September 13, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
In yesterday’s column I wrote of certain Broadway shows so troubled that they folded during their preview period, before even having the chance to open. There also are a number that closed right then and there on their opening night, always a sad thing. It happened a lot more at the height of my teenage theatregoing years, in the early 1970s, than it does today. Now, fifty years later, skyrocketing budgets make the risks to investors greater with each passing season and well-placed caution is essential before heading full throttle for Broadway. But back in the day, when costs were at least ten times lower, I saw many a show that really had no business ever coming in.
In the 1969–70 season, I caught three musicals in previews that wound up closing on their opening nights — one performance wonders — which might be some sort of record for a season. And for the record, they were:
- La Strada, a musical version of Frederico Fellini’s Academy Award winning 1954 film.
- Gantry, a musicalized Elmer Gantry, the best selling 1927 novel, written by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis.
- Blood Red Roses, an original anti-war musical, its action taking place during the 1850s Crimean War in Eastern Europe, but meant to double for 1960’s Vietnam, then currently raging in Southeast Asia.
Some fine theatre folk were in these shows like Robert Shaw, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters and Larry Kert. The latter two starred in La Strada, which faced a difficult task in adaptation from the film upon which it was based. This was mainly due to its being a REALLY depressing subject for a musical, though it certainly worked under the guidance of Fellini’s sensitive and lyrical direction. Its plot concerned poor Gelsomina, a young girl sold by her mother to Zampanò, a circus strongman, who has her play the clown in his act. Things take a tragic turn when Gelsomina falls in love with another circus performer, who Zampanò murders in a jealous rage, leaving Gelsomina to die on the road. Fun, right? The show was the brainchild of Lionel Bart, then still cruising on the fame of the score he wrote for Oliver! An alcoholic, Bart spent a lifetime elusively trying to replicate that success. His drinking made it impossible for him to come to the U.S. and work on La Strada, resulting in the tossing out of most of his score. By opening night a mere three songs remained, the rest written by Elliot Lawrence and Martin Charnin. The show’s director, the estimable Alan Schneider, had no experience helming a musical, and the Detroit try out was a near disaster. One of its two leading men was fired, and its producer, Charles K. Peck Jr., also served as book writer (never a good idea). The $64,000 question was why it was brought into town at all when it clearly had no chance on Broadway. Actually, the show lost a lot more than $64,000. It was closer to ten times that amount.
As was my wont in those days, I went backstage after the Saturday matinee preview prior to its opening night on Sunday evening. There I found a forlorn Bernadette Peters in her bathrobe, seemingly indifferent to my praise. She dutifully signed my one-sheet program, once common when (what with the constant adding and dropping of songs) certain troubled musicals resorted to these flimsy pieces of glossy paper; much more feasible than constantly reprinting an entire program in previews. Here’s what the La Strada one-sheet looked like:
“Ronnie, thanks.” Gotta love that.
Blood Red Roses was actually a show I liked. So did my older brother, who accompanied me to a preview before it opened and closed on March 22, 1970. Seemingly a glutton for punishment, it was Alan Schneider’s next Broadway show after La Strada, which made him 0–2 that season. This had to have been a dramatic comedown for someone who won a Tony for his direction of the original Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Schneider would never direct a Broadway musical again.
At seventeen, my brother was edging closer to draft age in 1970, and we both appreciated the show’s anti-war sentiment. Though it depicted a war that took place a hundred years prior, the Vietnam war was the hidden (or not so hidden) subject, as it was with many shows at the time. If critics didn’t care for how obvious it was, I didn’t mind, as I observed in my review, “The set is made like child’s toys to show that war is a game.”
Gantry was probably the best idea for a musical of these three, and in fact, was later done by an entirely different team (and back to being titled Elmer Gantry) in a production that premiered in 1988 to better than average reviews, most recently re-done at Washington D.C.’s Signature Theatre in 2014. But this first go at the property didn’t have the luxury of being workshopped. “Unable to afford an out-of-town tryout, it played thirty-two unattended previews,” writes Steven Suskin in his book More Opening Nights on Broadway. I don’t remember much about it, save for one number in Act Two called “Foresight,” a delightful song along the lines of Fiorello’s “Little Tin Box. It featured a quartet of men who danced and sang it with pitch-perfect comedic timing. From my review (written when I was twelve), I wrote: “If the rest of the show was like ‘Foresight,’ it would have been amazing.” And if, as it turned out, its star Robert Shaw acquitted himself well, most critics damned him with faint praise, such as Martin Gottfried who wrote: “Shaw isn’t always sure where the notes are, but he acts as though he does.”
The number sort of looks great, doesn’t it? Staged by the inimitable Onna White, it was led by Ted Thurston who had a long career in Broadway musicals, a number of which were notorious flops. Wild and Wonderful and Onward Victoria both (like Gantry) had the misfortune to close in one night. He was also in such clunkers as Cafe Crown (3 performances); Buttrio Square (7) and Sophie (8). That’s rough. Early in my career, I was cast as Thurston’s son in a TV commercial and was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to him about Gantry. Happily, we also discussed two of his hits, as he was part of the original casts of The Most Happy Fella and Li’l Abner.
All of which goes to show that in the theatre, we all have to take the sweet with the sour.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.