Musicals! I have been a fan since I was a little kid. Having two aunts with no children of their own I was (happily) dragged along to Saturday matinees at the theater for as long as I can remember. SOUTH PACIFIC. PAINT YOUR WAGON. GUYS AND DOLLS. and many, many more. Once I got old enough to go with friends or, sometimes by myself, with balcony seats being incredibly cheap, I went to see everything. The hits, NEW FACES OF 1952 (yes, I AM that old!), BYE, BYE BIRDIE, BELLS ARE RINGING, and the flops, BY THE BEAUTIFUL SEA, KEAN, HERE'S LOVE and THE VAMP. And even the not so great musicals had their pluses. The stars; Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Judy Holliday, Tammy Grimes, Alfred Drake, Dolores Grey. What an amazing world of color and sound there was. (I remember being taken to see MY FAIR LADY just after it opened by a wealthy friend's family for his birthday, and then, because a friend knew the producers, I attended the very last night when, in tribute to its long run, the curtain was not rung down and a single flower was placed on Professor Higgins' chair. How wonderful to be able to bookmark a show like that!) The memories are amazing, but of all those memories a few stand out as the most memorable. Not the greatest, as that is totally subjective, but what I was moved by in a visceral way that no other musical had done. The top four in no particular order are WEST SIDE STORY (with the original cast), FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (again, original cast), 110 IN THE SHADE, because of one of the greatest performances I have ever seen by the magnificent Audra MacDonald and the original and most recent staging of FOLLIES. (There are others that come close; LES MISERABLES, SUNSET BOULEVARD, but the aforementioned four totally blew me away.
I saw WEST SIDE STORY at the New Year's day matinee in 1958. I double dated with my close friend and the woman who was to become his first wife and a lovely young woman I had dated all through senior year at Jamaica and into freshman year at New Paltz. I remember that we sat dead center in the small loge area (maybe three rows) and from the moment the music started I knew that I was in a place I had never been in before. I was witnessing greatness. I remember stumbling out of the theater into the cold New Years Day and, and no I'm not being melodramatic, knowing that somehow my life had been changed forever; that I had entered a world where greatness was possible. The problem with that, as I recall, was that the standard had been set so high that no other musicals I saw came close.
I had wanted to see FIDDLER ON THE ROOF from when I had first read about it in Variety as I had loved Zero Mostel in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and he was now to star as Tevye the milkman in this new production. I remember I was working at a summer camp in Pennsylvania the summer before FIDDLER opened when I read that it was having trouble in its Detroit tryout. That mattered not to me. All it meant was that it would be easier to get good seats without a hassle. And good seats I got. Again, at a matinee, with colleagues and friends Joe Prenoveau, Dorothy White and my Mom, a week after the rapturous reviews came out, the magic happened again. Coincidence that Jerome Robbins had something to do with both WSS and this, not really, but as with Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim adding their brilliance to the former, Bock and Harnick added so much with their music and lyrics. And Zero! Oh, Zero! From the vaudevillian in FORUM he now became the poor Jewish milkman on a shtetl in Anatevka, and though many of his vaudevillian asides were still visible, they fit the character and made him and the musical memorable. (Later productions, especially those with Topol in the London production and in the film, lost the magic that Mostel brought to the character. Only Jim Landers, in an amateur production I am still very fond of, caught the twinkle and humanity that Mostel had and helped make that production memorable.) The thing that educated me to what great theater could do, was the four of us as we shakily left the theater after being totally wrung out at the end of the show. All of us were crying. Joe a good Catholic from Plattsburgh, Dorothy a beautiful African-American woman who had recently moved to New York, my mother, a Jewish lady (though not practicing, and that's another story for another time) and me, a Deist who had no truck with organized religion; all of us had been moved to tears by the story that transcended ethnicity and religion in its text and the music that leveled the playing field for all races and religions by its majesty and beauty.
Then came the years of felines crawling all over the orchestra of the theater (really disliked that show), chandeliers crashing into the audience and helicopters taking off from the fall of Saigon.
Then came a revival of a show I had seen and not cared for much in the sixties called 110 IN THE SHADE. Other than the fact that Audra MacDonald was its star (and I had loved her in MASTER CLASS and CAROUSEL) I would have given it a pass. Am I glad I didn't! With staging by Lonnie Price (whose track record for me is spotty at best; I paid $100 to see a concert version of CANDIDE that he staged for the New York Philharmonic, sat in the nether regions of the balcony at Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, and found the production childish, campy and a tremendous disappointment. But, oh, not 110 IN THE SHADE! With the magnificent Audra playing the lead, everything fell into place and what had been a so-so show in the sixties, was turned into a moving, heartbreaking experience. (I was so taken by Ms. MacDonald that I saw the show four times in as many weeks and actually waited at the stage door to shake her hand. I even have a picture taken with her (on my Facebook page), something I hadn't done since I was ten. It didn't matter; I had to meet this great talent and to tell her how wonderful I thought she was. Had to connect with her brilliance and genius.Still one of the great performances I have ever seen.
And then, FOLLIES. I had seen the original production in 1971 and had loved it because of my love for the theater which it glorified. And the glittering array of stars, Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson and some of the actual vaudevillians like Ethel Shutta and MaryMcCarty who were playing characters based on themselves or others they had known back in the day. Saw it three times over the span of its run. Then I saw it in London, again back in New York in the 90's and now this just closed production that topped them all. With the glorious Jan Maxwell, Bernadette Peters, Ron Raines, Elaine Page and Danny Burstein, the show soared as never before. Fascinating that when I saw it first in 1971 I was too young and removed to get the full power of what age, memory and regret do to people, but boy, did I get it now. Saw it four times again (Thank you Theater Development Fund!) and verklempt and totally moved each time. Had I the money and the opportunity I would have seen it even more.
So why do these musicals move me (and, of course, there have been plays that do it as well, the original production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? for one magnificent example)? I think it's so many things. The coming together of disperate elements to create a cohesive whole. The moment when you know that everything "works", that there will never be another moment like this again. (That's why I see the productions as often as I can, for, unlike film, once they're gone, they're gone.)
Like the ghosts that haunt the Weissman Theater in FOLLIES, the ghosts of these productions will stay with me in my memory until the day I join them in a dimension where everything beautiful lives and waits. Call it religion if you will, I call it great and visceral art.