In this blog, I discuss my obsession with the 1970’s musical Applause! I hope to make future blogs about other shows I’m obsessed with but for now, let’s step into world of 1970’s New York City at the Palace Theater!
BACKGROUND: “Welcome to the Theater! To the Magic! To the Fun!”
Applause is a 1970 musical based on the film, All About Eve and it’s original story The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr. The creators are Broadway royalty; Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) and Book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ in the Rain, Wonderful Town, On The Twentieth Century). The original Broadway production starred Lauren Bacall as Margo Channing and won four Tony awards including Best Musical.
STORY: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
Super-fan, Eve Harrington is brought backstage to meet Broadway star Margo Channing on her opening night of The Friendly Argument. Eve tells Margo how the actress saved her depressing life after her husband died in the Vietnam War. With Margo’s ego boosted, she welcomes Eve to her life and Eve soon becomes Margo’s shadow. Eve slithers her way into the life of her friends; producer Howard Benedict, playwright Buzz Richards, Buzz’s wife Karen and Margo’s director and lover Bill Sampson, making Margo even more suspicious of Eve. This siltering leads Eve become Margo’s understudy making Margo horrified. “I can’t believe it”, Margo screams, “This little prairie flower has been standing in the wings, studying my every line, my every move for five months and I never knew what she was really up to!”. Margo blames and yells her friends, causing them and her lover Bill, to walk out on her. Planning to backstab Margo and to help Eve, Karen and Buzz empty the gas out of Margo’s car, making her unable to attend the performance and allowing Eve to go on for Margo. At that performance, Eve is a hit and the audience is full with critics. Margo’s hairdresser Duane snipes at Eve, “a birdie must have told ‘em you were on tonight, or maybe a vulture”. Eve tried to seduce Bill but Bill turns her down. She then moves to Buzz, but before their affair can flourish, Howard (the producer) calls her out for the lies she has told Margo and her friends. Her real name is Evelyn Hinkle and her husband never died, he’s still in Vietnam. Howard blackmails Eve for a starring role in an upcoming play and Eve now “belongs” to Howard. Margo finally realizing Eve’s motives, she decides to give up the stage and her own ego for “Something Better”, her love for Bill.
ANALYSIS: “Who’s that girl?”
The musical is an interesting character study between its two leading ladies, Eve Harrington and Margo Channing. Eve represents how far people go and what lines people cross in order to achieve their dreams. Margo’s journey throughout the show deals with coming to grips with the ugly side of ourself- our age. The women also deal with the theme of being alive. Throughout the musical, the characters sing and say what it is to be alive. However, it is up to the audience to decide what makes one truly alive. Both women sing the song “But Alive” at different times of the show. For Eve, being alive is artificial love from hundreds and for Margo being alive is true love from one person.
Much like Sunset Boulevard, the show centers around an aging actress in addition to the story celebrating and criticizing the excitement and backstabbing of show business (Shown through such numbers as “Applause”, “Backstage Babble” and “She’s No Longer A Gypsy”). It’s a show that discusses and deals with the hidden figures of theater business who do not get the applause they deserve such as the supporting characters of Karen, Bert, and Buzz.
GAY CULTURE: “It’s just too groovy to believe”
The show is most notably known for Margo’s “But Alive” which takes place in a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Before Applause, homosexual representation in musical theater had been coded and taboo on Broadway. For example in Damn Yankees, the role of the Devil is subtextually gay with his style, manor and wit in addition to the character ascending from Hell. In Cabaret, the role of Cliff was originally supposed to be gay but his character was changed to be in love with Sally. Applause is significant for having one of it’s character’s (Margo’s hairdresser, Duane) openly gay and for having one of it’s scenes in a gay bar, representing diva worship in the gay community. This is not coded in the show nor does the show make them blatant stereotypes such as future gay musicals such as The Producers or La Cage Aux Folles. Furthermore, Duane is never shamed for being gay, the characters respect him for who is (a MAJOR step considering it came out the year after The Stonewall Riots).
MUSIC AND LYRICS:
Although the music is joyous and the show is commercial, it is the darkest out of all the shows Strouse and Lee have written. Lee’s lyrics in such songs as “One Halloween” and “Welcome to the Theater” have cynical edge to them:
Welcome to the Theater
Welcome to the dirty concrete hallways
Welcome to the friendly roaches, too
Welcome to the pinches from the stagehands;
It’s the only quite thing they do!
Welcome to Philadelphia critics
Welcome to Librium and Nembutal
Welcome to a life of laryngitis
Welcome to dark toilets in the hall
Welcome to the flop you thought would run for years
Welcome to the world of fears and cheers and tears
Remember that Halloween when you were nine?
You wore a fairy queen costume of your own design
Well, look at you now
And you put on rouge and lipstick, though it wasn’t allowed
You were so proud
And Daddy said “Wash your face
You look like a whore”
That’s what he said
Everybody loves the winner
But nobody loves the flop
No one worries how you got there
Once you’re standing on the top
I love this version of the song by the original Broadway Eve, Penny Fuller. You can feel and hear all of Eve’s anger, hurt, vengeance and triumph.
However, the show balances this cynicism with campy disco theater tunes such as “Fasten Your Seatbelts”, “But Alive” and “Who’s That Girl”. Strouse wrote in his memoir “Put On A Happy Face” that the disco/1970’s-esque tunes came from reading an article in the New York Times stating that in order for a show to be successful on Broadway, it must have an up to date score that aligns with the music of the times, hence why the score is settled in an heavenly dated 70’s feel.
WHY DO I LIKE APPLAUSE?: “What is it that we’re living for?”
For me, I’ve met a lot of Eve Harrington’s in my life and I love this story for telling this tale of this actress who will do anything for a part in a play. We have all met and have been Eve or Margo one time in our lives. We all have crossed lines and prostituted ourselves to achieve our dreams one way or another.
FINALE: “Something Greater”
This gem (like most gems) are swept under the rug. However there are rumors that Audra McDonald is to do a revival of Applause as Margo Channing next year on Broadway! And luckily for you, you can watch Applause now, thanks to the wonders of Youtube! This version is of the 1972 London cast filmed for television. Although there is a time bar at the bottom, the television adaptation is a faithful reproduction of the stage show and is definitely a must watch for any musical theater buff.