Remembering Minnie’s Boys
Some musicals you just know are going to bomb from the moment they are announced. It’s just clear that it is half-baked idea that is going to struggle. Something just doesn’t feel right about it. Then there are the shows that sound like such a good idea that you cannot help but invest your hopes in them. The premise appears sound and the possibilities of what a musical can do to augment the story and character development is promising. It’s only after our hearts are broken that we begrudgingly accept the show flopped. Minnie’s Boys was one of these heartbreakers.
Minnie’s Boys was to be a musical that told the story of the early years in the career of the Marx Brothers. The fraternal comedic act had been an enormous hit on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood pictures, and the story behind how their loving mother Minnie prodded them toward show business. The story sounds a bit like Gypsy, but maybe with not as much crazy mother, Chinese food, and burlesque. Still, a story of a remarkable mother and her influence on her kids is a respectable basis for a Broadway musical.
Shelley Winters was an accomplished actress, a winner of two Academy Awards (ForThe Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue) who had appeared in several Broadway plays and the occasional musical (including a stint as Ado Annie Carnes in Oklahoma!). A sexy vixen in her younger years, Winters aged into a compelling character actress. It is easy to see why producers thougt that she would be an ideal choice to play the title character in Minnie’s Boys. She even looked a bit like Mrs. Marx. However, Winters had, at best, a passable singing voice that crackled and cracked in a way that was similar to her speaking voice (watch Disney’s Pete’s Dragon for a sample). She struggled to handle what music she was handed for Minnie’s Boys, and the composing team had to be careful to keep said music within her limited range. Yet, as an actress she could be a winning performer, capable of playing broad comedy one second, and sincere, touching drama the next. Everyone wanted her to work out in this role and, singing aside, Minnie Marx seemed like a tailormade role for the actress.
Minnie’s Boys featured a score by Larry Grossman (music) and Hal Hackady (lyrics), Grossman would go on to compose music for such shows as Goodtime Charley, Snoopy!!!, A Doll’s Life, and Grind. Prior toMinnie’s Boys, Hackady had written lyrics for a Kay Medford review called Almost Crazy. He would reunite down the road with Grossman on Goodtime Charley, and then write lyrics for the short-lived Teddy & Alice inspired by the music of John Philip Sousa. For Minnie’s Boys, the duo would concoct a charming, if undistinguished, score. The musical enjoyed one breakout hit in the touching "Mama, a Rainbow,” sung by the usually silent Harpo Marx. The number received popular recordings by Steve Lawrence and Jim Nabors.
The show’s book was written by Arthur Marx (Groucho’s son) and Robert Fisher, who had spent a good deal of time in Hollywood writing sitcoms such as Make Room for Daddy and The Donna Reed Show. Marx and Fisher, together, wrote several episodes of the hit sitcom Alice. Though the book was faithful to the Marx Brothers’ story, it ambled about, and delivered more like a television sitcom, with and abudndance of one-liners, asides, and minimal character development. It’s not that the script wasn’t entertaining in fits and starts, it just had trouble knowing what it wanted to be and in finding the story arc.
During the show’s preview period (which lasted sixty-four performances) Minnie’s Boys appeared to be having trouble. The show’s choreographer Patricia Birch was replaced by Marc Breaux. Several of the Grossman/Hackady songs were excised and new numbers were written to take their place. In all, six songs didn’t work for the production. When a show goes through so many changes during its preview period, word-of-mouth can turn poisonous as the throngs tell their friends what a mess things appear to be. This seems to have been some of what hurt Minnie’s Boys.
Minnie’s Boys opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on March 26, 1970. Supporting Winters were Lewis J. Stadlen as Julius "Groucho" Marx, Daniel Fortus as Adolph "Harpo" Marx, Irwin Pearl as Leonard "Chico" Marx, Alvin Kupperman as Herbert "Zeppo" Marx, and Gary Raucher as Milton "Gummo" Marx. Stanley Parger directed and Groucho Marx was listed as a consultant on the show (in reality, he did nothing). Critics generally panned the show, though a few were positive in their assessment and particularly enthusiastic about Stadlen. Unfortunately, their optimistic appraisal was not enough to boost box office and Minnie’s Boys closed after 80 performances.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His forthcoming book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America,will hit the shelves in October, 2019. Hemaintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.