Live Vibrantly - November 15, 2019
by Dan Dietz
Musical shows about seniors? Musicals about seniors living in retirement communities? Surely not, because musical comedies are traditionally youth-driven (there’s a reason chorus men and women are called chorus boys and girls). In the 1960s, middle-aged women were in the musical comedy spotlight with Hello, Dolly! and Mame, but that brief Broadway moment quickly passed. Recent and current Broadway productions focus on tweens and teens. Shows such as Wicked, Mean Girls, Dear Evan Hansen, School of Rock, Anastasia, Frozen, The Prom, Be More Chill, Beetlejuice, Bat Out of Hell and The Lighting Thief rule the Broadway roost.
For a brief time in the 1970s and 1980s, Broadway and Off Broadway flirted with musicals about seniors. There were five in all. Let’s take a brief look at those now-forgotten shows, three from Off Broadway and two from Broadway.
Antiques opened Off Broadway on June 19, 1973, and played for a paltry eight performances. One might take umbrage at being called the A-word, though let’s remember that antiques are a valuable commodity and so perhaps we needn’t bristle at the use of the word. Antiques was in the nature of a revue or song cycle, and it looked at various aspects of aging. Critics felt the evening was too monotonous with its narrow focus, and the New York Daily News said the “infantile” revue was “like a TV show, though one you’d want to miss.” The reviewer for the Asbury Park Press summed up the show as one that “leans heavily on humor in a varicose vein.”
After an earlier Off Off Broadway production in 1978, My Old Friends opened Off Broadway on January 12, 1979, and from there transferred to Broadway. Its convoluted travels around New York chalked up more than 150 performances. My Old Friends tells a story that takes place at the Golden Days Retirement Hotel and features a group of retirees who value and enjoy friendship with their fellow residents.
Taking My Turn opened Off Broadway on June 9, 1983, and ran almost a full year for a total of 345 performances. Like Antiques, the show was a song cycle about aging, and according to the program the material was “based on writings by people in their prime.” The song titles are indicative of the show’s subject matter: “Fine for the Shape I’m In,” “Pick More Daisies,” “I Am Not Old” and “It Still Isn’t Over.” The New York Times praised the “rejuvenating” and “joyful entertainment.”
The Broadway production of 70, Girls, 70 was by none other than the celebrated songwriting team of Fred Ebb and John Kander (of Cabaret and Chicago fame). The musical lasted just one month in New York, but it sounds like a lot of fun. We must warn the reader: Don’t try this at your Continuing Care Retirement Community! Much of the musical takes place in the Sussex Arms, a Manhattan retirement hotel where the residents decide to liven up their daily routine by taking a page out of Robin Hood’s book. They become thieves, and use their loot to redecorate the lobby of their building and distribute items to those in need. The songs included some wise musical advice. Young people are encouraged to “Go Visit Your Grandmother,” and the seniors are advised to say “Yes” to whatever life may offer. Hear Liza Minnelli herself sing this happy, plucky inspiring tune.
Director and choreographer Michael Bennett followed up his mega-hit A Chorus Line with Ballroom, which opened on Broadway on December 14, 1978. It ran for just three months, yet earned Bennett a Tony Award for the season’s best choreography. The touching story took place in the Bronx and looked at various lonely souls, some middle-aged, some older, some dealing with the loss of a spouse, all of whom find a second life when they become neighborhood Nijinskys at a local dance hall (the Stardust Ballroom) which has “a terrific band and a real nice crowd.” The ballroom becomes a portal to a world of the foxtrot, lindy, tango, rhumba, hustle and waltz, and ballroom regulars find happiness, friendship and even romance. The musical was bittersweet but life-affirming, and in effect its message was the same as 70, Girls, 70 in its declaration that one must say “yes” to life and its opportunities, a dictum that is pertinent to any and all age groups.
Perhaps the current trend of youth-driven stories for musicals is one that will be replaced with a more seasoned approach. If it does, we’ll be sure to take notice!
Dan Dietz is a resident at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads and the author of several books about Broadway musicals.