Premieres at the National Theatre: ‘Show Boat,’ ‘West Side Story’ and more

The new musical “If/Then” at the National Theatre isn’t only a pre-Broadway tryout, that now-rare specimen of a new show alighting in Washington on a circuit that often included New Haven, Boston, and Detroit. Even rarer: it’s a world premiere.Here is a list of other notable firsts at the National, including reports from critics who wrote immediately after the show ended in the old days so the reviews could make the morning papers:

1927: “Show Boat,” music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Overnight verdict: “When, at 25 minutes to the eleventh hour, after more than two full hours in the theater, the curtain descended on the first act of Flo Ziegfeld’s newest musical production, ‘Show Boat,’ those who went to see the first presentation in the National Theater knew two things: They were getting their money’s worth and Ziegfeld had another hit in the making.”

History’s verdict: 572 Broadway performances, six Broadway revivals, two Hollywood films, enduring reputation as the granddaddy of American musicals.

1936: “Idiot’s Delight,” Robert Sherwood’s antiwar drama, starring Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Sidney Greenstreet.

Overnight verdict: “Loosely woven, ardent in its condemnation of war, indecisive in its characterization . . . The least efficient and least effective of the Sherwood plays . . . The piece, of course, is flawlessly played . . . The curtain was raised and lowered 13 times at the conclusion of the last act in response to the audience’s acclaim.”

History’s verdict: 1936 Pulitzer Prize, 1939 film with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer.

1957: “West Side Story,” music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Overnight verdict: “Far too complex to be satisfactorily analyzed in a brief 25 minutes,” Richard Coe lamented on Aug. 25, 1957. Days later, Coe wrote, “A triumph . . . a pulsating work of art . . . In case anyone’s in the mood for predictions, I’m betting that the arresting Chita Rivera will be a major star.”

History’s verdict: 732 performances on Broadway, four Broadway revivals, 10 Academy Awards for the 1961 movie.

1967: “Mata Hari,” a musical about the sultry World War I spy, music by Edward Thomas, book by Jerome Coopersmith, lyrics by Martin Charnin. The legendary brain trust included producer David Merrick, designer Jo Mielziner and director Vincente Minnelli.

Overnight response: “At a benefit preview for the Women’s National Democratic Club, scenery fell apart on stage, costumes came undone, dancers tripped and the audience laughed in the wrong places.”

History’s verdict: “‘Hari’ Kari,” read the headline announcing that the flop would cost Merrick his $1 million investment and would not transfer to Broadway.

1969: “Play It Again, Sam,” a romantic comedy written by and starring Woody Allen.

Overnight response: “Woody Allen has written a very funny little play for himself which had its premiere last night at the National . . . He is stage center all of the two hour playing time and one would be hard-put to think of a playwright who has served himself, as an actor, so generously.”

History’s verdict: 453 performances on Broadway; 1972 film.

1988: “M. Butterfly,” a drama by David Henry Hwang, starring John Lithgow as a French diplomat shacking up with an enigmatic Chinese woman who he belatedly finds out is a man. Based on a true story.

First night response: “Too much attention to footnotes, ironic asides and running commentary on such issues as male sexuality and how America lost the Vietnam war (related topics in Hwang’s view).”

History’s verdict: 777 performances on Broadway; Tony Awards for best play and best direction.

1996: “Whistle Down the Wind,” based on a 1961 movie about rural English children who mistake a fugitive for Jesus. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Jim Steinman (famed for Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell”).

First night response: “Performing ‘Wrestle with the Devil’ in a diabolic red light, the singers writhe and sweat and spin and grimace and shake rubber snakes and dance frenziedly and fall into ecstatic trances with their feet twitching. It’s all pretty embarrassing, but at least the evening momentarily comes to life. Rarely has a show needed a jolt of bad taste more.”

History’s verdict: All Broadway plans cancelled.

2006: “Hot Feet,” retelling “The Red Shoes” via the music of Earth, Wind and Fire. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Maurice Hines.

First night response: “A ghastly tangle of clichés that have been crazy-glued together.” The headline: “ ‘Hot Feet’ Tramples Earth, Wind and Fire.”

History’s verdict: Closed on Broadway after 96 performances.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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