When it comes to hit Broadway musicals, Michael Stewart wrote the book… literally. Stewart penned the libretto to some of the greatest musicals in Broadway history, and you may never have heard of him!
The book of a musical is the show’s narrative structure and dialogue. The book writer, or librettist, determines the show’s point of view, creates the show’s framework and song placement, and writes all of the dialogue. According to one Broadway bromide, when a show fails, everyone blames the book. When a show succeeds, everyone praises the score. The book writer never gets any credit!
Concord Theatricals certainly recognizes the incredible contribution of a musical’s book writer, and we know Michael Stewart was one of the all-time greats. Here are ten reasons why.
After contributing to two musical revues, Michael Stewart struck gold with his first full-scale Broadway venture. Stewart wrote the libretto for this breakout hit, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and continues to grace hundreds of stages worldwide every year. Stewart’s book featured plenty of quotable lines, like this impassioned speech from Mr. McAfee:
Gentlemen, the democracy is over! Parliament has been dissolved; the Magna Carta is revoked, and Nero is back in town! And you don’t offer an emperor a warm Seven-Up!
Or Mae’s classic maternal guilt-trip:
Who am I anyway? A sick old woman… probably won’t last the night. I just want a simple stone, with one word carved on it: Albert’s Mother.
After the wackiness of Birdie, Stewart wrote a gentler, more contemplative libretto for this adaptation of the 1953 film Lili. Produced by David Merrick, Carnival! received Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Author of a Musical. Stewart wrote this lovely monologue for Lili, whose heart has been broken by a carnival magician:
I’ve been putting things together in my head all day, Marco… and I know now that I’ve been living in a little girl’s dream, not seeing anything except what I wanted to see. Not that dreams are bad to have… it’s just that there’s a time for them to end. Like there’s a time for going to school, a time for losing our parents, a time for falling in love with a beautiful magician, and a time for waking up. And we just have to learn each time to say, “This is over. Now, go on to the next thing.”
I guess it’s something nobody can teach you, Marco. You just get older… and you know. It’s a blue carnation. It could never be real. But it was very beautiful.
Stewart’s Tony Award-winning book for this mega-hit, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, may be his finest work. Brilliantly structured and hilariously paced, Hello, Dolly! includes exchanges like this (and can’t you just hear Bette Midler’s voice as you read these lines?):
DOLLY. Congratulations, Mr. Vandergelder! All New York is buzzing with the news that you’ve practically proposed to Irene Molloy. The streets are lined with eligible young ladies prostrate with grief. All my congratulations and sympathy…
DOLLY. Did I say that? A slip of the tongue, that’s all. No, I’m delighted with the happy news. After all, she wasn’t easy to unload—by that I mean you know what people said, although I, for one, never believed the rumors. No, I didn’t…
VANDERGELDER. Rumors? What rumors?
DOLLY. Nothing to get upset about, Mr. Vandergelder. I mean, according to all known facts, her first husband passed on quite naturally. It’s just that he went so sudden. A few spoons of chowder she made special for him and pfft! But it could happen to anyone. No, there’s no truth in it. Just one word of advice, Mr. Vandergelder: Eat out.
Stewart co-wrote this libretto with his sister Francine Pascal and her husband, John Pascal. The musical, starring Joel Grey and featuring Bernadette Peters, told the life story of legendary composer/entertainer George M. Cohan. The book captured the lingo and cadence of vaudevillian show-talk, evidenced by this line from George’s father, upon the birth of his son:
Little George, the Yankee Doodle Kid, that’s how we bill him in the act. Not that he’s going into this business unless he wants to. That boy’s not putting a foot on a stage ‘til he’s eighteen or nineteen, or even twenty-one… months.
That old Broadway bromide comes to mind here: This show, despite a celebrated score from composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, never quite got off the ground, and closed after only 66 performances. Of course, everyone blamed the book. But Michael Stewart earned a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical, and subsequent re-writes have been unsuccessful in improving Stewart’s original work. The story, a tragic romance between silent movie director Mack Sennett and his leading lady, Mabel Normand, may have been too dark for musical comedy audiences… or too dark for the sunny Jerry Herman to score.
6. I Love My Wife, 1977 (US)
Stewart returned to contemporary comedy with this urbane satire of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. I Love My Wife takes place on Christmas Eve in suburban Trenton, New Jersey, where two married couples find themselves contemplating a ménage-à-quatre. Praised by Clive Barnes as “bright, inventive, and breezy,” the musical featured Joanna Gleason and James Naughton in their Broadway debuts. Stewart’s book includes plenty of savvy, adult exchanges like this one:
ALVIN. (reading from a magazine survey) “Would you be willing to go to the movies with a highly attractive married man exactly like Robert Redford, only without the build, the blond hair, or the good looks?” Well, what would you answer?
MONICA. It all depends.
ALVIN. On what?
MONICA. The movie.
Again collaborating with composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, Stewart adapted S. N. Behrman’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel into this tuneful musical featuring a clever Jewish refugee, a bombastic Polish Colonel and a charming French woman as they evade the Nazis in occupied France.
For this huge, colorful, circus-themed hit, Stewart wrote lyrics to music by Cy Coleman. Earning his first Tony nomination for Best Original Score, Stewart contributed delicious patter for leading man Jim Dale in the role of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman on Earth:
Quite a lotta
Roman terra cotta,
Livin’ lava from the flanks of Etna,
Ride a dromedary,
See the Temple tumble and the Red Sea part.
The fattest lady in the land,
A pickled prehistoric hand,
A strand of Pocahontas’ hair.
Crow and Sioux
Who’re going to
Be showing you
Some rowing through
A model of the rapids on the Delaware!
Stewart co-wrote the book to this tuner with Mark Bramble, and they were nominated for Best Book of a Musical. Adapted from the novel and loosely based on the movie, 42nd Street is the ultimate show biz story, featuring a slew of Broadway standards by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Stewart’s script contains one of the most famous lines in musical theatre:
Sawyer, you’re going out there a youngster. But you’ve got to come back a star!
Musical theatre fans will appreciate this one: 20 years after the success of Bye Bye Birdie, the original creative team reassembled to create a sequel, and Michael Stewart once again wrote the book. The show famously flopped, playing only four performances on Broadway, but Stewart did write some great lines for Mae, once again insulting her daughter-in-law Rose when they are reunited:
Rose, what happened? Start with the accident. How long were you under the truck before they got you out? Never mind… the plastic surgeon did miracles. Of course, it’ll be much better when he takes the staples out.
Michael Stewart was truly one of the most successful book writers of Broadway’s Golden Age, and we‘re grateful for his humor, intelligence and creativity.