Allyson Tolbert, Erin Nicole Farsté, and Kiko Laureano in the Old Log Theatre’s upcoming production of Beehive: The 60s Musical. Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theatre.
If you’re going to do a musical about the Sixties and it’s not going to be Hair, what would you pick? With all the decade’s changes and turmoil, where would you begin? That question was asked by Larry Gallagher, a cabaret and nightclub booker in New York City in the 1980s. His answer was to create Beehive: The 60s Musical, which opens this Friday at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, MN.
- Read Basil Considine’s interview with Beehive actor Grace Chermak.
- Read Basil Considine’s interview with Beehive actor Leslie Vincent.
The 1980s were something of a golden age of cabaret in New York City, with the city’s struggles with crime and tumbling real estate values fueling a host of improvised and repurposed performance spaces. (Most, sadly, have long been lost to rising rents and redevelopment.) At the same time, the introduction of the Sony Walkman cassette player in 1979 had opened up personal experiences of music listening like never before, fueling a growing interest in older music. Music listening became more portable, more personal, and more shareable, fueling a broad-based consumption of music that could reach well beyond current airplay. Take an interest in an artist or a genre and you could listen to their albums over and over while on the go, without a bulky record player. See a show and you could purchase a cassette to listen to on your subway ride home.
As a booking agent, Gallagher had a shrewd head for what could catch fire with an audience. He also had the connections to license songs with relative ease, and had previously assembled a Motown-themed musical revue entitled Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. That show had succeeded beyond expectations, exhausting the short-term licensing contracts that he’d signed; for his second act as a writer-compiler, Gallagher aspired to write a show with a truly open-ended run.
The process began with two months spent listening to every Top 10 song from the 1960s – quite a feat at the time, even for a musicophile. Gallagher teamed up with Skip Brevis, the music director at NYC’s Sweetwaters nightclub, to listen to the music and watch whatever period video footage they could get their hands on. Then Gallagher had a Eureka moment, noting, “The music reflected the change in the national mood.” He then embarked on the then-novel idea of creating a show that chronicled social changes through the songs of the day, with a particular focus on female empowerment.
The resulting Beehive show opened at Sweetwaters in New York City in November 1985, attracting a review by the New York Times. As critic Stephen Holden noted, “The exuberant cabaret revue Beehive reminds us [that] the decade also produced its share of transcendentally silly fun.” It soon became the hottest cabaret act in town. Originally scheduled for a 2-week run at the 150-seat Sweetwaters space, the show was extended again and again, for what became a 13-week engagement. By the time they moved out of Sweetwaters, Gallagher and Brevis were shooting large, and had assembled a team of investors to move the show Off Broadway.
The new home of the Beehive was the 325-seat Top of the Gate space in Greenwich Village, so-named because it was literally upstairs from the famous Village Gate nightclub. (Top of the Gate closed in 1993.) For the transfer, investors pumped in $175,000 to build sets and add other bells and whistles. One of the investors for the transfer was no less than singer-songwriter Lesley Gore herself, whose song “It’s My Party” features prominently in the show.
It was after the Off-Broadway transfer that critics started to call Beehive a “mini-blockbuster”. The show ran for more than 600 performances at Top of the Gate, attracting interest from across the country and overseas. Successful, long-running productions sprang up in the District of Columbia, Palm Beach, Cleveland, and Chicago. A cast album – then a rarity for Off-Broadway shows – was recorded. By March of 1987, there were already productions in the works in France, Japan, and Mexico. By the following year, Canada had joined the list and a national tour had traversed the United States. People Magazine even did a feature on the show.
The Beehive empire’s sprawling colonization came to a sudden halt in 1988, when Gallagher died at age 41 from encephalitis. The musical’s true offstage mover and shaker, he had his hands in all the honeycombs. Not only had he personally auditioned, launched, and directed satellite production after satellite production, but he’d also shepherded the national tour. While a few satellite shows played on, there was no one to keep promoting the show with the same fervor as its original creator and booker. With Gallagher’s passing, so went the brief NYC cabaret golden age, as massive and long-running Broadway musicals increasingly the norm and grabbed larger shares of the city’s entertainment pie. Phantom of the Opera opened in January 1988 and has yet to close.
The songs featured in Beehive: The 60s Musical include:
- Round the Beehive
- Let’s Rock
- The Name Game
- It’s My Party/Supremes
- Walking in the Rain/Junkman
- Academy Award
- I’ll Never Change Him
- Sweet Talkin’ Guy
- You Can’t Hurry Love
- My Boyfriend’s Back
- Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
- One Fine Day
- Where the Boys Are
- Be My Baby
- Then He Kissed Me
- Baby, I Love You
- The Beehive Dance
- Abraham, Martin, and John
- You Don’t Own Me
- Son of a Preacher Man
- To Sir, With Love
- British Invasion Cut Short
- River Deep/Proud Mary
- Aretha Medley (Chain of Fools, Never Loved A Man, Natural Woman)
- Somebody to Love
- Cry Baby
- Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)
- Me and Bobby McGee
- Make Your Own Kind of Music
Beehive: The 60s Musical opens June 29 at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, MN.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.