Feature: BROADWAY BOUND Shares Rare Songs & Behind-the-Scenes Tales at 54 Below

Robert W. Schneider guides us through "The Shows That Never Came to Broadway" (among other adventures)

By: Feb. 29, 2024
Feature: BROADWAY BOUND Shares Rare Songs & Behind-the-Scenes Tales at 54 Below
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“You always told me: “When all your troubles weigh a ton/ What you need is some fun./ People get weary when life’s a war that’s never won/ Until music starts playing/  And there is joy in the room again/ And, boy! does it bloom again.’” 

Robert W. Schneider  (Photo: Genevieve Rafter Keddy)
Robert W. Schneider  (Photo: Genevieve Rafter Keddy)

That’s a memorable musical theatre lyric, right? OK, it probably doesn’t sound familiar because the show it’s from, Minsky’s, never opened on the Great White Way — despite the best of intentions, efforts, and talent, with more than one false start, readings and rewrites, and changes in the creative team (a couple of them caused, sadly, by deaths). After many years, it finally got a 2009 Los Angeles production, setting its sights on a Broadway transfer, but, alas, that never happened. Such intriguing “almosts” are the focus of master podcaster Robert W. Schneider’s new series, “Broadway Bound: The Musicals that Never Came to Broadway.”  He characterizes the approach as a “celebration, not a diminishing” of musicals that didn’t get on-Broadway runs.  It’s the logical spawn of his same-named live series, one of his many projects at the nightclub 54 Below and related topics covered on the plethora of previous podcasts he’s put time into. The lively, ever-curious musical theatre/cabaret maven made time to talk between his hours of podcast prep (researching, writing, interviewing, editing more than three hours of material into half that amount or less), and days spent teaching, directing, producing, and meetings about the productions of J2 Spotlight Theater Company, this decade’s addition to the midtown Manhattan entertainment scene, of which he is Artistic Director and co-founder, readying spring productions of the more well-known musicals Do Re Mi and Lucky Stiff.

Minsky’s is just one of the ill-fated musicals worthy of exploration and excavation getting deep dives. Its lyric quoted above is from a nifty number called “You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down” which can be heard in full on the podcast. The chipper choice could be a cousin of the cheer-up number from Bye Bye Birdie, “Put On a Happy Face,” which is not so surprising, as its melody was written by Charles Strouse, who’d composed the music for Minsky’s and the several songs for the project that birthed it, the 1968 movie The Night They Raided Minsky’s which had lyrics by his collaborator on Birdie and other scores, Lee Adams.  The latter wasn’t interested in coming on board for the stage treatment and the assignment went to Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam, Triumph of Love, and more). She’s on the shortlist of those theatre writers whom Robert Schneider considers as “underappreciated”, along with others represented in upcoming episodes by their short-circuited scores:  Bob Merrill  (Breakfast at Tiffany’s); composer Larry Grossman (Paper Moon); and lyricist Carolyn Leigh (Enter Juliet, inspired by the Fellini film Juliet of the Spirits, with the desire to star Angela Lansbury). Are you seeing the pattern?  All had earlier “lives” as movies — or intended movies, as is the case of the abandoned film project eventually titled Busker Alley, with songs by the Disney go-to team of The Sherman Brothers, when dusted off for a stage version, only to have it sidelined largely due to star Tommy Tune being sidelined by an on-stage foot injury after the show was – pardon the pun — otherwise on its feet.  It’s one of the musicals already available to hear about along with the other released episodes: the stage treatments of the movie properties The Graduate and Arthur, with the latest spotlight going to The Mambo Kings, online as of this week.  (New programs show up each Thursday.)     

Of that last-mentioned musical, the happy host tells me, “One of the things I love about doing this podcast is that it’s a platform to celebrate individuals who were trying to move the needle in the cultural conversation of the musical theatre.  For example, Jordan and Daryl Roth were attempting to be the first producers to bring positive Latinx characters to the stage.  In the Heights is now looked at as the first musical to accomplish this, but credit should be given to those who attempted that.”  He describes the formula for the podcasts’ content as usually 30% songs and 70% talk (gleaned from research, quotes from reviews, and his own interviews with those who were involved). Those conversations  “can give people a chance to resolve something” as they look back and because “the trajectory behind the show can be more interesting.”  However, sometimes the parties once involved aren’t open to what could feel like opening old wounds and rehashing musicals that closed quickly.  There can be “an unwillingness to talk too much on the record.”  And if there were artistic differences, hearing only one side can be one of the other frustrations. But he’s open to presenting follow-ups: a second chance to talk if someone has second thoughts about participating.     

“It must have been bad” is the most common misconception about why any musical closes states Mr. Schneider, who knows better (and knows a lot).  It’s usually about “artistic differences” and could also be due to money problems, miscasting, mismanagement, or bad luck. There are often gems in the score.  He remembers being in a restaurant near 54 Below, before heading there for a “Broadway Bound” edition, where a conversation between two customers at the next table caught his ear. They’d seen a notice about the event and were discussing the possibility of attending: “Going to a show about flop musicals?  Why would we want to do that?!” scoffed one, reasoning that remnants of something that wasn’t a hit was something to definitely miss.  Soon the stranger near them approached and said, “So sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help overhearing…,” introduced himself as the host and producer of the program, told them of its assets, and urged them to come.  And they did!  He sent drinks to them at the nightclub, and afterwards they told him, gratefully, that they’d enjoyed it.  

Coming soon to 54 Below are more Schneider co-hosted presentations:  a retrospective of musicals that played the Marquis Theatre (March 19); a “roast” of Lee Roy Reams (April 1); and a tribute to the late lyricist Sheldon Harnick (April 30).  Before all that, there’s another live “Broadway Bound” on March 5, where he’ll share the commentary duties with Charles Kirsch, a prince of podcasting himself with his terrific “Backstage Babble” interviews.  He chimed in with these observations: “Rob Schneider is not only the kindest, most generous person in show business but a brilliant podcast host. We first met because I was a fan of his previous show, “Behind the Curtain,” and I was understandably thrilled when he asked me to co-host three installments of the “Broadway Bound” series at 54 Below. I’m so glad he turned this idea into a podcast; there’s no facet of theater history that doesn’t become ten times more interesting when matched with Rob’s humor and charm.”  

After the first set of 10 “Broadway Boundpodcasts ends in April, there will be a hiatus before the next season begins, and that will cover such treats as the Sondheim show that went through numerous iterations and title changes (Gold, Wise Guys, Bounce and Road Show), Hot Spot, Martin Guerre, Pleasures and Palaces, Grover’s Corners, Annie 2, 1491, Bonanza Bound, and Home Again, Home Again.  

And, as always, Robert W. Schneider’s combination of enthusiasm, expertise, and perspective is like a set of batteries for a flashlight shining on the gold in the (sometimes buried) treasures lurking in the hills and valleys of musical theatre.

You can find more about Broadway Bound podcast on their website.