We can’t all travel to New York City and shell out for theater seats (and we certainly can’t travel back in time), so a cast album is often the best way to experience our favorite musicals. Here is a list of the best of the best Broadway cast albums, ranked with their popularity, critical acclaim, influence, and staying power in mind.
50. Pacific Overtures
Rarely performed, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about 19th-century Japan combines traditional Japanese musical forms and theater with his signature complex compositional style. Most importantly, Pacific contains Sondheim’s favorite of all of his own songs, “Someone in a Tree.” The song is also featured, perhaps in its best version, in the live concert album A Stephen Sondheim Evening.
49. Dear World
Angela Lansbury plays a French countess who foils an oil corporation’s plan to drill under a Parisian bistro in this 1968 production that was ultimately a critical failure. In spite of the Times’ review claiming the show “stubbornly refuses to get off the ground,” Jerry Herman’s (Hello, Dolly!, Mame) charming score is perfectly matched to his leading lady, and his songs about alienation in the modern world still resonate.
48. Spring Awakening
Pure teenage angst in a rock musical that takes place in 19th-century Germany. Songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F#@%ed” express the sexual frustration and “sadness in your soul” when you’re an adolescent ill-prepared for life’s disappointments. Glee’s Lea Michele Sarfati and John Gallagher, Jr. star in the original cast recording.
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It was John F. Kennedy’s favorite musical, and the utopian lore Camelot evoked was a sort of metaphor for the Kennedy administration for many throughout the “Turbulent Sixties.” It was also Richard Burton’s rare musical role and the only time he appeared with Julie Andrews. Their chemistry shines through the show’s endearing songs as they convince listeners “that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot.”
46. The Most Happy Fella
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The stars of Frank Loesser’s epically long musical, Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan Loesser, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 28, 1956 to perform a few songs from the show. It just so happened to be the same night Elvis Presley would make his second appearance on the program, so they found themselves with the lion’s share of American television viewers tuned in to their performance. The musical is somewhat of an underrated classic, filled with catchy tunes and operatic voices.
45. The Wiz
A racial barrier-breaker on Broadway, The Wiz told L. Frank Baum’s story with an all-black cast and soul and disco music. Plenty had their doubts about whether the costly venture was worthwhile — and it was even left out of the 1975 Tony Awards — but the show has proven its critics wrong, generating a movie adaptation with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lena Horne, and gaining entry into the Library of Congress in 2017.
44. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Part horror, part comedy, and part tragedy, there isn’t another musical like Sweeney Todd. Make no mistake: Tim Burton’s film adaptation will never deliver the same vocal excellence as Len Cariou’s and Angela Lansbury’s 1979 performance. As proof, sink your teeth into the original recording, if you can find it, and “have a little priest.”
43. I Love My Wife
An incredible, but mostly forgotten, Cy Coleman musical from 1977, I Love My Wife brought both folk music and wife-swapping to the Broadway stage. The cast recording is a unique time capsule of fun, risque showtunes that could only be the product of ’70s New York.
42. The Lion King
Audiences knew there was something different about this Broadway experience when giant elephant and rhino puppets strolled down the aisles in the opening number. The soundtrack retains the magic of Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s music, along with some new tunes, like “He Lives in You.” Disney’s best Broadway venture remains one of the longest-running shows in history.
41. In the Heights
Before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical depicted Dominican immigrants in his home neighborhood of Washington Heights. The hip hop score is contagious and moving, and the film adaptation is on its way. The movie was set to hit theaters just last week, but the pandemic pushed it back a year.
40. On the Twentieth Century
A big musical farce featuring Kevin Kline and Madeleine Kahn on a train in the Roaring Twenties. Cy Coleman turned the 1932 play into a driving operetta that entertains and practically begs for a film adaptation.
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We’re going to have to choose to forget about the bizarre bomb of a movie adaptation released last winter and make a collective decision to remember Cats for the Broadway smash hit it was. The record-breaking Broadway engagement inspired a cult following and introduced scores of audiences to T.S. Eliot’s whimsical poetry through an eclectic mix of genre- and reality-bending songs. Taylor Swift? James Corden? I have no memory of that movie.
38. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
A sharp satire of the Mad Men business world of mid-century America, the joint effort of Frank Loesser, Bob Fosse, and Robert Morse follows a man who rises through the ranks of a business by reading a book and taking its advice.
This electric, edifying musical about the bold, reformist New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a hit, and its cast album was on the Billboard chart for more than a year. Though it seems to have been largely forgotten, Fiorello! offers a relevant history lesson on grassroots politics along with a dynamic, catchy score.
Long before he composed the Broadway sensation Wicked, Steven Schwartz made this humble rock musical adaptation of the New Testament. A favorite for high schools and community theaters across the country, Godspell also produced a hit album in 1971 (technically an Off-Broadway cast album) and a popular song in “Day by Day.”
35. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The seeming rise in youth competitiveness is sent up hilariously in this 2005 Broadway musical. Six child spelling bee contestants — played by adults, including Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson — face the sexual tension, familial disappointments, and paralyzing failure that comes with adolescence. The music ranges from sing-songy to full gospel as one by one the spellers are eliminated and their stories are revealed.
34. Man of La Mancha
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“The Impossible Dream” inspired covers by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, The Temptations, Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, and so many others. The 1965 musical that popularized the song was a telling of the ridiculously noble knight Don Quixote that ran for 2,300 performances at ANTA Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village.
33. Dear Evan Hansen
A unique modern musical in its treatment of youth anxiety, suicide, and social media, Dear Evan Hansen has taken pop-rock music to its most interesting and dynamic edge.
32. The Unsinkable Molly Brown
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After striking it rich with her oil man husband in Colorado, the famous Margaret Brown traveled Europe and sailed back on the RMS Titanic — until it sank, that is. Meredith Willson, of Music Man notoriety, wrote the songs and lyrics that immortalize the feisty socialite and all-American personality.
31. Avenue Q
The racy puppet musical that upset Wicked to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2004. Its cast album, like albums by 50 Cent and Ludacris that year, had a “Parental Advisory” sticker for its adult themes. Ultimately, the Sesame Street-style treatment of racism, homosexuality, and post-college ennui became a household name and breathed new life into Broadway.
30. Pajama Game
Of all the musicals about labor struggles (and there are a lot), Pajama Game is perhaps the campiest. The show introduced “Steam Heat” — and Bob Fosse’s minimalist choreography style — to American theater. Directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins butted heads over whether to keep the number in the show after tryouts, but Fosse won the Tony for Best Choreography because of it.
Before performing his most well-known role in Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little starred as the traveling preacher Purlie Victorious in this Jim Crow-era sendup of racism. The play’s author, Ossie Davis, and his wife and Purlie star Ruby Dee were avid Civil Rights activists and friends of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson.
28. The Book of Mormon
The creators of South Park struck gold with an irreverent musical about Mormon missionaries in Uganda. It’s one of the funniest musicals in history and, perhaps surprisingly, touching for its wide-eyed and well-meaning characters.
27. Into the Woods
The fervent fanbase of this fractured fairy tale amalgamation is made up of “musical-theatre fans who were children in the eighties and thought they were too good for Andrew Lloyd Webber,” if one is to believe Michael Schulman in The New Yorker. But Into the Woods, and Sondheim more broadly, have likely gained wider audiences with the spike in film adaptations and stage revivals of his work. This one is a masterful satire of fairy tales that can work its magic on any willing audience or listener. Even Cats fanatics.
A musical that brings the turn of the century to life, featuring figures from the era like Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington. Ragtime is a sprawling show, using historical music genres to tell dramatic stories of inequality and persistence with heart and humor.
25. Anything Goes
A wild ensemble of characters board a London-bound ship, and, as the title and famous number suggest, anything goes. This legendary collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and Cole Porter starred Ethel Merman and William Gaxton in its original 1934 production, but there are plenty of worthwhile recordings, including the 1987 revival with Patti LuPone.
24. Mr. President
Irving Berlin’s last musical — opening when the composer was 74 years old — received a lukewarm critical response. Mr. President was possibly “behind its time” when it ran in 1962, but it remains a refreshingly perky and underrated score from the man behind Annie Get Your Gun and White Christmas.
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In the long tradition of musicals that distill and celebrate the youth of an era, Rent depicted the artistic scene of New York City in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. But the late Jonathan Larson’s rock opera was also channeling something else: Puccini’s La Bohème, an Italian opera about a strikingly similar bohemian group of friends in Paris in the 1830s.
22. Merrily We Roll Along
The recent documentary The Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened chronicles the epic disappointment the young cast of Sondheim’s 1981 musical faced when they discovered their big break was a flop. Running for only 16 performances, Merrily received poor reviews (mostly due to the backwards, hard-to-follow plot). The show has resurfaced, however, many times over the years, and Richard Linklater is currently filming it in a Boyhood-style 20-year-long production to be released in 2040.
21. The Phantom of the Opera
With more than 13,000 performances, Phantom is the longest-running Broadway show by far. The original cast recording, featuring Michael Crawford’s haunting phantom and Sarah Brightman’s iconic soprano, is a staple of any showtunes collection.
20. Tie: West Side Story and The Sound of Music
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The artists behind West Side Story — Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Carol Lawrence — were a group of Broadway all-stars: diehard perfectionists out to make their modern Romeo and Juliet a theatrical hit. They succeeded, turning the rough gang story into a classic.
The thrilling and heartwarming true story of Maria Von Trapp and her romance, and escape from Germany, with an Austro-Hungarian naval captain. The songs have entered modern cultural parlance, and the musical spawned an adaptation that has become a cult film over the years. Mary Martin’s original Maria set the bar for many others, including Florence Henderson, Petula Clark, and, of course, Julie Andrews.
19. Hello, Dolly!
Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman was the original title of this Jerry Herman classic. Carol Channing originated the role of the Brooklynite matchmaker (and she played it at least three more times). Hello, Dolly! carved out a month and a half on the top of the album charts in the summer of 1964 (first as a cast album, then as a Louis Armstrong’s release) in a sea of top Beatles’ albums.
As the second-longest-running show in Broadway history, the 1996 revival of Chicago, and its cast album, has become the standard for the Prohibition-era musical. The Fosse-inspired dance sequences, captivating story, and never-miss song list have made it a mainstay musical in American theater.
17. Sunday in the Park with George
At the Art Institute of Chicago, you can see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the famous pointillist painting that took Georges Seurat two years to complete. In Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning musical, you can see a — greatly — fictionalized account of the artist’s life during those years and long afterward. Sunday is a brilliant meditation on art and expression, love and resentment. Mandy Patinkin’s vocal control in singing high notes one minute and barking like a dog the next is reason enough to experience the cast album (or the American Playhouse video recording).
16. The Music Man
It’s hard to overstate how popular The Music Man was upon its debut in 1957. The cast album was the most popular album in the country for three months, and it stayed on the Billboard charts for almost five years. After The Beatles covered “Till There Was You,” Meredith Willson’s estate made more money from royalties off their recording than the play.
15. Caroline, or Change
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The immensely innovative musical drama set in Civil Rights-era Louisiana combines soul, jazz, and folk music to tell a powerful, nuanced story about the American dream. Caroline, or Change has flown under the Broadway radar for mass audiences, but its commentary on race and class has never seemed more relevant. The cast album is a transcendent collage of American culture and a testament to African-American excellence in musical theater.
14. South Pacific
Critic John Kenrick wrote of South Pacific’s 1949 cast album, “this classic recording is essential to any civilized home.” From summer through winter that year, Americans snatched up the album, making it the best-selling record of the year, and possibly the decade. South Pacific takes a bold stance against racism that was a major theatrical risk in the 1940s. Its catchy songs and early adoption of antiracism have made it a centerpiece of American musical theater.
13. Funny Girl
In her second and last Broadway role, Barbra Streisand sings her heart out, launching a long recording and acting career. Her voice on this original cast album is indomitable, from “I’m the Greatest Star” to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” playing the comedic entertainer Fanny Brice.
If you’re only listening to the movie soundtrack, you’re missing a lot of music from the original show, songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “So What.” From the musical’s “overture” (a long drum roll and cymbal crash) to the ongoing juxtaposition between Berlin’s raucous cabaret scene and the rise of Nazism, Cabaret zeroes in on a particular intersection of history and entertainment and remains as both an exuberant exultation and a dark warning.
A simultaneously political and touching backstory that will change the way you think about The Wizard of Oz, Wicked shines a spotlight on the Wicked Witch of the West, retelling her redeeming story and creating a fantastical, steampunk Oz in the process. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel inhabit their roles, giving dynamo vocal performances and complicating the lore of the good witch and the bad witch.
10. Les Miserables
When Les Mis first opened in London, more than a few critics panned the musical, calling it a witless “Victorian melodrama.” Then, it became a record-breaker, drawing audiences adding up to the tens of millions over the years. At its heart, it is a story about injustice and tyranny over oppressed people, and its popular appeal probably owes to those universal themes as well as a killer score. Sometimes, the critics are just wrong.
9. A Little Night Music
Sondheim’s best-reviewed musical, and the one with his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” The musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night is a “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting … orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes,” according to the Times’s Clive Barnes. The original cast recording also features some of the best cover art to ever grace showtunes: at first glance, a nighttime elm, and with a closer look, nude reposing bodies in its branches.
8. My Fair Lady
George Bernard Shaw, ever the difficult playwright, refused to allow his play Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical. After he died in 1950, however, he could no longer object. Chase Manhattan Bank controlled the rights, and composers Lerner and Loewe preemptively scored the whole thing to have the upper hand over their competitors, MGM. The result was a critical and popular success that continues to delight audiences.
7. A Chorus Line
A disco album that holds up. A Chorus Line is a Broadway record-breaker that tells the stories of New York dancers with all of their ugliness, hilarity, and heartbreaking triumph or failure. The musical swept the Tonys in 1976 and became the longest-running American show for a time.
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Oklahoma! was the first Broadway musical smash hit. During its run, one radio announcer quipped, “Look at that play Oklahoma! A man died last week and left his place in line to his wife. If she dies before she gets her tickets, her place in line goes to an uncle in Baltimore.” Reportedly, the $4.80 tickets were going for as much as $50 on the street.
Ethel Merman plays the role of her life, radiating from the stage (and stereo) as Rose, the ultimate stage mom. Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, this backstage musical expresses the ecstasy and terror of show business ruthlessly.
4. Guys and Dolls
Gamblers, dancers, and good, Christian teetotalers make up this double romantic comedy that launched songs with serious staying power. Just a few weeks ago, Chris Thile was singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” on NPR. According to some accounts, Guys and Dolls was supposed to win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but writer Abe Burrows’s ties to the Communist Party turned off the Pulitzer committee and the award was cancelled.
As long as the performers stood stationary, James Rado said, a New York City ordinance allowed nudity in theatrical productions. Rado, along with his collaborator Gerome Ragni, took this opportunity to include a scene in their free-spirited musical in which the cast of over 20 performers shed their beads and jeans to sing a number stark naked. Before Hair, there was The Sound of Music and Camelot; after Hair, anything was possible. The cast recording was an irreverent favorite in Baby Boomer record collections. It was the last musical to hit number one on the Billboard album chart, until …
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Maybe the American history lesson is a tad romanticized and sexed up, but there’s no doubt that Hamilton has changed musical theater forever. In a sea of remakes and jukebox musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda carved his name on Broadway, making space for hip hop and minority performers in a story about a founding father. If you’ve managed to snatch up tickets in the five years this show has run in New York and toured the country, good for you. If you haven’t, you can finally see the video recording on Disney Plus.
1. Fiddler on the Roof
The political and the personal intertwine and unfold beautifully in this story of fading tradition. Every one of Jerry Bock’s songs manages to entertain, tell a story, and carry its audience to a remote Jewish village in Imperial Russia. Fiddler‘s themes of the pain of progress couldn’t possibly be more relevant. Anatevka might as well be America, and we are all fiddlers on a roof.
Ineligible Honorable Mentions:
Promenade, Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Show Boat Complete Recording
Chess, Original London Cast Recording
Featured image: Scene from Oklahoma, 1943-1944, Theatre Guild production, Library of Congress, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs
The 1940s were a financial low point for Broadway. The rise of the cinema, and subsequently television, provided a cheaper outlet for people seeking escapist entertainment, and the expensive production costs of Broadway shows paired with dwindling viewership led to closure (and conversion to movie houses) of many theaters. By the late 1940s it was necessary to call a meeting of theater unions and discuss the future of the industry.
Despite financial concerns, the 1940s also provided some iconic Broadway musicals, which could be seen for less than $5. Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town debuted in 1944, and Carousel opened in 1945 to critical and audience acclaim. Cole Porter provided the lyrics for the comedic musical Kiss Me Kate, which opened in 1948. In 1946 Ethel Merman starred as the titular Annie in the hit show Annie Get Your Gun. And of course there was 1944’s Oklahoma!, Rogers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration.
With shrinking profits, sacrifices had to be made in some areas, but costuming wasn’t one of them. The gingham shirts and calico frocks of Oklahoma! may have looked simple, but the musical’s costume budget – in 1944 – was $75,000. Where did the clothes come from, and why did they cost so much?
In 1944, The Saturday Evening Post published “How to Dress a Broadway Musical” in which writer Maurice Zolotow claimed, “lavish costumes pay off at the box office.” Zolotow described the Brooks Costume Rental Company, which at the time was one of the largest manufacturers of Broadway and circus costumes. Brooks offered an extensive collection of ready-made costumes for rent (everything from hula skirts to nun’s habits) to schools, community theaters, and off-Broadway houses. But their real calling was making custom costumes for Broadway productions, employing 250 costume makers who could create 20 new costumes a day.
The stars and designers of Broadway would come in for three fittings of each costume to make sure that the garments not only fit perfectly but also fulfilled the designer’s vision. The creation process was so painstaking because the costumes had to be up to task:
A theatrical costume must be made of the best and strongest material, it must be tailored perfectly, it must fit onto a body like a tight, wet bathing suit. It must be made to stand intense punishment, as the character goes through her performance eight times a week. It must stand an intense dry-cleaning once or twice a month. A society woman who has an evening gown made for her may wear the dress six times a year. But the similarly gorgeous evening gowns worn in, say, One Touch of Venus, are worn—and worn to the hilt— every night and twice on matinee days.
This thorough treatment led to hefty costume bills of around $75,000 for a show like Oklahoma!, or about $1 million in today’s dollars. (Circuses were even more expensive, costing upwards of $300,000.)
In those days, costume production for any given show happened within one building. The designer provided the sketches to the manufacturers, who then not only put the design to fabric but created the necessary accessories and wigs. William Ivey Long, a nine-time Tony award winning costume designer who has outfitted The Producers, Hairspray, Cinderella, and dozens of other shows, claims, “Back then there were several big costume shops that would deliver everything from soup to nuts.” Indeed, Brooks also provided “gloves, hats, shoes, sashes, scarves, petticoats, sweaters, berets, stockings.”
In the 75 years since Zolotow explored the Brooks company, many things have changed. Today, instead of bringing a design to one large costume house, Long shops around. He brings his pieces to different specialists and works hard to get the best work at the best price. Where “one-stop-shops” previously dominated the costume scene, modern manufacturers specialize in one aspect of costume. And budgets for modern productions are smaller. While it can cost around $300,000 to outfit a show, that’s only half of the budget for 1944’s Oklahoma! when adjusted for inflation.
In addition, the technological changes to theater have necessitated a change in costume design. “As we speak lighting is changing,” Long explains. The prevalence of LED lighting in theaters casts a blue tint onto the actors, requiring an alteration in the color of their clothes. Long noticed that costumes taken on tour into theaters that have not made the switch to LED lighting looked different than in their original performances and did not provide the same effect.
Today, the large costume houses no longer exist. Costume companies continue to rent out retired Broadway costumes to smaller-scale productions, yet these rental companies do not have nearly the dominance of years past. The Brooks company itself went through several sales, eventually becoming Dodgers Costumes, which closed its doors for good in 2015.
Broadway itself has experienced a surge of popularity in recent years. Despite rising ticket prices, 2019 marks the sixth record-breaking year for attendance in a row. Elevated tourism, recognizable show titles, longer show-runs and run-away hits like Hamilton keep people coming back for more. After all, despite changes in production or ticket prices, the show must go on.
Featured image: Photograph by Richard Beattie
By 1947, Joshua Logan was as much in demand as any director on Broadway, but even he lost a big fish from time to time. One of the most painful ones that got away was Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Logan was crushed, but not so permanently that he and his wife, Nedda, didn’t eagerly attend the play’s premiere on December 3, as guests of its scenic designer, their friend Jo Mielziner. Logan’s mood was elevated by the knowledge that in just a few weeks, a play of his own would be opening: Mister Roberts, a rollicking but poignant comedy about life aboard a Navy cargo ship stuck in a backwater of the Pacific in World War II. Logan had co-authored the script and was set to direct, with Leland Hayward producing. Henry Fonda had signed on to play the title character, and Broadway was already abuzz with anticipation.
So it was not surprising, when the Logans repaired to Sardi’s after the Streetcar opening, that Mielziner’s brother Kenneth MacKenna, a former actor and veteran story editor at MGM, mentioned a new novel that might provide some scenic color for Mister Roberts. That book was Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of 19 loosely linked short stories by James A. Michener, a Navy veteran now working as a textbook editor. Logan, who was headed with Hayward for a quick getaway to Miami Beach, picked up a copy to take with him and was immediately entranced by one of the stories, “Fo’ Dolla,” the tale of a passionate interracial romance between a Marine lieutenant from the Philadelphia Main Line and a young Tonkinese native. He resolved at once to try to buy the dramatic rights to the book. But the next morning, Logan recalled, Hayward sensed that something was up, and that afternoon, while Logan was napping, Hayward swiped the book and read it himself, exclaiming when Logan woke up, “Josh, we’re going to buy this son of a bitch!”
Whereupon Logan had an instant brainstorm: a musical adaptation by Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Of course,” Hayward replied, “but don’t you dare mention it to them. They’ll want the whole damn thing. They’d gobble us up for breakfast.” But Logan was nothing if not indiscreet, and a short time later, after returning to New York, he ran into Dick Rodgers at a cocktail party and could not resist blurting out a not-quite-true boast. “Don’t tell anyone I’ve told you this, but I own a story you might want to make a musical of.”
A few weeks later, at the Philadelphia tryout of Mister Roberts, Logan ran into Oscar Hammerstein and mentioned Tales of the South Pacific to him. Two days later, Oscar called back, just as excited, having read the book himself, and having also talked to Rodgers, who assured him, “Oh, I was crazy about it, too, but some son of a bitch I met at a cocktail party owns it so we haven’t got a chance.”
Logan was the SOB in question, of course, but he had not locked up the rights, and now Leland Hayward hit the roof: The would-be producers would have to share their pet project with the two most powerful men on Broadway, who insisted on 51 to 49 percent control.
Tales of the South Pacific was a neither-fish-nor-fowl creation, not a standard novel with a beginning, middle, and end, but more an accumulation of atmospheric character sketches. Oscar Hammerstein would somehow have to hammer it all into a coherent libretto that could hold an audience for two and a half hours. The way forward was not immediately obvious, but there was no shortage of color.
“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific,” Michener’s book begins, in an evocative passage that Oscar underlined in his own personal copy.
The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting. But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like and first thing you know I’m telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars!
Indeed, it is just such a woman — a wily, betel-chewing entrepreneur and master of pidgin GI slang who was known as Bloody Mary — who features prominently in “Fo’ Dolla,” the longest story in the book. Making the acquaintance of handsome young lieutenant Joe Cable, she spirits him to the nearby island of Bali Ha’i, where the French planters have sequestered their daughters for the war, and where he promptly falls for Mary’s own lovely daughter, Liat. With Mary playing an uncomfortable combination of matchmaker and procurer, Cable is drawn again and again to the mystic island. But despite his deep love for the girl, he knows he can never marry her or take her home to his family in Philadelphia.
Michener summons up a gallery of other compelling characters.
There is Luther Billis, a tanned, tattooed Seabee from the Navy’s construction battalion who is obsessed with a ritual native boar’s tooth ceremonial on a neighboring island. There is Ensign Bill Harbison, a snappy, ambitious, married officer who takes a shine to a Navy nurse from Arkansas, Nellie Forbush, and tries to rape her.
And there is Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French plantation owner, who falls in love with Forbush and asks her to marry him, in a story called “Our Heroine.” Nellie agrees, until she learns that de Becque has eight mixed-race daughters by four different mothers, two Javanese, one Tonkinese, and one Polynesian. But in the end, Nellie overcomes her fears and prejudices, returns to Emile, and joins him and his daughters in singing “Au Clair de la Lune.”
It was a lot for a librettist to absorb, and with his usual meticulous attention to detail and his strong eye for plot and character, Hammerstein went through Michener’s book story by story, underlining bits of dialogue, making red grease-pencil checkmarks in the margins. On a sheet of yellow legal paper, with page numbers from Michener’s book running down the left margin, he made notes of the characters’ names: Nellie, Harbison, and so on.
If this isn’t the damnedest show that’s ever been written, I’ll eat my hat,” Josh said when they were done.
The following month, Dick and Oscar went to Los Angeles to check up on one of their company’s most important properties: the national touring company of Annie Get Your Gun, featuring Mary Martin. A one-time dance instructor from Weatherford, Texas, Martin had first met Hammerstein in Hollywood in the 1930s. At an audition, she sang for him “a song you probably don’t know, ‘Indian Love Call.’” When she finished, Hammerstein told her, “Young lady, I think you have something. I would like to work with you on lines and phrasing, if you could come to my house every week.” Then he added, “Oh, and by the way, I know that song. I wrote it.”
Martin took Broadway by storm singing Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Leave It to Me in 1938. She performed the number’s litany of risqué double entendres about a kept woman and her older patron with the straightest of faces, dancing the accompanying striptease with the most innocent of miens. The result was a sensation.
Now as the partners sat by the pool at the Hotel Bel-Air, they fell to talking about the Michener book. From the beginning, the interracial romance of “Fo’ Dolla” had been envisioned as the central plotline of their show. But they were having second thoughts, concerned that the tale of Cable and Liat might come off as yet another twist on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. What about that other story, “Our Heroine,” with its appealing Frenchman and the young Navy nurse?
What happened next seems too improbable even to have been scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter. That same day, out of the blue, Rodgers got a call from Edwin Lester, the West Coast’s leading musical theater impresario who was presenting the very touring company of Annie Get Your Gun that Dick and Oscar had come to see. Now, he told Rodgers, he had a big problem: He had signed Ezio Pinza, the beloved Metropolitan Opera basso, to a 12-week, $25,000 contract in anticipation of producing a musical called Mr. Ambassador. The project had collapsed, but Lester was still on the hook for his guarantee with Pinza, who at 56 had decided to retire from grand opera.
“Do you and Oscar have anything cooking that might be suitable?” Lester wanted to know.
Years later, Rodgers would recall, “The whole picture suddenly began to take shape before my eyes. … I hung up and ran back to Oscar, who saw exactly what I saw.” Ezio Pinza as Emile de Becque.
But what about Nellie Forbush? The perfect candidate was right in their own backyard: Mary Martin. But Martin was reluctant. For one thing, singing Irving Berlin’s raucous songs for months on the road had lowered her vocal range. “What on earth do you want?” she asked. “Two basses?” The Annie Get Your Gun tour was ending in San Francisco that summer, and Martin and her husband, Richard Halliday, would be driving home to Connecticut. The partners agreed to give her time to think.
Meantime, Dick and Oscar set to work in earnest. Rodgers had promised Martin that she would not have to sing in competition with Pinza, so instead of a standard duet, he and Hammerstein created a pair of “Twin Soliloquies” in which the lead characters would explore their growing attraction in parallel melodies. As usual, Oscar went straight to the original source. In his copy of Tales of the South Pacific, he had underlined a passage and penciled “Song//” in the margin next to it: “‘I was looking at the cacaos,’ Nellie said in a sing-song voice. To herself she was saying, ‘I shall marry this man. This shall be my life from now on. This hillside shall be my home. And the afternoons he and I will sit here.’ Aloud, she continued, ‘They are beautiful, aren’t they?’” From this, Hammerstein fashioned a lyric of tentative inquiry in which both Nellie and Emile sing their private thoughts aloud.
By the time the Hallidays got back to Connecticut, Dick and Oscar had finished two more songs, “A Cockeyed Optimist,” in which Nellie sums up her sunny vision of the world, and “Some Enchanted Evening,” in which Emile declares a love for Nellie that is as intense and instantaneous as it is improbable. Martin and Halliday were summoned to the Rodgerses’ nearby country house to hear Josh Logan read the early dialogue, Dick play piano, and Oscar sing in his genial foghorn of a voice. It was a pleasant evening, and as the Hallidays headed home, Dick and Oscar asked for an answer within 72 hours. At 3:00 the next morning, Martin woke up Rodgers with a phone call: “Do we have to wait 72 hours to say ‘yes’?”
Working on the libretto with his usual skills of synthesis, Oscar sketched a detailed outline of the show. Picking and choosing characters and incidents from Michener’s stories, he wove together the lives of Nellie, Emile, Cable, and Liat into a single narrative. For comic relief, he seized on the character of Luther Billis from the story “Dry Rot” and asked Michener for some additional material on how a guy like that might operate. “I suggested that he would probably run a laundry of some kind,” Michener would recall. Hammerstein changed the number of Emile’s children from eight to two (a boy and a girl); he linked Cable and de Becque — when Nellie rejects Emile’s proposal of marriage, de Becque joins Cable on a dangerous mission. He flagged Operation Alligator, the pending assault on the Japanese-held islands, early in the action, allowing all the major characters to be caught up in its wake. In the end, Cable dies under enemy fire, but de Becque survives and returns to Nellie, who has overcome her biases and joins the Frenchman and his family as the curtain falls.
“If this isn’t the damnedest show that’s ever been written, I’ll eat my hat,” Josh said when they were done. And in fact, the show was shaping up with unusual excitement all around. One evening at the Logans’ apartment, Rodgers first played Nellie’s exuberant confession of love for Emile — “A Wonderful Guy” — for Mary Martin, sitting beside him at the piano, and she sang it with such growing enthusiasm that she fell off the bench at the end. “Never do it any other way,” Dick said.
The emerging show was also a true collaboration among all the artists involved, as evidenced by “Bali Ha’i,” Bloody Mary’s song about the alluring island to which Lieutenant Cable would be drawn. Oscar had written a lyric and presented it to Dick at a production meeting over lunch in Logan’s apartment one day. “I spent a minute or so studying the words, turned the paper over and scribbled some notes, then went into the next room where there was a piano, and played the song,” Rodgers would recall. “The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than five minutes.”
In fact, the first three notes of the song, on the syllables “Bali Ha’i” repeated with insistent rapidity, would become the first sound audiences heard at the beginning of the stirring overture, and a kind of leitmotif for the whole show.
Mary Martin herself came up with another idea that turned into a song. As she was showering one day, it occurred to her that she had never seen any actress wash her hair, really wash her hair, onstage. She ran stark naked to ask her husband what he thought. “Don’t you dare tell that to anyone,” he said. “Not a soul. If you do, they’ll go for it, and then you’ll have to do it onstage eight times a week.” But the next thing they knew, Josh Logan was on the phone and they promptly told him about the idea, swearing him not to pass it on to Dick and Oscar. “So, naturally,” Martin recalled, “we all told them both. They said I was balmy but if I was willing to do it they loved the idea.” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” became Nellie’s brief declaration of independence from Emile. (And because Martin could never get all the soap out of her hair onstage, she washed it again in her dressing room after every performance, and then again at home before the next day’s show, so she calculated that she wound up washing it not just eight times a week but more than 20 times — for three and a half years in New York and London.)
For Oscar, part of the strong appeal of Michener’s book was its frank treatment of racial prejudice. Segregation was still a fact of life not only in the Jim Crow South but in much of the urban North as well. It had only been in 1947 that Jackie Robinson had broken big league baseball’s color line. In the draft of the South Pacific script that Logan and Hammerstein completed in time for the first cast rehearsal, after Nellie has broken off her relationship with Emile in horror at his mixed-race children and Cable finds himself unable to marry Liat, despite his love for her, the young Americans share their feelings.
“Damn it to hell!” Cable shouts to Nellie. “What’s the difference if her hair is blonde and curly or black and straight? If I want her to be my wife, why can’t I have her?”
“You can!” Nellie replies. “It’s just that — people — I mean they say it never works. Don’t they?”
“They do,” Cable answers in disgust. “And then everybody does their damnedest to prove it. A hell of a chance Liat and I would have in one of those little gray stone and timber houses on the Main Line. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cable entertained, last Tuesday, with a housewarming. Nobody came!’”
This dialogue would be dropped before the first performance. But not the song that followed, which Cable sings in response to Nellie’s assertion that her prejudice is “something that is born in me!”
The New York opening was set for Thursday, April 7, 1949. Oscar and Dick were confident enough of the critics’ verdict that they abandoned theatrical superstition and booked their own opening-night party, an elegant supper dance at the St. Regis Roof, and ordered a couple hundred copies of the New York Times to pass out to their guests. They had not miscalculated: The critics offered raves all around. Brooks Atkinson in the Times called the play “a magnificent musical drama,” Richard Watts Jr. of the Post found the show “an utterly captivating work of theatrical art,” and Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune pronounced it “a show of rare enchantment.”
Tickets immediately became all but unobtainable, and scalping was rife. Even more than Oklahoma!, South Pacific became a huge cultural and social phenomenon. Virtually every American adult had some palpable connection to World War II, which meant that they also had a natural connection to the show. Souvenir shops sold fake ticket stubs, so that people who were unable to get in could display them on their coffee tables, as if to suggest they had seen the show.
The producers also licensed a wide range of consumer products with a South Pacific theme, from a “Knucklehead Nellie” doll to a line of sheets, towels, pillowcases, and bathrobes; silk ties and clothing; toiletries; hairbrushes; compacts and cigarette cases; and a home hair permanent formula. Never before had a Broadway play undertaken such merchandising for any purpose other than free publicity. Now South Pacific’s marketing licenses would soon bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues to the manufacturers — and tens of thousands in royalties to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In the spring of 1950, the show swept every major category at the fourth annual Tony Awards, and on May 1 came the crowning honor: South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
South Pacific ran for 1,925 performances on Broadway. Ezio Pinza left the cast for Hollywood when his contract was up in June 1950, but Martin stayed on another year before leaving to head up the London company. She was replaced by Martha Wright, who was herself later briefly replaced by a lissome blonde newcomer from Iowa named Cloris Leachman. Myron McCormick was the only principal from the original cast to stay with the show till the end. By the time of his 1,000th performance as Luther Billis, he had lived through three sets of actors playing the de Becque children; witnessed 10 marriages in the cast, and was on his third pair of shoes. He still had his original coconut bra, but the rope straps had been patched. On the closing night, January 16, 1954, he led the cast in singing “Auld Lang Syne” with tears in his eyes. By design, the curtain never fell, and the audience, hoping for one last promise of paradise, lingered on for half an hour before finally drifting out into the night.
This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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