Robert Preston - Musical Theatre’s Leading Man
One of musical theatre’s most celebrated leading men is the late, great Robert Preston. Demonstrating a warm confidence, Preston had a booming voice that could shake the room like thunder. He possessed an indelible charm, something unique and extra that is rarely found in other leading men of Preston’s day. Though he is looked back upon as one of Broadway musical’s icons, it is interesting to note that Preston only had a handful of Broadway musical outings over his career. Robert Preston split his time evenly, appearing in plays and films as well. But it was on the musical stage that his talents particularly shined. Today, I take a look back at the Broadway musicals that had the honor to have Robert Preston in the cast.
The Music Man (1957)
If anything secured Preston’s status as a great musical theatre performer, the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man certainly sealed the deal, winning him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. The Music Man was Preston’s Broadway musical debut (his Broadway debut was in a 1956 play called Janus), so it is all the more remarkable that he was such an unqualified success. Playing flim-flam man and traveling salesman Professor Harold Hill opposite the Marian the Librarian of Barbara Cook, Preston utilized his hypnotic charm to bring to life a character of a fast-talking humbug masking a heart of, if not gold, at least gold plate. With Preston’s characterization filled with a glowing confidence and a palpable warmth, you could believe that Harold Hill could win over an entire town and trick them into buying musical instruments, band uniforms, and instruction books. Whizzing his way through some tongue-twisting patter songs like “Ya Got Trouble” and the lead-in to “76 Trombones”, Preston made a meal out of Meredith Willson’s unforgettable score. Preston reprised his role in the 1962 film version of The Music Man opposite Shirley Jones.
Ben Franklin in Paris (1964)
If The Music Manwas had taken Preston to great musical theatre heights, his next Broadway musical outing wouldn’t have quite the same lift-off. Ben Franklin in Paris starred Robert Preston as American forefather and patriot Benjamin Franklin in what amounted to an agreeable but relatively forgettable musical fiction that took many liberties on Franklin’s life. Ben Franklin in Parisfeatured a score by Mark Sandrich, Jr. and Sidney Michaels. Jerry Herman, with whom Preston would later work with on Mack & Mabel, also contributed two songs to the show. For 1964, 215 performances wasn’t an awful run, but it was nowhere near the success of The Music Man’s 1,375 performance marathon.
I Do! I Do! (1966)
What could be more exciting that pairing two of Broadway’s most-beloved stars in one musical? Mary Martin, who had starred in such musicals as One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, Peter Pan, and The Sound of Music, joined Preston in the 1966 musical adaptation of the Jan de Hartog play The Fourposter. Essentially a musical comedy exploration of the trials and tribulations of a marriage, I Do! I Do! saw Preston and Martin playing the central couple (the only characters in the show, actually). He won his second Tony Award for the effort and introduced audiences to some delightful Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt songs.
Mack & Mabel(1974)
Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all of all of Robert Preston’s Broadway musical outings was the ill-fated Mack & Mabel. Heartbreaking, because the premise and Jerry Herman score was so wonderful, but the musical failed to ignite with audiences and critics, shuttering after 66 performances. Preston played silent film producer and director Mack Sennett opposite Bernadette Peter’s Mabel Normand, the young silent film star that Sennett discovers and falls in love with. Despite its tepid reception, audiences generally agreed the two stars shined and both were nominated for Tony Awards. Mack & Mabel was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, who had helmed such musicals as Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly! There were high expectations for Mack & Mabel considering the assembled talent, but the story, which started out as great musical comedy, slipped into a depressing second act that may have been hard for audience’s to digest.
The Prince of Grand Street (1978)
Preston’s final musical theatre outing was in a musical that never actually made it to Broadway. Bob Merrill wrote the music, lyrics and book for The Prince of Grand Street, a story that followed a performer of the Yiddish Theatre (inspired by Boris Thomashefsky). Preston played that performer, named Nathan Rashumsky, but had a hard time registering in the role. Was it Preston’s fault the show failed? Hardly. The musical limped through its out-of-town tryouts and rewrites were plentiful. Director Gene Saks was tentative in his approach of telling a musical so brimming with Jewish content, which perhaps explains Preston’s casting when someone more along the lines of a Sid Caesar type would have been more appropriate to the character. Regardless, The Prince of Grand Street closed out-of-town in Boston and never made it to Broadway. An unfortunate final installment for Preston, his a Broadway musical career that was so rich with talent and possibility.