Sunday, December 23, 2012

Playbill perspectives

Playbill has re-branded its Broadway database as the Playbill Vault, and it's quite a useful resource. It has information grouped by people, shows, theaters, awards, seasons and grosses all of which are fascinating in themselves and they're all interconnected to give quite a vivid picture of the history of Broadway. The Vault's records go back to the season of 1930-31. And yes my grandfather's cousin Iggie Wolfington is in there. He performed in The Music Man twice, the first time in 1957 as the original Marcellus Washburn (Shipoopie, Shipoopie!) and the second time, in the 1980 revival as Mayor Shinn. Dick Van Dyke was Harold Hill for the 1980 version.

It's interesting, I've never thought of my family as being particularly all-American, but my great-great grandfather fought in the Civil War, for the Union side (thank god!) and Iggie Wolfington appeared on Broadway - and the Civil War and Broadway are about as quintessentially American as you can get. That and three bucks will get you a tall cappuccino at Starbucks, so big whoop, but it's kind of interesting.

But I digress...

While browsing around in the Vault I was quite surprised by how many of the Broadway shows I had never heard of before - and how many shows have had very short runs. I'm not sure how brief a run has to be before a show is considered a flop - not many shows are as notorious as Moose Murders which closed the same night it opened, February 22, 1983.

But take for example the 1980 season which featured The Music Man. I've heard of Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (revival); Amadeus (I saw the 2000 Broadway production - I like the movie better); The Man Who Came to Dinner (revival); Camelot (revival); Brigadoon (revival); The Little Foxes (revival); The Philadelphia Story (revival); and Fifth of July by the dread Lanford Wilson and Pirates of Penzance and MacBeth. But that's about all I'm familiar with and most of them are reivivals.

I've never heard of Fearless Frank nor Perfectly Frank. Fearless is "The life of Welsh author Frank Harris, who chronicled his many affairs in his memoir My Life and Loves" and had 13 previews and 12 performances; and Perfectly is "Songs of Frank Loesser, who wrote for many Hollywood films as well as Broadway's Where's Charley, Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed... and The Most Happy Fella" and had 24 previews and 16 performances.

It's So Nice to Be Civilized is a musical with book, music and lyrics by Micki Grant, who also wrote additional music and lyrics for Your Arms Too Short to Box with God; but while Arms Too Short had 4 previews and 149 performances, Civilized had 23 previews and 8 performances.

Passione ("A wife who abandoned her Italian-American family in Philadelphia returns") had 11 previews and 15 performances in spite of being directed by Frank Langello and starring Jerry Stiller.

The Suicide had 60 performances - I imagine having Derek Jacobi as the lead didn't hurt although I've never heard of the play - this is apparently its first production in spite of being written by Nikolai Erdman in 1928. The plot: " unemployed man who fails to learn to play the tuba properly considers suicide, with his neighbor exploiting that suicide to several bidders who want to further their own agendas."

Division Street ("Former 1960s radicals examine their lives from an adult perspective.") had 21 previews and 21 performances. Its author Steve Tesich wrote the equally obscure The Speed of Darkness, produced in 1991.

I've never heard of Lunch Hour ("A group of married couples toy with wife-swapping in the Hamptons.") in spite of the fact that it ran for a respectable 262 performances; it was written by Jean Kerr, author of the smash hit Please Don't Eat the Daisies; and starred Gilda Radner and Sam Waterson. Another "wife-swapping" play Mixed Couples ("Two couples who swapped partners 25 years ago reunite at an airport hanger in New Jersey in 1927") did not do nearly as well with only 7 previews and 9 performances.

I'm very sorry that Onward Victoria was a one-day flop, since it was "A musical biography of the 19th-century feminist icon Victoria Woodhull, who became a millionaire stockbroker and ran for President of the United States on a platform of free love and sexual equality."

Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens ("Emlyn Williams impersonates the novelist Charles Dickens on one of his famous lecture tours, reading selections from his celebrated novels") is interesting to me since I'm aware that Sam Clemens, who knew a thing or two about performing literary work, was extremely unimpressed by Charles Dickens' stage presentations and wrote "there is no heart, no feeling in it - it is glittering frostwork."

How I Won't Dance found a producer is a complete mystery. The production was a bona-fide flop, closing the day it opened. But not only is the play extremely unpleasant sounding - the synopsis here is "A paraplegic confined to a wheelchair celebrates the recent mysterious murder of his brother and sister-in-law in a diabolic manner" - is there any other manner to "celebrate" a murder? - the author Oliver Hailey already had 2 other bona fide flops under his belt - his First One Asleep, Whistle ("A troubled young mother has a tragic romance with an emotionally immature man.") opened and closed February 26, 1966 and his Father's Day ("Three divorcees bond over their situation and invite their husbands to a cocktail party") opened and closed March 16, 1971. Wow, Arthur Bicknell, author of Moose Murders was never given a second and third chance.

Sidney Michaels, on the other hand had several productions that did well to very well and his Ben Franklin in Paris was nominated for a Tony Award in 1965. He never had a single flop until his Tricks of the Trade which opened and closed on November 6, 1980, in spite of starring George C. Scott. I blame the hideous show logo - I think I owe the New York Neo-Futurist's logo an apology.