Imagine! Gas was 23¢ a gallon in 1955. Scott Siegel, writer and host of the nostalgic “Broadway by the Year” series, reminded his audience that the baby boom was in full swing, the Mouseketeers conquered television and captivated a legion of young fans whose little siblings also welcomed the arrival of Lego blocks. TV was taking its toll on Broadway, and the theater’s golden age appeared to be ebbing.
Fifty years ago, Cole Porter’s last Broadway musical hit the boards. It was “Silk Stockings,” a tuner based on the Greta Garbo film “Ninotchka.” In addition to a plaintive reading of “Paris Loves Lovers” by Dee Hoty, the innovative “Stereophonic Sound,” inspired by then-new film technology, served as a brassy opener. “The Ritz Roll and Rock,” Porter’s nod to the new trend in music, was stylishly served with a feverish dance routine by Justin Bohon and Rachelle Rak. Porter penned the latter for the subsequent film version starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.
Following the triumphs of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “The King and I” and “South Pacific,” the seemingly unconquerable team of Rodgers and Hammerstein birthed a disaster: “Pipe Dream,” based on a John Steinbeck novel. Yet looking back, one can find morsels of the serene dignity that was a trademark of the composing team. “All at Once You Love Her” was sung with rich romantic fervor by Sal Viviano, and the reflective Cannery Row travelin’ song “Everybody’s Got a Home but Me” was robustly rendered by Raymond Jaramillo McLeod and sung without electronic enhancement (a regular feature of the concert series), exactly as it was heard a half-century ago.
Making her directorial debut with this concert presentation, Emily Skinner made a silvery off-mic appearance to sing “This Is all Very New to Me” from “Plain and Fancy.” The musical set in a Pennsylvania Amish community introduced a promising young ingenue named Barbara Cook.
Every season had its share of floperoos, and 1955 was no exception with “Ankles Aweigh.” The tuner starred siblings Betty and Jane Kean and, despite its shortcomings, introduced a handful of fine songs by vet tunesmith Sammy Fain and lyricist Dan Shapiro.
The concert featured no fewer than five excerpts, including “Kiss Me and Kill Me With Love,” distinguished in a hot turn by Hoty and McLeod; and Connie Pachl’s saucy take on “Nothing Can Replace a Man,” in addition to a soft shoe turn for “Headin’ for the Bottom Blues.” Siegel tagged the musical “a little gold mine of a show,” and the songs will appear on a subsequent Town Hall CD.
The season’s biggest hit was “Damn Yankees,” which ran for 1,019 performances. The leggy Rak seduced both Mephistopheles and the aud with “Whatever Lola Wants,” while the evening’s showstopper turned out to be a devilishly grand vaudeville turn by surprise guest Bryan Batt, licking his lascivious lips in Satan’s best red jacket in “Those Were the Good Old Days.” Off-mic finale was locker room number “Heart” from “Damn Yankees,” vigorously rendered by Alexander Gemignani, assisted by pin-striped teammates Viviano, Bohon and McLeod. Heart is exactly what producer Siegel’s series boasts in abundance, and his Broadway textbook is the best spring tonic in town.
Final concert this season on June 13 scans 1962, a year that included Anthony Newley’s “Stop the World! I Want to Get Off,” Richard Rodgers’ “No Strings” and “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the show that marked Barbra Streisand’s debut.