Broadway Stars and Their Not-So-Successful TV Past
With the Tony Awards just around the corner and that shaping up to be a ho-hum night (thanks to forgone conclusions of a Hamilton sweep), no exciting new musicals on the immediate horizon (the Cats revival excites me like a case of distemper) and, just in general, no inspiring theatre news to get me riled up, I turned to one of my other favorite hobbies: TV Theme Songs (yes, I wrote a book on the subject). I like to go to Youtube.com and watch the opening sequences and clips of shows from days gone by. The other night, while doing this, I found so many Broadway performers in short-run sitcoms, stinkaroos that didn’t last for very long. Some of these shows were awful, but some of them were actually quite good. Here is a sampler of some of your Broadway favorites in sitcoms that just didn’t fly.
Amanda’s – Starring Beatrice Arthur
A few years after the end of Maude and just a few years before The Golden Girls started, there was Amanda’s (sometimes referred to as Amanda’s By the Sea). The TV show was to be the Emmy-Tony-winning Arthur’s next big hit, an Americanization of the popular British sitcom Fawlty Towers. The action was set at a failing seaside hotel in California where the title character was the proprietress. Amanda was given all the great jokes (reworking The Fawlty Towers humor), but not a zany character (In fact, Arthur was essentially playing Arthur, something she was not happy about). The sitcom debuted in March of 1983 and was cancelled in May. Arthur’s appearance in the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special is better remembered than Amanda’s.
The Powers That Be – Starring David Hyde Pierce
Broadway’s soon-to-be new Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!, not to mention a beloved Tony-winner for playing Lieutenant Frank Cioffi in the comedic murder-mystery Curtains, David Hyde Pierce is probably best remembered for his portrayal as the twitchy psychiatrist Niles Crane on the sitcom Frasier. Just a few years before that Cheers spin-off flew into the stratosphere, Hyde Pierce starred in a brilliant, short-lived sitcom called The Powers That Be that skewered modern politics as only a Norman Lear project could. He was cast as Theodore Van Horne, a suicidal congressman married to the nagging daughter of US Senator William Powers. A recurring gag throughout the show was Theodore’s failed suicide attempts.
The Cavanaughs – Starring Christine Ebersole
The Cavanaughs was one of those shows that was never particularly awful, but it failed to find the momentum that made it a hit. It was an affable sitcom surrounding the goings-on within an Irish-Catholic family set in South Boston. The series ran for three years (1986-1989) and starred stage veteran Barnard Hughes as the feisty leader of The Cavanaugh Clan. Long before her Tony Awards for 42nd Street and Grey Gardens, Christine Ebersole played Hughes’s daughter Kit Cavanuagh on the show.
One Day at a Time – Mary Louise Wilson
Not forgetting the other half of the Tony-winning duo of Grey Gardens, Mary Louise Wilson had a very short stay in the popular 70s/80s sitcom One Day at a Time. Cast as Ginny Wrobliki, the nosey next-door-neighbor and confidant of the sitcom’s protagonist Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin). Added in Season 2, the character of Ginny never really fit into the world of One Day at a Time and she was excised after 13 episodes. Their loss was our gain, since Wilson has brought her compelling talent to so many wonderful Broadway performances.
Hello, Larry! – Joanna Gleason
Our favorite Tony-winning Baker’s Wife Joanna Gleason had her “Moment in the Woods” with one of those notoriously bad sitcoms. A spin-off of the popular sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, and designed to be a star vehicle for McLean Stevenson (recently departed of M*A*S*H), Hello, Larry! appeared to have the ingredients of a hit. It turned out to be a contrived mess that has gone down in history as one of the most nonsensical sitcoms (though it did hang on for two-seasons). The story revolved around a talk radio host (Stevenson) who is recently divorced and who has left L.A. for a new job at a Portland radio station. Gleason portrayed Morgan, the radio show’s producer.
High Society – Faith Prince
After making an enormously successful, Tony-winning, splash in the 1992 revival of Guys & Dolls on Broadway, Faith Prince became the hot commodity of Broadway divas. It was only a matter of time before she was scooped up for a sitcom and that came in the form of the 1995 sitcom High Society. The show was loosely based on the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, with Prince in the role of the goody-goody named “Val” who is the old friend of the bitchy socialite “Dott” and ever-inebriated pal “Ellie”. Prince may have been a delightful team player for this season’s musical spoof Disaster, but even she couldn’t see what a sinking ship High Society would be. She left after six episodes and the show only lasted for a total of thirteen before being cancelled.
Mama Malone – Terrence McNally
Sometimes playwrights are lured into the world of television writing. The pay is certainly better, especially if the TV show takes off. Unfortunately for playwright Terrence McNally, his foray into sitcom writing came to an abrupt halt when the 1984 show Mama Malone failed to find an audience. McNally, who is especially well-known for his Tony-winning books to such musicals as Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as for his myriad plays such as It’s Only a Play, Master Class, and Lips Together, Teeth Apart, developed and wrote Mama Malone which revolved around a feisty Italian mama with her own cooking show that filmed out of her small, Brooklyn apartment. The show demonstrated a lot of potential and critics were mostly kind to it, but a poor time slot and bad luck resulted in its cancellation after 13 episodes. That’s okay, just like most of the people in this article, we are better served by having McNally writing for the theatre.