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The Highs and Lows of Musical Theater

Put On A Happy FaceIn his new autobiography, Put on a Happy Face, composer Charles Strouse at one point writes, “If you speak of musical failures, to most people, it’s as boring as hearing about ‘the four hours I spent waiting for a plane at the Buffalo airport.'”

Most people—except for musical-theater fans, that is! America is said to be obsessed with success, but Broadway has a singularly obsessive relationship with failure; no wonder one of the most beloved books about theater, Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie, is subtitled “Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.” It’s not surprising, then, that the most interesting parts of Strouse’s books concern his misfires.Indeed while Strouse has at least two huge hits to his name, 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie and 1977’s Annie, he’s also known on the Great White Way for a series of crushing flops, including 1978’s A Broadway Musical, which opened and closed the same night; 1983’s Dance a Little Closer, which shut down after one performance; 1986’s Rags, sent packing after four performances; 1991’s Nick & Nora, which closed a week after opening. As Mandelbaum puts it, “Strouse is one of the few composers left who likes to go up to bat again and again, and if the projects aren’t worthy of his talent, Strouse seems to enjoy exercising it nevertheless.”

Mind you, Mandelbaum writes this after commenting on the large number of flops by a certain Stephen Sondheim; there’s worse company to keep, even if Strouse doesn’t get the respect Sondheim does. Part of it is that rather than a haunted, tortured genius, Strouse was a craftsman with a real knack for writing catchy tunes (parallel to his theater career, he spent years working for an advertising agency), even if you had to trawl through wildly uneven shows to find them; another reason is that he was sometimes paired with middling lyricists, which did tend to drag the songs down.

Fortunately, Strouse’s shows regularly pop up in concert versions; it’s in that format that over the past few years I’ve seen Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy, Applause and It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman. Yes, I’ve enjoyed them all, especially the first one; no, they aren’t likely to be revived on Broadway, except perhaps the first one (which is a ton more fun than, say, Grease). Snobby afficionados may look down on these shows, and even on Annie, which spawned the mega-hit and audition classic “Tomorrow,” as cheeseball, but Strouse knew how to write real melodies, a talent that’s harder than ever to find these days (and if you’ve endured A Catered Affair, you know what I’m talking about).

In the book, Strouse details the genesis of some of his ill-fated shows, and it’s fascinating to see how too many cooks truly could spoil the broth. The composer’s deep-set insecurity put him at a disadvantage amidst all this: “How was I supposed to know what I liked? For God’s sake, others always had to tell me. If I played a song in an empty room, I’d have no idea whether it was good or bad.” No wonder he’d embark on projects that someone with a stronger sense of self would have flagged as dangerous from the get-go. It’s a thin line between too much ego and not enough, and Strouse—or at least his book; for all I know, others may think he was hampered by too much self-regard—provides a fascinating peek into the life of an artist burdened by the latter.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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