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Broadway's Musical Miracles

Filichia recounts 15 musical theater miracles in which sure-fire flops turned into big-time hits. logo
Oklahoma! proved that you
don't need "legs" to run
Just saw, at my local bookstore, the third volume in the It's a Miracle series. Subtitled, "Extraordinary Real-Life Stories based on the PAX-TV Series," the book is designed to "give readers belief in the power of unexplained phenomenon in everyday life" and "to offer hope to the thousands who watch each week."

Well, I've never seen the show, but I sure know miracles that come from unexplained phenomena and ones that give hope because I've seen them happen, or read about them happening, on the Broadway musical scene. Here are, in my opinion, the 15 Greatest Broadway Musical Miracles of all time.

     1. A musical about the Declaration of Independence? With a score by a high-school teacher? With a book by the guy who wrote Skyscraper? With a director who's never worked on Broadway before? With no names in the leads? No wonder it was a disaster in its New Haven tryout. And yet, 1776 went on to get raves, and even beat out Hair and Promises, Promises for the Tony.

     2. What was it that Mike Todd said about Away We Go? Some sources cite it as "No legs, no jokes, no chance." Others say, "No jokes, no girls, no chance." Others still insist, "No stars, no legs, no jokes, no chance." Whatever the actual quotation, there's no question that Todd didn't know what he was talking about, as the re-titled Oklahoma! opened to huzzahs and became the longest-running musical in Broadway history. It was a miracle, too, for wordsmith Oscar Hammerstein, whose previous five shows -- Sunny River, Very Warm for May, Three Sisters, Ball at the Savoy, and Free for All -- had run a combined total of 27 weeks.

     3. In an era where a show tries out in Philly, Boston, or Baltimo', they went to East Haddam, Connecticut? The composer's career up to that time had encompassed little more than jingles, the lyricist had one Broadway musical catastrophe to his name, and the bookwriter had one straight-play flop. And it was a musical of Don Quixote! The miracle was that Man of La Mancha won Tonys, ran for almost six years, and has had a healthy afterlife.

     4. Robert Preston? That's who they cast in this musical written by that never-had-a-show-on-Broadway orchestra leader who had the presumption to think that he could write music, lyrics and book all by himself? Preston, whose film oeuvre included such epics as King of Alcatraz, My Outlaw Brother, and Moon over Burma -- not to be confused with another of his pictures, Blood on the Moon -- was to be the leading man? Well, who else were they going to get, considering that Ray Bolger, Art Carney, Dan Dailey, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Bert Parks, and Jason Robards, Jr. all turned them down? But Preston wound up giving one of Broadway's most beloved performances in the equally beloved The Music Man.

By George, they got it!
Rex Harrison and Broadway newcomer
Julie Andrews made Shaw's Pygmalion sing
     5. Well, they only had themselves to blame. It was crazy to think that Pgymalion could ever be a musical, but if you're going to do it, you don't entrust the role of Eliza Doolittle to a 20-year-old. After all, Eliza must first play a guttersnipe, then a young woman who wants more out of life. Later she's a struggling student, then an accomplished one -- all en route to her becoming a fair lady, indeed. That's a lot to play, and the buzz on the street during rehearsals was that director Moss Hart was so displeased with his leading lady that he took her away for the weekend to coach her non-stop. But, really, could a couple of days' worth of work make much difference? In fact, yes: Julie Andrews emerged triumphant and became a full-blown Broadway star, while My Fair Lady went on to become the longest-running Broadway musical of its day.

     6. So, what was going to be the big musical of the 1966-67 season, the one sure to win all the Tonys? That new show by the songwriters whose last show was Fiddler on the Roof? The new Merrick musical, with Mary Martin and Robert Preston, by the songwriters who did The Fantasticks? Or the one with the two TV icons, Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, based on a beloved Truman Capote novel and film with a score by the guy whose last show was Funny Girl? One thing was certain -- the big hit was not going to be that show about Nazis by those songwriters who wrote that bomb Flora, the Red Menace, which was to be directed by that producer who still hadn't gotten the message that he couldn't direct after staging four consecutive flops. (And the damned fool turned down Hello, Dolly!, to boot!) As it turned out, The Apple Tree was a middling success, I Do! I Do! did a bit better, and Breakfast at Tiffany's was an outright disaster -- leaving the field open for Cabaret to win eight Tonys and to become a musical theater classic.

     7. After two flops -- one lasting just a week -- and a five-year absence, no one expected anything from Stephen Sondheim, whose latest work was an unsuccessful TV musical. Its opening number proclaimed, "If you can find me, I'm here," but most of Broadway hadn't been trying to find Sondheim at all, for they'd written him off as a good lyricist who didn't understand that he just couldn't write show music. But, in 1970, he wrote a score for Company that broke the mold and mesmerized young people who'd previously had no interest in theater music.

     8. On opening night of this show at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, director Gilbert Moses came out to make a pre-curtain speech, which is never a good sign. He apologized for the not-yet-ready show we were about to see, noting that one actor had taken ill and another had been replaced. Those of us who knew that the show also had a novice bookwriter, songwriter, and producer were not optimistic. "But someday," Moses said, "you'll brag about being here." And that's what I'm doing right now. Granted, one actor quit and Moses himself would be canned along with the choreographer, but even after shaky reviews, The Wiz went on to win the Tony and run four and a half years.

     9. The big advance was almost eaten up and no new ticket buyers were coming forward. Looked like Camelot was going to limp to an ignominious finish. But when Ed Sullivan told Alan Jay Lerner that he'd like to do a fifth anniversary tribute to My Fair Lady, Lerner asked that Sullivan feature Camelot on his much-watched Sunday show. Sullivan acquiesced and the exposure sent lots of new ticket-buyers to the box-office, extending Camelot's run by a year-and-a-half.

     10. In a 20-year-span, the producer had only managed to get four shows to Broadway -- all flops. Now, he wanted to revive a 45-year-old musical? In 1970, Broadway wanted to see new musicals, not revivals! And who cared about the long-retired Ruby Keeler or the might-as-well-be-retired Bobby Van? Yet No, No, Nanette was a smash and, for better or worse, started money-men looking to the past instead of the present for their next productions.

     11. Even in her earliest movie -- as a supercilious maid to poor Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight -- she seemed like a bitch. Ditto her performances in State of the Union, Blue Hawaii, The World of Henry Orient, not to mention her role as the ultimate castrator in The Manchurian Candidate. Okay, she once did a musical, but it lasted a week. And now they think she can be Mame, one of the most cherished characters in the post-war era? The answer is yes, as Angela Lansbury ended Gwen (Sweet Charity) Verdon's streak of four Tony wins in four nominations.

     12. If you were there on Easter Sunday 1972 at the Eden Theatre, would you and the 40 other people in the audience have ever imagined that that the show you were watching would become the longest-running Broadway musical of all time? But that's what happened to Grease.

     13. The reviews in Boston were atrocious and avant-garde wunderkind director Peter Sellars just had to go. They got rid of the bookwriter while they were at it, for he and Sellars had made what should have been a sunny Gershwin retrospective into a didactic diatribe. So they brought in book doctor extraordinare Peter Stone, they let the show's star-choreographer and his co-choreographer take over the direction -- and it turned out that Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh knew exactly what to do to make My One and Only a smash. (A personal aside: I attended the opening, and watched Tune and Twiggy bask in the minutes-long ovations at the curtain calls. By then, it was a show that looked as if it had never experienced a lick of trouble.)

Barbra Streisand
     14. Do you mean to tell me that, after seeking Oscar-winner Anne Bancroft and four-time Tony-winner Mary Martin to play Fanny Brice, they settled for a girl who had been in all of one Broadway musical? All right, she was wonderful in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, but that was a small part. Granted, her albums had been selling, but that didn't mean that this 22-year-old should be given the lead in a Broadway musical -- a role that demanded her to carry the whole show! Yet Barbra Streisand came through and firmly established her career in Funny Girl.

     15. Frank Loesser's musical had opened to mixed reviews and wasn't doing well. Co-producer Cy Feuer brought his little son to a matinee and the child, who'd heard one of the songs so much around the house that he could sing along with it, did so out loud. Star Ray Bolger made a thing of it and encouraged the rest of the audience to join in singing "Once in Love With Amy." That bit eventually spurred Where's Charley? to a two-year run. Another song in the score is titled "Make a Miracle," so isn't it fitting that the show made one of its very own?


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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