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New York – The American musical theater, a fairyland world, inhabited by fugitives from Earth, has discovered rock. Well, not exactly rock. The…well…the beat. Now it is trying to figure out what to do with it – ride it, hide it, break it or throw it back to Earth. This is a serious matter; for though the theater is run according to the economic rules of the 12th century, it is a business and musicals are its main source of income.
They are also its main source of grandeur. Only a handful of American playwrights matter and, compared to American novelists and poets, they don't matter much. The history of American theater (and opera) is a history of American musicals.
Now the “rock musical” (simpler to just use the label, even if the production doesn't quite exist yet) is becoming part of that history, despite the resistance of the most prominent producers, composers, lyricists and librettists of musicals. At the moment in Manhattan (and no matter what happens in Los Angeles or Minneapolis, theater is Manhattan) six rock musicals are running: Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, two Gentlemen of Verona and Inner City on Broadway; Iphigenia and Godspell off-Broadway. (There are a dozen or so other musicals but only three – Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death, Company and Follies – are something other than packaged pastry.) Previously the beat could be heard in The Survival of St. Joan, Tarot, Stomp, Blood, The Me Nobody Knows, Salvation, Your Own Thing, Sambo, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac and, intermittently, Tommy.
As for traditional musicals, three have folded so far this season, and one more is in trouble. Two others, due to open, have book problems, three more have nowhere near the cash they need to get on. All of them are old, old projects, in accordance with normal theater practice.
Let the Sunshine In
On October 17th, 1967, in the old Astor Library on the fringe of the East Village, Joseph Papp opened the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater with a musical called Hair. After eight weeks it moved, courtesy of Michael Butler, a rich eccentric, to a discothèque called Cheetah. On April 29th, 1968, Butler brought Hair to the Biltmore on Broadway.
Hair is still there, and still healthy, though it could stand a transfusion. It has played to more than 15 million people around the world, in 25 countries and 14 languages, and in more than 100 American cities, police, politicians and priests notwithstanding. The music has been recorded by everyone from the Supremes to Montovani; the cast albums and tapes have sold five million copies.
Most theater people reacted to this phenomenon with their usual aplomb, and panicked: “The death of the musical,” one said. “Hair is for animals”; “Hellzapoppin with mikes”; “no book, no characters, no actors.” said others.
They missed the point, which is that between the cast and the audience. Its Rado-Ragni libretto is silly and Galt MacDermot’s music is no more rock than is the music of a toothpaste commercial. But that doesn't matter. Hair gave Broadway its first trip, and Broadway needed it.
People in the theater business don't like trips. They like their audiences punctual, polite and appreciative. Most of their audiences are - and seven Broadway houses out of 34 are dark.
I Don’t Know How to Love Him
Jesus Christ Superstar, Broadway’s first “rock” opera, is playing to capacity at the Hellinger – the theater that housed My Fair lady a few years ago. Before Superstar landed on Broadway its album had sold three million copies and concert versions and pirate versions had played all over the country. Superstar opened to unfriendly reviews, which usually kill a show, but so far it has refused to roll over and die. The people who didn’t produce it are very angry about this; they hate to see a theatrical tradition broken.
The opera was written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber – who are English, young, and, now, rich – and was produced by the Australian promoter Robert Stigwood and MCA. It was directed by the ubiquitous Tom O’Horgan, who did Hair.
Superstar has a seductive theme and a passable score, with a couple of decent tunes, but Rice and Webber are light years behind the best rock. So is the rest of theater. As O’Horgan said, “It’s pretty good for a first opera.”
Of course, just because somebody wrote a first opera is no reason to put it in a theater. But Superstar is a hell of a show, the 2001 of the stage, a rich, gaudy, vulgar, stupefying spectacle. Rice and Webber had a notion that Christ was an idolized man who took himself for an idol. The show at the Hellinger so amply puts blood, flesh, skin and makeup on that slender notion that on opening night the theater was picketed by Jews who thought they were being maligned and by Christians who thought Christ was being maligned. The best of both worlds.
Unhappily, the orchestra and the sound system at the Hellinger are on the side of the Jews and the Christians. This is a shame since Broadway audiences aren’t used to amplified sound and need all the help they can get. The opera is underfed to start with and suffers further from a poorly cast Christ: Judas steals the show. Apparently neither the authors nor O’Horgan had much to say about the casting of Christ – Webber and Rice wanted a Jagger. Too bad.
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling
Tom O’Horgan is 45 years old. He wrote his first opera when he was 12, ran theater and singing groups in high school and wrote another opera for his Masters at De Paul University.
He landed in New York in the Sixties and in a few years staged hundreds of shows (it is inaccurate to call them plays) at every off-off-Broadway place available. He ran a rep company at Ellen Stewart’s La Mama and helped make La Mama an international symbol of experimental theater. He did audience-participation, group grope, political diatribe and sound and light before any of them was fashionable. The other forces of the New Theater - Joseph Chaikin, the Becks and Jerzy Growtowsky - deliberately limited their audiences, but O'Horgan went for the public. Three O'Horgan shows - Hair, Lenny, and Superstar - are running on Broadway, and next month a fourth will open called Inner City. O'Horgan more than anybody is responsible for the injection, however anemic, of counter-culture into the moneyed theater.
There Was A Crooked Man
Inner City is opening next month at the Ethyl Barrymore. It is the first rock musical to start on Broadway. The producers are Joe Kipness and Lawrence Kasha, whose last show was a musical version of All About Eve called Applause and whose next show is a musical version of Two For The Seesaw.
Joe Kipness was sitting in the eighth row of the Royale recently while O'Horgan rehearsed the nine performers of Inner City. A bulky man in his sixties Kipness runs a couple of restaurants, Hawaii Kai and Pier 52, and used to be a trucker and cloak-and-suiter. When a song in the rehearsal moved him he wept.
"I go by the gut," he said. "This show has something to say; listen to that. That's what this city is all about. I love New York. Nobody can say anything to me about it. I want to tell the mayor something. He'll be here. He'll listen."
Inner City is a cantata in rhythm and blues with about 70 songs, some as short as two lines, integrated with monologues, vignettes and tableaux. Its original title was Inner City Mother Goose, from Eve Merriam's book of poems, but some of the theater party people said they didn't want Mother Goose because it sounded like a children's show.
The music is by Helen Miller, of Westbury, who has been writing AM playlist songs for 29 years. The Shirrells' "Foolish Little Girl" is hers; so is Dinah Washington's "Am I Asking Too Much?" Ever Merriam, who has been writing poetry and prose as long as her collaborator has been writing music, did the lyrics. This is the first show for both ladies. Kipness grinned "They ask me who did this show and I say, two east side yentas," he said. "Who would have thought two like that would do such a ballsy show?"
Larry Kasha showed up at the rehearsal. He is 36, slight, carefully bearded and, unlike his partner, always in motion.
"I don't think of this as a rock musical," he said. "You can't do a hard rock musical on Broadway; you'd drive the audience out of the theater. The sound would kill them. They're not ready for it."
"And this is a constructive show," said Kipness. "No hate in it."
The "hate" was an illusion (sic) to Melvin Van Peebles Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death, which is accurately subtitled Tales From Blackness. Natural Death is a tough black Spoon River Anthology, but hardly hateful or hating. As one producer said, "At least Melvin is black. I don't think whites should speak for blacks. It's presumptuous."
Presumption or not, judging by a rehearsal, Inner City has a lot going for it: a gut subject, a mind-blowing cast of singers, strong lyrics and score, and Tom O'Horgan.
If that's not enough, if it turns out that Broadway has to have happy people with happy problems, then it deserves every dark theater it's got.
All New York rock musicals have either been original works or have been quickly adapted from a work in the public domain. In this sense, the rockers have completely violated theater tradition.
Normal theater practice follows a reality invented by a bookkeeper, refined by a beaurocrat. Roughly (roughly is the word) it goes like this:
A producer gets an idea or (much more often) is given one. He then finds a writer, a composer, a lyricist and, if he's lucky, a director, and sets them to work. Occasionally he may receive a completed or half-completed project from an agent he trusts. If the project is an adaptation, as it usually is, he has to buy the musical rights. Once he secures them, he buys an option on the project, which now gets a new name - the property.
An option gives him ownership of the property for a specified time, usually one year, during which he must produce the show. At the end of the option period if he has not yet put the show on, he can renew his option, drop it, or sell it. It is not uncommon for a property to be optioned year after year, sometimes by the same producer, sometimes by different ones.
During this period, the talent lineup changes constantly - producer X wants writer A and composer B; producer Y wants writer C And composer D - until finally, with luck and perseverance, the property satisfies everyone connected with it. The producer then begins an unending series of auditions for backers. Sometimes, a show will audition more than a hundred times, as Kiss Me Kate did. During auditions, the show is revised some more to please backers or theater party reps.
At long last the producer has gathered enough money to start production. This does not mean he has enough money to produce. But theater people are optimists; they hope that once they go into rehearsal, other investors, particularly record companies, will spot the merits of their property and loosen up. A musical costs between $300,000 and $850,000 on Broadway. Off-Broadway it runs from $40,000 to $100,000.
Very often the producer has to audition for the Shubert Corporation, which does not invest but which owns 17 1/2 of the 34 Broadway houses. Theater owners collect a percentage and the Shuberts like winners.
Once in rehearsal the show is revised once more, sometimes at the director's insistence, more often at the star's. Then it either goes out of town (God knows why since Philadelphia audiences are not Manhattan audiences) or into paid previews. Previews represent the producers attempt to have his cake and eat it. Theater audiences are well trained; nobody objects.
By this time the producer has promoted his show relentlessly, especially with theater parties which can give him a big enough advance to cushion against bad reviews. A show can survive bad reviews only if the advance is strong enough to keep it open while favorable word-of-mouth spreads (Superstar's advance was $1.2 million). A musical house can gross about $100,000 - $120,000 a week. ABout $50,000 - $70,000 is break-even.
On opening night, no matter how the house likes the show, no matter how energetic the cast, no matter how big the advance, only one thing matters, the reaction of Clive Barnes, theater critic of The New York Times. The Post, The News, and the TV and radio people have critics too, but it is The Times that matters.
After that it's all roses or all thorns. There's no business like show business.
Brother Can You Spare A Dime
Joseph Papp runs the New York Shakespeare Festival and its Public Theater. He is in his 50s and muscular. He is on the short side, as are his theaters.
Papp and his co-producer Bernard Gersten, are professional lunatics. They keep shows going all the time over in the park, on the streets, everywhere. They hound everybody for money - the rich, the city, the state, the feds, everybody. Somehow they keep it all together while putting on shows that make their donors cringe. In addition to Hair, Papp did Stomp, a communal rock show from Texas; Blood, a gospel-country Oresteia, and Sambo, a black blues street show. He's got four shows going now downtown and four set for next summer in Central Park.
Iphigenia, with a score by Peter Link (Salvation), dialogue by Gretchen Cryer (Last Sweet Days of Isaac), and direction first by Doug Dyer and now by Gerald Freedman (Hair), is the first show to combine theater and rock without pretending one is the other. The first act is a drama with songs; the second a rock concert with 12 voices and a group called Goatleg that's been together five years., which is refreshing since in some rock musicals the rocking gets done by guys who haven't been together five months. It's in previews downtown and there's no way of knowing where Link, Cryer and Freedman will take Iphigenia by opening night, but they've already taken the musical form into new territory.
To pick up some change for his other work, Papp decided to move Two Gentlemen of Verona to Broadway. The cost was $400,000, donated by a member of his board. "With this one we want to out-Broadway Broadway," Papp declared.
Verona played in Central Park during the summer and was a success. It has a score by Galt MacDermot that sounds like a tenement in which all the neighbors play their radios one after the other - soul, calypso, pop, blues, even some old ditties. The lyrics are by John Guare (House of Blue Leaves, Taking Off) the director is Mel Shapiro, and right now the show is in preview at the St. James on Broadway. The plot is the same as Shakespeare's comedy - two Veronese friends, one cynical, one naive, fall in love so that the cynic turns innocent and the naïf turns corrupt. But Guare, MacDermot and Shapiro have made it clear that Verona is Out of Town and Milan is in town; that dukes are politicians,; that love can lead not only to lust but to bastards, and that things turn out right in the end only because that's the rule of the show business game.
Anyone Can Whistle
Stephen Sondheim, at 41, is the ranking talent in traditional musical theater. He wrote lyrics for West Side Story, Gypsy and DO I Hear A Waltz, and music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, and Follies. Except for Do I Hear A Waltz every show he has worked on has represented assault on the Broadway formula. Company and Follies are running now and Broadway is as puzzled about them as it is about rock musicals.
Company concerns living death, a strange subject for a musical. Hard, cold and abstract, it uses its songs as comment and not mearly as plot-pushers or soliloquies. There is no chorus; the music is subtle and not tuneful in the BRoadway sense; and the ending is happy only in the way that ending a night of drugged sleep is happy. It is an irritating, disturbing show, and a rare and valuable one.
Follies is also an experiment, in this case with time and fantasy. Unfortunately, despite Sondheim's daring and a strong cast, the show gets weighted down by its glamorous trimmings.
Neither Company nor FOllies has any rock. Nor will Sondheim's next show. "Rock is much too monotonous for a musical," he said. "You can't have 12, or 20, songs like that...I'm glad rock is around; people now listen to my lyrics because rock has forced them to listen. When somebody who has rock on says 'I can't understand what they're saying,' that means they're listening.
"But rock for musicals? I'm sure in the Thirties they were asking composers why they didn't use Jazz. But Gershwin isn't jazz. You'll get adulterated rock, mush rock. In the Thirties you got adulterated jazz."
A neat answer. But how many people listened to jazz in the Thirties? And who listen to rock today? Who doesn't?
Harold Prince is the Vince Lombardi of the musical theater. He produced Company and Follies, directed the first, and co-directed the second. He produced and directed Cabaret, She Loves Me, and Zorba. He produced pajama Game, Damn Yankees, New Girl In Town, West Side Story, Fiorello, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and Fiddler On The Roof. Neither PRince nor his chief rival, David Merrick, have produced anything that could be called a rock musical. Small, slender, bearded and contagiously nervous at 42, Hal Prince works from a small office. Unlike other producers, he does not let his backers kibbitz; no scripts for them, no auditions. He has made them rich, and they trust him. Right now, he has no musical in the works.
"I like rock," he said recently, "but I've never optioned a rock project because I haven't found one I liked. I just don't want to do one because it's trendy. It's silly to do shows because they're trendy. I like musicals with universality. Fiddler is a good example of that. So is Company...
"I don't believe a musical is like a rock concert, or should be. I want excitement at my shows, but not the kind of thing that happens at a rick concert. That's what it was like when I was young and Sinatra came to the Paramount. That's not theater."
Richard Rodgers, the John Ford of musicals, is 69 years old. Fifty years, 40 shows, 850 songs. Babes In Toyland, On Your Toes, A Connecticut Yankee, The Boys From Syracuse, Pal Joey, Oklahoma, Allegro, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I. "Manhattan," "Small Hotel," "Mountain Greenery," "Lady Is A Tramp," "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," "Blue Room," "My Funny Valentine."
Until the war Rodgers, Kern and Gershwin dominated musical theater, and once the war started Rodgers took the throne. He had only two serious pretenders: Cole Porter, who was ridden by sickness and wrote perhaps only one great show, Kiss Me Kate; and Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers' heir apparent, who wrote On The Town, Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story, and then forsook musicals for masses.
Says Rodgers: "I'm not sure rock is viable as music....But I'm not rigid about it. If I had the right project, who knows? But it's hard. I think it's god-damn hard. I don't know if I could do it, but I'm not afraid of it. I'm very adaptable. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was very new in 1936. Pal Joey was very new in 1941. I'm not scared of rock. I like some of the things I've heard. - I did a TV show in which some of the new groups sang my songs and it was fine. If the project is right..."
I Shall Be Released
Richard Fields used to manage rock groups. He produced Tarot, a bizarre show with a pickup from the Dead and Fish. Fields did everything right - he has a real hand for the show, he promoted it on FM radio and in the music and underground press - and it folded in six weeks.
So now Fields is doing Booth is Back in Town, a half-million-dollar costume musical sue to open in March. It will star Jason Robards Jr. and will be directed by William Daniels, who was in 1776. A long way from Tarot.
“With Tarot, I was up to my ears in ego trips,” Fields mused. “I don’t need that shit. We got nowhere. I couldn’t drag the audience I wanted into the house.
“There’s no such thing as a rock musical,” he added, with emphasis. “Rock is an attitude. Nobody wants rock in the theater.”
That holds true for Chuck Gnys, who used to run the Playwrights Unit, a workshop in the east Village for new writers. He put on a concert version of The Survival of St. Joan, a rock opera with libretto by James Lineberger and music by Samuel Rise, in Buffalo, where it did very well. Then he brought it to New York, off-Broadway, where it was seen by a lot of composers and writers, and nobody else. Chuck profited from the experience:
“I’ve had it with theater. I spent years at The Unit, and for what? You can’t reach anybody. The theater is a church – middle-aged people putting on shows for middle-aged people. I’m managing rock groups now, and that’s alive…Anybody who stays in theater is talking to the wrong people.”
Many A New Day
Peter Schickele had a group called the Open Window and cut a record called PDQ Bach. He and his lyricist, Diane Lampert, began with Grand Old Opry and now are doing a musical based on the life of Nell Gwyn. The show, And So To bed, will have a rock score.
“We want rock voices for this show,” he said. “Not legit voices, not all those people who come to an audition with ‘Tonight’ under one arm and ‘St. Louis Woman’ under the other…Maybe rock is wrong for Broadway; but we might as well find out.”
Gary William Friedman is in his 30s. He did the music for The Me Nobody Knows, a folk-pop musical based on the poems of children in the ghetto. He is working on a musical version of Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which is due to open in January, and a musical version of A Face in the Crowd. He’s also preparing his Hebraic rock ritual for the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Friedman is loath to be categorized: “I don’t want to write rock musicals, or pop musicals. I want to write musicals, but with today’s music. I want to do my own orchestrations – that’s the essence of a musical. I don’t want to write a lead sheet. I want my heart in the show. My soul. Wagner and Beethoven didn’t need Johnny Tunick [an orchestrator]. Why should we?”
Until the age of rock, every important American composer worked in theater. Things have changed. Rock has been around for more than 15 years now, and yet no important rock composer or group has worked in theater.
Producers don’t really want rock composers because they
don’t really want to change their audience, which is middle-aged and middle-class.
They argue that rock music is not theatrical. This comes under the
heading of the deaf leading the dead.
Some rock composers have tried to sell musicals but after hundreds of auditions, hundreds of suggestions, and hundreds of accusations, they have gone back to the record companies. On the other side of the fence, several theater composers have tried to imitate rock. Heaven help them.
Theater is always behind; it is the nature of a luxury form. Fundamentally conservative, it is as much a real-estate business as an entertainment business.
But theater is in terrible shape and there isn’t much around to save it. Poets don’t go near it. Novelists won’t touch it; if they leave their own turf, they go into movies. So do directors and producers. So do composers.
The inhabitants of Earth have a message for the inhabitants of theater. It is Jim Morrison’s message: “Music is your only friend…until the end, until the end.”
The theater should listen.
Copyright Straight Arrow publications.