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The God-Help-Them-When-Their-Star-Leaves Musical

Filichia ruminates on musicals that are, or were, just a little too dependent on their stars. logo
Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The reviews are in, and The Boy from Oz was judged to be "indisputably bogus" (Brantley, New York Times), "an expanded drag act" (Kissel, Daily News), a "mediocrity" (Barnes, New York Post) that "steps into every cliché the form embraces" (Winer, Newsday). On the other hand, Hugh Jackman's interpretation of Peter Allen was considered "infinitely appealing" (Brantley), "dazzling" (Kissel), "sensational" (Barnes), and "one of the breakout leading-man musical debuts in recent Broadway memory" (Winer).

So Broadway has another one of its trademark properties: The God-Help-Them-When-Their-Star-Leaves Musical. Lucille Ball in Wildcat, Liza Minnelli in The Act, Vivien Leigh in Tovarich, Carol Burnett in Fade Out-Fade In -- all are examples of shows that could not go on when their stars did not go on because the public just wouldn't accept any substitutes. People will sit through a bad show, but only if there's someone famous and terrific to see in the starring role.

God sure didn't help Coco's producer Frederick Brisson make the right decision on whom to hire to play Coco Chanel after Katharine Hepburn left. Of course, God only knows how many actresses Brisson begged to take over for Hepburn only to be refused every time, for Kate the Great was -- needless to say -- a tough act to follow. I'm sure that, the day Hepburn told him she was leaving, Brisson didn't return to his office, think for a few seconds, and then exclaim: "We'll get Danielle Darrieux!" Sure, that lady had done good work in such movies as Mayerling, Five Fingers, and The Young Girls of Rochefort, but I daresay the public at large had never heard of her. Two months after she arrived, Coco dried up. Then why, you may ask, didn't Dolly! die when Carol Channing left or Fiddler falter when Zero Mostel bolted? Because those are very good musicals. It's when you don't have such a great show -- Coco, Wildcat, Tovarich, The Boy from Oz -- that you're in trouble.

My bringing up Carol Channing might prompt you to ask about Wonderful Town. The 1953 musical version of My Sister Eileen had the critics of all seven New York papers raving for both the show and star Rosalind Russell. Yet, when she left, even her well-regarded replacement Channing couldn't bring them in. Maybe the problem here was that Russell was too strongly identified with the role of Ruth Sherwood. After all, she was the star of the fondly regarded 1942 movie version of My Sister Eileen. But, you say, the critics said it was a great musical -- and perhaps they will again when a revival opens next month. Still, with 50 years of hindsight, do you think Wonderful Town is in the same league as Dolly! or Fiddler?)

When Barbra Streisand opened in Funny Girl, that show appeared to be the ultimate God-Help-Them-When-Their-Star-Leaves Musical. Yet Mimi Hines came in and wound up playing more performances of the show than Streisand did. The trick here is that producer Ray Stark chose an actress who didn't resemble Streisand either physically or vocally but who was a pull-all-the-stops-out comedienne. I know plenty of people who saw both Brices (I only saw Streisand, twice); they insist that Hines was the funnier girl and offered a more accurate portrayal of Fanny Brice. That helped Funny Girl to run, albeit not as the hot ticket it was during Streisand's stint. So, if you've got a sensational replacement, you've got a chance. Let's see if God provides Oz with one.

Funny Girl was a better show-biz bio than The Boy from Oz and has a better -- and original -- score. Oz is the latest musical to shoehorn previously written songs into a book, and when does that ever make for a great musical? We might have really gotten behind Peter Allen's courting Liza Minnelli if he sang an original song. But he chooses "The Theme from Arthur," which makes us think: "Hey, this song wasn't written yet and won't be for 15 years!"

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers
Sometimes there's The God-Help-Them-When-Their-Two-Stars-Leave Musical. Though the powers-that-be behind The Goodbye Girl actively sought replacements for Bernadette Peters and Martin Short, they wisely concluded that they'd be in for a tough time of it if they dared press on. So they said goodbye to Girl.

The God-Help-Them-When-Their-Two-Stars-Leave Musical is what The Producers has turned out to be. The sign outside the theater trumpets "The Best Musical Ever!" and "The Most Tony Awards in Broadway History," but the public only clamored to see it when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were on the premises.It's a 24-carat disgrace that the Los Angeles production has Jason Alexander and Martin Short, two household-name stars, and we on the supposed Main Stem have two actors that the average theatergoer has never heard of. I'm starting to think that the current Max Bialystock, Fred Applegate, is actually Damn Yankees' Mr. Applegate and that Mel Brooks said to him, "Listen, fella, if you can get Nathan and Matthew to return starting New Year's Eve, I'll let you play the lead for a coupla months."

Does lackluster attendance of The Producers suggest that the show was over-praised when it opened? The figures don't lie: No smash-hit musical of the past quarter-century has fallen from so high a perch to so low a rung in so short a time. To paraphrase Richard Henry Lee from a show that was not a God-Help-Them-When-Their-Star-Leaves Musical, "God leans a little on the side of the Very Good Musical." Or, to quote a song from Ari -- the 1970 musical version of Exodus -- "The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves" whenever the authors, stars, and staff come up with Something Wonderful.


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

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