I’ve always loved musicals. First in the movies (I wanted to grow up to be Fred Astaire), then in summer theatres in New England (mostly in tents), and finally on Broadway. My first “legit” musical was a pre-Broadway performance in Boston in 1957. The show was Goldilocks (Book by Walter and Jean Kerr, Music by Leroy Anderson, Lyrics by the Kerrs and Joan Ford) starring Elaine Stritch and Don Ameche, featuring Russell Nype, Pat Stanley (both won the Tony for their supporting roles) and Margaret Hamilton.
Wow – Alexander Graham Bell (Ameche) and the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) – movie stars singing and dancing, telling jokes. But who the heck was Elaine Stritch – never heard of her at the time. The musical director was later to become my mentor in the craft of writing musicals, Lehman Engel.
In 1972, I was having dinner with Lehman at the Beverly Hills Hotel one evening, and was able to ask him a question that had plagued me for years. I had loved the show Goldilocks, practically wore out the recording of the score, and wondered why it wasn’t a bigger hit (it ran only 161 performances on Broadway in 1968 and 69).
Lehman got a very puzzled look on his face, perched his glasses on the very tip of his soft nose, and said in his most Hitchcockian tones, “Why wasn’t Goldilocks a bigger success? (dramatic pause.) Because it was a piece of shit!”
Many of us have seen shows we liked that didn’t make it commercially. We have also seen shows he didn’t particularly care for that ran for years. My angle on this conundrum (to borrow a lovely word from Byron Schaffer, a later mentor of mine) is: That’s why they make different colored jelly beans. Lehman felt differently, though. He believed that every show is aimed at a particular audience, and any given individual may not be in that show’s sights. In other words, it’s OK if you don’t like the show – it wasn’t meant for you, it was meant for other people.
None of this, though, explains why I loved Goldilocks and Broadway snubbed it. It was my first – and we all know the first time is the best time. It dazzled me because I was a teenager and had never seen anything like it. Just like teenagers today who go to see a new show (Spring Awakening or American Idiot, for instance) and come away gushing.
And it turned me on. I went home that day and started picking out tunes on the piano. Really. I had no musical background whatever, but I knew what I wanted to do. That was 64 years ago, and I’m still doing it (although I have morphed from a songwriter to a bookwriter). I’m still doing it because I was turned on as a teenager by a charming but forgettable little show that a Broadway maven thought was unmentionably bad.