History of The Musical Stage

1970s III: A Chorus Line & More

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

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

A Chorus Line: Concept Musical Supreme

Original cast Playbill for A Chorus Line (22752 bytes)The original cast Playbill for A Chorus Line (1975), the most successful 1970s concept musical.

The concept musical reached its peak with A Chorus Line (1975 - 6,137 performances), the brainchild of Michael Bennett. He had Broadway chorus dancers (known in the business as "gypsies" because they migrate from show to show) share memories while a tape recorder ran. Working with these tapes, Bennett built a libretto with writers Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood. Concurrently, composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban developed a vibrant score. The concept involved a Broadway chorus audition where a director demands that his dancers share their private memories and inner demons. Some dismissed this as staged group therapy, but most found the results riveting.

A Chorus Line glorified the individual fulfillment that can be found in ensemble efforts. When the entire cast sang of being "One" while dancing and singing in rigid group formation, the effect was dazzling. Veteran chorus dancers Donna McKechnie, Carol Bishop and Sammy Williams won Tonys, as did the entire creative team. A Chorus Line's popularity crossed all lines of age and musical taste, smashing every other long-run record in Broadway history. Many who came of age during its run dubbed it the best musical ever. (For more on this landmark hit, see our special section A Chorus Line 101.)

The "New" Shuberts

One little-noted cataclysm of the 1970s occurred when the Shubert family's former attorneys Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs took over managerial control of the still-extensive theatrical empire. Veteran producer Stuart Ostrow later described how the atmosphere on Broadway changed when these two men "crowned themselves heads of the theater chain" –

"Their reign has lasted for nearly thirty years, during which time the amount of new musicals produced for Broadway has been drastically reduced. Coincidence? I think not. As landlords, they succeeded in changing the terms of a producer's rental contract, in demanding a larger share of the proceeds, and in many cases, in insisting on being co-producer. If you can't join 'em, enjoin 'em. The Shubert Foundation prospered, and the ranks of the independent producers thinned."
- Stuart Ostrow, A Producer's Broadway Journey (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), pp. 105-106.

By the time the Nederlander and Jujamcyn organizations had established themselves as owners of substantial parts of Broadway's theatrical real estate, the damage was done. Add to that the increasing demands of unions demanding and getting higher pay for actors, musicians, technicians and stage crew, and the costs of doing business on Broadway eventually quadrupled. Musical productions which had cost an average of $250,000 in 1970 were costing well over a million dollars by decade's end, and ticket prices began skyrocketing.

Revivals: "I Want to Be Happy"

No, No, Nanette Playbill 1971 (13588 bytes)The 1971 revival of No, No Nanette initiated a new craze for nostalgic musical revivals. The Playbill cover features the effervescent art deco logo created by artist Hillary Knight.

In musical theatre, revivals had been commonplace ever since the repeated success of the The Black Crook in the late 19th Century. But as an epidemic of nostalgia swept through American culture in the 1970s, theatergoers embraced revivals with unprecedented enthusiasm. Shows and stars of the past appealed to the growing number of older tourists who felt alienated by the cultural changes taking place around them -- changes all too apparent in the increasingly harsh environment of midtown Manhattan.

The surprise hit that set the nostalgia trend rolling on Broadway was a revival of 1925's No, No, Nanette (1971 - 861 performances). Busby Berkeley was credited as "production supervisor," but the show was revitalized by director Burt Shevelove and choreographer Donald Saddler, with Ruby Keeler leading a cast of veteran stage and screen talents. This was not the original text, but a complete revision that overhauled the book, removed some songs and interpolated others. "Tea For Two" and "I Want To Be Happy" were intact, laced with snappy Charlestons and harmonic ensembles. Theatergoers welcomed this tap-dancing soufflé with an almost delirious sense of relief. Aside from a healthy Broadway run, the revised Nanette made millions from national tours, foreign productions and subsequent amateur rights.

At a time when fewer new musicals were being written, nostalgia quickly became big business on Broadway, and many a neglected star was dusted off to revive an old vehicle. Most of these productions had relatively brief runs in New York, then turned handsome profits thanks to extensive, well-attended national tours –

Fresh Looks & Fumbles

Other revivals did well by taking innovative approaches to proven material –

Despite these successes, the revival trend was far from foolproof. Some notable failures:

And what about new book musicals? The form came back with a vengeance in the late 1970s – a time when new forces set the future course of the musical theatre.

Next: 1970s IV - New Book Musicals