When the new revival of West Side Story began its out of town tryout at the National Theatre in Washington DC, Arthur Laurents had the Jets take the stage in silence and stare out into the audience with – because they are Jets – attitude.
During the long pause before the first pulse of Leonard Bernstein’s music animated them, their gaze seemed to engage the audience. Perhaps it wasn’t the current audience they were connecting with however. Perhaps it was the entire history of the piece, for it was the same hall into which they stared that held the audience over half a century before for the first public performance of West Side Story in its original out of town tryout.
The expectations of the creators were sky high as they approached the August 19, 1957 opening. Bernstein had written to his wife from the Jefferson Hotel on Washington’s 16th Street that “Everyone’s coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals, Senators abounding, and big Washington-hostessy type party afterwards … We have a 75 thou. advance, and the town’s buzzing. Not bad. I have high hopes.”
Bernstein, Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim had brought their baby to the National for an out of town shakedown just as many creators of musicals great and not-so-great had done before – and many would after. Most notably, Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, often cited as the transition piece that started modern serious musical theater, had first faced the public on this same stage in 1927 in a performance that didn’t end until well past midnight. (Lots of cutting to be done before its premiere at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater just six weeks later.)
Since 1835, a National Theatre has stood on the site on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, three blocks to the east of the White House. It burned down and was rebuilt several times so the house where Show Boat opened was sometimes called “The Sixth National.” The current auditorium dates to 1922, and over the past eighty-plus years has seen the out of town tryouts of many of the musicals, dramas and comedies which we think of when we consider the American theater of the twentieth century.
After Show Boat came musicals famous (Knickerbocker Holiday, Very Warm For May, Louisiana Purchase) and not so famous (Rudolf Frim’s The Three Musketeers, Rodgers and Hart’s Fioretta, Cole Porter’s You Never Know and Carol Channing in The Vamp).
The last musical to try out at the National before West Side Story’s Jets leapt and finger-snapped on these boards was Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer’s musicalization of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, featuring a highly workable book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. At least it was highly workable after not one or even two, but three tryout engagements here and in Boston and Philadelphia.
The string of success started by L’il Abner and West Side Story continued into 1958 with the tryout of Bob Fosse’s vehicle for Gwen Verdon, Redhead. It came to a temporary halt, however, with the first tryout of 1959, Marc Blitzstein’s attempt to find music in a Sean O’Casey tale of the troubles in Dublin, Juno. Despite the work here and subsequently in Boston, it could only eke out sixteen performances when it got to New York.
In 1960, Bob Fosse brought a show to the National which was to affect the future of all choreography – not because of its impact on the art form, but because of its impact on copyright law. The show was about a World War II Marine reject, who despite being discharged for hay fever, wants to return home as The Conquering Hero. Its tryout at the National was so poorly received that Fosse was fired. Two of his ballets were retained, but without credit. Fosse took the case to arbitration and won (a judgment measured in cents rather than dollars as Fosse was more interested in principle than in principal). The case drew attention to the glitch in copyright law that had allowed music, lyrics and books of musicals to be protected, but not choreography. That law was changed to make choreography a protectable property.
In 1962 Sondheim returned to The National for the first time after West Side Story with his show that paid special attention to the second word in the name of the genre “musical comedy,” A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was here that a now-legendary piece of show doctoring took place. The comedy simply wasn’t working when the creative team called in Jerome Robbins to help figure out why. As has been told many times, Robbins identified the disconnect between the opening number and the subsequent show, saying, in effect, you have a “charm song” in the opening position (“Love Is In The Air”) when what you need is a comedy song so the audience knows what it is going to get for the evening. Sondheim then wrote “Comedy Tonight” and it changed audience and critical reactions to the entire experience. Audiences laughed through the entire night and the reviews went from awful to mostly raves, including the Mirror’s “You won’t find anything more hilarious the length of Broadway than the zany opening of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” (Steven Suskin in his critical quotebook, Opening Night on Broadway, scores the reviews for the New York opening as 4 raves, 1 favorable, I mixed and one unfavorable … no pans.)
Forum may have been the last musical by Sondheim to preview at the National, but one non-musical that still seems to be recalled by Sondheim aficionados did have a tryout here in 1970. Anthony Shaffer’s mystery Sleuth is the story of a puzzle-obsessed man who Shaffer says was partially based Sondheim’s own well-known fascination for puzzles. Shaffer insist that there is no truth to the story that the play once had a title of Whose Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?
Since Forum moved on, no fewer than twenty-five musicals have had what was called a pre-Broadway tryout at the National, but not all of them made it all the way to the Great White Way. It was here that David Merrick had Vincent Minelli attempt to find the secret to making the life of the spy Mata Hari into a successful musical in 1967. Thirty years later Harold Prince mounted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind, only to find few exited whistling the score or singing the shows praises. The announced Broadway engagement was promptly cancelled.
Some musicals did make it to Broadway but found less than the hoped for raves and box office lines. Indeed, the very next show after Forum to try out at the National, Irving Berlin’s Mr. President, is not known as a success despite the fact that it ran for nearly nine months due to the fame of its composer.
That it wasn’t likely to last long, however, was clear to opening night audiences at the National in September of 1962. President and Mrs. Kennedy had tickets to the opener, but the President delayed his arrival so he could remain at the White House to watch Floyd Patterson lose his heavyweight title to Sonny Liston in the first round of a televised bout. When he joined Jackie and watched the show for a while, Thomas A. Bogar reports in his fascinating book American Presidents Attend the Theatre that he asked her “Was the first act as bad as the second?”
Of course, a famous name (or two) can’t guarantee a success. Leonard Bernstein returned to the site of the opening of West Side Story in partnership with Alan Jay Lerner in 1976 only to find that they couldn’t make their 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the bicentennial highlight they had hoped. Once it got to Broadway it lasted less than a week.
Hot Spot, Mary Rodgers’ effort to repeat the success of Once Upon A Mattress, made it to Broadway after opening at Washington’s National in 1963, but only for one month. The most recent transfer from the National to flop on arrival was Maurice Hines’ book musical using the catalogue of Earth, Wind and Fire, Hot Feet. It gave up the ghost on Broadway after less than one hundred performances.
Striking success was more frequent than failure, however. Five shows that racked up over a thousand performances each came to New York via the National. 1776, Promises Promises and Crazy For You fall into the category of one-to-two-thousand performance hits, while two National alumni rank in the multi-thousand realm, Hello, Dolly! with its 2,844 performance run and Fiddler on the Roof which went for no fewer than 3,242 performances in its initial run.
Fiddler also marks a highlight for another trend that has found the National a useful launching pad – revivals. Its 1990 revival staring Topol added another 241 to the total number of Fiddler performances on Broadway.
In 1973 the revival of the 1919 hit Irene, this time with Debbie Reynolds in the title role, went on for almost 600 performances in New York. Later, the Frank Loesser classic Guys and Dolls received a revival with an all black cast and Richard Chamberlain appeared in My Fair Lady. The last revival to tryout at the National before West Side Story was the 2002 staging of Man of La Mancha staring Brian Stokes Mitchell. It went on to a 300+ performance run.
This house which has seen a great deal of musical theater history has witnessed a lot of history of the other kind as well. When Show Boat opened here in 1927, the racial aspects of its story were shocking. The theater itself shut down as a legitimate house from 1948 to 1952 because its owners wouldn’t desegregate and the theater community, led by Helen Hayes and Oscar Hammerstein II, would no longer perform or allow their works to be performed there.
But just three days after this new bilingual West Side Story’s tryout closed, and while the trucks of scenery and equipment were still being loaded, Barack Obama rode past the theater at the head of his Inaugural parade as President of the United States.
That ol’ man river history just keeps rolling along. [TSR]
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