February 23, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Today is the anniversary of when the 1979 musical Sarava, "the new hot musical" as it was billed, reluctantly opened on Broadway. Reluctantly, because the producers had hit upon a scheme by which they ran ad nauseam a television commercial that made the show out to be sexy and fun and was bringing in paying customers without the benefit of any reviews. The last thing its creative team wanted was for the critics to see it and tell everyone it was awful. Throughout six weeks of previews, it postponed its opening three times until Richard Eder, then the New York Times chief theatre critic, claimed enough was enough and bought his own ticket. Even with the producers citing February 23 for its new opening, Eder, along with a few colleagues, made their own opening night by publishing reviews beginning February 12th. Whether it even officially opened on the 23rd is still open for debate, but it's the date that stuck. Ironically, of the major critics, Eder is the only one who gave the show a favorable write-up citing that "for two-thirds of its length, Sarava is a series of specific delights, held together with intelligence and integrity." But it wasn't enough to salvage the vitriol heaped on by others, as angrily expressed by Clive Barnes in the New York Post when he commented on all the delays by saying "had I been its producer, I think I would have issued machine guns to have kept critics out"). Yet it played on (even paying the exorbitant cost of moving to another theatre) before closing on June 17th, two weeks after it failed to grab a Tony for its nominated star, Tovah Feldshuh (at least her reviews were good). All told, it played about six months.
In case you're wondering, sarava is a Brazilian Portuguese expression meaning welcome, or sometimes used to say hello and goodbye, like shalom in Hebrew. And way back when amongst my New York City theatre friends, shouting sarava! was a thing, probably as good a way as. any to keep that commercial fresh long after it stopped airing. I daresay, if you're of a certain age, you could probably shout sarava! in any crowded Broadway theatre and still have someone return the greeting in loving remembrance of a more innocent time. After all, if you wanted to shell out the big bucks to see Sarava (if only to see how bad it was), it would only set you back $7 or $8 for a balcony seat. Truth be told, I wasn't willing to spend that on a bomb and saved my money in order to see Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd on Wednesday afternoons when $18 would buy you the best seat in the house (I went multiple times).
Sarava was based on a 1976 Brazilian film comedy Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (itself based on a novel) and starred Sonia Braga. The plot featured a woman whose husband dies shortly after they're married and who, after remarrying, is haunted by the sexy ghost of husband number one, less reliable than the new guy but loads more fun. The film was so successful that it remained the highest grossing Brazilian movie for thirty-five years (topped by Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within in case you were wondering). A simple story (and not so original to begin with), if it seems familiar you could be one of the few who have seen its 1982 American remake, Kiss Me Goodbye, which starred Sally Field, James Caan and Jeff Bridges, a box office dud.
The Sarava creative team was led by its composer Mitch Leigh, who was still fighting for another hit after his astonishingly successful Man of La Mancha. In addition to Sarava, he wrote three other Broadway musicals, Cry for Us All (1970), Home Sweet Homer (1976) and Ain't Broadway Grand (1993), a trio that combined didn't run a month. Sarava's book and lyrics were by N. Richard Nash, who seemed to coast primarily on the reputation of one modestly received play, 1954's The Rainmaker (made into a far more successful film in 1956, for which he wrote the screenplay and later adapting it into the musical 110 in the Shade). Nash's curious career would eventually encompass eleven Broadway shows, none of which managed a year's run at the most and one week at the least. Sarava's director and choreographer Rick Atwell had been in the choruses of such musicals as Georgy, The Rothschilds and the one-performance flop, The Selling of the President before being chosen to helm Sarava. Though he never again worked on Broadway, Atwell remained active in the business before eventually becoming a painter with a specialty in landscapes.
Of Sarava Tovah Feldshuh would later lament "the material did not work. It hobbled along. Every evening at eight o'clock I would say 'Tonight God, please give me a second act!'" And though Douglas Watt wasn't a fan, writing in the New York Daily News that she was "an effective actress and passable singer, but Latin heat is missing from her animated performance," the others were far more kind.
The decision by critics to storm the barricades and review the show was made not just by Eder of the Times and Barnes of the Post, but by a group of daily critics who discussed amongst themselves whether to wait and possibly be told yet again there was a delay or to just see the damn thing. The vote resulted in their attending uninvited. According to theatre historian Steven Suskin, Sarava's producer, Eugene V. Wolsk, ranted that "Richard Eder is an unreasonable ____, and I hope he jumps off the roof of the Times Building." And as mentioned, Eder ended up writing a favorable review, which in a bizarre set of circumstances, ran the same day in the Times as his pan of They're Playing Our Song, which got mostly great reviews and ran over a thousand performances. In his short stint as a theatre critic (he'd previously been a foreign correspondent for the Times), Eder spent a good deal of his time on something of a warpath with musicals, most prominently with a devastating review of Ballroom, Michael Bennett's follow-up to A Chorus Line, calling it "a very weak show" and "a condescending one." Many in the theatre community were mighty pleased when he was unceremoniously dropped from the Times in June at the end of the season, right around the time Sarava packed it in.
What's funny is that just about the same scenario played itself out again four years later (and at the same theatre, the Mark Hellinger) when the musical Merlin, starring master illusionist Doug Henning, had an even longer preview period, a razzle dazzle commercial, and no desire to open to the critics, opting for them to once again make up their own opening date. Fun facts: All of Henning's songs were cut during previews (he really couldn't sing, a slight drawback for the star). Also, it had a great many more firings and hirings than Sarava, with the show's co-producer, Ivan Reitman, taking over the reins. A filmmaker of many hits, Reitman had never directed any theatre before Merlin. The first choreographer (Ron Field) was fired, then replaced by Christopher Chadman, but by the time the show finally opened, Billy Wilson's name was added to the credits. None of it helped. Also, the show was "co-conceived by Doug Henning and Barbara De Angelis." A self-help relationships specialist (who has been married five times), Dr. De Angelis, whose degree in psychology is from a defunct and non-accredited university, includes among her quintet of husbands... Doug Henning. Here's the Merlin commercial (which sold tickets) as its run was about ten months.
As for Sarava, it won't be done at Encores! very soon, that's for sure. Though there was no Original Cast Recording, there was a disco version of one of its songs that was produced (this was 1979 after all). Apparently, this is a version of the title song. Contact me if you make it all the way through. I'd like to know how you did it.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.