Ten Great "Also Ran" Broadway Musicals with Superior Scores
We love to celebrate the classic Broadway scores! We revel in a joyously wonderful flop score! There is, however, one area of the Broadway musical that we seldom address: the musicals that were neither calamitous flops, but neither were they runaway hits. They were around for maybe a season and change (250-500 performances), maybe made some money or came close to breaking even (in a day where that was possible). I refer to these as the “also rans” of Broadway. Today’s blog is a celebration of the scores from these middling musicals that have much to recommend in the way of great music.
1. Paint Your Wagon (1952 – 289 performances)
Even when the book might not be as terrific as it could be, the composing team of Lerner & Loewe never failed to write a brilliant score for a musical. Such is the case with Paint Your Wagon, a musical set in a California mining town during the Gold Rush. Paint Your Wagon is rarely performed today, but a new CD recording of the show has made an excellent case for its renaissance. Some reworking of the script has been part of an on-again/off-again revival that hopes to make its way to Broadway in the near future. With haunting songs like “They Call the Wind Maria”, “I Talk to the Trees” and “I Still See Elisa”, one hopes said new production can be mounted successfully.
2. Plain and Fancy (1955 – 461 performances)
There are so many wonderful things about the score to the 1955 musical Plain and Fancy that it is worth revisiting Albert Hague’s music and Arnold Horwitt’s lyrics for a charming experience in listening. The musical follows a family of city dwellers who find themselves lost in Amish country in Lancaster PA. Urban sophistication meets homespun pragmatism. Herein lies the gentle comedy that weaves in and out of this simple and sweet show. From the humorous opening number “You Can’t Miss It”, you will be hooked.
3. Take Me Along (1959 – 448 performances)
Eugene O”Neill’s 1933 play Ah, Wilderness! was a beloved and oft-performed comedy in the first half of the 20th Century. Time and cynicism eventually relegated its simple altruism to the “dated” column, but it is still regarded warmly with a great nostalgia for a simpler time. In 1959, the play was turned into the musical Take Me Along which featured a score by composer Bob Merrill. Though there are few standout, breakout hits in the score, Merrill created a show that was all of one piece and the music and lyrics are an agreeable, lighthearted frolic that paint a picture of another time.
4. Flower Drum Song (1958 – 600 performances)
Rodgers and Hammerstein certainly had their hits (Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I)and they certainly had their flops (Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream), but they had one musical that fell right in the middle: Flower Drum Song. Based on C.Y. Lee’s novel of the same name, the musical tells the story of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the generational differences they have with their offspring who embrace a less traditional, more “American” lifestyle. The score is mostly enchanting (okay “Chop Suey” might be a little hard to take), but “A Hundred Million Miracles”, “Love, Look Away” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl” are as wonderful as any songs from The Sound of Music or South Pacific. The book has not aged well and efforts were made to abolish stereotypes in a 2002 Broadway revival, but the score is lush and often funny, and it remains evergreen.
5. The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd (1965 – 231 performances)
Star Anthony Newley helped create and star in two big Broadway musicals that transferred from London in the 1960s: one was Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, and the other was The Roar of Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. Newley and Leslie Bricusse wrote the scores for both, and though the former was a modest hit, the latter better fits the “also ran” category. The most popular song yielded by their efforts was “Who Can I Turn To?”, but the entire score brims with poignancy and humor as the wealthy Sir and the down-on-his-luck Cocky play out the hierarchy of the social class structure.
6. Golden Rainbow (1968 – 383 performances)
Based on the play A Hole in the Head, and featuring a score by Walter Marks, Golden Rainbow was chiefly a vehicle for the duo of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. With all the razzle dazzle that a musical set in Las Vegas can muster, Golden Rainbow was not exactly subtle. Indeed, even the score is a bit over the top, but that is what makes it so much fun. “I’ve Got to Be Me’ was the chart climbing hit to come from the show, but “How Could I Be So Wrong?” and “He Needs Me” are standouts in a score full of verge and heightened emotion.
7. Once on this Island (1990 - 469 performances)
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s first musical to make it to Broadway was the Caribbean-flavored Once on this Island based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love. Following the story of an island girl named Ti Moune who leaves home to go in search of love is steeped in mythology and romance. The score is an invigorating musical experience featuring such standouts as the infectious "Mama Will Provide" and the yearning "Waiting for Life". Even the song "Come Down From the Tree" which was cut before the show opened has been recorded several times.
8. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965 – 280 performances)
Burton Lane composed the music and Alan Jay Lerner provided the lyrics for this score that particularly soars when the title song is unleashed with wide-eyed whimsy. ESP and reincarnation are explored as a young woman named Daisy seeks a way to build her self-confidence. She is also trying to quit smoking. She visits a psychiatrist who uses hypnotherapy as a tool to help her overcome her struggles. The musical was made into a popular film starring Barbra Streisand, whose rendition of the title song may be its most captivating interpretation.
9. Golden Boy (1964 – 568 performances)
Clifford Odets play about boxing seemed like an unlikely subject for musicalization, but the composing team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams were up for the challenge. Building the score around the talents of star Sammy David, Jr. made the show a must-see attraction. The results were a mixed bag, but their efforts yielded a handful of lovely numbers. Among them was the poignant "Colorful" which celebrated a world where color made things distinctly wonderful instead of a roadblock.
10. The Life (1997 - 466 performances)
I don’t think there has ever been a Cy Coleman score that didn’t delight, and his creations for The Life, with lyrics by Ira Gasman, are no exception. Indeed, there are many songs to recommend from this show about prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and con artists in NYC circa 1980. “The Oldest Profession” is a comedic math exercise sung by a prostitute who is calculating the number of tricks she has turned in her career. “Mr. Greed” is a jaunty, serpentine number celebrating hustling, and “My Way or the Highway” is a frightening number for a tough as nails pimp. Of course, the anthem “My Body” transcended the chorus line of hookers who sang it to become the theme for anyone who wants the right to make their own choices about what to do with their bodies.