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ClassicsOnline Home » BROADWAY WITHOUT WORDS
By Jim Murphy
Broadway without Words
The Phantom of the Opera
This 1986 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart, was a smash hit from the moment it opened and is still running in London. It opened on Broadway in 1988. Based on the 1911 novel by Gaston Laroux, it tells of mysterious happenings deep in the cellars of the Paris Opera House, where a disfigured composer threatens to destroy the building unless his protégée Christine is given her chance to sing. Underground lakes, magic mirrors and a crashing chandelier are all enhanced by Lloyd Webber’s creepily atmospheric, operatic-style score. It is the longest-running show ever, both in London and on Broadway.
South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949, winning ten Tony Awards for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Based on James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, it follows the adventures of a group of US marines stationed on a South Sea island during World War II, and the nurses in the base’s hospital. One of these, Nelly Forbush, falls for Emil de Becque, a Frenchman who lives on the island. When Nelly learns that Emil has had two children with a local native girl, she tries to break off the relationship; but when Emil, who was helping the marines, is reported missing in action she finds herself rethinking her attitude. Race and prejudice from a background to this musical full of songs that became some of the biggest hits of the 50s. In 1958 there was a film version starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi.
Based on Charles Dickens’s popular novel Oliver Twist, Oliver! opened in 1960 in London’s West End and ran for six years. The author-lyricist-composer Lionel Bart, a Londoner born and bred, was well qualified to write this brassy musical set in nineteenth-century London. The music is cockney to the roots, with influences from music-hall and sentimental Victorian songs. It follows the adventures of orphaned Oliver, who is taken under the wing of the thief Fagin. He is forced to pick pockets before being kidnapped by the villainous Bill Sykes, (the original stage Fagin), made the musical an international success.
The King and I
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical excursion to the Far East opened on Broadway in 1951. It is based on the real-life experiences of an English governess, Anna Leonowens, who taught the numerous children of the King of Siam in the 1860s. Eastern and western values continually clash in this amusing and moving musical about two people who, despite their different backgrounds, gradually find friendship and understanding. Rodgers’ rich score is full of exotic oriental harmonies and a string of hit tunes. In the title role of the King was a young unknown, Yul Brynner. It made him a star and he repeated his definitive performance in the 1956 film
version, which also starred Deborah Kerr.
The ‘funny girl’ of the title was Fanny Brice, a zany comedienne of the 1930s who became a star of the famous Broadway Ziegfeld Follies. This 1964 musical follows her struggle to make a successful theatrical career. She falls in love with rich socialite Nicky Arnstein and retires from the stage to marry him, with disastrous results. She returns to the Follies, a wiser but sadder woman, to rebuild her career. This was the musical that brought fame for Barbra Streisand. Jule Styne wrote a sensitive score combining soul-searching songs with a rough-and-tumble vaudeville comedy. Streisand made the film version in 1968, for which she won an Academy Award, starring opposite Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein.
Kiss Me, Kate
Kiss Me, Kate is Cole Porter’s 1949 reworking of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the knock-about story of wild-man Petruchio’s wooing of the man-hating Katharina. To this tale, Porter added a back-stage story of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, two Broadway stars who are trying to sort out their rocky marriage whilst appearing in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew! Full of in-jokes about Broadway and life in the theatre, it is a rumbustious show full of contrasting musical styles penned by the brilliantly inventive Porter. The 1953 film, starring Howard Keel, gave Hollywood the opportunity to try out 3D filming—an experiment which failed but did not affect the film’s box-office success.
West Side Story
This 1957 musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet revolutionised musical theatre. The story is transferred to the slums of New York, where, against a background of inter-racial gang warfare, an American boy meets a Puerto Rican girl, with tragic consequences. This hard-hitting show—with sharp lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a jazzy and poignant score by Leonard Bernstein, and slick choreography from Jerome Robbins—showed the musical’s potential for social comment, on which Sondheim later capitalised in his own shows. The 1961 film version, starring Natalie Wood, won a staggering ten Oscars.
The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959 and was the last collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein. It arrived in London in 1961, becoming the longest-running American musical in British stage history (eclipsing even My Fair Lady). The melodies flow in this true story of Maria, a young Austrian nun, who leaves her convent to teach Captain von Trapp’s precocious children and in the process falls in love with, and marries, their father. When the Nazis occupy Austria, the Von Trapp family is forced to make a dramatic escape. The 1965 film with Julie Andrews has become a legend. The soundtrack album sold over eleven million copies, making it one of the most popular musicals of all time.
This is a feel-good family musical from 1977 about the adventures of Little Orphan Annie, a cartoon character from the 1930s who escapes from her orphanage and the wicked Miss Hannigan, and finds happiness with rich Daddy Warbucks. The songs by Charles Strouse are unashamedly bright and optimistic. A succession of
young girls played eleven-year-old Annie during its six-year-run on Broadway, including Sarah Jessica Parker, later the star of Sex and the City, It was finished in 1982, with Albert Finney as Warbucks.
Showboat was the first musical to contain a serious message beneath its melodies. It is based on Edna Ferber’s epic novel, tracing the history of a family of show folk from the 1880s through to 1927 (the year the musical opened), as they ply their talents on the showboat travelling along the great Mississippi River. Racial and social prejudices are woven into the young Oscar Hammerstein’s brilliant adaptation of the book. The music, by Jerome Kern, cleverly recreates the many different musical styles required, ranging from sentimental nineteenth-century songs to the toe-tapping dance songs of the 1920s. There are also moving Negro melodies
and rhythms throughout. The hit song ‘Bill’ had lyrics written by none other than P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and Wooster. Paul Robeson, who starred in the original London production in 1928 as well as the film of 1936, sang ‘Ol’ man River’ throughout his career, turning it into an anthem against black oppression.
Few could have ever thought that Victor Hugo’s epic nineteenth-century novel contained the seeds for a successful musical, but in 1985 Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil burst onto London’s West End stage and is still playing today. It opened on Broadway in 1987. Remarkably there is no spoken dialogue; it could be called a popular opera. The story concerns Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who seeks to make reparation for his unjust imprisonment and defeat his persecutor, the police-inspector Javert. It tells of love reborn, against the violent background of the 1848 French Revolution. The production’s phenomenal success has led to Les Misérables being the most performed musical in the world.
This was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, in 1943, and was a roaring success. It is based on Green Grow the Lilacs, a play by Lynn Riggs, in which the on-off love story of cowboy Curly and his girl Laurey is set against the political backdrop of Oklahoma joining the Union of States.
Practically every song is a hit number. It was innovative in assimilating a full ballet sequence, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, into the story. It ran for five years on Broadway before embarking on a ten-year tour!
Gypsy is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque striptease star in the 1930s. The story focuses on her struggle as a child to escape from her overbearing mother Rose, who, in trying to fulfil her own lost ambitions, ruthlessly pushed her children to succeed in vaudeville. The show opened on Broadway in 1959,
with the irrepressible Ethel Merman as Rose. The music by Jule Styne brilliantly captures the brash, gaudy world of vaudeville theatre and 1920s popular song. The 1962 film version starred Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood.
Freely adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play Liliom, Carousel has a largely tragic plot (unusual for 1945). Julie Jordan, a young mill-worker, marries no-good fairground barker Billy Bigelow. Struggling to support his wife and unborn baby, Billy takes part in a robbery in which he is accidentally killed. At the gates of heaven the Starkeeper gives Billy a chance to return to earth, where fifteen years have now passed, to set things right with Julie and his teenage daughter. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein declared this to be their favourite collaboration. It was filmed in 1956 with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.
David Timson © 2008
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