What Could Have Been: Henry, Sweet Henry

Sometimes, you just have to wonder how the world of theater would have changed if certain shows had succeeded in a major venue. With the recent pasting of acclaimed Broadway veteran Alice Playten, I've been reintroduced to a sweet little musical comedy called Henry, Sweet Henry. According to the 1968 book The Season by William Goldman, audiences fell in love with Henry, Sweet Henry. The problem was the harsh critical reviews in the wake of revolutionary rock musical Hair. Against the excitement and raw energy of the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, Henry, Sweet Henry was labeled old-fashioned and out of touch. If you think I have a tendency towards hyperbole, you should look into how quickly theater critics used to swing from praise to hatred because some show or other instantly reshaped the field.

On 17 October 1967, Hair opened Off-Broadway. Six days later, Henry, Sweet Henry opened on Broadway. In a modern context, this wouldn't be too influential on the Broadway review unless the two shows in contention were stylistically or thematically similar. Off-Broadway is where the more experimental and politicized works do their first big runs. If they get strong enough reviews and sell well, they might try to transfer to Broadway if a small theater is available

But that's not even what happened here. Hair didn't make it to Broadway until the following season, opening 29 April 1968* and losing both of its Tony nominations to the very traditional 1776. Did the enthusiasm for the show die down that much in a year and a half? Nope.

But the influence of Hair somehow didn't manage to sink Henry, Sweet Henry's competition, either. Hallelujah, Baby!, the Best Musical winner for the 1967/68 season, isn't a revolutionary rock musical. Neither is Illya, Darling, How Now, Dow Jones, or The Happy Time. They're all traditional musicals. The difference? Those shows didn't open immediately after Hair. The closest to do so was How Now, Dow Jones, which opened a month and a half after Henry, Sweet Henry to much better reviews (in spite of its long and troubled gestation period; I'm talking firing the director and writing a whole new book and most of a new score during the out of town try out). The other shows opened well before or well after.

I know what you're thinking, though: how can anyone prove it was proximity to Hair that sank sweet little Henry, Sweet Henry? We can't. My case here so far has been that the euphoric theatrical high of Hair colored critical response to Henry, Sweet Henry in a way that didn't reflect that actual quality of the show. Musically, it's in the same field as all the Best Musical nominees for the 1967/68 season, but the critical reaction and lackluster performance meant a short run and only a nomination for Alice Playten in Feature Actress.

As a modern non-theater comparison, the critical acclaim of the Truman Capote biopic Capote absolutely influenced the response and success of Truman Capote biopic Infamous, which opened shortly afterwards. Critics were quick to compare the two very different interpretations of the story, siding with what they saw first in all areas of production. Would it have been different if the films' releases were flipped? We can't say. But it's quite clear by how many critics discussed Capote in reviews of Infamous that the former influenced the reaction to the latter.

I managed to come across a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Henry, Sweet Henry this week. I think it's quite lovely. The melodies are tuneful and the lyrics easy to understand and clever. It doesn't feel dated to me in the least bit. I can't say the same for some of the other shows that had better runs at the same time.

Sadly, Henry, Sweet Henry is just one of those shows that isn't done very often. The cast recording is out of print and the Broadway production was never fully filmed for reference. It took the death of Alice Playten for someone to upload The Ed Sullivan Show performance of "Poor Little Person" back on YouTube. That's just sad. It does, however, give you a glimpse into what this production was like. Judging by how the audience responded to the song and Ed Sullivan's commentary afterwards, the only thing that held back Henry, Sweet Henry was starstruck critics.

Now just imagine how the audience would respond to this number in the context of the show. Now imagine that a completely different song was cited as the showstopper in the more positive reviews. Now imagine that it's the other song that wasn't performed on television, a solo number for Alice Playten, that people remember as the highlight of the show, not "Poor Little Person" that received spontaneous applause in front of a less-informed audience. Could the show have been that bad just because it opened after Hair with responses like that? I doubt it.

How would the theater world have changed if Henry, Sweet Henry had opened a few weeks earlier or later? I tend to think it would be a better remembered show with a readily available cast recording at the very least. Alice Playten might have gone on to have a starring vehicle written for her back at a time where composers still wrote shows for specific singing actors. But that's nothing but playing with long-gone history now.

*The Tony Award eligibility period used to end in the middle of April for an awards ceremony during the last week of April. Hair was the first musical to open in the 1968/69 season.

What do you think? Is it time that people begin revisiting Henry, Sweet Henry? Could a revival work on Broadway today or is the book itself too dated to work without revisions? Sound off in the comments.

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