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Behind the Scenes: 8 Backstage-Set Broadway Shows

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |


With ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ joining ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet,’ the backstager is making a comeback

With Bernhardt/Hamlet readying itself to open on Broadway, Kiss Me, Kate planned for the spring, and a star-studded stage adaptation of All About Eve coming to London’s West End, the backstager is back in vogue this theatrical season. Many plays and musicals use the device of backstage drama as part of a compelling premise for giving audiences a glimpse into a life in the theater. Here are some of best-known pieces to take place in the green rooms, dressing rooms and in the shadowed recesses of theater’s backstage.

‘Kiss Me, Kate!’ will open in February 2019 (Photo: Roundabout Theatre Company)

‘Kiss Me, Kate!’ will open in February 2019 (Photo: Roundabout Theatre Company)

Babes in Arms
Rodgers and Hart wrote many musicals during their partnership, but it was their 1937 Babes in Arms that overflowed with song standard after song standard, including “The Lady is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One Note,” “Where or When” and “I Wish I Were In Love Again.” The musical is the backstage story of the talented teenage offspring of vaudevillians, who decide to stage a show of their own while their parents are touring the circuit. Babes in Arms is as much about the creation of the show as it is about what they eventually produce. 

Kiss Me, Kate!
This February, Roundabout Theatre Company is reviving Cole Porter’s and Sam and Bella Spewack’s Kiss Me, Kate! this spring with Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase in the leads. Kiss Me, Kate! is about a theater company that is producing a musical version of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. From the back alley to the dressing rooms and the wings, the musical takes us all over the theater’s backstage, telling the story of an ex-husband and wife who must play opposite each other as the show’s leads. Adding to the troubles: she is a tempestuous diva and he is the arrogant director. This 1948 musical brims with terrific songs, including “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” “Wunderbar,” “ Too Darn Hot” and the show-stopping “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” 

Me & Juliet
In 1953, the groundbreaking team of Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to shape their own backstage musical. With such hits under their belt as Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I, this was bound to be a giant hit. Me and Juliet was anything but, though the Rodgers and Hammerstein score was full of gems like “Marriage Type Love,” “Keep it Gay,” and “That’s the Way It Happens.” Particularly clever were “The Big Black Giant” about the ever-changing audience from night to night, and “Intermission Talk,” which explores the chatter of the audience during a break in the production. Me and Juliet is about a theater company putting on a production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, taking the audience up into the lighting coves and down into the orchestra pit, giving them a perspective of the many aspects of how a theatrical production comes together.

Gypsy
Arguably, the finest of all backstage shows is the 1959 musical Gypsy, which follows the relentless stage mother who pushes her two daughters into vaudeville, turning one of them into stripper Gypsy Rose Lee when times get tough. The musical features a book by Arthur Laurents and a score by Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). Traveling all over the country, the musical winds its way through vaudeville theaters galore, then moves on to the seedier world of the houses of burlesque. We learn all about the ins-and-outs of showbiz through songs like “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone” and the hilariously-vulgar showstopper “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” 

Funny Girl
With Gypsy, Jule Styne proved that he could write music for the backstage musical. Teaming up with lyricist Bob Merrill, he wrote the music for Funny Girl, the musical about vaudevillian Fanny Brice, tracing her early career to her rise as one of the signature attractions of The Ziegfeld Follies. Of course, Funny Girl is best known for the indelible performance of Barbra Streisand as Brice, belting out such fantastic Styne/Merrill songs as “I’m the Greatest Star,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and then offering subtly introspective interpretations of “People” and “Who Are You Now?” Through Fanny’s eyes we see, from backstage, the wonders and the pitfalls of a life in the theater. 

Applause
With All About Eve currently being adapted for the London stage, it pertinent to acknowledge that the Mary Orr short story “The Wisdom of Eve,” on which it is based, has been adapted for the stage once before. The 1970 musical Applause, with a score by Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics), and a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The story of Margo Channing, an aging actress whose career is usurped by an ambitious young ingenue who will stop at nothing to become a star, unfolded just as it had in the short story and subsequent film. Adding to the musical’s authenticity, 46-year-old Hollywood star Lauren Bacall played Margo, winning a Tony Award for Best Actress for her efforts.

Noises Off
No list of backstage theater pieces would be complete without Michael Frayn’s farcical comedy Noises Off. The play follows a theater company that is rehearsing and performing a production of the fictional play Nothing On, a somewhat lewd and corny farce in its own right. The play’s first act takes place during Nothing On’s rehearsal period. The second act of Noises Off moves backstage during a performance, where we see what happens behind the scenery. Act Three takes us well into the production’s run, where we witness the deterioration of the set and props, not to mention the relationships between cast members. The play premiered in London in 1982, came to Broadway in 1983, and has since become a staple of regional, summer stock and community theaters the world over.

Moon Over Buffalo
Carol Burnett returned to Broadway after a thirty-year absence to star opposite Philip Bosco in the 1995 backstager Moon Over Buffalo by playwright Ken Ludwig. At a repertory theater in Buffalo, New York, George and Charlotte Hay are traveling actors performing Private Lives and Cyrano de Bergerac. Farcical in nature, Moon Over Buffalo is a comedy of errors, lampooning the litany of problems that can occur behind the scenes of a theatrical piece. The bickering between the starring duo – not to mention their ambitions to leave the theater for the glamorous world of Hollywood – only adds to the fun.

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.

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