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Forgotten Broadway classics: Golden Boy January 31, 2008

Posted by Jeff in Musicals, Theater.

“Golden Boy” album cover, designed by Saul Bass

A washed-up Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright gets hired to adapt his most famous work into a musical … thirty years after the original. And he dies before rehearsals have begun.

The star is best known for his Vegas act, and he’s never appeared on Broadway.

The producer will probably be best remembered for this.

The songwriters had a big hit four seasons before — a bubblegum-rock musical.

What a recipe for disaster.

What an unexpected surprise.

Don’t get me wrong — Golden Boy (1964) will never be revived. It was too much of a star vehicle for Sammy Davis, and its politics and zeitgeist are very much of its time.

But who would have thought the songwriters best known for Bye Bye Birdie and Annie would be capable of opening a show with this?

Clifford Odets‘ hero, played by John Garfield on Broadway and William Holden in the movie, was Joe Bonaparte, the quintessential boxer‑with‑a‑heart‑of‑gold who really wants to be a concert violinist. William Gibson (The Miracle Worker), who took over the book chores after Odets’ death, turned him into Joe Wellington (get it?) and dropped the violin.

Wellington is seduced by his manager’s blond white girlfriend (Paula Wayne, an actress with more than a passing resemblance to Davis’s blond white wife, May Britt). His first solo may be the most famous number from the show.

Before we get carried away with what a Grand Statement this show was making about equality and civil rights, it’s worth pointing out that outside of the actors not one person who worked on this show was black.

Not everything in Golden Boy was quite so grim. Here, Wellington bids farewell to the ‘hood:

Billy Daniels (1915-1988), a popular band singer/radio host best known for his recording of “That Old Black Magic”, appeared as Eddie Satin, a Mephistophelean fight promoter who tempts Wellington with fame and fortune in the first-act finale:

(Betcha didn’t guess that was going to turn into a rap song …)

For what it’s worth, Davis’s last number in the show was praised by no less than Martin Luther King:

Thanks to Odets’s death and a longer-than-expected out-of-town shakedown tour, Golden Boy may have been the first — but certainly not the last — Broadway musical to run over a year and still close in the red.

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