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The Age of Aquarius

Broadway musicals changed forever during the Swinging Sixties. NEIL GENZLINGER looks back at eight historic moments.

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Hair on Broadway, 1968
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Alberghetti in Carnival!, 1961
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Joel Grey (inset) as the Emcee of the 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret
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What comes after a golden age? Sometimes, an age of stagnation or regression. But in the case of the Broadway musical, the golden age gave way to a decade of important if messy transformation — the 1960s. Just look at the bookends. The decade opened with 1950s classics such as The Music Man and The Sound of Music still running, but it was ushered out by the jolting innovations of Cabaret and Hair. That's a lot of change in a short amount of time. And change requires catalysts. Who and what were those catalysts? Though of course there are plenty of others, here are eight nominees, some obvious, some more obscure, some frivolous. Also, note that transformation is not always for the better. Who are the heroes and villains in this listicle? You decide.

ELVIS PRESLEY 

What? Follow along: Elvis was the inspiration for Bye Bye Birdie, which opened in April 1960 and was the first show both directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. He went on to direct and choreograph the decade's second-biggest hit, Hello, Dolly!, which was eclipsed only by another choreographer-directed show, Jerome Robbins's Fiddler on the Roof. And let's not forget Bob Fosse (Sweet Charity). Solidifying the notion that a show's director and its choreographer could be the same person shaped future generations of theater-makers. Just ask Susan Stroman. 

ANNA MARIA ALBERGHETTI 

This lovely Italian actress and operatic soprano made her Broadway debut — indeed, her only Broadway appearance — on April 12, 1961, in Carnival! Just two and a half weeks earlier, in the same theater, the Imperial, Gypsy had closed after a run of almost two years. Gypsy, of course, had been a star turn for Ethel Merman, and the contrasts come easily: Alberghetti in her mid-twenties, Merman in her fifties; Alberghetti new to Broadway, Merman a veteran; Alberghetti playing a sprite with a comparatively sprightly voice, Merman the picture you see in the dictionary when you look up "brassy." But the contrast that had lasting effect was this: Alberghetti wore a wireless microphone. Did an opera singer really need a mike to be heard in the back rows of the Imperial? Hard to tell at this remove, but the debate over enhancing the voices of individual performers (as opposed to using area mikes or none) rages on. Do individual microphones lead to over-amplified assaults on the ear that are all noise, no nuance? Or do they increase vocal diversity — roles can go to performers who may not have a set of power lungs — and let actors sing love songs to each other rather than aiming them up at the balcony? Depends on your taste, but one thing is sure: they lead to higher ticket prices. Gotta pay those sound designers, associate sound designers and whoever's job it is to try to hide microphones in hairlines and hats.

DAVID MERRICK 

Of course the outlandish, abrasive, prolific producer would be on this list, but for what? The 1960s were a busy and headline-grabbing decade for Merrick, but from today's perspective much about him seems more throwback than transformative. He was the last of P. T. Barnum's children, known for the epic publicity stunt, as when, in 1967, he installed a black cast in his hit Hello, Dolly! to help revive ticket sales, which had begun to flag in the show's third year. These days, when a musical makes a Merrick-like splash, it tends to be inadvertent (the accident-prone Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, for example).

But in one respect, Merrick in the 1960s was visionary: in a time of retrenchment for Broadway, he fearlessly imported shows from Britain, both musicals and straight plays. Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, the Anthony Newley vehicle, ran for more than a year after Merrick brought it to town in 1962. Oliver! made its way from the West End in 1963, running for almost two years.

British shows had of course been migrating to New York since Broadway's earliest days, but times could be tough in the theater district in the 1960s, and England wasn't generating much in the way of musicals anyway. To have Broadway's leading producer repeatedly reaffirm his belief that British shows could still sell in America was of no small consequence in an era of changing tastes. It kept the London-to-New-York line open, as it were, and a stampede would soon commence.

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Waltz collaborators Rodgers, Sondheim, John Dexter and Laurents
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STEPHEN SONDHEIM   

Wait a minute; what decade are we talking about? The 1960s wasn't Sondheim's finest period, despite A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (the first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics), which enjoyed a run of more than two years, ending in 1964. It was, however, a time of transformation for him and thus for the Broadway musical, largely because of two flops — Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz? 

Anyone Can Whistle, a collaboration between Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, was a nine-performance disaster in 1964. "Arthur and I had written the piece as if we were the two smartest kids in the class (in the back row, of course), wittily making fun of the teacher as well as our fellow students, demonstrating how far ahead of the established wisdom we were," Sondheim wrote in Finishing the Hat. The lesson learned, perhaps, was to respect the audience's intelligence, something his later, more groundbreaking work did.

Do I Hear a Waltz?, from the same year, had more performances but not enough to be considered a success. It was a lyric-writing job Sondheim took out of obligation to Oscar Hammerstein, who before his death in 1960 had asked his protégé to consider collaborating with Richard Rodgers. Rodgers wrote the music, Laurents the book. It was, Sondheim wrote, his first and only "Why?" musical — a project based on previously existing material (in this case, a Laurents play) for which the collaborators never address a vital issue. "They never question the need to musicalize the piece," he wrote. "They never ask themselves what music will do for the story that hasn't already been accomplished by the original author." 

After these two misfires, Sondheim stayed off Broadway for the rest of the decade. But when he returned, it was with material to which he had an emotional connection, and which challenged the audience musically and structurally, beginning in April 1970 with Company, often regarded as the show that anchored the age of the concept musical.

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Lansbury in Mame
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ANGELA LANSBURY AND JERRY ORBACH 

Anyone Can Whistle may have been a flop, but it did provide Angela Lansbury with her first Broadway musical role, and two years later she would turn up as the star of Mame, one of the decade's most successful shows. Meanwhile Orbach was building a pretty good resumé too, as the puppeteer in Carnival! and the male lead in Promises, Promises. These two great stars followed similar paths — Tony Awards (her: 1966; him: 1969), memorable Broadway roles in later decades (her: Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music; him: Chicago, 42nd Street), even TV fame as investigators (her: Murder, She Wrote; him: Law & Order). They're on this list, though, as representative of another phenomenon of the 1960s — the long run. The decade was tumultuous for theater economics, with costs escalating, audiences fickle and the Broadway district growing seedier. The list of best-musical nominees for some of those years is startlingly anemic (1968: Hallelujah, Baby!,The Happy Time, How Now, Dow Jones, Illya Darling, none lasting a year). Yet at the same time, the decade saw more runs of 1,000 performances or more than had ever been seen before. The decade showed that with the right book and music, perhaps aided by a breakout song, a show could run for what seemed like forever.

But not without the other ingredient — the right stars. Both Mame (1,508) and Promises, Promises (1,281) were on the long-run list. And let's not forget the longest run of all, though it wasn't on Broadway — The Fantasticks, which opened in 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse with Orbach as El Gallo. It was he who introduced one of the decade's most enduring theater songs, "Try to Remember." 

THE BROADHURST THEATER AUDIENCE ON NOVEMBER 20, 1966   

Many words have been written about the brilliance of and creative process behind Cabaret, which opened that night at the Broadhurst, and deservedly so. The show was that startling and that different — in its structure, in its music, in its subject matter, in its allegories. But perhaps the most important thing of all from that moment in time was that the audience got it. It's not accurate to say that every musical before 1960 was sunny and upbeat, but in general in the golden age, people went to a show in hopes of leaving with smiles on their faces and peppy tunes in their heads. The 1960s, though, let more cynicism and pessimism and darkness into the theater. This happened slowly and subtly at first: Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, is hardly upbeat, but the hummable songs made it seem at least a cousin to the book musicals of yore. 

Not Cabaret. It asked a lot of the audience (which, for starters, found itself looking at itself, since the set featured a mirror). It changed the contract, as it were, and demanded that the people in the theater stretch and think rather than be content merely to be entertained. It asked them to leave the theater more somber than they had entered. For 1,165 performances, the people showed that they were ready to do those things. Musical theater, or at least the best of it, has been exploring complexity ever since. 

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Hitmaker Armstrong
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LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND THE COWSILLS 

Huh? In an alternate universe, this is the story of the Broadway musical in the 1960s: musical tastes in the culture at large changed even as shows linked song and story more intricately, making it harder to break a Broadway song out into a radio-friendly hit. And thus musical theater, once a regular source of catchy tunes for mainstream singers, became estranged from pop culture just as opera had, turning into a form of entertainment relevant primarily to East Coast elites.

All of that might easily have happened, but it didn't, thanks to an improbable string of crossovers. Armstrong's version of "Hello, Dolly!"became a No. 1 hit in early May 1964, elbowing aside the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." (The year before, the Beatles had done their part to maintain the pop-Broadway connection, recording "Till There Was You," from The Music Man.) Promises, Promises, with songs by the pop team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, provided AM hits for Dionne Warwick and others. And, of course, Hair was tapped by acts including the 5th Dimension, Three Dog Night and the family-friendly Cowsills, who recorded the title song. 

That a show such as Hair, distilled from cultural turmoil, made Broadway is one thing (and more on that later). But that pop culture drew hits from Hair is another. A 1960s Broadway show, no matter how successful, was seen by relatively few people, most from a narrow demographic stripe. But in short order everyone was humming that Hair music. And so the Broadway-to-Top-40 connection survived the 1960s. Eventually someone realized the flow could be reversed, leading to shows such as American Idiot and the infestation of jukebox musicals. Yeah, transformation isn't always for the better.

TOM O'HORGAN   

Speaking of Hair, a tip of the hat to the man who directed the original Broadway version, which opened in April 1968. The "American tribal love-rock musical" had begun at the Public Theater and was the kind of show that, in another age, would have been neutered in the move to Broadway. It was indeed changed for the transfer, but it wasn't tamed. The book, such as it was, became even less important; O'Horgan, a veteran downtown director in his first Broadway assignment, made the show more of a counterculture experience than a story. That included aiming for a certain egalitarianism.

"We were trying to do a thing where there was no best seat in the house," he said in a 1993 interview. "That's why we put performers up in the balcony and broke down the proscenium arch." 

It must have worked, because the show ran for more than four years. "Some of his more outlandish ideas were once in a while too much," Clive Barnes wrote in his review in The New York Times, "but basically, after so many musicals that have been too little, too much makes a change for the good." spacer 

NEIL GENZLINGER is a television and occasional theater critic at The New York Times. 

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Current Issue: July 2015 — VOL. 80, NO. 1