Broadway Musicals of the 1950s

July 6, 2017
An American in Paris (1951)
Mary Martin and Ethel Merman bringing Broadway to TV

By John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2004)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Mary Martin and Ethel Merman sing to a television audience of sixty million viewers in 1953.

On June 15, 1953, the Ford Motor Company commemorated its fiftieth anniversary with an all-star television revue. The highlight was a joint performance by and staged by Jerome Robbins and transmitted live from Broadway's massive Center Theatre. The ladies sang trademark solos before sharing some duet medleys. The joint CBS/NBC broadcast attracted over sixty million viewers, and a live Decca recording of the Merman-Martin act sold over 100, 000 copies in two days.

In the 1950s, Broadway musicals were a major part of American popular culture. Every season saw new stage musicals send songs to the top of the charts. Public demand, a booming economy and abundant creative talent kept Broadway hopping. To this day, the shows of the 1950s form the core of the musical theatre repertory. The best of these musicals integrated every element, offering recognizable characters singing in stories told with wit and genuine heart – in short, they applied the Rodgers & Hammerstein formula.

Even mediocre musicals that applied Rodgers & Hammerstein's formula could make a profit. Happy Hunting (1956 - 408 performances) had a score by a Brooklyn dentist, but who cared so long as Ethel Merman was on hand to sing it? The plot was ripped (in the clumsiest way) from the headlines. A low-born Philadelphia socialite who is not invited to Grace Kelly's royal wedding in Monaco avenges herself by getting her daughter engaged to an impoverished grand duke. With inescapable musical comedy logic, mama and the nobleman soon fall for each other, while the daughter falls for a young lawyer. The catchy songs "Mutual Admiration Society" and "Gee, But It's Good to Be Here" helped, but Happy Hunting was all about Merman.

Co-star Fernando Lamas generated some unwelcome publicity by having a public feud with Merman. He habitually upstaged her and on one occasion openly wiped his mouth after sharing an onstage kiss. Along with damning press coverage, Lamas earned an official sanction from Actor's Equity. Happy Hunting had no tour or film version, but its one year run made a profit.

The original cast Playbill for Kismet (1953). The bearded genie-like figure represents Alfred Drake.

One unusual variation on the post-Oklahoma format did well. and , who had reset the melodies of Edvard Grieg for Song of Norway, now adapted themes by Alexander Borodin to create Kismet (1953 - 583 performances). This Arabian Nights-style tale (based on a popular melodrama by Edward Knoblock) talked like a musical comedy, dressed like a sexy burlesque skit and sang like an old-style operetta. New York's snootier critics were set to destroy this unusual hybrid, but a newspaper strike kept them out of print for a few crucial weeks. Audiences loved the lavish harem scenes and romantic melodies, and by the time the strike ended and the scathing reviews came, it was too late – word of mouth had made the show a major hit.

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