Zorba is one of the least-known musicals by Kander & Ebb -- and one of my favorites of their work. It's based, of course, on the novel and 1964 movie, Zorba the Greek, and was not successful, but has an odd history that transcends that and ultimately got some renown.
I liked it at first-listen though it's not a typical Broadway score, being Greek-flavored. But subsequent listens have gotten me to appreciate it more and more -- not just musically, but the lyrics are rich and thoughtful to the point where I now have long-since considered it a gem.
Beyond having a slightly-different sounding score, it had some other hurdles to overcome. Unfair and wrong hurdles, but hurdles nonetheless. And mostly those were related to comparisons to Fiddler on the Roof.
Zorba opened on Broadway in 1968, just four years after Fiddler on the Roof, which was still playing. It too had a rural theme about Eastern European peasants. And its star was Herschel Bernardi -- who had replaced Zero Mostel as 'Tevye' in the original production of Fiddler And if that wasn't enough, it also featured Maria Karnilova... who had starred opposite Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof as his wife, 'Golde.' And the show even has a song, "Life Is," a title not far off from "To Life. So, there was a lot of anticipation that this was going to be another Fiddler.
And that was a double-negative. For some people, that felt like the new show would just be a copy, trying to grab the coat tails of the legendary predecessor. For others, it raised their expectations for it to be something it was never intended. Zorba has nothing to do Fiddler on the Roof. For all the similarities on the surface, it's a totally different story, told a totally different way, with a hugely different score.
There was another unfair, though understandable comparison -- to the original movie with Anthony Quinn's virtuoso, larger-than-life, and Oscar-nominated portrayal as 'Zorba.' It was a performance that in many ways defined Quinn and became his iconic role, even among many great films. And terrific (and Tony-nominated) as Herschel Bernardi was, he wasn't Anthony Quinn chewing up with scenery.
The original production of Zorba ran 305 performances, which is actually semi-respectable, but far short of expectations from the team who did Cabaret just a few years earlier. It did receive an impressive eight Tony nominations -- including Best Musical, and Best Actor for Herschel Bernardi, along with Best Featured Actress for Maria Karnilova -- and even won for Best Scenic Design. (Hey, I told you it's wonderful.) But the show, terrific as it is, eventually faded away into the obscurity bin of respected, but forgotten Broadway shows.
And then came the big twist.
In 1983, Zorba was revived. And not just revived, but done with most of the famous names who had made the film of Zorba the Greek two decades earlier. Anthony Quinn agreed to re-create his legendary role. And not just him, but Lila Kedrova would appear as well, repeating the role which had won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Yet that wasn't all -- the entire production itself would be directed by Michael Cacayonnis, who had directed the feature film, and was nominated for an Oscar. And when it opened on Broadway, it did even better than the original production.
The revival ran for 362 performances and then had a hugely successful tour, which Quinn himself took on the road. I saw it in Los Angeles, and it was wonderful. To be clear, Anthony Quinn can't sing a lick. His voice came across notes that had landed all over the place, and only occasionally found the right ones on key. But boy, did he inhabit the character of Zorba and bring such exuberant life to him, selling the songs as an actor. And Lila Kedrova was wonderful and heart-breaking.
(I can't tell you which cast album I prefer more. The original with Herschel Bernardi is far and away the best performed musical. But the Anthony Quinn revival has more character and -- of course -- history. Not to mention Lila Kedrova's soul-aching performance of the song "Happy Birthday.")
This video below is the very lively opening song, the aforementioned "Life Is" from the original production on the 1969 Tony Awards. Oddly enough, they chose a number without Herschel Bernardi. Instead, this features Lorraine Serrabian and the company. It's one of the few productions numbers that I think works pretty well on TV, since it has a lot of solo moments, though it's better on stage, as it explodes in the theater. Also worth noting is that this version uses the original, darker, more cynical lyric, "Life is what you do, while you're waiting to die." Later, for the revival, Fred Ebb rewrote that (perhaps at the insistence of Anthony Quinn, though that's just a total guess) to the more encompassing, "Life is what you do, 'till the moment you die."
The video quality isn't great, but the vibrancy comes across just fine.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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