Misunderstood Musicals: "Legs Diamond"

Joel Fenster

Did you hear the one about the Broadway musical so bad, so horrible, so huge a flop that after it closed, the company that owned the theater sold it to a church group?


Well, that was the fate of what had been the Mark Hellinger Theater once the Peter Allen star vehicle Legs Diamond flopped. The Show received negative reviews during its run of 72 previews and 64 performances between October 25, 1989 (opening night was December 26, 1988) and February 19, 1989. Was Legs Diamond really that bad? Let’s take a look.

By the late 80s, Allen had a long and successful career as a singer/songwriter having toured all over the world entertaining and charming audiences with his folksy and flamboyant style. He was the first male dancer to ever dance with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes (captured for posterity in a live broadcast on the WHT Network if anyone aside from myself remembers that…which was where as a young kid I first saw Peter Allen). He had even won an Oscar as co-writer of “Arthur’s Theme” from the hit film Arthur. Based on all of that, there was no reason to think Allen couldn’t tackle a Broadway musical. Remembering a Warner Brothers film from his childhood, Allen decided The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was the perfect starting point on which to base his musical.

Jack “Legs” Diamond was a real life, honest-to-goodness gangster who lived during Prohibition and moved in the same circles with very well-known gangsters like his nemesis Dutch Schultz. Diamond was famous for surviving numerous attempts on his life. The nickname “Legs” came from either how quickly he was able to escape those attempts or how good of a dancer he was or how quick he was at a snatch and grab robbery. He was eventually killed by unknown assailants who held him down -- even though he was passed out -- and shot him in the back of the head a few times just to make sure this time there would be no escape.

In 1960, Warner Brothers released the film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond starring Ray Danton and directed by Budd Boetticher. The film starts by telling us “this is the way it happened”, so obviously real life facts have been tossed out the window. Filmed on what is now very obviously the Warner backlot and looking more like an episode of TV’s The Untouchables, what this film has going for it is Danton’s slick, cool and psychotic performance of a man nobody could love. His performance as a small time crook has him getting involved with Arnold Rothstein’s gang, rising to the top only to have his own hubris do him in at the end. Diamond is a thoroughly unlikable rogue in the film and has almost no redeeming qualities, which is a recurrent problem in later gangster films of the 80s & 90s.

While the film took a few liberties with Diamond’s story (okay more than a few), Allen’s musical should really have been called “The Totally Fictitious Musical History of  Legs Diamond!” as the giant, bulb-lit sign that descended from the rafters shouted to the world at the top of Act One. The show was extravagant and loud in production design at every turn. Costumes, set pieces, everything that made up the show dripped with color, vividness and exuberance. It took the basic black and white look of Boetticher’s film and infused it with a Technicolor glory, the likes which may never have been seen before on Broadway. This attitude also seeped into the story as the film’s plot, already a slightly fictionalized account of the real Diamond, was manipulated and twisted to conform more to Allen’s style than Diamond’s.

Unfortunately, as talented as Allen was, it was his starring in it that was the biggest problem with the show. Playing a womanizing gangster was just not in Allen’s wheelhouse. He tried his hardest to make it work by blending his flamboyance with that of Diamond’s by breaking the fourth wall and talking to his audience like he did in concerts, but even that seemed to go against the flow of the story at times.  Allen’s flamboyance came from his showbiz roots. Diamond’s came from his essentially being a cocky jackass. Allen was 44 at the time the show opened while the real life Diamond didn’t live past 34. This age difference didn’t help story matters.

The film’s story is butchered as well. Gone are Diamond’s sickly brother Eddie and his dutiful but put-upon wife Alice. They were part of the show during previews (along with a wonderful duet for Diamond and Alice entitled “Come Save Me”) but by the time the show opened things had changed. Now we see Jack fall in love with Rothstein’s mistress Kiki while also flirting and fooling around with older woman/nightclub owner Flo.

What did work at the time and what still holds up to this day are Allen’s songs. They are, mostly, catchy, witty and memorable. They evoke both the Jazz Age and Allen’s style without betraying either. Most of the songs come from lines in the movie (“Only Steal from Thieves” and “Charge It to A.R.” for example). Five of the songs (one of which was the cut “Come Save Me”) have been repurposed into the jukebox musical The Boy from Oz which was based on Allen’s life. They get slight rewrites in this show to fit the plot, but still remain as fun as they had been during the original run of Legs Diamond.

Once the reviews hit, Allen did his best to keep a good sense of humor about things. One of the lines of dialogue spouted by Diamond during the show before opening night went “Only a critic can kill me!”. After opening night it became: “Not even a critic can kill me!” But in the end, it was a moot point since the critics had killed him. The show got mostly negative reviews and the audiences dwindled.

The show hasn’t been seen since it closed on Broadway as it was never offered for licensing. But in 2012 it did have a one-off staged concert version in Los Angeles. You can find a review/read more about that here: http://www.stagescenela.com/2012/12/legs-diamond/. It’s a fascinating story about “resurrecting” the show after some of the original materials went missing (apparently the orchestrations disappeared and could not be found after the show closed).

Based on this review of the one night concert and my own recollections of having seen the show when it played Broadway (and playing the cast album too many times over the years), I think this is a piece that deserves a new life. It’s very obvious that the biggest problem the show had been its miscast lead. Even though I stand by that criticism, I must say he was quite likable when we ran into him on the street post-show; he exuded a “Hey, let’s get a cup of coffee and chat” vibe. A rewrite of the book, perhaps adding back Diamond’s brother and wife, and a restructuring of the musical numbers (adding back the cut song, maybe using one or two of Allen’s other songs to fill things out) would help create something that could have a life beyond the original production and make for a fun evening’s entertainment.