By Ron Fassler
Andrea McArdle (Annie), Reid Shelton (Oliver Warbucks) and Sandy (Sandy) in Annie (1977). Photo by Martha Swope.
As the 1976–77 Tony Award season drew to a close, the gossip on the Rialto was that it might mark the first year there would be no nominees for Best Musical. As in zero; nada. Due to a series of circumstances, only one eligible show had opened. Music Is, yet another adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, had been panned by five of the six major newspapers and closed in a week; about as likely a nominee for Best Musical in 1977 as The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical in 2020. Earlier in the season, there had been high hopes for The Baker’s Wife, composer Stephen Schwartz’s follow up to his first three hits Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show. It was to star Topol (the forever Tevye due to his casting in the 1971 film of Fiddler on the Roof) and Carole Demas, who had originated the role of Sandy in Grease. Despite a fine score, the show never coalesced during its grueling six months on the road that saw two directors, two choreographers and three leading ladies come and go (its last one a pre-Evita Patti LuPone, who continues to this day to sing Schwartz’s glorious “Meadowlark” at concerts). Topol (a pain in the ass if there ever was one) was sent packing at the end of its Washington, D.C. engagement, replaced by Paul Sorvino, which turned out to be the finish when Schwartz and book writer Joseph Stein (of Fiddler on the Roof fame), requested/begged that producer David Merrick not bring the show to Broadway.
Patti LuPone, Topol and cat (who was also probably replaced)
in The Baker’s Wife (1976). Photo by Martha Swope.
Also closing out of town was an entirely new version of the vaudeville-inspired revue Hellzapoppin, which starred Jerry Lewis gunning for his Broadway debut. However, the temperamental star misbehaved in such a way as to sink the entire enterprise (for some of those stories, the expose published after its demise in New York Magazine is a highly entertaining, though somewhat shocking read). Not only was this show an earthquake, but it provided aftershocks in the form of an unprecedented lawsuit by its producer Alexander Cohen, who attempted to sue Jerry Lewis “for refusing to rehearse adequately,” as it was stated in the suit. In this climate, fears worsened of no nominees eligible for Best Musical. How could a national television network broadcast the Tonys and boast to the nation what a wonderful place Broadway is without any musicals to showcase?
It actually wasn’t “the end” for Jerry Lewis, who lived till ninety-one and eventually made his Broadway debut replacing Victor Garber in 1995 in a revival of Damn Yankees as… wait for it… the Devil. 😈
Then things changed rapidly when, over a four-day period, three musicals opened. April 17th brought I Love My Wife, which was another troubled show out of town having to switch directors, but through that turbulence a smooth landing was achieved (so smooth, that its last-minute replacement Gene Saks, won the Tony). The next night brought an import from London, a four-character original revue titled Side By Side By Sondheim that marked the first time Sondheim allowed his songs to be used in such a form. Not only did it garner terrific reviews and great business, but it marked the New York debut of a young British producer (then age thirty) named Cameron Mackintosh. First with Cats(co-produced with David Geffen), Mackintosh’s influence on Broadway throughout the 1980s was undeniable, following up as he did with Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon.
The third musical not only changed the season, but changed the fortunes for all involved. Martin Charnin, Charles Strouse and Thomas Meehan’s musicalization of Little Orphan Annie, the famed Harold Gray comic strip first published in 1924, was the season’s savior when it opened on April 21st. A critical and commercial smash, it would eventually become one of the longest running and most beloved musicals of all-time; responsible for putting the comedy back in musical comedy. A throwback to shows like The Music Man and The Sound of Music, it featured great roles for kids as well as something the entire family could see. It was as welcome as Christmas in the Spring, which indeed it provided with a Christmas tree on stage in its finale.