The First Time is Best

I’ve always loved musicals. First in the movies (I wanted to grow up to be Fred Astaire), then in summer theatres in New England (mostly in tents), and finally on Broadway. My first “legit” musical was a pre-Broadway performance in Boston in 1957. The show was Goldilocks (Book by Walter and Jean Kerr, Music by Leroy Anderson, Lyrics by the Kerrs and Joan Ford) starrinmaxresdefaultg Elaine Stritch and Don Ameche, featuring Russell Nype, Pat Stanley (both won the Tony for their supporting roles) and Margaret Hamilton.

Wow – Alexander Graham Bell (Ameche) and the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) – movie stars singing and dancing, telling jokes. But who the heck was Elaine Stritch – never heard of her at the time (I was 16). The musical director was later to become my mentor in the craft of writing musicals, Lehman Engel.

In 1972, I was having dinner with Lehman at the Beverly Hills Hotel one evening, and was able to ask him a question that had plagued me for years. I had loved the show Goldilocks, practically wore out the recording of the score, and wondered why it wasn’t a bigger hit (it ran only 161 performances on Broadway in 1958 and 59).

Lehman got a very puzzled look on his face, perched his glasses on the very tip of his soft nose, and said in his most Hitchcockian tones, “Why wasn’t Goldilocks a bigger success?” (dramatic pause.) “Because it was a piece of shit!”

Many of us have seen shows we liked that didn’t make it commercially. We have also seen shows we didn’t particularly care for that ran for years. My angle on this conundrum (to borrow a lovely word from Byron Schaffer, a later mentor of mine) is: That’s why they make different colored jelly beans. Lehman felt differently, though. He believed that every show is aimed at a particular audience, and any given individual may not be in that show’s sights. In other words, it’s OK if you don’t like the show – it wasn’t meant for you, it was meant for other people.

None of this, though, explains why I loved Goldilocks and Broadway snubbed it. It was my first – and we all know the first time is the best time. It dazzled me because I was a teenager and had never seen anything like it.  Just like teenagers today who go to see a new show (Spring Awakening or American Idiot, for instance) and come away gushing.  More important than whether the show I loved was a hit or not, is that it turned me on.  I went home that day and started picking out tunes on the piano.  Really.  I had no musical background whatever, but I knew what I wanted to do.  That was 59 years ago, and I’m still doing it (although I have morphed from a songwriter to a bookwriter).  I’m still doing it because I was turned on as a teenager by a charming but forgettable little show that a Broadway maven thought was unmentionably bad.  The next time you see a musical that you think is definitely a piece of excrement, remember it might be creating a career pathway for some younger, less jaded, starry-eyed kid.

A quick side note from John: “I’d love to hear about your first legit show – whether it was on Broadway, a national tour or a pre-Broadway engagement. What was the show, and what about it excited you?”

And - If someone tries to tell you he* can teach you how to write a musical, consider homicide because suicide is messy, but one of you has to die. Here is the truth: Nobody knows how to write a musical. People write them. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail (at the box office). But popularity at the box office doesn’t always indicate artistic value or lack of it. Audiences are fickle. They like what they like, not what some critic or aficionado tells them they ought to like. Still, some shows manage to pass the test of time, revived again and again with box office success.

(*Note: I will try to alternate the third person pronoun, using she every other time, except that within a given paragraph or section referring to the same third person, I will stay with the pronoun the section starts with.  Capeesh?)

I don’t think anybody can tell you or me how to write a musical. But we can study how other people have written musicals. We can look for those titles that brought repeated box office success years and even decades later to see if they have things in common. This is a little like the way music is often studied, using the principles of composition from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, frequently known as the Common Practice Period.

It feels to me as if the form is changing, tending to heavier topics, often skeptical stories about the disappointments and betrayals of contemporary life, rather than the previously inimitable American optimism. So before my dotage creeps in, I have decided to commit some of these musings to this blog, in an attempt to make sense of where musicals seem to be headed. I hope readers will join the conversation and leave their comments so the discussion will not be one-sided.

I plan to study a seminal musical from each of the decades from 1920 to 2000. Many readers will (and should) argue with the choices I make from those more recent decades. That’s why they make different colored jelly beans! I’ll define “seminal” as a show that has been successfully revived on Broadway or in the West End (or both) at least once within 40 years of its initial run. With that in mind:

1920s: Showboat
1930s: Porgy and Bess (I know, I know. They say it’s an opera. So what?)
1940s: Oklahoma
1950s: West Side Story
1960s: Fiddler on the Roof
1970s: Sweeney Todd
1980s: Les Miserables
1990s: Rent
2000s: Avenue Q (hasn’t really been revived, but it did “reopen” off-Broadway after the Broadway run closed.)

These choices are not based on whether or not I personally liked the shows when I saw them. In fact, people who know me will recognize two titles as my “unfavorites.” Interestingly enough, some of my unfavorite shows got into that category specifically because they do not exhibit many of the principles I recognize as belonging to the common practice period in the form from 1928 through the 1960s. It seems as if the American musical theatre is experiencing a transition that began in the 60s and continues today. A similar transition in classical music began early in the 20th century, but it was bucking a tradition of 300 years. The American musical is still not quite 100 years old, and it is fair to say it is definitely in flux today. Very traditional looking and sounding shows like A Gentlemen’s Guide to Murder and Matilda compete with shows considered ground-breaking, like Hamilton and Fun Home.

I think this mix of familiar forms and new wrinkles make today a very exciting time to be working as a writer in this form. There is clearly room for invention – in fact, there seems to be a thirst for invention. But new, old or somewhere in between, the form is still selling tickets, and not just on Broadway. Musicals old and new are filling theatres small and large across the country. In recent weeks I saw two full houses in southern California, one for a brand new musical in La Mirada (Empire) and one for a revered Sondheim classic in Thousand Oaks (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).

In between longer analytical blog posts outlining and discussing the seminal shows, I plan to post shorter, weekly posts detailing the most important points of craft in the writing of music, lyrics and books for musicals as exhibited in the common practice period. I hope newcomers to the form will find these posts useful. I hope “old hands” will find them familiar and comforting, and perhaps use them as springboards to newer, more adventuresome work.

Please feel free to respond to my thoughts. Agree, disagree or merely add thoughts of your own. It will be useful to compare notes. Whether we share opinions or argue positions, it’s all good. Leave your comments here, please. I look forward to the conversation.

~~John

9 Comments

  1. Brian Murphy

    HAIR, of course. At the Biltmore. I totally bought it when two actors dressed as cops came down the aisles at the end of Act I, ostensibly to search the audience for contraband substances. I came thisclose to sprinting across the tops of the seatbacks on my way to the lobby. John Wilkes Booth got nothing on me.

  2. Luiz Buarque

    The brazilian production of “Beauty and the Beast” I saw as a kid got me forever hooked. I’m not as close to this show today as I used to, but it started an enduring love affair with musical theatre and is indeed a very special memory.

    (I can’t even tell you how glad I am to have found your blog: it’ll be of great help to the bookwriter/director/musical theatre blogger inside me, all at the same time!)

  3. Joan Enguita

    Hey there, John! You made me really stretch my brain for this info:
    At age 11 I saw My FAIR LADY starring the charming Michael Rennie. It was at the Redlands, CA Theatre in the round. I loved it, adored it. I joined the Columbia Records Club records and when the records arrived, my parents never said a word. Ten cents…who knew? I endlessly played MFL, Oklahoma, West Side Story, South Pacific, and Sounds of Music. I was hooked and learned all the songs. I played Louisa, sis was Gretl and mom was a nun in Sound of Music while my Dad was stationed in Madrid, Spain. Glorious! In high school I saw Topol in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in St. Paul, MN. It had amazing staging and a great cast. It was a huge touring production. I love the films, but live is so in the moment and jaw dropping. Matchmaker…I should say!

  4. Brad Beaver

    My first show was the delightful”La Plume de Ma Tante”, on Broadway, no less, where one of the east coast aunts I was visiting had taken me. (One of the whopping total of two shows I’ve seen on Broadway, and the only musical.) Starring an all-French cast (few of whom spoke English) headed by Robert Dhery and Collette Dewhurst. I was sixteen at the time. Because my aunt wouldn’t stand and the show was almost sold out, we went out on the sidewalk in front of the theatre while I decided whether I would pay over eight dollars of my own money for an orchestra seat or see another play. When we went back in, the box office must have taken pity at my tender youth and given us creator seats because we sat in the fourth row dead center. I never regretted my decision; I was enchanted.

  5. Joel Bailey

    What a fine start to your blog, John. My first show was the national tour of Hair when it played in Tallahassee, FL. The show wasn’t very memorable, but it had high-energy fun, catchy tunes that were playing on every Top-40 radio station, and the bare-it-all nude scene was both silly and risqué at the same time. I did not experience the real power of musicals until several years later when I saw Sweeney Todd at the Uris Theatre on Broadway. Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury were superb, but the true star of the show for me was Eugene Lee’s set and the brilliant stage craft that went into its scenic design and construction… and of course Harold Prince’s masterful use of it.

  6. Dan Margules

    My first big show was BILLY starring Michael Crawford (his first lead role on the West End), music by John Barry, lyrics by Don Black, choreography by Onna White, based on the novel “Billy Liar” by Keith Waterhouse. It was a huge hit in London and had a successful revival in 2013 but never made it to Broadway (though the source material was also adapted as a short-lived sitcom on CBS starring Steve Guttenberg). I was pretty young and my family just happened to be passing through London for a weekend and we managed to squeeze in a show. It’s the only time I’ve seen a musical on the West End, and I’ve never seen one on Broadway. We brought the cast album home with us and later I made my high school perform one of the songs from it in our annual variety show. I recently tracked down a CD of it and I still listen to it all the time.

  7. Michael Gordon Shapiro

    Not counting an outside-the-public-library production of West Side Story my parents dragged me to when I was seven (I literally ran away), the first musical I sat through was a local performance of Fiddler on the Roof. It starred my friend’s brother, Barry. I don’t know whether he went onto subsequent fame. This may be stretching the definition of “legit”.

  8. Elise Dewsberry

    My first legit show was the Toronto production of GODSPELL, in 1973 – which had a rather extraordinary cast. It was all the Canadian SCTV folks: Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas, Jayne Eastwood, and Martin Short – with Paul Shaffer as music director and Victor Garber as Jesus. What a group! We didn’t know then how famous they were all going to become – but I knew them well from their Canadian television careers. I was only 16 years old and it was my first ever “date” – and in “Turn Back, Oh Man”, Jayne Eastwood sat on my date’s lap! It was very exciting to see all that amazing talent on stage – I’ll never forget it!

    • Christina Valo

      My first show was Les Mis at the Chicago Theatre probably in 1988 or so. I was young. Seven or eight. Some friends gave my parents the tickets because my father would never have spent that kind of money on theatre. We were maybe ten rows back, orchestra center-best seats in the house, and I could see the sweat dripping off the actor’s faces. My little sister fell asleep next to me and I just stared in awe and amazement at the talent that was before me and the sounds that resonated through that space. I couldn’t tell you who starred in it. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that it lit a fire inside me and made me desperately want to be a part of that experience.