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ClassicsOnline Home » Broadway Blockbusters
arranged by Richard Hayman
The Broadway musical has a tradition extending backwards to the New York première of John Gays Beggars Opera at the Nassau Theater, Manhattan Island, in 1751. By 1900 the commercially-inspired blueprint of the musical as we now perceive it had evolved, by way of burlesque, minstrelsy and imports from London and other European centres, into the tuneful, stylish, thoroughly American bourgeois operettas of Kerker, Victor Herbert and others. During the twentieth century more than two thousand productions were staged in Broadway theatres, all of which incorporated in some measure the time-honoured clichés of pantomime, ballet, Viennese operetta and English comic-opera, vaudeville and farce, but only fifty or so of these enjoyed initial runs of over five hundred performances, and far fewer were blockbusters on a par with Show Boat (1927), the first truly modern musical in its marriage of music to a realist storyline, Oklahoma! (1947), South Pacific (1949), My Fair Lady (1956), West Side Story and The Music Man (both 1957) or The Sound Of Music (1959).
THE MUSIC MAN (1375 Broadway performances from 19th December, 1957) Music and lyrics by Meredith Willson (1902-84).
The first stage musical by ex-classical flautist, composer of two symphonies (Naxos 8.559066) and sometime film-music writer and NBC musical director Willson, this show proved a major success which paved the way for two more: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960) and Heres Love (1963). Among various fine songs, the poignant Till There Was You is nowadays the best remembered. The Oscar-winning film-version (Warner, 1962) starred Robert Preston.
ANNIE (2,377 Broadway performances, from 21st April, 1977) Music by Charles Strouse (born 1928 ), lyrics by Martin Charnin.
Comic-strip character Little Orphan Annie was a fair bet for American audiences to whose hearts, especially readers of The Chicago Tribune, she was still dear. After a trial run in Connecticut in 1976 Annie, a classic in the children-and-animal genre, moved to Broadway to become the biggest hit of 1977 and third longest-running musical of the 1970s. The show ran for 1,485 performances in London and did good business in South Africa, Australia, Japan and elsewhere. Its songs include Easy Street, Little Girls and Annies wistful Tomorrow.
OLIVER! (2,618 performances in London, from 30th June, 1960; Broadway, from 1963, 774 performances). Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart (born 1930)
During a six-year residence in London (its record run there was second only to The Mousetrap), Oliver!, an amusing and stylish adaptation of Dickens famous novel (1837-39), was also given successful airings in Scandinavia, Australia, South Africa, Israel, Los Angeles and Toronto prior to settling on Broadway. The original London production (as well as the 1968 multi-Oscar-winning Columbia British film) memorably featured Ron Moody as the lovable villain Fagin. Barts melodies, well-crafted and studiedly simple, include Food, Glorious Food, Consider Yourself, Youve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two and the poignant Who Will Buy?
THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1443 Broadway performances from 16th November, 1959). Music by Richard Rodgers (1902-79), lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960), book by Howard Lindsay (1889-1968) and Russel Crouse (1893-1966).
Based on Maria Augusta von Trapps The Trapp Family Singers, this much-praised if rather retrospective work, set appealingly in the Austrian lakes, was the last of the five great Rodgers & Hammerstein collaborations and by far the most lucrative. Starring Mary Martin as Maria in its original New York production (the second longest running Broadway musical of the 1950s), in London, from May 1961, it ran for 2,395 performances, eclipsing all predecessors as the longest-running Broadway musical to hit London. Later, however, it won more universal acclaim still via the treble Oscar-winning, box office record-breaking, 20th Century Fox screen-version (1965) with Julie Andrews as the trainee nun who becomes the childrens governess and stepmother. Most memorable among many tuneful numbers are Climb Evry Mountain, Edelweiss and the music-lesson song, Do Re Mi.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (3,242 performances on Broadway, from 22nd September, 1964; 2,030 performances in London, from 16th February, 1967) Musical play by Joseph Stein, based on stories by Sholom Aleichem (Solomon Rabinowitz, 1859-1916). Music by Jerry Bock (born 1928), lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (born 1924).
The fifth of the eight Bock-Harnick Broadway collaborations, Fiddler on the Roof soon overtook Hello, Dolly! as Broadways longest-running musical of the 1960s. Its enduring success, secured initially by sterling portrayals of the shows main characters, outstandingly Zero Mostel in New York and Topol in London (and in the subsequent Oscar-winning film, United Artists, 1971) as milkman Tevye, hinges on a powerful, intensely human storyline about Russian Jews in the time of the pogroms, and on some finely balanced, often almost operatically antiquated melodies and lyrics unforced in sentiment, notably in Matchmaker, Sunrise, Sunset and in the now immortal If I Were A Rich Man.
A CHORUS LINE (6,137 Broadway performances, from 25th July, 1975) Music by Marvin Hamlisch (born 1944), lyrics by Edward Kleban (1939-87)
Considered overrated by some critics, A Chorus Line also had a successful London run from July 1976 and won a coveted Pulitzer Prize. Broadways single biggest hit-show of the 1970s, it boasted the added distinction of longest-running musical in Broadway history. A spectacular show-within-a-show about chorus-line auditions, with book by James Kirkwood (1924-89), it was conceived by its director and choreographer Michael Bennett (born 1943) and ran 101 performances at New Yorks downtown Public Theatre (from 15th April, 1975) prior to its long Broadway residence at the Shubert, until 1990. Although Universal paid $5.5 million dollars for the rights, the rather less spectacular film-version (starring Michael Douglas and directed by Richard Attenborough) did not appear until 1985. The scores most noted number Surprise, Surprise was nominated for an Oscar.
Musical tragedy with music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg (born 1944) Original version with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (1980) Revised by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, translated by Herbert Kretzmer (with extra material by James Fenton) Barbican Theatre, London, 1985; First Broadway production: 12th March, 1987
First performed as a recording and subsequently produced in Paris, in September, 1980, Schoenbergs musical setting of Victor Hugos powerful tale was given its first hearing, heavily rewritten, at venues in London from 30th September, 1985 prior to its arrival on Broadway. A much-loved 1980s-1990s musical drama best-seller, it initially failed to capture its London audience, despite a spectacular, no-expense-spared dramatic production by Cameron Mackintosh and direction by Trevor Nunn and the Royal Shakespeare Company. With a three-hour-long, through-composed score (i.e. without dialogue), Les misérables is a work of operatic proportions offering many moving moments, including I Dreamed A Dream, Bring Him Home, Empty Chairs At Empty Tables and the nostalgic Drink With Me.
GYPSY (702 Broadway performances from 21st May, 1959; staged first at the Broadway Theatre, transferring to the Imperial in August, 1960) Music by Jule Styne (1905-94), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents.
Drawing heavily on the memoirs of actress, dancer and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (1914-70) and with fine lyrics by Sondheim, Gypsy provided the last major stage vehicle for Ethel Merman, for whom it was devised. Ethel played a stage-struck mother with big ambitions for her daughters career. Among the shows best numbers were Some People, Small World and, inimitably intoned by the ever-loud Ethel, the showstopper Everythings Coming Up Roses. The Oscar-nominated film-version (Warner, 1962) starred Rosalind Russell.
WEST SIDE STORY (732 Broadway performances from 26th September, 1957)Music by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (born 1930) book by Arthur Laurents (born 1918).
Derived from Romeo and Juliet and with its travailed love-story set against inter-racial conflict in the dockland of New Yorks West Side, West Side Story is still one of the most perennially appealing of post-war musicals. After touring, the original Broadway production ran for a further 249 performances in 1960 and opened meanwhile in London where it was a long-runner (1,039 performances) from December 1958. Theatrically conceived in Panavision, the shows film-version (United Artists, 1961, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer -with vocals overdubbed) scooped ten Oscars.
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