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Broadway Time Capsule: 1955-1956 Season

September 17, 2011

 WHAT STUFF COST

Tickets cost: Balcony $2.30, Orchestra $4.90

Gas $.23 a gallon

Milk $.43 a ½ gallon

Average Income: $4,137

President: Dwight D. Eisenhower

This feature of the blog represents:

a) a way to get to know your Broadway history by plopping you down in a particular season and poking around there

b) an easy way to see video clips and audio clips of year-specific shows and

c) a hand guide for T.V.’s time traveling Scott Bakula to what shows to see when he visits New York.

In the 1950s, many Broadway writers were dealing with the high-brow/low-brow question. Was Broadway great ‘art’? Did it have that potential? If it did have high-art potential, what form would that take? The 55-56 season brought that question to the fore in some interesting ways.

THE HOT TICKET

My Fair Lady

I don’t suppose I need to introduce this show to you, but perhaps I could put it in the high-brow/low-brow framework. My Fair Lady has some serious high-brow bragging rights, since its source material was written by a theatrical genius, George Bernard Shaw. Nevermind that he never would have stood for it if he were alive, especially with the happy ending, which he would have despised. My Fair Lady allowed you to have a good time and feel smart at the same time. British accents in plays have always sounded smart, and this play is practically about accents. Composer Frederick Loewe was really Viennese, and the music is actually fairly well grounded both in American Musical Theatre conventions and Viennese Operetta conventions, which is why the songs are sometimes sung by opera singers, and why the show is still popular as an operetta in central Europe to this day. Watch this clip, and remember that Julie was 21 at the time.

(to see the same thing in color)

This show would go on to run 2,711 performances, breaking the record for the longest running show on Broadway, beating the record previously held by Oklahoma!

Want to hear more? Original Broadway Cast

Want to read more? The Wordsmiths pp. 261-280 Coming Up Roses, pp. 151-161 The Making of My Fair Lady

THE SMART TICKET

The Most Happy Fella

This show represents the other end of the smarty-pants spectrum. Where in My Fair Lady, the leading male character almost doesn’t sing at all, EVERYBODY sings in The Most Happy Fella, nearly all the time. It had in the original cast: Robert Weede, a genuine opera star, legit soprano Jo Sullivan (who Frank Loesser ditched his co-producer wife to marry), and these two ENORMOUS voices:

Art Lund

and Susan Johnson. (if you love Seth Rudetsky, you’re welcome. If you can’t stand him, move along please)

This show was the pinnacle of Frank Loesser’s attempts to prove to his Classical Piano brother Arthur that he too was a real composer, and not just the dude who wrote ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’. (Arthur Loesser was a classical pianist and a great writer on all things piano. He used to call himself  ‘The Evil of Two Loessers’) I think Frank largely succeeded this time. It’s actually a real American opera, and has many subtle details and psychological insights. The show ran a very respectable 678 performances.

Want to hear more? Original Broadway Cast

Want to read more? Coming Up Roses pp. 141-145, The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey, pp. 153-178

THE FLOPS

Pipe Dream

Pipe Dream represents another attempt to smarten up the form of the musical with new and fresh source material, in this case Steinbeck’s Novel Sweet Thursday. Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t had a bona-fide hit since 1951, in The King and I. Sadly, this wouldn’t be their next one. A lot of people fight over why it flopped, whether Met star Helen Traubel was the problem, and whether it’s fixable. (Notice this Broadway season had two Metropolitan Opera stars in it?) Apparently next year we can expect a new edition of the score, as part of the R&H organization’s exploration of the forgotten shows in the R&H canon. This show represented the low point for R&H, and it must have been a tough pill to swallow, especially since they had turned down the chance to write My Fair Lady, and since Frank Loesser had turned down Pipe Dream to write the far more successful Most Happy Fella. They didn’t know which shows to turn down, and they didn’t know which shows to say yes to! (or did they?)

Want to hear more? Original Broadway Cast

Want to read more? Not Since Carrie, pp. 96-100 The Wordsmiths pp. 254-260, Coming Up Roses pp. 124-128

The Vamp

The Vamp is a big flop. Henry Hewes wrote in the Sunday Review: “…the loudest, fastest, and most boring musical comedy in some time.” The show was written as a vehicle for Carol Channing, and after it bombed, we would see her in only one show on Broadway until Hello Dolly in 1964, which would change her fortunes again. Here she is, talking about The Vamp:

Want to read more? Not Since Carrie, pp. 58-59, Coming Up Roses pp. 129-131

NERD POINTS

Mr. Wonderful

Like Sammy Davis? Me too! Wouldn’t he be awesome in a musical? Yes! Can we get Chita Rivera in it? Sure can!  Jule Styne is producing it? Sounds great! Let’s take a chance on this new kid Jerry Bock to write some of the tunes. The result? Meh.. But Sammy Davis was great! Here are two numbers from the show:

Want to hear more? Original Broadway Cast

Want to read more? Coming Up Roses, p. 131

Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure

Joyce Grenfell was a british actress, comedienne, singer, and songwriter. She was wonderful. She had a brief solo stint at the Bijou which started on October 10, 1955 and ran for 65 performances. The soundtrack to the London version of that material is available on CD. For your pleasure, I have located the following funny clips to give you an idea of what she was like:

Want to hear more? Recording

NEW FACE:

Jerry Bock, of Bock and Harnick. Made his Broadway debut writing for a show called ‘To Catch A Star’ in 1955. In 1958, The Body Beautiful would be the first Bock and Harnick Show, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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