Based on the comic strip Li'l Abner by Al Capp, the show is, on the surface, a broad spoof of hillbillies but is also a pointed satire taking on any number of topics, ranging from an incompetent United States federal government to standards of masculinity.
The plot centers on two things: first, Dogpatch, the town that is the main setting of the comic strip, has been declared the "most unnecessary town" in the U.S. and is set to be turned into a nuclear testing site; second, the baby tonic that Abner has been fed all his life by his mother, Mammy Yokum, is discovered to be a potion that makes men strong and handsome, but also utterly uninterested in romance.
The town is ultimately saved when a plaque is discovered declaring that its local hero, the Confederate General Jubilation T. Cornpone was, by virtue of his incompetence, so instrumental in the defeat of his own army as to be a hero of the Republic.
The Broadway production, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd, opened on November 15, 1956 at the St. James Theatre where it ran for 693 performances. The original Broadway cast starred Peter Palmer in the title role and Edie Adams as Daisy Mae. Other prominent cast members were Howard St. John as General Bullmoose, Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam, Charlotte Rae as Mammy Yokum (Li'l Abner's mother), Tina Louise as Appassionata von Climax, Julie Newmar as Stupefyin' Jones, Carmen Alvarez as Moonbeam McSwine, Ted Thurston as Senator Jack S. Phogbound, and Tony Mordente as Lonesome Polecat. Some of the original ensemble members, such as Jeanette Scovotti, went on to have successful careers in the performing arts.