Teachers of grammar have long cautioned against the overuse of the exclamation point, noting that if employed too frequently, it tends to lose its importance. Broadway hasn’t always taken heed, though, boasting nearly two dozen musicals with exclamation points. But just how many actually deserve this distinction? A look back through the decades reveals that some – “Red, Hot and Blue!” (1936), “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” (1948) and “Oh, Captain!” (1958) – failed to achieve substantial runs. With each running less than six months, the addition of an exclamation point to the title was perhaps ill advised.
An attempt to blend Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” with the music of Duke Ellington likewise failed to excite audiences. “Play On!” (1997) did anything but what its title suggested. Conversely, “Oklahoma!” (1943) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1964) together amassed more than 5,000 performances and remain two of the most popular musical theater titles in the catalog. “Drat! The Cat!” (1965) and “I Do! I Do!” (1966) opted for two exclamation points in their titles, but only the latter, with 561 performances, seems to have benefited from the additional punctuation.
Off-Broadway’s “Snoopy!!!” added a third exclamation mark, yet only survived five months. And with an unremarkable three performances, “Oh, Brother!” (1981) holds the record for the shortest run in this category. “Fiorello!” (1959), a musical that chronicled the events in the life of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, remains the only Pulitzer Prize winner in this select group.
Other musicals that celebrated larger than life personalities include “George M!” (1968), a retrospective on the life of actor/songwriter George M. Cohan; and “Eubie!” (1978), a musical biography of pianist and songwriter Eubie Blake. This exclamation mark phenomenon isn’t restricted to the United States. England’s contributions have included “Oliver!” (1960, United States 1963) and “Oh, What a Lovely War!” (1963). South Africa introduced American audiences to “Sarafina!” (1988).
The trend of adding exclamation points to show titles apparently began in 1924 with “Lady, Be Good!” No decade since has failed to include at least one such musical, the most recent being “Baby It’s You” (2011), a jukebox musical that featured the music of the 1960s pop group The Shirelles. The show only ran four months before closing.
Adding punctuation to a show’s title may be a useful marketing tool, but as documented here, such obvious embellishments are often an attempt to compensate for shortcomings that will almost certainly undermine the musical’s success.