More than 40 years before she starred in Follies at the Marquis Theatre, Bernadette Peters starred in a musical right across the street at the Lunt- Fontanne- that closed on opening night.
La Strada opened and closed on December 14, 1969. The musical was based on the Fellini film of the same name— and earlier that decade, a Fellini film had turned into Sweet Charity!
La Strada was had music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, who had had a huge hit with Oliver! The show would star Bernadette Peters, recently singled out as an up-and-comer after Dames at Sea, Off-Broadway.
Director Alan Schneider was known for his direction of serious plays. (He directed the original Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the American premiere of Waiting For Godot.) On the first day of rehearsal, sat his cast down in a screening room to watch the original film, “La Strada”.
La Strada told the story of a circus strongman, Zampano, and sweet, lonely Gelsomina, who became his assistant and concubine in the traveling circus. Zampano abused Gelsomina, but she loved him anyway. When Gelsomina finally made one friend, Mario, Zampano jealously killed him. In the end, Zampano deserted Gelsomina, and left her to die on the road.
Producers, heartened by the success of darker musicals like West Side Story, Carnival, Man of La Mancha, and so forth, were really seeing how far they could push the content of a musical into what had been considered “opera territory”.
Peters, who was 21 at the time, said that at first, upon reading the script, she had no idea what the story was about. “I couldn’t understand why [Gelsomina] said weird things.” Then she watched the movie and understood the character more. “She’s not crazy. She’s honest, untouched. She’s people before they start covering up their emotions. She’s pure.”
The most shocking aspect of La Strada was that, while the score was originally written by Lionel Bart, he stayed in London. He never came to America to be part of the rehearsal process. Thus, on opening night, an insert in the Playbill said, “Additional Music and Lyrics by Martin Charnin and Elliot Lawrence”. Indeed, only 3 of the remaining songs were Bart’s.
As Steven Suskin says, “If they’d started rehearsals for Oliver! with 12 songs, a copy of Dickens, and no Bart, I don’t suppose they’d have gotten very far, either.”
The New York Times’ Clive Barnes wrote, ““The book is weak… music and lyrics by Lionel Bart are undistinguished to the point of Muzak-like oblivion. This really is music to forget to. Incidentally, from a slip in the program I note that “at this performance additional music and lyrics by Martin Charnin and Elliott Lawrence”. You couldn’t tell where one part ended and the other part began. Indeed, Messrs. Charnin and Elliott may well be the first librettist and composer to succeed in actually copying Mr. Bart.”
Not exactly high praise.
Barnes’ review was actually mixed, and he did praise the story itself, as well as the acting and directing.
The Los Angeles Times and other reviews were worse. Sandra Schmidt, critic for the L.A. Times, said, “The show moves like slow death.”
And really, where do you go from there?
The scenery, by Ming Cho Lee was colorful, dusty, atmospheric, and fluidly changing throughout the show, thanks to a revolving stage. Consensus was that it conjured the theatricality of a traveling circus in Italy very well.
There was also choreography by Alvin Ailey, in his first and, it would turn out, only choreographer credit on Broadway.
As Zampano, Stephen Pearlman was fine. (He replaced Vincent Beck during rehearsals.) Larry Kert played Mario, with his usual aplomb. My favorite moment in the show is the Mario-Gelsomina duet, “You’re Musical”, where the two give each other hope, in one of those bright 1960’s numbers where every line seems to have an exclamation point after it.
Charles K. Peck, who wrote the book and also produced, told the press that the show was a play with music, and noted that La Strada was a “Brechtian musicalization” of the original film, “rather than a rewrite of it”.
The creators were trying to do what the writers of later shows like Purlie did, where they took source material that worked, and just injected songs into the existing material. In this case, a look at what would’ve made the show special on stage was clearly needed.
Of course, 1969 was a different time, where musicals based on movies intentionally ignored the movie, in order to create something distinctive. This was the time when the musical of “The Apartment” was titled “Promises Promises”- NOT “The Apartment- The Musical!” The paint-by-numbers approach to adapting a popular property was the exception, not the norm, as it is today.
As noted, Director Schneider even went as far as to show the movie on the first day of rehearsal.
A feature in the Times chronicled this first day of rehearsal, and said, “Miss Peters, who was discovered last year in Dames at Sea, breezed into the screening room a few minutes after the movie had started, and sat in the back row next to her director. Wearing a purple pants suit, red leather pumps, and apricot-tinted glasses, her long blond hair both piled high and cascading to her shoulders, she snapped her chewing gum, laughed and clapped happily as she watched the movie.”
The star-to-be had her dreams dashed when La Strada closed after a single performance. (It lost $650,000.)
Barnes’ review had said, “In a different show, the birdlike and croaky Bernadette Peters would have become a star overnight… I hope that Miss Peters stays around a bit with La Strada- but in any case, I think she’ll soon be back.”
Indeed, she came back to Broadway 2 years later, playing Hildy in a revival of On The Town that never quite took off, then 3 years after that, she returned in Mack And Mabel. While the beginning of Peters’ career was beset by disappointing runs, it was clear to audiences that she was a star.
(Some part of me wonders if Peters ever thought about La Strada, while she was across the street in Follies. I like to think she sat in her Sally costume and looked out her dressing room window at the Lunt-Fontanne, remembering being 21- years-old, and “clicking heels on steel and cement”.)
The opening number of La Strada, “Seagull, Starfish, Pebble”, was a solo turn for Peters. Even 43 years ago, she already displayed her now- signature combination of delicacy and strength. The song found her grasping for something just out of reach.
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