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Broadway 101

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"A Bright Golden Haze"
1940 - 1950

Part Three

In the same month that Berlin opened his show at the Broadway Theater, the American Theater Wing began their Lunchtime Follies playing to each successive shift of workers at a Brooklyn shipbuilding yard. The intention of these "Follies" was to boost morale and productivity at the various war plants that were visited. Rationing of gas and tires and the priorities given to moving troops and materiel on trains cut deeply into the productions of touring shows and productions out of town are severely curtailed. Summer stock productions were reportedly decreased by as much as 50%. Broadway was as strong in supporting this war effort as it had been during WWI.

As it did for film, the war provided plenty of material for Broadway's writers. Sidney Kingsley's The Patriots offered the democratic ideals of Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton (172 performances), and Maxwell Anderson's The Eve of St. Mark, a tender love story cut short by the death of a soldier ran for 306 performances. James Gow and Arnaud d'Usseau provided the anti-Nazi Tomorrow the World starring a 12 year old Skip Homier. Surprisingly, the show about a boy whose father was killed by the Nazis who then made the son one of themselves, ran for 499 performances and Homier replicated his role in the 1944 movie. In January of 1943, Ethel Merman teamed again with Cole Porter for the production of Something For the Boys. A simple tale of servicemen, their inheritance, and a girl who received radio signals in her teeth. A year later, Over 21 by Ruth Gordon based in part on her life with Garson Kanin and part on the life of Dorothy Parker tells the story of a soldier and his writer-wife.

In 1939, after the schism between Theater Guild and the Group Theater, Lawrence Langner and Terry Helburn assumed total administrative management of the Theater Guild. The decade that Langner has called "the wavering years" ended, and while the first season (1939-40) was successful, with plays like The Time of Your Life, The Philadelphia Story, There Shall Be No Night and The Fifth Column, the second season (1940-41), was not as admirable. Langner put part of the blame on the increasing difficulties of producing under the exigencies of the war in Europe, and the time which he devoted to the development of the National Inventor's Council in Washington, D. C. and that which Terry Helburn and the Guild's associate Producer, Armina Marshall (Mrs. Lawrence Langner) were devoting to the Theater Wing's war effort.

There were a number of events that Langner was proud of in that season though, and perhaps the most memorable was the production of Tennessee Williams' first full length play, The Battle of Angels. The play closed after a very short engagement in Boston where both the critics and Guild subscribers scoured it on the basis that the religious obsession of one of the characters, and the subject of a frustrated genteel southern woman conducting affairs beneath the bedroom of her paralyzed husband were morally corrupt.

Because of this failure by both press and audience to recognize the psychological portraits in the play, the Guild lost the opportunity to produce both The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar…. It also lost to the Guild, the opportunity to produce the first offerings of a second young playwright who, like Williams, had been studying under the tutelage of Helburn and John Glassner at the New School. Arthur Miller chose other organizations to produce both, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman, after the Boston failure of the Williams production. In 17 years, Battle of Angels will make it to Broadway as Orpheus Descending.

The following season, (1941-42) was equally as disheartening for the Guild. With a revival of Ah Wilderness getting an indifferent audience, and The Rivals with solid stars Eva LeGallienne and Bobby Clark leading a strong but profitless production, the Guild was desperate for a profitable new production to cover the losses of the preceding two years. Helburn, Langner and Marshall had been wrestling with the idea of creating a musical, and had opted to attempt it with a property they already had claim to; Lynn Riggs' autobiographical Green Grow the Lilacs. Richard Rodgers had become a neighbor of the Langners in Connecticut, and Langner approached him with the idea. Rodgers, who had been collaborating with Lorenz Hart for a number of years, was fearful. Hart was ill, making another collaboration unlikely. In retrospect, it was to create a whole new direction for musical theater. Rodgers admired the work of Oscar Hammerstein Jr. as lyricist and book writer, Hammerstein had admired the composition style of Rodgers. The two had worked together on campus shows while they were both students attending Columbia University. The two were introduced and contracts were signed.

The book was finished in the late summer of 1942, and the search for staging and cast members began immediately. With the coffers of the Guild so close to empty, there was also a frantic scramble for the necessary production funds. Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts were chosen as "Curly" and "Laurie", Celeste Holm for "Ado Annie". Based on the visual production of The Pirates, a co- production of the Guild and The Playwright's Company, Lunt and Fontanne's costume and set designers, Miles White and Lemuel Ayers were hired. Rouben Mamoulian was offered the director's chair and accepted.

The final credit was Agnes De Mille, who had returned from England to continue her dancing and choreography and had recently completed a folk ballet, Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York. Rodgers and Hammerstein loved the folksy nature of the ballet and De Mille was hired. The play opened on March 11, 1943 in New Haven with the name, Away We Go. With very little adjusting, (Mamoulian opted to change the lighting to highlight the drama of certain scenes) the play finally opened in the St. James on March 31, as Oklahoma!. For the first time, music, comedy, drama, dance, and staging were totally integrated to produce a single show: a musical in which the chorus didn't appear until 40 odd minutes after the curtain went up; a comedy, which rather violently killed off a major character. The direction begun by Jerome Kern in Very Good Eddie, in 1915, and later in Showboat, in 1927, had finally found its full fruition.

The show seemed an instant success with fans outraged that scalpers were getting up to $12.00 for orchestra seats which sold at the box-office for $4.40. It soon became apparent that a second cast would be necessary to fulfill the tour engagements. Oklahoma! ran for five years at the St. James, logging over 2200 performances.

When the scope of Oklahoma!'s success was realized, the Guild approached Rodgers and Hammerstein to transform another property into a musical. The Guild offered Molnar's Liliom. Hesitant to begin, the pair finally agreed and the setting was changed from Budapest to Maine, allowing the Rodgers and Hammerstein team the freedom to write in their own purely American style. The result of this collaboration was of course, Carousel. Created by almost the same production team as Oklahoma!, with the exception of the costume designer, it opened in April of 1945 at the Majestic, across the street from the St. James where Oklahoma! was running. Top box-office price was $6.00, even higher than it's predecessor across the street. John Raitt played "Liliom", now called "Billy Bigelow", and Jan Clayton was "Julie". Defying the standard musical theater convention of the boy and girl together for the happily ever after at the end, Rodgers and Hammerstein created a darker musical drama. The form of the book musical had finally been set. Music, lyric, and dance are finally working together to tell a story as well as entertain, and the musical is no longer an escapist medium, but an informing and thought provoking one.

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