I wonder if Broadway goes through “seasons” every decade. In the last ten years we’ve had every Disney movie turned into a musical, and back in the 1960’s, it was all about pushing the envelope. You had Barefoot In The Park, Hell Dolly, Funny Girl, and lots of edgy dramas and musicals. Peter Filichia, a New York theater critic, has written this book as a homage to an era when the plays reflected the great changes in American life. Those same changes would also be the nail in the coffin for a lot of the plays.
The author gives an example of how West Side Story, once considered controversial, now had to have its language toned down. What the audiences loved in 1964 was Blues For Mister Charley, courtesy of (edgy) James Baldwin, with lots of profanity and heresy; a young man questions the “white” church, and professes a desire to hang the white god. Lee Strasberg insisted on staging it with all the rudeness, racism, and vulgarities included. What the audiences didn’t go for, however, was Sponono, a South African collaboration between Allen Patton and Krishna Shah. American audiences didn’t understand the language or dynamic, and besides, they already had their own racial troubles. There were others that failed too, like Rainy Day in Newark, Foxy, and the famously long titled Oh Dad Poor Dad. The same thing happened with the revival of West Side Story, as some considered it dates, while others suspected that the movie version killed off any need to see it on stage.
There’s a funny story of Barefoot in the Park, which was perfect for New Yorkers, who could relate to the theme of getting their first apartment. Like most Neil Simon plays, it had a simple set and was cheap to produce, so success was guaranteed in its four year run. But the 2006 revival failed, which Filichia attributes to bad casting and changes in norms and mores. The days of “no going to bed till wed” are over, there’s no more Sears stuff, and no $125 apartments, so today’s audiences can’t relate to it. The Paris production had to write the apartment as being on the 9th floor, because in Paris, most buildings were pre-elevator, and a 9th floor walkup wasn’t that big a deal.
The last pages give a list of the shows and the number of performances. Some, like What Makes Sammy Run, did well both critically and financially, but the public lost interest after 400 performances. The Deputy did well at the box office and with the critics, but the public soon lost interest. It was a long play, hard to stage, and more for intellectuals than the kind of people who wanted to see Barefoot in the Park. Though controversial, it is mostly forgotten today, as is What Makes Sammy Run. If you look at today’s long running musicals, they’d be Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. In the UK, shows like Me and My Girl and Cats have been running for decades. Perhaps it’s because they’re period pieces that can’t get old? Then again, Sweeny Todd was also a period musical, and it doesn’t get staged much.
Changing times will always be factor. I hope Filichia will write another book about 1980’s Broadway. By that time we had Chorus Line, which lasted 15 years.