It was the 1950’s; girls wore poodle skirts and boys greased back their hair. The world was introduced to Elvis Presley, and the Cold War began. This middle decade of the 20th Century gave us jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, crooners like Sam Cooke, and blues deities B.B. King and John Lee Hooker.
This is also the last decade where musical films were popular; the genre began a steady decline in the 1960s. In this article, we would like to look at some of the fantastic 1950 musicals to come out of this decade.
1. Call Me Madam
Irving Berlin wrote the music and lyrics for the first musical on our list. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse penned the book, and the plot is saturated with political satire. Sally Adams, the new widow of a wealthy man, who despite being poorly equipped for the task, is chosen as the new Ambassador of the United States to Lichtenburg, a false European country.
A film adaptation of Call Me Madam was released in 1953 starring Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor. The original stage version premiered at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut three years earlier. It only lasted the one performance before moving on to Boston, and then a month later the Broadway show opened on October 12 at the Imperial Theatre.
The Broadway production won four Tony Awards that year including Best Original Score.
2. Paint Your Wagon
Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe are the writer and composer, respectively, of this next musical from the 1950s. The plot is set during the California Gold Rush and we meet families in a mining camp. Premiering on November 12, 1951, at the Shubert Theater on Broadway, Paint Your Wagon ran for nearly three hundred performances.
Two years later Her Majesty’s Theater premiered their production on London’s West End. Father and daughter performing team Bobby Howes and Sally Ann Howes played the miner and his daughter who are the center of the plot. A film starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood based on this musical was released in 1969. That’s right, a singing Clint Eastwood!
3. Wish You Were Here
This musical was written by Joshua Logan and Harold Rome; they based it on Having a Wonderful Time, a play by Arthur Kober. The latter also wrote the book for the musical. The plot surrounds a woman named Teddy who is hesitant to go through with her soon-to-be marriage with an older man.
Teddy goes camping to relax and, while there, she comes to terms with herself and finds love. Premiering on June 25, 1952, Wish You Were Here ran for nearly six hundred performances before closing in November of the next year. Notable stars in the show were Florence Henderson, Patricia Marand, and Jack Cassidy.
On October 10, 1953, a new production opened in the West End at the London Casino, but this show didn’t fare as well, only performing less than three hundred times. There was a revival in 1987 at the Equity Library Theater in New York City, an off-off Broadway location.
The 1911 play of the same name by Edward Knoblock was the inspiration, shall we say, a blueprint for this next 1950s musical. Some of the original music from the Knoblock play was included, but adaptations were made as well by Robert Wright and George Forrest. Alexander Borodin wrote the music for the first play, and Charles Lederer and Luther Davis wrote the book for the 1953 version.
After successful previews in Los Angeles and San Francisco Kismet moved to the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 3, 1953, and found its home on Broadway. An interesting fact about the opening of this show is that it happened during a newspaper strike, so no reviews were written. The show’s producers utilized television and ran ads, which led to nearly six hundred performances.
Kismet won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1954.
5. The Pajama Game
7 ½ Cents, a novel by Richard Bissell, was the inspiration for our next musical. Bissell wrote the book with George Abbot while Richard Adler and Jerry Ross composed the music and lyrics.
The plot surrounds a labor dispute at a factory that makes pajamas. The workers want more money, and management refuses to pay up. To add to the mix, the head of the protest committee and the head of the factory fall in love. Seven and a half cents is the amount of raise the workers are requesting.
May 13, 1954, was the premiere night for this musical at the St. James Theatre. It closed after giving over one thousand performances. The choreography was by the legendary Bob Fosse, and the cast included John Raitt, Janis Paige, and Eddie Foy, Jr.
6. Damn Yankees
This musical, which is of the comedic nature, was based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop. The novelist co-wrote the book for the musical with George Abbott. Jerry Ross and Richard Adler were the composers of the lyrics and music for this work as well. Damn Yankees was the follow up to the successful Pajama Game, and it too was a big hit. Unfortunately, Jerry Ross passed away shortly after Damn Yankees opened and we will never know what could have come next.
The 46th Street Theatre was the location of the premiere on May 5, 1955, and it eventually moved to the Adelphi Theatre two years later. With over one thousand performances under its belt and a great reception, there is no surprise when the film version was released in 1958. The film won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture while the original Broadway production took home the Tony Award for Best Musical.
7. My Fair Lady
Opening on Broadway in 1956 this famous musical from the 1950’s is a story based on the classic tale Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. It centers around a young Cockney flower peddler and a professor who believes he can pass her off as high society. It was a success from the first performance.
After previews at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Rex Harrison, who played in the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady, is rumored to have had a little bit of a tantrum opening night. He was not happy with the arrangement of the orchestra and is said to have refused to go on until nearly the last moment.
Alongside Mr. Harrison, starring in the original Broadway version, was Julie Andrews, a woman who has sung her way into all our hearts. In 1956 My Fair Lady was nominated for nine Tony Awards winning six including Best Musical. Rex Harrison won Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.
Fiorello H. LaGuardia, once mayor of New York City, is the center of this final work on our list of 1950’s musicals. Jerome Weidman and George Abbott wrote the book, which was largely based on Life with Fiorello, a 1955 Volume written by Ernest Cuneo. The music and lyrics were composed by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.
Premiering on November 23, 1959, Fiorello! Opened at the Broadhurst Theatre until eventually moving to The Broadway Theatre in 1961. It closed four months after its move with nearly eight hundred performances under its belt. Of the six Tony Awards, it was nominated for, Fiorello! won three including Best Musical. This musical is also one of the few musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize.
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