SPACE DOGS and ENGLISH

It’s no surprise that American playwrights usually write plays set in America. It is a little surprising that three current off-Broadway plays by American playwrights are, in fact, set outside our borders. I wrote recently about Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, set in Paris. Joining this are two very different off-Broadway offerings, Space Dogs and English.

Space Dogs (produced by the Manhattan Class Company) is set mostly in the Soviet Union during the cold war in the Fifties and Sixties. Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes co-wrote the show and comprise the cast. The presentation is loose and jokey, resorting to stuffed animals and accents out of Rocky and His Friends. But, underneath the rock music, the projections, the clowning and the puppetry, some serious themes percolate.

There are two leading characters. The human one is Sergei Korolev, an engineer picked by Soviet authorities to lead the Russian effort in space exploration. This high responsibility and honor went to him despite having barely escaped execution by Stalin in 1938. He lucked out and only served six years in a labor camp on a trumped-up charge of sabotage. (Stalin had a history of paranoia when it came to engineers. He thought if anyone was likely to overthrow him, it would be the engineers, so he disposed of or imprisoned a lot of them, until he reprieved the ones still alive to aid in World War II.) Korolev determined that the best way to test missiles was to use dogs as subjects. The dogs recruited were not laboratory-bred animals but homeless creatures who were presumed to have been toughened by their hard lives on the streets. The second leading character is one of these, a mutt named Laika. Laika’s mission was to help Soviet scientists determine if a living creature could survive being blasted into space. Unfortunately, once that was established, Laika’s usefulness was at an end. No provision was made for her safe return to the earth. I couldn’t help but see the parallel between Korolev and Laika – both valued only in terms of their usefulness to an authoritarian state.

Larger historical forces also loom over English by Sanaz Toossi (produced by the Atlantic Theater). Set in a classroom in Iran where English is being taught as a second language by Marjan, a woman who returned to Iran after years living in Manchester, England. She has four students, each with their own reason for studying. For one, the dive into English is made with enthusiasm, anticipating the range of expression that now will be open to her. For another, learning is a practical imperative, but it’s also a grudging surrender to what she sees as a culture that bullies others into acquiescence. Other ideas arise. Are you the same when speaking a second language? What is the gravitational pull of the nationality you were born into, and is it something you are moved to flee or embrace or, at different times, both?

For a work that is so intellectually alive, part of the accomplishment of Toossi’s script is that at no point do her characters feel as if they are primarily mouthpieces for her ideas. In a modestly-scaled play, she has written an epic.

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ALICE ADAMS — book and film

Finished reading Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams recently and watched George Stevens’s film adaptation. The racism in the book is dismaying but not entirely surprising for a book that was published in 1921.

The good stuff in it is very good indeed. It’s about how class distinctions play out in a small industrial town in the midwest, and how the attitudes and snobberies of the parents affect their kids, who often perpetuate younger versions of their parents’ cruelty. Alice has a good heart, but she so wants to be in a sophisticated set that her family’s financial circumstances can’t support. When she meets a rich young man who seems genuinely interested in her, she can’t keep from pretending to him that she is from a higher caste. (You get the feeling that he isn’t fooled for a second but doesn’t much mind.)

The film features Katharine Hepburn and she’s glorious in the role — alternately irritating and endearing. As for the screenplay (by Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner and Jane Murfin), it tightens up the story and in some aspects improves on the original. There is a new scene in which Alice takes the lead in confronting her father’s angry boss and turns him around which is appreciably better than the one in the book in which she says only a few words as the boss talks himself back to sense. It has the happy effect of having Alice take responsibility for a difficult situation and signals her arrival at a new level of maturity. Alas, the film tacks on an persuasive happy ending (she lands the rich guy) which undercuts Tarkington’s more realistic one of her giving up on the romance and climbing the stairs to a school where she will learn some marketable skills.

The film also doesn’t attempt to convey something important to Tarkington — how the pell-mell industrialization of the town is covering it and everyone in it in soot and fumes. Part of Tarkington’s point is that the nouveau-riche wealth oppressing the Adamses is a by-product of this stink. Yes, even wealth can’t keep the rich from suffering from it, but it doesn’t seem fair that the poor — not being enriched by industry — should also have to suffer. Tarkington won a Pulitzer for this, and also for his more famous and I think better novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, the basis of the Orson Welles movie which, even in its truncated form, contains passages about as good as anything put on film. (Very few American novelists won more than one Pulitzer for fiction – the others are Colson Whitehead, William Faulkner and John Updike. Pretty exclusive company.)  If Alice Adams is a wry comedy on how a modern economy shapes personal lives (from the perspective a lower-middle class family), Ambersons is almost operatic in describing how a rich family goes into a steep decline for the same reasons.

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Thoughts on “Prayer For the French Republic”

At a time when we’ve gotten used to tasty 90-minute hors d’oeuvres, it’s exhilarating to encounter a play with enough on its mind to hold the attention for three hours (including two 10-minute intermissions). Joshua Harmon’s Prayer For the French Republic (immaculately directed by David Cromer at Manhattan Theater Club’s off-Broadway house) is a full meal concerning a French-Jewish family whose business for generations has been making and selling pianos. Actually, the play deals with the family at two different points – in 1944-46, as an elderly couple hide till Paris is liberated and wait to see which of their family has survived, and 2016-17, when some of their descendants decide what steps to take in the face of the increased antisemitism in modern France.

We’re supposed to assume the characters are speaking French, but, of course, they play it in English, and conversational English at that. This can’t help but remind the audience of the parallels between what was happening in recent years in France (the increasing influence of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing faction) and here (Trump and his apparent alliance with white supremacists and fascists here). The family in Harmon’s play, weighing the competing claims of being Jewish and being French, contemplate fleeing. How many in the US looked at Trump’s election as a signal that we might not be safe in this country?

The perspectives of the modern family are highlighted by contrast by that of an American relative (who speaks good French) who becomes a constant presence in their house during her year of study in France. She brings with her a distaste for Netanyahu’s policies which is only a little less intense than the family’s distaste for Le Pen. This sets up long swatches of compelling, impassioned dialogue between people who manage to care about each other even as they heatedly disagree.

I’m not going to fill a paragraph with appropriate individual adjectives for the large and excellent cast beyond mentioning the Betsy Aidem expresses an irony and intellectual rigor reminiscent of Elaine May (with whom Cromer acted in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery).

As I mentioned, the family’s business is selling pianos, and the image of the piano as an instrument of beauty and harmony stands in contrast to much of the brutality of the history the family has had to cope with. As it happens, a number of the foreign-language TV shows I watched while waiting out the pandemic have similarly viewed the politics of their countries of origin through the businesses the leading characters run.

My wife and I are currently about halfway through the Danish series, Kroniken, which concerns the arrival of the TV industry in Denmark beginning in 1949 and continues through 1972. (I just read that a sequel series is about to run in Denmark.) One of the leading characters is a Social Democrat politician married to a woman whose father’s industrial policies are in conflict with much of what he holds dear. (I’m sorry, this is not available for streaming in the United States yet. I ordered discs from Denmark.)

The Restaurant (original title, Vår tid är nu or Our Time is Now–available through AMC+) is about a family that tries to rehabilitate a restaurant that was popular with the Nazis during WWII. One of the women who begins by waiting tables ends up becoming a major figure fighting for change in the government.

Berlin Dance School (original title, Ku’damm 56–available through the Masterpiece subchannel on Amazon Prime) is about a family-owned enterprise that has to evolve from teaching the waltz and the foxtrot to coping with the invasion of American rock-n-roll; the after-stench of fascism is everywhere and the conflicts are not strictly about music.

And then there’s the sunny and smart Seaside Hotel (original title, Badehotellet–also available through Masterpiece), which takes a Danish holiday hotel from the late twenties onward. Word is, the next series will deal with Denmark in 1945. I cannot see how it can help but touch on the Danes’ nationwide collaboration to save the Jewish population in the final days of the war.

All of these are fine. Whether Joshua Harmon knows it or not, he has joined their company. And indeed, his play offers plenty of room to be spun off into a similar series.

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Richard Christiansen

I wrote a piece for American Theatre about the late, great Richard Christiansen, a critic who had a major part in the Chicago theater renaissance.  And also a friend of mine.

Here’s the link — Remembering Richard Christiansen

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“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” – sort of

The program that comes with the off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theater says the play on offer is Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill. And it’s true that every word spoken on the stage is by O’Neill.

It’s also true that it’s about half the length of normal productions (something that the estate approved).

So, is it really Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

The real Long Day’s Journey is about a lot of things that this version is not. For one thing, if you move it from when it was originally set – August, 1912 – much of O’Neill’s social commentary is gone. This is a very Irish play, and it’s set at a time when fierce anti-Irish sentiment was still fresh in mind. Much of James Tyrone’s life has been about denying where in the system he was born. “I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife,” he says. From the deepest poverty, he reinvented himself as a prince of Shakespeare, turning himself into a faux-aristocrat by acquiring a posh accent and invoking classical rhythms and phrases in his extemporaneous speech.

The play O’Neill wrote is a war of language. In contrast to the stentorian pronouncements of their father, his sons constantly use slang and reference literature that the father finds appalling. And they twist his precious Shakespeare to mock him (“the Moor, I know his trumpet”).

All that is gone in this version.

Indeed, the whole theatrical system that sustained James Tyrone as a star for years in a single play no longer exists in this country, so his career in this updated version makes no sense. Today, if someone were going to throw away their career as a serious actor, it’s more likely they would get stuck for dozens of years making big money playing a crime-fighter in one of the crappier TV series. But director O’Hara can’t do this because I’m sure the agreement with the estate specifies that all the language must be O’Neill’s.

O’Hara has edited and collaborated on design elements to bring to mind current concerns – covid and the opioid crisis in particular. But I’m betting that most people watching a traditionally-set production would have thought of these parallels on their own. In making the implicit explicit, O’Hara (unintentionally, I’m sure) is condescending to the audience.

In sum, if I were introducing someone to the play, this is not the production I’d want them to see.

On the other hand, if you know the play already, I recommend it. This may be your only chance to see Elizabeth Marvel take a crack at playing Mary Tyrone and that’s not to be passed up.

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Thoughts after watching THE VERDICT

Just watched The Verdict for the first time since it came out forty years ago in 1982. Sidney Lumet at the top of his game, a perfect damn script by David Mamet (I can’t say how much it owes to the original novel), and spectacular work by an extraordinary cast including, in supporting roles, Lindsay Crouse, Julie Bovasso, Colin Stinton, Kent Broadhurst and Lewis Stadlen. I’ve admired some of the films made this year, but I haven’t seen one to match this for the richness of the subtext. In two of Charlotte Rampling’s best scenes, she doesn’t have a word of dialogue, but we read her mind. Yipes.
Watching this reminded me of a conversation I had the Jay Presson Allen. After the property had gone through several hands, Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman were set to do it. Lumet was dissatisfied with the script he had and asked Jay (who wrote for him the brilliant screenplay of Prince of the City) to take another pass. Jay asked to see all the previous scripts. When she read Mamet’s original draft, she told Lumet that he shouldn’t bother hiring her. Lumet should go back to Mamet’s script because it was as good as it could be. And they went back to Mamet’s script and came up with a plum.
I used to be a little friendly with David many decades ago. We were both Chicago boys. We both had links to Second City (I wrote a book about the place and he had waited tables there). We both made our reputations in Chicago. In fact, David told me that I was responsible for his first publication of a play. I saw The Duck Variations and recommended it to Stanley Richards for his annual anthology of one-act plays. (I had two plays in that series.) Somewhere in my library, I have a photocopy of a typescript of American Buffalo with David’s handwritten revisions. I was there at the opening night of St. Nicholas (the Chicago theater he started with Steven Schachter, William H. Macy and Patricia Cox). The show? A slightly recast version of American Buffalo (it had previously played Goodman’s second stage) featuring Mike Nussbaum as Teach, with Macy and JJ Johnston. I came out very impressed, thinking, “Wow, this is a swell American spin on Pinter.” Later, Pinter and Mamet became friends, and it was Pinter who was responsible for Glengarry premiering in London.
If I recall correctly, Glengarry is dedicated to Pinter. David had felt insecure about how he’d handled the exposition in Glengarry and wanted Pinter’s opinion. Pinter told him he had nothing to worry about. Given David’s rightward shift in politics, and Pinter’s solid position on the left, I wonder what happened to their friendship. David wrote “Why I am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal” for the Village Voice in May ’98 and Pinter died in December. I wonder if they even talked about this. Anybody have any information?
Anyway, The Verdict. Wow. The summation speech for Newman is one of Newman’s finest hours. And the scene in which Crouse faces Mason is sensational. (Crouse did two more pictures with Lumet — Daniel and Prince of the City. She did one more picture with Newman — they have some funny scenes together in Slap Shot.)
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AUTUMN SONATA (2 Bergmans)

Just watched Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata again (with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann) for the first time in decades. There are things in it that drive me crazy. The characters explain stuff endlessly in the past tense, and that’s usually enough to send me over the edge. But Bergman and Ullman are extraordinary, particularly in reaction shots, and there is one brilliant scene. Ullmann (playing Bergman’s daughter) sits at the piano and plays a bit of Chopin. Her mother, a world-famous concert pianist, gives her a nice compliment, and then sits down to analyze the piece and then plays it herself with the mastery of a mature artist, not realizing she is devastating her daughter. And right there you see how a great artist can be a woeful human being.

Reminds me a bit of The Sea Gull.  Arkadina is probably a great actor but she is a dreadful mother to Treplev.  Treplev has a pure soul, but he never breaks through self-indulgence to be a decent artist.  Nina has another pure soul, but reports we trust of her attempts at acting suggest that she isn’t there yet, and when we see her in the last act she looks as if she’s cracking up. Trigorin is a selfish schmuck, but he’s a good enough writer to have stimulated something in Nina’s young heart.  Just a reminder (like we need one) that people kissed with great talent are not necessarily talented at being human beings.

Watching the film reminded me that I spent a day with Liv Ullmann once. In 1979, a friend of mine was trying to start a regional company called the Main Street Theater in White Plains. His then-wife was assisting Ullmann when she was in New York acting in Anna Christie on Broadway with John Lithgow. Ullmann offered to perform in a benefit in support of the new company. She wanted to attempt Shakespeare in English and she wanted to play with Lithgow. My friend asked me if I would propose Shakespeare cuttings for them. The evening was called On Such a Night as This, and there was a champagne reception after the show.  I don’t remember all that I suggested, but I do remember I thought they should start easy with the proposal scene from Henry V, so Liv could start with broken English. Did they do the courtship scene from Shrew? Maybe.  Just to give myself a challenge, I also put together a fifteen-minute piece of the history of a relationship made up of lines pulled from all over Shakespeare. Liv apparently liked the piece but thought it was too big an undertaking for a benefit. I think Lithgow suggested Jill Eikenberry do that chunk with him, and I remember they did it well.  (Jill later did my play Porch off-Broadway and the radio version of With and Without for LA Theaterworks. For awhile, we tried to put up a production of her in my play Stay Till Morning with Marshall Mason directing, but nothing came of it.) Except for thinking that Liv was very pleasant to everyone, I have no other memories of the day.  I believe the benefit sold well and the theater opened to do one production, a revival of The Subject Was Roses. And then it closed.

Later I discovered that Lithgow and Ullmann were having a big affair that ended his marriage. (He apparently writes about it in his memoir, which I still have to read.) I was clueless. I didn’t see it. Every now and then, I run into Lithgow on the street and he smiles at me with recognition, but I can tell he can’t remember from what or where, and I think it easier not to remind him.

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CULLUD WATTAH and CLYDE’S

My idea was to write a series of plays, each of which would take place in another American city. The stories would be specific to those towns, each arising organically out of the character and history of the location. And I would try to tell stories about cities that hadn’t already been represented a lot (which meant avoiding writing about New York, Los Angeles and DC). That was the plan I kicked around.

I didn’t end up consciously following that plan, though I look at my stuff and see I’ve happened to write plays set in Atlanta, the Florida keys, Vermont, Maine, Ohio, Chicago, Westport, CT and Fort Devens, MA. (As well as, yes, New York, Los Angeles and DC, and an outlying play set in post-war Berlin.)

One of the locations I was particularly interested in exploring (but never got around to writing anything about) was Detroit and the areas near it. At the time I was kicking this idea around, I wasn’t aware of any non-musicals set there. I was a little familiar with its culture and history and thought, if I did conscientious research, there would be plenty of fresh possibilities to explore dramatically.

Times have changed. For one thing, Dominique Morisseau has written a trio of plays under the umbrella title of The Detroit Project; one of them, Skeleton Crew, is scheduled to open on Broadway. (I’ve seen two productions of it. It’s a solid piece and I look forward to seeing it a third time.)

And Erika Dickerson-Despenza has taken on nearby Flint, Michigan with her Cullud Wattah at the Public Theater.

The water in the play is colored because it’s polluted – murky liquid poison, unfit to drink or bathe in. The word “collud” is also an ironic modifier; it is the water that the white political elite in Michigan supplies as tap-water to the people of Flint, a city where the majority of the population are people of color and more than 40% of that population live below the poverty line. (The implication is that this is water they somehow deserve.)

Although there are towns around the country experiencing similar disasters because of their contaminated water, Flint is probably the most famous. Accounts of Flint, the parts Governor Rick Snyder (R), General Motors and others in power played in shifting Flint’s clean drinking water to the cheaper but deadly stuff, and the health consequences to the people whose taps have let it into their houses have been the stuff of a stream of journalistic pieces and documentaries. The challenge Dickerson-Despenza faced in writing her play was to add something new.

Mostly she has done this. We don’t see any of the bad guys or any of the public action that was the result of addressing the problem. Her focus is on three generations of Black women sharing a house in the affected area. The story is in part about how, in order to secure short-term economic benefits, Marion, the head of the household, did not act decisively in reaction to a threat she became aware of. When political action to call the authorities to account is initiated, she still refuses to join because she is afraid it will threaten the new job whose salary her household needs. More than a few people have recognized the thematic links to Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

I was constantly held by the play and the performances (particularly by Crystal Dickinson as Marion, who makes the most of the opportunities offered by playing a character at war with herself), but I felt the script fell a little short of its potential in that nothing in the piece surprised me or made me see the situation from a new perspective. It may be that I have seen too many of those PBS documentaries and read too many of those articles.

At no point in my hypothetical project had I thought of writing a play about Reading, Pennsylvania. Lynn Nottage has written two.

A few years back, when I was preparing to interview Nottage for my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing, she gave me a copy of a new play called Sweat she had written on commission for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Sweat was scheduled to open off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2016. She had won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Ruined. When I met her for our conversation, I told her I thought she would be making room on her mantle for a second Pulitzer. She made a little dismissive wave. But I told her I thought her portrait of a town struggling as the industry that was its heartbeat was being shut down had a lot to say about what I thought was happening in the country at the moment, especially the disillusionment among the working class. It opened in New York on November 3, 2016. On Tuesday, November 8, against most predictions and more hopes, Donald Trump was elected president. Some of the press suggested that though the play was written during the Obama administration, it arrived just in time to explain this disaster. And Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2017.

Clyde’s features a character who committed an appalling act of violence in Sweat. He has served time and come out of jail wearing tattoos speaking of his affiliation with a white supremacist faction inside. He insists he did this to survive. It’s a good thing he is believed because he finds himself surrounded by fellow employees who are all people of color. They are also, like him, ex-cons working for one of the few bosses willing to employ ex-cons. Clyde, herself, is an ex-con (we never learn exactly what she did, but there are hints it was violent). But just because Clyde is willing to give a break to some people who need one is not a signal that she is in any way soft or sentimental. The only times when she isn’t actively abusive to her staff are when she is stopping to catch her breath or offstage.

In fact, one of the things I admire about Clyde’s is that Nottage refuses to succumb to formula and give her title character a speech to appeal to the audience’s sympathy. Clyde is unapologetically, relentlessly mean. We playwrights like to humanize monsters, but sometimes you meet someone who, OK, may nurse a secret wound that makes them a monster, but that doesn’t make them behave as anything less than a monster. And I write this as someone who once worked on an off-Broadway project produced by Roger Ailes. (Ailes once expressed his displeasure with something I had done by saying to me, “Next time you do something like that, I will punch you so hard my fist will go in your face, go down your throat and come out your ass.” I don’t intend to write a play about him. But if I do I promise you there won’t be a Rosebud.)

If Sweat shone a light on the despair simmering in towns like Reading, Clyde’s suggests there is also hope. Some people get second chances, and some will make good use of them. And some dream their version of the American dream, even if it expresses itself as a tantalizing new sandwich. The tour-de-force direction is by Kate Whoriskey and the perfect cast is Uzo Aduba (as Clyde) Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar and Kara Young, It’s my favorite new American play on Broadway this season.

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Sondheim

In 1966, ABC decided to try to change its image. It had a reputation for dumb shows with scantily-clad women and car chases. Someone at the network decided they were going to prove they could do quality, too. Thus was born a weekly series called ABC Stage ’67. Its first broadcast was a film version of a John le Carré story, Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn starring James Mason. Later high points included A Christmas Memory adapted from a Truman Capote story starring Geraldine Page (it became a perennial) and Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Katharine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine starring Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland and Theodore Bikel.

Stage ’67 attempted some musicals, too, including efforts by Bock and Harnick, Comden, Green and Styne, and Bacharach and David. None of these was up to the best of their creators’ work. But one of the musicals was a preview of some terrific coming attractions.

On Wednesday, November 16, 1966, I was sixteen years old, sitting in my bedroom in Evanston, Illinois, watching the new episode of Stage ’67 on my portable color TV set. Anthony Perkins played a poet who sang about withdrawing from the real world to live in a department store. He would hide by day, and have the store as his private domain by night. (Except it turned out not to be his private domain.) Based on a short story by John Collier, Evening Primrose featured a script by James Goldman and a score by someone whose name was familiar to me as the lyricist of West Side Story and Gypsy. (I didn’t know A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. My parents didn’t take me to that, probably because they didn’t want to have to explain to me what a courtesan was.)
The opening song for the poet was, “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here.” Four bars in, I remember vividly that my skin started to tingle. This felt new. The person who wrote this – a guy named Stephen Sondheim – was someone I was determined to follow.

In 1967, I moved to New York to attend NYU. Also, when I turned 18, I was invited by Lehman Engel to join his BMI Musical Theater Workshop as a composer-lyricist. (Yes, I used to write music. Quite a lot of it, actually. Till I realized many people did it better.) In 1971, I also was invited to join a songwriting class that Paul Simon ran at NYU.

Though my home was in musical theater, Paul Simon and Laura Nyro were my pop songwriting gods, and I was thrilled to be in Simon’s class. But it was apparent he didn’t share my enthusiasm for musical theater. I asked him what his problem with the form was. “Well, they’re talking, they’re talking, they’re talking. Then they’re singing.” “So?” I said. And he said, “So where does the music come from?” And I replied it was a formal convention, like, ya know, poetry in some of Shakespeare’s plays. “No,” he said, “if I ever write a musical, there will be a big radio onstage, and whenever it’s time to sing, they’ll turn on the radio.” I decided not to pursue the subject.

Then came the news that Company was going to open on Broadway. This was going to be the first thing from that composer-lyricist of Evening Primrose since the broadcast that had so excited me. I heard rumor that Company, which featured a book by George Furth and direction by Hal Prince, was going to revolutionize musical theater. I told Simon that there might be something in the show that would expand his thoughts on musicals. I was the theater critic for the NYU paper and I had a pair of press seats for the second night. I asked Simon if he wanted to join me. He said yes.

And he stood me up. There was an empty seat on the aisle next to me through a show that more than lived up to its advance report. I had never seen a musical that had moved and challenged me so. At the next class, I asked Simon what had happened. He shrugged, “Something came up.” I told him I thought he had missed something important. The idea didn’t seem to bother him. (In 2010, the New York Times Book Review asked Simon to write a review of Sondheim’s book, Finishing the Hat. Presumably he had made Company’s acquaintance in the meantime.)

Some years later, Simon did indeed attempt a musical. In 1998, a show for which he wrote the score, The Capeman, opened on Broadway. My wife asked, “What are you looking for?” “The radio,” I said, and I told her about the conversation. But there was no radio on the stage. “Ah,” I said to her, “He’s learned something.” And fifteen minutes later, I had to add, “But not enough.” Simon was and is a musical genius, but he hadn’t realized what so many of us find out the hard way when we write musicals: if your show is built on a central character, that character shouldn’t be passive. They should be a pile-driver willing to do almost anything to achieve their desire. Simon could have learned from Pseudolus, Mama Rose, Sweeney, Desiree, Fosca and all those seekers in Into the Woods.

Anyway, back to Company … In Lehman Engel’s musical theater class, we knew this was the revolution. A show that took place in an instant in the mind of its leading character and was framed as an argument within himself as to the pros and cons of living a life committed to another person. Maybe the closest thing to this had been the circus sequence in Lady in the Dark, but that had been one sequence, and Company sustained a whole evening, sometimes (as in the case of his three old girlfriends) having people sing together who don’t even know each other. If Company’s immediate antecedent, Cabaret, had been a war between a revue (the Kit Kat songs) and a conventional book musical, Company figured out a way to blend the two aspects of Cabaret into one. The next Sondheim-Prince show, Follies (with a book by James Goldman), would again marry the revue format with characterizations of psychological depth. We in Lehman Engel’s class saw things we could borrow, adapt and, yes, steal. One of my classmates in the workshop was Edward Kleban, who, as lyricist of A Chorus Line, decided much of what would be sung and why in a show whose shape was a surreal audition. Donna McKechnie, who was in both Company and A Chorus Line, told me that, as A Chorus Line was being developed, the innovations of Company constantly served as an inspiration and a challenge for its creators.

I don’t remember the exact date (1971 or ’72) or the specifics, but I do remember that somebody organized a panel in a private dining room in the Sardi’s building at which musical theater writers were scheduled to speak. Sondheim was going to be one of them. I got myself into the room on some pretext. After the panel, I approached him and asked, “Whatever happened to Evening Primrose?” He gave me a startled look and said, “You can’t remember that.” And I started to sing, “Take Me to the World.” He said, “What’s your address?” I gave it to him and, within a week, an acetate of the score of Evening Primrose arrived in the mail. (If you don’t know what an acetate is, that’s why Google was invented. This was before any of the songs from Primrose had been rediscovered in retrospectives.)

I was beginning to stick my toe into the theater world as opportunities arose. I was commissioned to create a one-act musical for a radio project, and so I wrote the music and libretto (there was very little dialogue) of a half-hour piece based on an American folk tale called Wicked John and the Devil, a story about how a blacksmith gets so mean that, when he dies, the devil, to avoid competition, refuses to allow him into Hell. Instead, the devil passes a burning coal out to John and says, “Here, old man, you go start a Hell of your own.” An opportunity came to put the piece up on a bill in New York with pieces by other people. It was being presented in an off-off-Broadway theater on West 51st Street, and I was playing the piano. As one performance was about to begin, I looked into the audience and saw Sondheim. He had opened a pad.

The show over, he signaled me. “Let’s grab a bite.” We went to the Haymarket, a modest restaurant on Eighth Avenue, and he took out the pad and proceeded to ask me questions. Sometimes I answered the questions confidently, and sometimes I hedged. He pressed me when I hedged. He himself didn’t make a single critical statement, but, through the Socratic method, made me face where the show’s weaknesses were. (I remember he confessed that the subject matter – folk and fairy tales and such – generally wasn’t something he took to. I thought of that when I saw Into the Woods and guessed that James Lapine had figured out a way to make him care.)

And then came talk. He mentioned that some critics had kept telling him that writing memorable tunes was not something he had a gift for, so the fact that, after hearing the song once (plus a reprise) in 1966, I could sing “Take Me to the World” to him that day in Sardi’s had made him happy.

And he talked about Jule Styne and Gypsy. He said that Styne had next to no ego about his music. If Styne did a setting of a lyric that Sondheim wasn’t thrilled about, Styne would say, “It’s gone,” and he’d write something else. “The score,” Sondheim said, “is made up of the tunes I said yes to.” He recognized a lot of the tunes he rejected in later Styne shows.

One morning, he said, he got a call from a friend who said, “I’m enjoying the cast album.” Sondheim replied, “What are you talking about? We haven’t released the cast album yet.” “Oh yeah?” said the friend, and put a needle down on a record. Through the telephone, Sondheim heard the melody of “You’ll Never Get Away From Me.” It was a tune from the album of a 1957 TV musical called The Ruggles of Red Gap for which Styne had composed the music. The lyric began, “I’m in pursuit of happiness / Cuz the Constitution says / I’m entitled to.” Sondheim confessed to being a little pissed about that.

I had been hired by Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. to keep an eye on off-off-Broadway for the Best Plays annual, and, in 1973, in a theater above a shoe store on the upper west side, I saw a play that overwhelmed me called The Hot L Baltimore. It led to my interviewing Lanford Wilson for Newsday. Lanford and I became friends. Also that season, Sondheim’s newest score was heard in A Little Night Music (book by Hugh Wheeler, direction again by Prince). I learned that Sondheim and Wilson had never met. I also learned that they were coming on the same night to off-off-Broadway to see Terrence McNally’s Whiskey, a show for which I had been drafted to play organ. (I don’t claim to play organ competently, but they had no money to hire anybody competent. They had no money at all. They got what they didn’t pay for.) I suggested the three of us go out for a drink after.

It was an intoxicating evening for a theater-mad 23-year-old. I was sitting in Joe Allen’s at the same table with the composer-lyricist of my favorite musical of the year and the writer of my favorite play of the year. I had the fantasy that they would hit it off and collaborate on a new great American musical. They did indeed get along, but as far as I know, neither entertained the idea of a collaboration. (Lanford was also jazzed from the evening, though. Afterward, he and I walked down to our apartments in Greenwich Village. He talked about writing the libretto for an opera version of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke for composer Lee Hoiby, and he sang chunks of the score on the street. A greatly gifted writer, his talents did not extend to singing.)

Sondheim and I were both members of the Council of the Dramatists Guild (he was a very good president of the Guild for several years), and that gave us the excuse to work together a little and meet at Guild events. At one Guild party, I saw him and Edward Albee chatting in a corner, and I wondered if they were comparing horrific mothers.

I never entered the circle of friends that were invited to the dinners and the parties and such. But, as email entered our lives, we started a correspondence mostly centering on arcane film and TV tastes. A few examples:

I was a fan of the 2007 Danish suspense series, The Killing, that at the time was not available in the States. He heard that I had figured out a way to get my hands on it. An email: “All right, Sweet, what can I swap you for it?” I mentioned the BBC broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse production of Company. A messenger dropped off and picked up discs we had burned for each other. This was the beginning of a series of swaps and follow-up email discussions. I mentioned I had just seen and was knocked out by Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point, and he wrote, “Well, I guess I have to let you into the club.” It turned out it was one of his favorite lesser-known movies. In the old days of VHS machines, he had recorded it off the air and had made a small mission of sharing it with those he thought would appreciate it.

When Pacific Overtures was produced at CSC, he wanted my take. I told him that the show had a special hold on me because I’m fascinated by stories about relationships made and destroyed by history. This turned out to be a theme he was especially interested in, and he shot off a list of films on the subject for me to watch, and he followed up regularly to check on what progress I was making.

More recently, I saw a film written and produced by my friend Howard Reich called For the Left Hand about a man named Norman Malone who, when he was ten, had been so viciously attacked by his father that his right hand was useless. Malone’s passion for music was such that he was determined to make a career in it despite his situation. He became an inspirational choir director in a Chicago public school. And he sought out material written for pianists who played only with the left hand. It turned out that an Austrian pianist named Paul Wittgenstein had lost the use of his right hand in WWI and had commissioned a piano concerto for the left hand from Maurice Ravel. Malone practiced the Ravel obsessively for years. The documentary climaxes with Malone, at age 79, making his concert debut playing it with a Connecticut orchestra. As I watched the movie, I thought, hmm, 1) vicious parent, 2) inspirational teacher and 3) Maurice Ravel. Who does this remind me of?

Sondheim’s mother was notoriously monstrous (she once told him she regretted giving birth to him). He spent much of his life celebrating and supporting inspirational teachers and was one himself. And he loved Ravel. So I dropped him a line. A quick response. Yes, he wanted to see the film very much. Did I know he had written his thesis about Ravel? And was there any way I could get a copy to him as his streaming wasn’t working so he couldn’t watch it via the PBS service. I contacted Howard Reich, and Howard burned a disc and sent it to him a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting to hear Sondheim’s thoughts on the film. I don’t know if he got around to seeing it.

A few years after Mike Nichols died, a book comprised of his friends’ stories about him was published called Life Isn’t Everything. (It serves as a happy supplement to Mark Harris’s excellent biography.) I hope someone emulates Life Isn’t Everything and puts out a volume of Sondheim stories. There must be thousands of good ones.

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Review: “Morning’s at Seven”

Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven (playing at St. Clement’s) is the most James Thurberish play I know and it isn’t by Thurber. Some people are charmed by Thurber. Some are immune. (Some have no idea who he was.) I am charmed.  It’s an ensemble piece in which all of the parts are rewarding to play, and they are played by an ensemble that includes more than a few stars who know how to support each other (Lindsay Crouse, Dan Lauria, Alma Cuervo, John Rubinstein and Tony Roberts among them). I think the accomplishment of creating so many characters whom we get to know and follow has been underestimated by some of the current critics. As a playwright, I know how damn hard it is to put that many distinct people on the stage and keep them all alive.

This strikes me as a comedy of scale. By that I mean that the controversies and issues in the characters’ lives are mostly small by the audience’s standards, but because the characters’ lives themselves are small, what we might see as molehills loom to them like mountains. I don’t want to spoil surprises in the story, but I find it hilarious that the resolution of the plot ends up hinging on how much it would cost to install an extra bathroom. From this one factor, a series of decisions are triggered that restore peace to this little enclave.

If this sounds whimsical, I suppose it is. And if your taste doesn’t run to whimsey, maybe the play isn’t for you. But there is a toughness under the surface which suggests that (despite the old saying) for some, the unexamined life is a blessing, because sometimes, if you examine yours too rigorously, you discover what is lacking.  And that you can’t do a fucking thing about it.

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