While he never had shows that enjoyed the initial success of Annie, Grease, Fiddler on the Roof, or even Hair, Cy Coleman’s output and contribution to musical theatre is important. In contrast with many of the “one-blockbuster-wonders” that found themselves in the spotlight, Coleman’s output of moderate stage successes extended over four decades. Beginning with Sweet Charity (1966) and extending through I Love My Wife (1977), Barnum (1980), City of Angels (1989) and The Life (1997), Coleman was widely acknowledged as a veteran creative force in musical theatre. While his shows never achieved the status of being musical theatre classics, his music has been recognized as some of the best in theatre. Coleman won five Tonys (nineteen nominations), three Emmys and two Grammy awards. In some ways, his optimistic and energetic music was a contemporary channeling of the indomitable spirit of George M. Cohan.
From the 1969 movie version of Coleman’s Sweet Charity, Sammy Davis Jr. sings “Rhythm of Life”
One of the most important voices of musical theatre in the 1960s was Jerry Herman, whose stage offerings swung alternately between mega-hits and dismal failures. After his Broadway debut show, 1961’s Milk and Honey (543 performances), Herman followed up with two shows that became box office gold, established him as one of the new wunderkinds of theatre and became instant theatre classics.
Hello, Dolly! in 1964 was a success due to several factors: Herman’s wonderful score and songs, charismatic legend Carol Channing in the title role, and the genius of director/choreographer Gower Champion and producer David Merrick. The period piece was built around the title character, so to ensure the continued success of the show, Merrick recruited as series of well-known actresses to play “Dolly.” Channing was followed by Ginger Rodgers, Betty Grable, Martha Raye, Ethel Merman, and finally, in an all-black production, Pearl Bailey. The dependence on star-power continued to the casting of the film, where the middle-aged Dolly Levi was played by twenty-seven-year-old Barbra Streisand.
The success of the original show was greatly helped by a recording of the title song by jazz legend Louis Armstrong. In 1964 Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” went to the top of the pop charts, temporarily knocking The Beatles out of the #1 spot. It was the only #1 song in Louis Armstrong’s career and the only song in modern musical theatre history to achieve that position.
Herman followed Dolly! with another show which was acclaimed by both critics and audiences, Mame in 1966. Like Dolly, Mame was period piece built around the charm, energy and out-going antics of its female star, in this case, Angela Lansbury in the title role. The show had several show-stopping song-and-dance numbers as well as intimate, tender moments, and although it had over 1,500 performances and gave America some classic songs (including “We Need A Little Christmas”), it was doomed to live in the might shadow of Hello, Dolly, whose 2,844 performances rank it in the top fifteen of longest running shows on Broadway.
Highlights from Goodspeed Musical’s 2013 production of Hello, Dolly!
Though Herman attempted other shows through the ‘70s, only La Cage aux Folles (1983) came close to his Dolly and Mame days. La Cage, with a story based on the French play and film of the same name, was about the relationship between a homosexual club owner, his drag-queen partner, his heterosexual son, finance and her family ran 1,176 performances. The wide swing between mad-cap comedy and heart-wrenching revelation made La Cage aux Folles a Broadway hit. A non-musical version of the story titled The Birdcage was made into a movie in 1996 starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. With just three shows, Jerry Herman had over 6,000 first-run performances on Broadway, a feat only accomplished by one other writer: Andrew Lloyd Webber.