Feuer and his producing partner Ernie Martin were the kings of musical comedy -- not synthetic musical comedy like The Producers, not musical comedy about musical comedy like Spamalot, but honest-to-god, brash, fast and funny musical comedy. Their first hit was an adaptation of a classic farce (Where's Charley? based on Charley's Aunt) at a time when all the other Broadway producers were straining to be Serious and Relevant like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their follow-up show, Guys and Dolls, started life as a serious mismatched-couple story in the vein of South Pacific; when that script wasn't working out, they brought in radio comedy writer Abe Burrows to write a new script that junked all the serious stuff and added a joke every second. Can-Can, written by Burrows and with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, had a plot that was almost entirely pointless but provided opportunities for bawdy jokes, lavish sets and costumes, and great Michael Kidd ballet sequences.
Feuer and Martin understood what musical comedy really means: it means putting the highest level of craftsmanship in the service of nothing more than giving the audience a good time. Too many producers thought, and think, that if you're doing a musical comedy the songs don't have to be that great (coughProducerscough), or the choreography can be a little weak, or you can skimp on the production values. Feuer and Martin understood that if you're going to do a wacky musical comedy about the corporate world, you need Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows and Bob Fosse and all the best talents in order to produce a really fine work of frivolity.
They may have forgotten that lesson after How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, though, as Feuer started to direct the shows himself and the songwriters they turned to were increasingly a notch below the best. That's not true of their next show, Little Me, one of the funniest musicals of all time and with top-notch people at every level: Bob Fosse (choreographing and co-directing with Feuer), Neil Simon (the script of Little Me is simply the best thing he ever wrote), the songwriting team of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, and Sid Caesar playing seven roles. But unlike Guys and Dolls or How to Succeed, the new show didn't really offer any character the audience could care about -- every single person in Little Me is a cartoon character, and many of them die off in gruesome ways without the audience being expected to care -- and that probably accounted for its less-than-spectacular run of half a year.
After that, Feuer and Martin did two shows with the overrated team of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (so-so pop songwriters and quite poor theatre songwriters), both of which underperformed; it's too bad, because both Skyscraper and Walking Happy were based on good source material -- Elmer Rice's Dream Girl and the old favourite Hobson's Choice, respectively -- and Skyscraper wasted a good starring performance by Julie Harris. After that they produced the film version of Cabaret, which many love (I don't), and some more stage musicals, including Richard Rodgers's last show, I Remember Mama. They were originally going to produce On the Twentieth Century, the musical version of Twentieth Century, but they pulled out of the project because they wanted it to star Alfred Drake, whereas director Harold Prince wanted someone younger to star. Prince got his way, but he was wrong and Feuer and Martin were right; no matter how old he was, that was Drake's part.
The genuine, unashamed, non-meta musical comedy may be dead or dormant, but Feuer's contributions to the genre will live on and be treasured forever.
Here are some Carolyn Leigh lyrics from Little Me to close this post:
Here's to us, my darling, my dear,
Here's to us tonight.
Not for what might happen next year,
For it might not be nearly as bright.
But here's to us, for better or worse,
And for thanks to a merciful star,
Skies of blue, and muddling through,
And for me and for you as we are.
And here's to us for nothing at all
If there's nothing at all we can praise,
Just that we're together and here
For the rest of our beautiful days.
Here's to us forever and always.