Peter Filichia Chronicles 50 Years of Broadway Hits and Flops
by Ellis Nassour
There’s a huge problem in reading theater historian and critic Peter Filichia’s Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959 to 2009 [Applause Books; 277 pages; trade softcover; SRP $20]. It’s all but impossible to get past the table of contents.
Anyone who loves theater reads Filichia’s columns on Theatermania.com is aware of his amazing knowledge, always presented in an engaging way, of everything theater and his witty way with words.
Also chronicled are the show that had fingers crossed in hopes of becoming long run staples – Mary Poppins, Grease; those much-anticipated to be smashes because of the talent involved – Big Deal, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Chess, Grind, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Merrily We Roll Along, Wildcat; and the wild cards that many thought daring, risky, iffy, or didn’t have a chance – Cabaret, Hair, Man of La Mancha, Pippin, 1776, Rent, Wicked.
Not every flop was a flop for obvious reasons. Many had merits, sometimes more merit than some of the shows that became hits.
You may not always agree with his Hit and Flop selections, but you’ll still enjoy the indefatigable research and the way Filichia breezes through the decades with commentary from theater insiders, behind-the-scenes stories of the trials and tribulations, and the joy and despair of opening nights. He’s often blunt and unforgiving [yet in a kind way], and not always about the flops.
The book, which is a must for theater lovers, does have two shortcomings: No inside photos except for chapter pics of [probably] Filichia’s ticket studs from each decade, or Index. However, the Table of Contents with its five sections covering 50 decades sort of subs for an Index.
An excerpt from Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959 to 2009 by Peter Filichia:
~ ~ March 11, 1983. A small makeshift theater at Michael Bennett’s Studios at 890 Broadway. Potential investors are at the workshop of a new musical. If enough of them believe in what they see, the show will wend its way to Broadway.
But confidence is not instilled by the show’s bookwriter-lyricist who shakily walks to center stage. Perhaps he’s just worried that he might slip on the sheet of plastic that covers much of the floor. Dance a Little Closer will have some ice-skating in it, and at least today, that plastic will have to pass for ice.
The writer has on his trademark white gloves. He often wears them to hide his inveterate biting of nails, which he often devours down to the quick. The gloves, though, can’t disguise that his hands are shaking.
He is Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote all the words for My Fair Lady, Gigi and Camelot. But the now 64-year-old Lerner is nervously eyeing the 80 or so assembled. Finally does he dare to say something. It turns out to be one of dramatic literature’s most famous lines: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
How fast a legend can sink! Lerner’s two previous new musicals had together only amassed 25 performances. The one before that, Lolita, My Love, closed out-of-town twice. He hasn’t had a hit since Camelot.
At that moment, Lerner might have wished that he’d instead worked on Merlin, about King Arthur’s favorite magician. Though it was probably wound up as that season’s biggest money-loser, it did run 199 performances, thanks to producers who were reluctant to throw in the towel. As Merlin cast member Nathan Lane still likes to say, "It was the musical that wouldn’t disappear."
But as facile a lyricist as Merlin’s Don Black is, he’s no Lerner. And Elmer Bernstein, Merlin’s composer, is no Charles Strouse – the music man behind Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, and Annie, and now Lerner’s partner.
However, Strouse’s last three musicals had amassed even fewer performances (22) than Lerner’s previous two. But this time, they had adapted Idiot’s Delight, Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Maybe that would make a difference. ~ ~
It didn’t. The trouble-plagued Dance a Little Closer, directed by Lerner [big mistake] and starring Len Cariou, Liz Robertson [Mrs. Lerner], George Rose, and featuring Brent Barrett, ran 25 previews and opening night, May 11, 1983.