Your First Disappointments
Readers name the shows which proved to them that musical theater doesn't always come up roses.
They were all responding to the question I posed a couple of weeks ago: After falling in love with the Broadway musical, which was the first one that disappointed you?" Stephen Alfieri reminisces, "I saw a string of truly wonderful and exciting original Broadway productions -- 1776, Fiddler, Grease, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Pippin and Seesaw -- and then came Gigi at the then-named Uris. I loved the film, so I was excited to see the legendary Alfred Drake, Agnes Moorehead (Endora from Bewitched), Maria Karnilova of Fiddler fame, and Daniel Massey (Noël Coward in Star!) How exciting it would be to see them -- but they all came off as pale carbon stage copies of their film counterparts. Ever since, I have been suspect of stage versions of beloved film musicals."
Two readers say that no less than Stephen Sondheim was responsible for their first letdowns. Mark Robinson writes, "Passion would be the first Sondheim show I'd see with its original cast, so I just couldn't wait. We got the most expensive tickets we could get -- and then the show started and bored me to tears. I so wanted to love this show and, at best, I can only respect it as a lesser achievement by a great composer. The whole production was sluggish in direction, ugly to look at, the leading man (Jere Shea) was about as interesting as wallpaper paste, and Sondheim's score did not have the clever lyrics I had grown to expect in his work. Repeated listenings of this score have not improved my feelings toward the show. Donna Murphy was fantastic, but the character so pathetic, I couldn't feel sorry for her. Indeed, my friends and I have retitled the show Throw Fosca From the Train in reference to the scene where she stalks Giorgio. Marin Mazzie, whom I adore, wandered around, looked pretty, and read a lot of letters but gave no indication of the subtle warmth and beauty she alone would inject into Ragtime a few years later. Even when the show started getting decent to good reviews and was winning Tony awards and everyone was suddenly 'Ooohing' and "Ahhhing,' I felt like the little kid in The Emperor's New Clothes, shouting 'The King is naked!'" (Actually, Mark, Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie were the naked ones.)
But Fred Aronowitz may have suffered more from his Sondheim disappointment. "In the summer of '65," he writes, "I was working as a messenger for Universal Pictures. The last day came for me and the friend I'd made there -- a Wednesday -- so he said, 'Let's cut out after lunch and go see a matinee.' I didn't think we should, but there was that musical version of one of my favorite movies: Summertime. So we went to Do I Hear a Waltz? -- and what a disappointment it was to find that it had become this hackneyed piece of tripe with very few good songs by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, who wasn't my idol yet. To top it all off, when my bosses at Universal realized what we had done, they nixed any chance we might have had to work there in future summers. It wasn't worth it!"
Lord knows that the British mega-musicals brought a great deal of pleasure to millions of people, but Jennifer Schultz has a caveat. "Les Miz was the first big show I saw at the beautiful Saenger Theatre in New Orleans in 1988, when I was in the fifth grade and the tour was new, and I loved it," she says. "Flash forward to 2004. My roommate had never seen Les Miz and it was coming to Baton Rouge. Now, Baton Rouge doesn't get the big tours -- heck, even New Orleans sometimes doesn't get the big tours -- but when my roommate wanted to go, I said sure. You know how Diana in a Chorus Line sings that she felt nothing? That's how I felt at this tired tour, even when I saw Fantine die."
Believe me, Jennifer, Sally E. Parry had it worse than you. Do you know what show she chose to bring her best friend from high school to see? "Well," Sally writes, "I thought it would be just the ticket. After all, it starred Bobby Van, who did some terrific dancing in Hollywood musicals. And while I remember that the set to Dr. Jazz was phenomenal, the show itself made less and less sense as it went on. What I remember most is how I kept telling my friend that this wasn't a typical musical."
Jason Flum has this story: "When I was 10, for my birthday, my parents took me to see A Chorus Line. I loved it and from then on, for my birthday present, I asked to be taken to a Broadway show. What I was really desperate to see was Cats. You see, growing up in New Jersey, Cats was mythic; ads ran all the time, and EVERYONE I knew had seen it. But because my stepfather would only buy tickets at TKTS and it wasn't up even for my 11th birthday, we went to Starlight Express. Whatever my opinion of that show is now, back then I thought it was pretty spectacular. The next year, still no Cats at TKTS, but Me and My Girl was great. The year after, still no Cats at TKTS, but there was Joseph, which I loved. So, considering that I had seen two Lloyd Webber shows and loved them, I knew I would love Cats. Finally, for my 14th birthday, there it was at TKTS! As I walked in, I was awed by the set, of course -- and then the show started. Nothing happened! It was just two hours of prancing people in silly costumes with no plot. Even at that young age, I felt cheated. I still remember walking out of the theater and saying to my mom, 'That's it?' To this day, I will never understand what made that musical run so long, but I'm glad the 'now and forever' show did end."
Ron Fassler's disappointment came decades earlier. He writes: "After my first eight shows, which included seeing Robert Preston and Martin in I Do! I Do!, Pearl Bailey in Dolly!, James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope -- still one of the greatest performances I've ever seen -- and the second-to-last preview of 1776 featuring another of the greatest performances I've ever seen -- William Daniels -- it fell to George M! to be my first real disappointment. Here are the quotes from my original review of April 13, 1969, which I still have, written in my twelve-year old hand: 'My hopes were up high and they fell faster than a bird with no wings. George M! was awful. Joel Grey was not up to par and the supporting players were all second rate. The second after you walk out of the theater, you don't remember what you've seen. It ain't no Hello, Dolly!' Yes, there are mixed tenses in that sentence," Fassler now acknowledges, "but what do you want? I was 12."
Well, everyone's a critic. Except maybe Robert Morrison, an Australian whose first show was Irene in 1974 when he was 13. It started him on a constant diet of theatergoing. Says he, "Although I'm thinking hard, I can't actually recall any disappointments." Good for you, Robert! And may you never have any!