The 1960s were the last time music bled profusely across the border from Broadway to popular music. It was, paradoxically, not a very good decade for musicals, but, even so, a mildly musically literate person could hum a bit of “Sweetest Sounds” from “No Strings” or “Do I Hear a Waltz?” or “Love Makes the World Go Round” from Carnival (recorded, even, by the Everly Brothers) or “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from “Bye, Bye Birdie.” Some of those shows were not even especially big hits, but their stand-out tunes made it onto the radio.
In fact, that was kind of the point. In the 1960s, you could have a relationship with a song from a musical without having any relationship with the musical.
And there were, of course, monster songs you could not escape if you had wanted to. (And you might have.) “Hello Dolly,” “Mame,” “Cabaret,” “The Impossible Dream.” And major musical artists were by no means through recording songs from the late 1950s. “West Side Story” songs were everywhere on the radio as were tunes from “Sound of Music.” Hell, John Coltrane’s most requested song in the 1960s was “My Favorite Things.”
By the 1970s, that was essentially over. There were outliers here and there, but the music on the radio wasn’t music from the stage and probably never will be. Consider that “Hamilton” is, on one level, the biggest thing ever and, on another, a show whose music has not crossed over in any meaningful way. You don’t know a song from that show unless you have a strong relationship with the show itself.
In the 1960s, however, “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd” was using the phenomenon I describe in a kind of reverse osmosis. Having failed to find a foothold in the West End, it came to America and, rather than leaping onto Broadway, went on a long national tour. Meanwhile, artists of many stripes sniffed around at its Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse score, which was – in the best possible sense – a musical bomb waiting to explode. The show contained three songs that would become standards, all of them still performed now, 50 years later and at least another two that got a lot of attention at the time. This was also an era when you might turn on the TV and see, oh I don’t know, Julie Newmar singing “A Wonderful Day Like Today” or Sammy Davis singing “Look at That Face.” (Those are the two secondary songs.)
But it was probably Tony Bennett’s version of “Who Can I Turn To” that guaranteed “Roar…” a turn on Broadway. It was a hit before the show got to New York, and very quickly, artists and audiences discovered “The Joker” and “Feeling Good.” The latter song is still everywhere, usually in its Nina Simone form. It’s in a Virgin Atlantic commercial right now, and rappers have sampled it every which way, especially Flo Rida in “How I Feel.” “The Joker” was hit for Bobby Rydell and for Sergio Mendes. (Shirley Bassey, who had attained immortality right around then through “Goldfinger,” with a Newley-Bricusse lyric, repeatedly tackled this material but never got anywhere with it.)
The Broadway run was only 230 performances. It probably didn’t seem hip enough for the hip crowd and was too hip for the “Hello Dolly” audience. In 1965, Newley had a British music hall sound right after the Beatles made it unfashionable and right before the Beatles made it fashionable again. (Let the record reflect that the young David Bowie considered Newley to be a massive source of inspiration.)
Embarrassing detail: at age 11 – the sprouted seed of the heterosexual theater queen I would bloom into — I took my mother’s copy of “Sammy’s Back on Broadway” up to my room and listened to selected tracks of it about seven jillion times. Three of those tracks were “The Joker,” “A Wonderful Day Like Today” and “Look at That Face.” The biggest hit of that year was “Wooly Bully” so you could maybe argue I had a right.
Anyway, this is a long preamble to the news that “Roar of the Greaspaint” is up and running at the Norma Terris in Chester, the development wing of Goodspeed Musicals. I don’t want to say too much about the production because I’m not a theater critic and because I’m not even sure they’ve let the critics in yet.
They’ve made an inspired choice: transforming Newley’s abstract and Sixties psychedelic critique of the British class system into Mad Max – The Musical, on a blasted junk-strewn afterscape where an older man and a younger one play an arbitrary and sadistic human board game, almost as if Beckett had written an entire second play about the relationship between Lucky and Pozzo. The songs have been tinkered with ever so slightly. I would swear that “Look at That Face” has a tiny change in its chord progression.
The whole idea takes some getting used to, and the less adventurous souls in the audience on opening night probably never did. But I could see this show having some legs, and it should go without saying that I, personally, love it. It’s kind of the first musical about Year 3 of the Trump Administration, although it ends on a comforting note of Bernie.