Theatre yesterday and today



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On this date, June 17, 1972, Fiddler on the Roof became the longest running show in Broadway history. It had broken the record as the longest running musical a few months earlier when it surpassed Hello, Dolly!, but producer Harold Prince wasn’t content with that. He set his sights on overtaking Life with Father, the play that held the overall record.

How great a phenomenon was Life with Father? To better understand its achievement, it held onto its 3,224 record-run for twenty-five years after the night it closed in 1947. Not even Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady could beat it. And the only straight play to even come close to Life With Father (and it wasn’t that close) was a little play called Gemini, by Albert Innaurato. It played the Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes) for 1,819 performances. That’s 1,405 performances less than Life with Father, about three years shy of it Father's eight-year run.

The market no longer exists for a play to run long as Life with Father. A musical, for sure, but not a play. And what kind of a show was Life with Father that it insured such devotion in its audiences year after year? It's hard to figure all that out in terms of how we live today. It probably wasn't so far off a throwback in 1939, set as it was in the late 1880s, but no producer has attempted (or been tempted) to find out if it might have something to say anymore. It's never been revived on Broadway in the 70 years since it closed.

So why is this family comedy, once so embraced by the public (its 1947 film version was the 4th highest grossing film of 1947) gone with the wind? Economically speaking, it isn’t that cost-prohibitive. There is only one set and the cast of sixteen, though large by today’s standard, isn’t that big a hindrance. No, the reason is that even if a modern audience would allow itself to transport itself back in time, it’s questionable a whole lot of interest could be generated by its lead characters. As stated in an article published in 2014 in the British Guardian, it’s the story of “a sexist patriarch and his submissive wife.”

Life with Father was ably represented the night Fiddler on the Roof moved beyond its record-breaking run with performance number 3,225. At the curtain call, the same number of balloons dropped onto the stage (one for each performance) and the Tevyes of Tel Aviv, Mexico City and the Netherlands productions joined Paul Lipson, the current Broadway Tevye, on stage. So did Dorothy Stickney and Anna Erskine Crouse, the widows of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse (the writers who adapted Clarence Day’s autobiographical novel Life with Father back in 1939). They were there to pass the torch. Not symbolically either—a literal torch.

Of course today a run of over 3,000 performances is positively quaint. As most everyone knows, the record for Broadway’s longest running show is held by The Phantom of the Opera, still going strong in its 28th year after approximately 11,500 performances.

And who directed Phantom? Why Harold Prince, of course. An artist genuinely fond of, and truly born to, break records. Long may he reign.