Broadway Blip: Shenandoah
A musical that you do not hear about much anymore, but one that was a pretty big hit of the 1970s is Shenandoah. Set in Virginia during the Civil War, the musical was a gripping and tragic tale about a family-divided amidst one of the United States’ most harrowing periods. The musical featured a score by Gary Geld (music) and Peter Udell (lyrics) who had teamed up for the equally thought-provoking Purlie five years earlier. Shenandoah was based on the popular 1965 film of the same name. The Tony Award-winning book was by Udell, Philip Rose, and James Lee Barrett.
Opening on Broadway after first performing at the Goodspeed Opera House, Shenandoah commenced its run at the Alvin Theatre on January 7, 1975 where it ran for 1,050 performances. Its talented cast was led by Broadway stalwart John Cullum who won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for playing Charlie Anderson, a father who simply wanted to keep his children out of the skirmishes of the Civil War. The cast also included Joel Higgins, Penelope Milford, Robert Rosen, Donna Theodore, Gordon Halliday, Chip Ford, and Ted Agress.
Set in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the story follows the Anderson family, led by their patriarch Charlie, a widower who wishes to keep his brood from getting involved in the Civil War. When one of his sons is taken prisoner by the Union Army, forcing him to go in search of his son. Systematically, whether they like it or not, the family is pulled into the conflict, forced to take sides whether they like it or not. Charlie loses two of his sons along the way, as well as his daughter-in-law, victims of a relentless and unforgiving war. In the end, Charlie mourns and turns to God to carry him through his grief.
Among the musicals more memorable numbers are the optimistic (if a bit unrealistic) “Freedom”, the gentle “Violets and Silverbells”, the enthusiastic “It’s a Boy!” and the raucous “Next to Lovin’ (I Like Fightin’). Cullum offered an all-encompassing gravitas to the show, particularly in his character’s “Meditation” sequences.
Shenandoah was directed by Philip Rose, with choreography by Robert Tucker. It was revived at Broadway’s Virginia Theatre in 1989 (with Cullum, once again, starring), running disappointingly for just under a month. Though its initial production was well received, Shenandoah is seldom performed anymore. Perhaps it is a little too old fashioned for it to carry-over to contemporary audiences, written in the Rodgers and Hammerstein vein and feeling like a throwback to a type of musical theatre we seldom see (or embrace) anymore. It does, however have a poignant and lovely score that every Broadway enthusiast should take some time to explore.