Lesser known facts about your favorite musicals
When a theatrical production clicks with an individual, it often has a lasting effect. If it is really good, the effect may prolong for many years. Often enough, this leads to an obsession which is simultaneously healthy and unhealthy. Particularly in today’s day and age, many hours are spent surfing backstage footage, actors’ interviews and fans’ reactions on the internet until you know for sure whose pet dog inspired which musical number in that show you’ve grown to love. In fact, it is completely likely that this very endeavor has led you here, to this article. And rightly so because you are about to discover a few lesser known facts about your favorite musicals.
1. A Chorus Line
First staged in 1975, A Chorus Line has been lauded as perhaps the first reality show by Baayork Lee, the original Connie. This may be a reference to the parallels between Cassie and Zach’s relationship in the play and Donna McKechnie (original Cassie) and Michael Bennett’s (director of original production) relationship in real life.
2. Anything Goes
The literary work from which Anything Goes is inspired by involves the sinking of the SS American, the ship on which the show’s action takes place. However, two months prior to the show’s production (in 1934), the SS Morro Castle had an accident off the coast of New Jersey resulting in a heavy loss of life. The script was immediately revised to keep the SS American afloat, a tweak that was well-received by audiences and critics at the time, and has become a staple of the show’s production to date.
3. Les Misérables
When it comes to theater, critics’ remarks can literally make or break a show. That is, unless the show is actually really good and critics have failed to realize that. Although this seems unlikely, it is exactly what happened when Les Misérables first opened in London (1985).
Critics referred to the production as “witless” and “melodramatic”. Cameron Mackintosh, the Producer of the show, was reportedly devastated until he called the box office the following morning to learn that a staggering 5000 tickets had already been sold for the production’s shows. It proved to be one of those rare moments where audiences simply did not agree with the critics.
Richard Harris desperately wanted the lead role in Camelot but was repeatedly refused due to his limited singing ability. There was a point where he paid a man to carry a placard down the Strand reading “Harris Better than Burton, Only Harris for Camelot”.
At an AFI Ceremony speech, Harris recounted that when Vanessa Redgrave was cast as Guenivere, Harris wrote a note to the producer Jack L. Warner, reading “Height of Vanessa Redgrave: five feet eleven inches. Richard Burton: five feet ten inches. Richard Harris: six feet two inches.”
While his determination is commendable, Harris was still unsuccessful in landing the lead role and Richard Burton became the original King Arthur.
5. My Fair Lady
The male lead of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison was an avid fan of the original text, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. He therefore wanted the musical to resemble its source material as closely as possible. At rehearsals, he would bring along a Penguin edition of Shaw’s script. Whenever a line of the musical’s dialogue didn’t seem appropriate to Harrison, he would shout “Where’s my Penguing?”
The show’s librettist, Alan Jay Lerner decided to poke fun at Harrison’s peculiar habit. He went to a taxidermist and purchased a stuffed penguin. The next time Harrison asked for his ‘Penguin’ at rehearsals, the stuffed bird was rolled on to the stage, which tickled everyone including Harrison. After this, he stopped asking for his ‘Penguin’ and kept this particular dead bird in his dressing room as a mascot.
Chicago (1996) is a sizzling, jazz-filled murder mystery which is completely out of proportion with real life. Except, it isn’t. The musical is based on a play written reporter-turned-playwright, Maurine Watkins which she based on two actual murder cases in Chicago city.
In 1924, Belva Gartner, the model for the play’s lead Velma Kelly, was a cabaret singer accused of killing her lover in a car and then leaving him there with a gun and bottle of gin. She famously said she had no recollection of the incident. A month later, Roxie Hart’s model Beulah Annan was arrested for shooting and killing her lover in the house. The two women met in jail and became deadly rivals, even after their release.
7. The Phantom of the Opera
First performed in 1988, Phantom of the Opera took eight million dollars to produce on Broadway, making it one of the most expensive shows in theater to date. So far, over four hundred actors have appeared in the New York productions and fifteen actors have played the Phantom over the years. With over 2500 performances, Howard McGillin holds the World record for playing the title role on Broadway more than anyone else.
8. Spring Awakening
The musical took a good seven years to be finalized. A series of workshops, concerts and rewrites preceded it. Initially the musical’s plot adhered closely to its source material, Frank Wedekind’s play by the same name. In it, Melchior originally rapes Wendla at the end of “I Believe”. However, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater eventually changed it to show a more loving relationship between the two characters, as it appears on stage. In the workshops, however, “I believe” would end with Wendla’s scream while being raped.
While there are many largely known fun facts about 2016’s Broadway sensation, Hamilton, one lesser known fact is that its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda could not decide at first whether he wanted to play Hamilton or Burr. He felt strongly for both the characters, recognizing that while Hamilton presented a go-getter nature, Burr was essentially a procrastinator, lurking in the shadows and waiting for his moment. He said; “Burr is every bit as smart as Hamilton, and every bit as gifted, and he comes from the same amount of loss as Hamilton. But because of the way they are wired Burr hangs back where Hamilton charges forward. I feel like I have been Burr in my life as many times as I have been Hamilton.”
Did you like these lesser known facts about your favorite musicals? They’re simply the tip of the ice berg. Theater is full of unpredictable moments, and theatrical productions have an entire behind-the-scenes narrative just waiting to be untapped. So, keep on exploring and stay curious, because you never know what you may learn.