DARKNESS AND DANGER | As the American musical continued its mid-century ascent moving into the 1960s, Broadway witnessed an increasing number of new works with serious subject matter and dramatic sensibilities, delving even further into the fields of darkness and danger. Carnival, for instance, was an unusually sensitive smash that juxtaposed its colorful circus settings and its warm xylophone melodies with themes of rape, violence, and mental illness; I Can Get It for You Wholesale painted a bitter, scathing portrait of a depression-era garment manufacturer whose unapologetically ruthless business practices burn both his friends and family; and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever offered a lightweight and unfinished exploration of extrasensory perception, hypnosis, psychiatry, and reincarnation. Elsewhere, two of the period’s most exceptional entertainments proved to be Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof, a pair of completely unified, individually stylized masterworks directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and interspersed with thrilling dramatic moments of power and significance.
VAUDEVILLE, BURLESQUE, AND REVUE | In the late 1950s and early 1960s, despite a preponderance of high profile flops like I Had a Ball, Subways Are for Sleeping, and Wildcat, Broadway produced a dazzling collection of expertly crafted, meticulously constructed musical comedies, each of which embraced the artistic maturity of the modern musical stage while mining the comical crevasses and stylistic ravines of vaudeville and burlesque – contemporary clown shows and newfangled farces whose style and structure was similarly informed by revue. (Revue informed the style and structure of countless shows throughout the canon.) Among the most polished and prominent mid-century musical comedies were Bye Bye Birdie, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Hello, Dolly!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Little Me, a sensational show business sketchbook in which television and stage star Sid Caesar played seven different characters, echoing the early 20th century offerings of Al Jolson and Fred Stone. Do Re Mi, too, offered some fine flashes of low comic fun.
EUROPEAN PRODUCTS | Though the musical stage of the mid-20th century was defined almost exclusively by a maturing American art form, a smattering of European products like Irma La Douce and Oliver! caught the eyes and ears of Broadway audiences. Oh What a Lovely War and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, in particular, peppered their storytelling with narrative and thematic comment. Incidentally, all four pieces were produced on the Main Stem by David Merrick, a legendary showman who racked up a laundry list of hits and misses.
In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the Main Stem witnessed a number of new plays and musicals built around interracial love stories. Among the most prominent were Golden Boy (1964), Kwamina (1961), No Strings (1962), and The Owl and the Pussycat (1964). One of the first instances of Black and white romance on the 20th century stage was Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924). Headlined by Paul Robeson and Mary Blair, the original Broadway production encountered considerable controversy, with Mayor John Francis Hylan refusing to allow eight children to appear in the prologue. Consequently, the first scene of the play was read aloud, reportedly by director James Light, for the entirety of the initial eight-week run.
PHILOSOPHICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, AND ABSURD | In a turbulent transitional period that found an increasing number of dramatic works taking a turn toward the philosophical, the psychological, and the absurd, Edward Albee arrived on Broadway and riveted audiences with such piercing offerings as The Ballad of the Sad Café, A Delicate Balance, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Though the list of new plays by American writers similarly included Ketti Frings’ Look Homeward, Angel and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Broadway began to find a significant number of its most prominent nonmusical products penned and imported by contemporary European playwrights, including Jean Anouilh’s Becket, Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, and Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! One of the most unique and exciting transatlantic offerings was Beyond the Fringe, a satirical comedy revue created and performed by Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller.
THE BROADWAY SITCOM | In the 1960s, following the rapid rise of television over the course of the prior decade, Broadway experienced a surge in contemporary farce comedies, led by the likes of Abe Burrows’ Cactus Flower, Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary, and Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s Take Her, She’s Mine, which was produced by Harold Prince and directed by George Abbott. The undisputed king of the Broadway sitcom, however, was Neil Simon, a legendary comedy writer who toiled primarily in television variety shows before making a name for himself on the legitimate stage with Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, and The Odd Couple.