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The Number One Musical

How did famous people shape musical theater between the years 1001 and 2000 A.D.? logo
Went to a new musical last night and found myself thinking about a book I got a few years ago: 1,000 Years -- 1,000 People by Agnes and Henry Gottlieb, Barbara and Brent Bowers. They subtitled their tome, "Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium." I was fascinated to see how many people who lived from 1001 to 2000 have a connection with musicals.

Nine worked in musical theatre: Irving Berlin (who was ranked at #469), William S. Gilbert (764), Johann Strauss (803), Richard Rodgers (841), Langston Hughes (844), George Gershwin (857), Cole Porter (900), Paul Robeson (922), and John Philip Sousa (924). Eight others at least dabbled once or twice in musicals: Stravinsky (183 -- he once contributed to a Cole Porter musical, The Seven Lively Arts), Paul McCartney and John Lennon (327 and 328 -- they provided the score of the 1977 smash Beatlemania), Muhammad Ali (681 -- he starred in Buck White), T.S. Eliot (720 -- he won double Tony Awards for Cats), and Duke Ellington (526 -- he wrote a few musicals). As for Katharine Hepburn (951), she scored higher than the woman she once portrayed, Coco Chanel (972).

Many of the people in the book have been celebrated by our librettists, composers, and lyricists. Some creators used first names for their musicalizations of the lives of Leonardo Da Vinci (9), Elvis Presley (352), Robert Browning (608), Elizabeth Barrett (759), Brigham Young (812; Brigham! is an annual attraction in Utah), Mahalia Jackson (984), and Marilyn Monroe (997). Others employed last names for musicals about Martin Luther King (56), Phineas T. Barnum (94), Meyer Rothschild (262), Giovanni Boccaccio (321), Edmund Kean (495), Amelia Bloomer (500), Colette (721), Charlie Chaplin (795), and Alexandre Dumas (874). Others used nicknames for Winston Churchill (38; Winnie), Theodore Roosevelt (700; Teddy and Alice), and Benjamin Franklin (54; Ben Franklin in Paris). Still others used full names for Hans Christian Andersen (550) and Mata Hari (940).

Then there are the people in the book who were prominent characters in musicals that weren't named after them: Joan of Arc (83; Goodtime Charley), Queen Victoria (91; Love Match), Henry VIII (100), Jackie Robinson (442; The First), Pancho Villa (938; We Take the Town), Matthew Perry (707; Pacific Overtures), Juan Peron (753), Catherine of Aragon (852), and Che Guevara (941). Louis Armstrong (322) was the subject of Satchmo, a dull 1987 musical that shuttered in Boston, while Galileo (5) inspired a musical that played the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo about a decade ago. Christopher Columbus (2), Wilbur and Orville Wright (23, 24), Abe Lincoln (32), Queen Isabella (117), Rosa Parks (944), and Louis Braille (956) were all subjects of musicals for Theatreworks USA, the nation's foremost purveyors of musicals for young adults.

A few also-rans: Francisco José de Goya (340) at least made it to Maury Yeston's concept album of a musical about him. Horatio Nelson (624) was to be celebrated in a show that Bock and Harnick never finished (alas!). Ralph Chicorel, whose Anna Karenina recently got a two-disc concept album, made his living as a Weight Watchers franchise holder and wrote an unproduced musical about the organization's founder, Jean Nidetch (751). I also remember an NYU Musical Theatre student telling me that a classmate was writing a musical about Alfred Hitchcock (746). As he said, in an astonished voice, "Can you see Alfred Hitchcock singin' and dancin'?"

The musical with the most names on the list? Not surprisingly, it's 1776, in which Thomas Jefferson (64), John Adams (214), Abigail Adams (563) and the aforementioned Ben Franklin are on on-stage characters while George Washington (22), Samuel Adams (263), and Thomas Paine (311) are mentioned in passing. Meanwhile, Henry Ford (51), J.P. Morgan (435), Emma Goldman (886), and Harry Houdini (970) are all in Ragtime.

In addition to Meyer, The Rothschilds featured Metternich (179); Annie not only had FDR (37) but also Frances Perkins (902). John Jacob Astor (529) was in Titanic; James Monroe (708) was in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the other named presidents; and Marie Antoinette (781) was in the 1969 London musical Two Cities, in which she sang, "If they have no bread to eat, then let them eat cake; yes, let them eat cake till their stomachs ache." (At least, she sang that at a few backers' auditions; the song was eventually dropped.)

William Shakespeare
Others had their works adapted as musicals: Shakespeare (4), Tolstoy (34), Voltaire (36), Cervantes (44), Chaucer (62), Dickens (70), Hugo (163), Austen (168), Molière (175), Twain (188), Chekhov (192, through Birds of Paradise), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (272 and 273), Blake (315, through the British musical Tyger), Whitman (318, through an Off-Broadway musical, Leaves of Grass), Alcott (372, through an Off-Broadway musicalization of Little Women called Jo); O'Neill (426), Harriet Beecher Stowe (457 -- without her, we'd never have had "The Small House of Uncle Thomas"), Verdi (476 -- via My Darlin' Aida), Swift (492 -- Sean Kenney did a Gulliver's Travels musical) , Verne (519 -- through Around the World, a 1946 Cole Porter flop), Washington Irving (544 -- through Sleepy Hollow, written by the grandfather of one of Fermat's Last Tango's creators), Henry James (557), Oscar Wilde (567), Henry Fielding (686), Herman Melville (716), Robert Louis Stevenson (756), Ben Jonson (811), Fellini (834), Lewis Carroll (845 -- he's being treated shabbily in the current porno Alice in Wonderland production at the Kirk), John Steinbeck (901), and Theodore Seuss Geisel (998).

I don't begin to claim to have snared everyone mentioned in lyrics, but I did find plenty. One song, "Home, Sweet Heaven" from High Spirits, mentions 18 of the people in 1,000 Years -- 1,000 People: In addition to the aforementioned Mata Hari, Luther, Stein, and Wilde, there's Freud (15), Good Queen Bessie (31 -- whom the authors more formally refer to as Queen Elizabeth I), King Frederick of Prussia (58), Proust (207), Bernini (238), Botticelli (331), Bellini (403), Mussolini (460), Sir Walter Raleigh(472), Shelley (509), Casanova (520), Emily Brontë (522), Caruso (538), and Disraeli (639). (One must wonder how Mussolini got into heaven -- not to mention Jack the Ripper, who isn't in the book but is in the song.) And another tune from High Spirits, "The Bicycle Song," mentions Ravel (855).

Honorable mention goes to Darling of the Day's "Butler in the Abbey," which rings in not only with Dickens but also with Darwin (7), Johnson (182), Gladstone (638), and Pitt (804). Those three writers so feared by The Music Man's River City women all made the list: Chaucer (62), Rabelais (302), Balzac (254). That show also cited Montgomery Ward (501), as did The Most Happy Fella. The title song to Here's Love! mentions the first names of both Fidel Castro (446) and Nikita Khruschev (619).

And then the deluge: Beethoven (10) and Handel (565) are mentioned in Bells Are Ringing; Gandhi (12) in Follies, Napoleon (16) in Jamaica; Hitler (20) in Blitz, Bach (35) in On Your Toes; Milton (53) in My Fair Lady; Picasso (149) in Wonderful Town; Nietzsche (215) in Smile; Alfred P. Nobel (217) in Superman; Pavlova (245) in Carnival; Grant (371) in What Makes Sammy Run?; Eisenhower (374) in Finian's Rainbow; Margaret Mead (379) and Albert Schweitzer (670) in Bajour; Nijinsky (450) in Pal Joey; George III (452) in By the Beautiful Sea; Harry Truman (485) and Henry Clay (936) in Call Me Madam; Rockefeller (486) in Blackbirds of 1928; Levi Strauss (540) in The Magic Show; Omar Khayyam (571) and Algernon Charles Swinburne (846) in Take Me Along; Mahler (578) in Company; Charles Atlas (668) in The Rocky Horror Show; Malcolm X (821) in Golden Boy; Kinsey (846) in Kiss Me, Kate; Richard Nixon (904) in Merrily We Roll Along, Kahlil Gibran (950) in Closer Than Ever; and Mary Pickford (962) in Fade Out - Fade In. And while I didn't see the quick flop Anya in 1965, I know that the show mentioned Ivan the Terrible (243) because Walter Kerr said so in his review, then added: "If I were Anya, I'd watch out who I called terrible." Oh, and let's not forget Walt Disney (494), who created an empire that eventually gave us a few musicals.

Who was ranked first in 1,000 Years -- 1,000 People? Johannes Gutenberg, of printing press and Bible fame. My first reaction was, "Well, we'll never see a musical about him." But here's Gutenberg! The Musical! at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre at 307 West 26th Street! It's playing each Wednesday in February at 8pm.

Much like The Big Bang did a few seasons ago, Gutenberg! The Musical! is staged as a backers' audition for a musical. Scott Brown and Anthony King respectively portray composer Bud Davenport and bookwriter-lyricist Doug Simon, who decided that Gutenberg is a worthy subject for a show even though there's precious little in the encyclopedias about him. So the authors have relied on "historical fiction" -- which, they insist, is "history that's true."

Anthony King and Scott Brown in Gutenberg! The Musical!
(Photo © Charlie Todd)
The two guys at first tell how difficult writing a musical is by noting with solemnity, "Hats off to you, Elton John." And speaking of hats, there's a slew of them in Gutenberg: At this backers' audition, the guys will don many hats labeled after their characters, including "Dead Baby." Sometimes they'll put a cap upon another cap and so on to make a tower that they'll disassemble one-by-one to reveal "Woman," "Daughter, "Another Woman," and "Anti-Semite." Sometimes they'll hold two caps in each hand to repesent the chorus. As for Gutenberg himself -- the cap di tutti caps -- his name is rhymed with "Darn-tootin'-berg" and "Sure as shootin'-berg."

The plot involves the sleepy town of Schlimmer, where no one can read -- "because we have nothing to read," mourns one resident. Gutenberg, a winemaker by profession, would like to take care of that. But how? "All I've got is this grape juice press," he sings just before inspiration -- and a key modulation -- makes him repeat, "Grape juice PRESS" (he'll turn it into a printing press). What he doesn't count on is a monk in town who snarls, "As long as no one can read, the Bible says what I say it says." But that won't stop our Gutenberg: "There's a glimmer in Schlimmer and that glimmer is me!" It's all great fun, it's only 40 minutes, it follows a curtain-raiser in which a witty Wendy Spero tells of her own life, and the ticket price is only five bucks.

With Gutenberg now in the musical fold, composers, bookwriters, and lyricists only have 829 people to go to get all 1,000 on the Gottlieb-Bowers list.


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

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