HAPPY NEW YEAR
January 1, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
In the spirit of ringing in the new year, I thought I would report on the only Broadway show to have been titled Happy New Year, a musical version of Philip Barry’s wonderful 1928 comedy Holiday. It opened April 27, 1980 and, like all shows, it started out with the best of intentions and more than a few good things going for it. Burt Shevelove, its writer/director, had ten years earlier taken 1927’s No, No Nanette out of mothballs and turned it into one of the biggest and most surprising musical hits of the 70s (thus beginning an obsession with revivals on Broadway that has gone unabated to this day). It had John McMartin in the cast, a grand actor and go-to musical theatre stalwart (and one of my all-time personal favorites).
And the biggest thing Happy New Year boasted … was that it had a score composed by Cole Porter. Well, not exactly “composed” by Cole Porter, because he had been dead for sixteen years.
And this wasn’t some long unproduced adaptation of Holiday that Porter had written and always hoped would get to Broadway. No, he never worked on at all. What Shevelove had in mind for Happy New Year, was to pilfer the Porter songbook and craft a new book around it, based on Barry’s play. But honestly … this is not the way you go about writing a musical. It rarely works; not that it’s stopped it from happening time and again. In 2014, the overwhelming consensus of Woody Allen and Susan Stroman’s Bullets Over Broadway, was that it would have made a much better musical with an original score. Instead, it was populated with popular songs, all known quantities like “Up a Lazy River” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Book musicals need to be written — by a creative team in tandem with one another (preferably while they are all still alive).
One instance where known songs wedged into a book show proved successful was Mamma Mia! But it’s important to note that it was all done tongue-in-cheek, with no subtlety whatsoever. Audiences shrieked with joy (and self-congratulation) when they recognized what was coming by the first bars of every Abba song. But when you are incorporating “Night and Day” and “Easy to Love” into a proper book musical like Happy New Year, it’s jarring, to say the least (and lazy, to say the most). Four of its songs were directly pulled from Red, Hot and Blue, a big Porter hit from 1936, which of course, few in 1980 had seen in forty-four years. But even so. It was less paying homage than outright ransacking.
And such lessons went unheeded, when after Happy New Year’s failure on this front, High Society, opened on Broadway in 1998. This was a stage musical of the 1956 film for which Porter wrote nine original songs (and like Happy New Year, was based on a Barry play, The Philadelphia Story). Adding to what Porter had already written, tunes from some of his other shows were interpolated (and I’ll lay you ten to one that no one on its creative team was remotely aware that “Ridin’ High” and “Once Upon a Time” had already been recycled for Happy New Year). Another thing the two shows shared in common, were their good taste in hiring John McMartin, whose Uncle Willie brought him the 4th of his 5 Tony nominations. To watch him slyly slip the show in his pocket and stroll away with it was one of the highlights of my half-century of theatregoing.
A slight digression, but it’s pertinent: Bob Fosse, as brilliant a choreographer and director as he was, could be a terror to his collaborators. 1966’s Sweet Charity, which amounted to his first solo directing credit, began with his idea to adapt Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria as a musical. He had every intention of writing the book himself (check out this early poster below), before finally having to call in Neil Simon, who ended up the sole author.
Fosse finally did away with a composer and lyricist altogether on Dancin’, his 1978 revue of dances, all set to previously produced songs. The show had no book and the overall conception worked. But in 1986, when he put together Big Deal, a more traditional book musical based on the Italian heist film, Big Deal on Madonna Street, Fosse did the adaptation himself (leaving “Bert Lewis” by the wayside). Then, as with Dancin’, he didn’t hire anyone to write the score, in favor of grabbing old standards like “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (I mean, talk about cherry-picking). Critics, as well as many Broadway denizens, were unhappy with his abandoning former partners of such talents as John Kander & Fred Ebb and Cy Coleman. Big Deal took a critical trouncing, and in spite of awarding Fosse his 8th and final Tony for choreography, closed in two months.
But back to Happy New Year, which by the time it arrived on Broadway from where it began at the Stratford Festival in Canada, underwent some significant changes. Opening there to less than enthusiastic reviews, Shevelove did a good deal of recasting, as well as replacing a number of the less familiar Porter tunes with more famous ones (it didn’t help). By the time it got to New York, there was a whiff of failure in the air about it, proof being that on the day of its opening, the Sunday New York Times failed to even write about it, something usually common for the new show of the week. But there was nothing about Happy New Year in the paper — not even an ad — which often indicates budget problems, or producers lacking confidence, or both. Later, a few days after it opened, I did come across a tiny 2" x 2" ad, with a quote from a favorable review it got in the Times (see below). Unfortunately, it was one of the only good ones. Happy New Year closed after twenty-five performances..
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.