Composers with Limited Success
Within each decade of the history of American musical theatre are both the predictable successes of established composers and the single works which represent the pinnacle of a composer’s work. Though the composer may have had as many as four or five shows on Broadway, the other shows would have been moderate or even mediocre successes; their name will indelibly linked with a single, instantly recognizable, show.
The longest running show in musical theatre history actually didn’t occur on Broadway. Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ legendary musical, The Fantasticks opened in 1960 and ran non-stop for forty-two years, accumulating 17,162 performances before the building housing the theatre was sold and the run was forced to stop. While many shows open and close in a heartbeat, losing significant money for those financially involved, investors who participated in the $16,500 original production costs to open The Fantasticks are estimated to have earned close to 10,000% increase on their investments.
Fiddler on the Roof
Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) had seven shows on Broadway from the late ‘50s to 1970; each had moderately respectable runs of between 300 and 800 performances each. They will always be known, however, as the team that created Fiddler on the Roof, which ran for over 3,200 performances, more than the other six shows combined. At the time, the seven year, nine month run set the record (subsequently broken by several others) for longest show on Broadway. Fiddler was set in Russia and told the story of a community of impoverished Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed as he had done seven years earlier in West Side Story. Though an historic book-musical, the themed explored transcend any era: tender, subtle, intimate, vulnerable emotional moments are balanced by deep celebrations of life, love and family.
From the 2016 Tony Awards:
Prior to the arrival of Andrew Lloyd Webber in musical theatre, few British composers had much success on the American stage. One of the few Brits who successfully brought their talent to New York had but a single successful show, but one that found a unique place in the list of musical theatre ‘classics.’ Lionel Bart’s Oliver in 1963 was a hit in London’s West End (the British equivalent of Broadway) before coming to America. Once in America, the adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist was assured a future place as a Broadway warhorse by both its Broadway run (774 performances) as well as a movie-musical version in 1968. Revivals of the classic British musical have been launched by professional and amateur companies ever since.
Man of La Mancha
A biography written for Mitch Leigh will demonstrate his versatility in the world of entertainment. Trained as a jazz pianist, Leigh has written commercial jingles (“Nobody Doesn’t Like Sarah Lee”), directed successful Broadway musical revivals of other composer’s shows (his revivals of The King and I, and Mame were widely praised), wrote for television shows, and established his own production company for television and commercial music. His second through sixth musicals on Broadway were, on varying levels, failures. But Mitch Leigh will forever be linked with his debut show, based on Cervantes’ epic Spanish story of Don Quixote – Man of La Mancha (1965). As with the song “People” from Funny Girl, dozens of recordings and performances by ‘60s pop singers of the song “The Impossible Dream” from La Mancha helped to solidify the show’s success on Broadway. The classic story of Don Quixote’s dauntless struggles against evil and ultimate triumph of spirit ran for over 2,300 performances. For all of Mitch Leigh’s other endeavors, he will be forever noted for his one musical theatre masterpiece.
A Chorus Line
The idea for A Chorus Line began with a series of taped interviews of “gypsies” or dancers who moved from one show to another from one audition to the next. Choreographer Michael Bennett took the tapes of discussions, stories and personal revelations and crafted an episodic story about the joys and agonies of being a stage dancer. With music by Marvin Hamlisch, A Chorus Line opened off-Broadway and then transferred to Broadway in 1975 to begin a run of 6,137 performances. As the “audition within the play” unfolds, each dancer is given an opportunity to tell their story, share their passions, and unveil their apprehensions and anxieties. Sometimes in monologues, often in songs, always in dance, each of the characters reveal a depth of personal dimensionality rarely experienced in musical theatre. What at first unfolds as much like a therapy session as a dance audition, becomes a gathering of human joys, laughter, hopes, loves, and fears.
With spectacular dancing from soloists as well as chorus, both jubilant and touching music by Hamlisch, and a collection of life perspectives and experiences, A Chorus Line has been one of the most endearing and loved shows in musical theatre history.
Twelve years after Strouse and Adam’s Bye, Bye Birdie and thirty years before the cult film Hairspray was made into a musical (and then ultimately back into a movie), the most popular of the retro-rock shows found its way to Broadway. Grease, with music by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, was a Chicago musical production that moved to off-Broadway and then to Broadway on Valentine’s Day, 1972 to start the first of 3,388 successive opening curtains. In contrast with Birdie, where the ‘50s teens are based in a rural Ohio town, the teenagers in Grease attend Rydell High School in the middle of urban Chicago. Less innocent than Birdie¸ and less serious and violent than West Side Story, the story of Grease more accurately reflected elements of ‘50s teenage culture than most other efforts. The joys of conforming to a peer group, the agonies of standing out, the anticipation of prom night, the dreams for life after high school, and the expectations of teenage romance and sex were all part of the satirical look at teens in the 1950s. Broadway revivals, touring companies, community theatres, school drama programs, and a popular 1978 movie version have all kept the kids from Rydell High active on American – and world –stages forty years after the first curtain.