not only Evie but also the aforementioned Russian, German, and American women. (No wonder she won a Tony -- the only one the production would receive).
In 1966, Stop the World got a movie that might have cost even less than the Broadway production. It was done on a theater stage with the bare-bones bleacher set. And the film made no bones about its being a theatrical performance, as it began with a conductor in a theater cueing his musicians to start the overture before a packed house. During that overture, scenes backstage showed the cast getting ready to perform. When they came on and did a number, the cinematography included an intentional look at the stage lights hanging above and, afterwards, there was an occasional shot of the audience applauding wildly. Though the movie was filmed in color, Littlechap's interior monologues were in black-and-white.
Though the film is astonishingly faithful, the surprise is that Newley did not reprise his role but was replaced by Tony Tanner, who'd taken over for him in London when Newley brought Littlechap to Broadway. Tanner, whose face back then greatly resembles Susan Stroman's today, borrowed Newley's eccentric pronunciation on "moun-tayne" and, generally speaking, did the job. He was joined by Millicent Martin, who got to play an Asian woman in addition to all the other ethnicities. (In case you're wondering "Whatever happened to Millicent Martin?" she's in the new stage musical version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, soon to begin performances at Theatre under the Stars in Houston.)
Like so many "new-style" entertainments, Stop the World dated quickly, and not just because of its sexism. Lines about "an American car as long as the street," a crack about "women drivers," a reference to "Brigitte Bardot, ooh-la-la!" and Evie's asking Littlechap to light her cigarette in a restaurant now point to a long-ago era. Evie also claims we'll soon have "a Soviet Russian moon." That didn't happen, and not merely because America got there first; the World Council established in the mid '60s that whatever country landed first on the moon would not be able to claim territorial rights. (As it turned out, DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson were right when they wrote, many years earlier, that "The moon belongs to everyone.")
The saddest reference in Stop the World occurs when the American woman, a nightclub entertainer/bimbo, sings "And I think that Mr. Eisenhower is absolutely swell" -- only to be interrupted by the conductor's tapping his baton so that he can inform her that Eisenhower is no longer president. "And I think that Mr. Kennedy is absolutely swell," she immediately responds. As a teen, I saw Stop the World only five days after Kennedy's assassination and I hadn't yet heard the cast album, so I wasn't prepared to note the line that must have been hastily substituted at this moment. Does anyone out there remember? (In the film, Martin says "And I think that President Johnson is absolutely swell" and goes on without correction -- but I'm sure that the production wouldn't have used that line in the sensitive days following the assassination.)
Dated though it already was, Stop the World got a major New York revival in 1978. That's party because "What King of Fool Am I?" was a hit for Sammy Davis in 1962 and he therefore decided to portray Littlechap in a production that played not on Broadway but at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. Marian Mercer, the Tony-winner from Promises, Promises was his Evie. The show got lethal reviews and was gone in less than a month but was nevertheless filmed and released as Sammy Stops the World. It is assessed as a "bomb" in virtually every TV/video guide.
Stop the World's last burst of glory came in 1996, when the Arts and Entertainment Network broadcast a 67-minute version of the show with Peter Scolari as Littlechap and Stephanie Zimbalist as Evie. This adaptation made a few concessions to the times -- e.g., the "Women drivers!" slur was dropped -- but the time of the action was evidently still meant to be the early '60s because the American woman still made the Eisenhower mistake that was corrected to Kennedy. Zimbalist wasn't much good and Scolari was truly embarrassing. In fact, not long after the show aired, I talked to Newley and asked him what he thought of Scolari in his role. "I didn't see him," he said, and then he asked me, "How was he?" How he laughed when I said, "Littlechap of Horrors."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]