Theatre yesterday and today



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* This is a reprisal of a column posted on this date last year.

In the spirit of ringing in the new year, I thought I would report on the only Broadway show to have been titled Happy New Year, a musical version of Philip Barry’s wonderful 1928 comedy Holiday. It opened April 27, 1980 and, like all shows, started out with the best of intentions and more than a few good things going for it. Burt Shevelove, its writer/director, had nine years earlier taken 1927’s No, No Nanette out of mothballs and turned it into one of the biggest and most surprising musical hits of the 70s (thus beginning an obsession with revivals on Broadway that has gone unabated to this day). Happy New Year also counted the inimitable John McMartin among its the cast, a grand actor and go-to musical theatre stalwart (and one of my all-time personal favorites).

John McMartin as “the Narrator,” revealed at the end of Happy New Year

as the young leading man’s more mature self — a case of too little too late.

And the biggest thing Happy New Year boasted was that it had a score composed by Cole Porter. Well, not exactly “composed” by Cole Porter, because he had been dead for sixteen years.

And this wasn’t some long un-produced adaptation of Holiday that Porter had written and always hoped would get to Broadway. No, he never worked on it at all. What Shevelove had in mind for Happy New Year was to pilfer the Porter songbook and craft a new book around it, based on Barry’s play. But honestly… this is not the way you go about writing a musical. It rarely works; not that it’s stopped it from happening time and again. In 2014, the overwhelming consensus on Woody Allen's own adaptation of his 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway, was that he would have been much better off creating a musical with an original score. Instead, he chose to populate it with popular songs, all known quantities like “Up a Lazy River” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Book musicals need to be written — by a creative team in tandem with one another (preferably while they are all still alive).

One instance where known songs wedged into a book show proved successful was Mamma Mia! But it’s important to note that it was all done tongue-in-cheek, with no subtlety whatsoever. Audiences shrieked with joy (and self-congratulation) when they recognized what was coming by the first bars of every Abba song. But when you are incorporating “Night and Day” and “Easy to Love” into a proper book musical like Happy New Year, it’s jarring, to say the least (and lazy, to say the most). Four of its songs were directly pulled from Red, Hot and Blue, a big Porter hit from 1936, which of course, few in 1980 had seen in forty-four years. But even so. It was less paying homage than outright ransacking.​

​As it would turn out, Happy New Year was the second-to-last musical

to play the Morosco Theatre, before its demolition in 1982.

And such lessons went unheeded, when after Happy New Year’s failure on this front, High Society, opened on Broadway in 1998. This was a stage musical of the 1956 film for which Porter wrote nine original songs (and like Happy New Year, was based on a Barry play, The Philadelphia Story). Adding to what Porter had already written, tunes from some of his other shows were interpolated (and I’ll lay you ten to one that no one on its creative team was remotely aware that “Ridin’ High” and “Once Upon a Time” had already been recycled for Happy New Year). Another thing the two shows shared in common, were their good taste in hiring John McMartin, whose Uncle Willie brought him the 4th of his 5 Tony nominations. To watch him slyly slip the show in his pocket and stroll away with it was one of the highlights of my half-century of theatregoing.

A slight digression, but it’s pertinent: Bob Fosse, as brilliant a choreographer and director as he was, had a long-standing reputation of sometimes being a terror to his collaborators. 1966’s Sweet Charity began with his idea to adapt Federico Fellini’s 1957 Academy Award winning film Nights of Cabiria as a musical. He had every intention of writing the book himself (check out this early poster below), before finally having to call in Neil Simon, who ended up the sole author.

“Bert Lewis” was an officially-never-used Bob Fosse non de plume.

Later in his career, seeking to defuse potential fights with collaborators ahead of even the start of rehearsals, Fosse simply did away with them for his next show, Dancin’, eschewing a librettist, composer and lyricist altogether. This 1978 revue was an evening of dance, all set to previously produced songs, that featured no book, leaving Fosse to do the show he envisioned without any interference. Happily, it wound up being a conception that worked, and fostered a big hit. In 1986, he attempted the same thing, only this time on a book musical, with Big Deal. Like Charity, it was based on an Italian film, in this case the heist picture Big Deal on Madonna Street. Now Fosse finally was ready to take credit for the adaptation himself, leaving “Bert Lewis” by the wayside.Then, as with Dancin’, he didn’t hire anyone to write the score, in favor of grabbing old standards like “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (I mean, talk about cherry-picking). Critics, as well as many Broadway denizens, were unhappy with his abandoning former partners of such talents as John Kander and Fred Ebb and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. Big Deal took a critical beating and in spite of awarding Fosse his 8th and final Tony for choreography, closed after two months of indifferent business.

But back to Happy New Year, which by the time it arrived on Broadway from where it began at the Stratford Festival in Canada, underwent significant changes. Opening there to less than enthusiastic reviews, Shevelove did a good deal of recasting, as well as replacing a number of the less familiar Porter tunes with more famous ones (it didn’t help). By the time it got to New York, there was a whiff of failure in the air about it, proof being that on the day of its opening, the Sunday New York Times failed to even write about it, something usually common for the new show of the week. In fact there wasn't even anything about Happy New Year in the paper  at all— not even an ad — which often indicates budget problems, or producers lacking confidence—or both. Later, a few days after it opened, I was able to locate a tiny 2" x 2" ad in the Times, with a favorable quote from a review the paper gave it (see below). Unfortunately, it was one of the only good ones Happy New Year received, and it closed after twenty-five performances.

Here's hoping better fates await the new musicals of 2019 that are scheduled to come our way these next few months. Happy New Year!

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