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Forgotten Musicals: Legs Diamond October 13, 2020

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Peter Allen and the cast of Legs Diamond in 1988 – photo by Martha Swope

In a new series on forgotten musicals – today’s first entry is Legs Diamond — the misbegotten Peter Allen musical. You can readily find the cast album (it was more afordable to record a show in the 80’s when it flopped but someone still ponied up the cash to record the show). While it was out of print for decades, it is now available in iTunes and elsewhere. 

On my birthday in 1989, I went to see Legs Diamond at the Mark Hellinger theater, now a church (in fact, the Nederlanders considered the show such a flop, as were most shows that played  at the massive but beautiful Hellinger, that they announced even before the show was cancelled that they would be off-loading the theater, which caused a minor ticket run on the show to try to save the theater itself). They lost and 31 years later it is still a church. I knew the reviews were terrible (Frank Rich considered the evenings most palbable drama “Peter Allen wondering what to do with his hands”) but I love shows like that – often finding things that I love in them.

In this case, the show had much to love. Peter Allen, at the height of his popularity, had written a ego-project, starring himself, as real-life gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. Never mind that Legs had been gunned down in his early 30’s, was virtually unknown as a gangster, and Allen was in his mid-40’s (and looked it) by the time the show opened. Never mind that Allen’s partner Greg had died 4 years earlier and some of the songs were clearly written as love songs to him. Never mind that he pulled several trunk songs out for cabaret singer Julie Wilson to perform that he had written for his ex-wife/beard’s mother twenty years earlier — but Judy Garland had the poor taste to die before recording any of them. Never mind that the entire gangster-who-liked-to-dance was ridiculous in the first place — or the fact that Peter Allen was a terrible dancer and a horrendous actor — there he was! Live on stage! In a brand new book musical (by Harvey Fierstien!).

He was the single most problematic part of the show — the book was decent (if not funny and rewritten and rewritten so many times the musical ended up having the longest pre-opening tryout on record — longer than the two month run of the show). The musical score was quite excellent. The cast album is one you can listen to over and over, and 5 of the songs, including one that had been cut, were incorporated in The Boy From Oz for Hugh Jackman. The costumes and set design were spectacular, and the hard working cast was uniformly excellent. It was a big, old-fashioned musical that was massive in size and right in tune with what audiences would normally want to see in a 5 million dollar budget musical.

But there was Allen, who by this point was widely known to be gay, had loyal followers from his always-sold-out Radio City extravaganzas, and was dying – both literally in life and figuratively on stage each night. (He  really died a few years afterwards). But here he was playing against his flamboyant stage personna in playing a quirky real-life gangster. As prievews progressed, so did the spangles and beads on his gangster suits to the point he looked ludicrous, but matched what his audiences expected. The show was given a happy ending, and everything else is history.

Allen wasn’t a strong singer, couldn’t act at all, and could barely dance. Performers were staged dancing around him while he sang center stage, or while being flown in — (actually it was a double but he never gave him credit) — he was unrecognizable as a gangster — but when he exploded in song, his audiences went wild. It’s the only show I can remember seeing before Wicked where audiences hooted and hollered after every major Allen number.  He was larger than life. His numbers with superstar Julie Wilson were the standouts in the show. 

Listening to the cast album you might be surprised by how many tunes you recognize – and you would have no concept of what this show actually looked like had you not seen it. You wouldn’t be aware of the adulating audiences, or chorus girls in gigantic champaigne glasses, or costumes with more feathers and sequins and glitter than actual clothing material, 

When the show closed in early February the show was guaranteed it would never be performed again by any professional or amateur theater company because all of the orchestrations disappeared. Sort of like Evita’s body – though they were never recovered. 

A few years ago, a theater company in LA had the orchestrations rewritten meticulously by musicians listening to the cast album – the only remaining record. The show has subsequently been performed in concert version by several other groups. But there is nothing that compared to seeing Peter Allen (!!!) live on stage at the Mark Hellinger singing his own songs, romancing Julie Wilson, and having the time of his life. That’s what happens when you have more money than you know what to do with it. And that was one of my happiest memories of seeing a show on my birthday. Legs Diamond was among the best of the 80’s bad musicals. And that is saying something.