Golden Boy: 1937, 1964, 2013
“Odets is really great,” Harold Rome had Marilyn Cooper sing in I Can Get It for You Wholesale 51 years ago. Thanks to Bartlett Sher’s fine production Of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, we see that Rome is still correct. The play holds up – a bit of a surprise when one considers that Golden Boy’s two conflicts were already familiar ones when the play debuted in 1937.
Should Joe Bonaparte become a concert violinist or a boxer? To the dismay of his father, he goes for the quick money that’s right now in the ring.
(The square, really. Why does boxing persist in using a circular image to describe its box-shaped playing field?)
Conflict two: after fight promoter Tom Moody reluctantly takes on Joe as a client, the young man returns the favor by trying to steal away Lorna Moon, Tom’s longtime mistress. (That’s “mistress” in the old world sense, meaning “the other woman.”)
The themes of father vs. son, art vs. commerce, brains vs. brawn and the eternal triangle may prompt you to say, “So what else is new?”
Certainly the way that Odets dared to name The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name was new. Tom and Lorna acknowledge that Eddie Fuseli, a far more successful fight promoter, is “queer” (and, yes, homosexual is what they mean). How impressive that Odets felt that a gay man could acquire respect and power both in the ‘30s and in the rough-and-tumble world of boxing.
Moreover, when a true writer tells a familiar story, it seems new. So does it here. Odets shows us one of many multi-generational homes found in the early 20th century, which were necessities during the Depression. Bonaparte, as Joe’s father is singularly known, houses son Joe as well as his daughter Anna and her husband Siggie. Mr. Carp, the neighbor down the hall, might as well live there considering how often he visits.
So everyone knows and sees everyone else’s business. At one point, a frustrated Siggie hits Anna; he doesn’t clout her, but he still gives enough heft to his swat that the euphemism “love-tap” cannot be applied. Here’s where Sher’s speedy direction truly helps, because the moment ends before we can dwell on it too much.
Odets gives the impression that Bonaparte is tight with a buck, because he won’t lend Siggie money to buy a taxi cab (which would help his daughter’s future, too). But then Bonaparte displays the violin that he bought for Joe’s birthday; we see that he’ll gladly pay for a cause in which he truly believes. The violin cost $1,200 in Depression dollars; my Inflation Calculator tells me that now translates to $19,158.08.
Bonaparte feels “Music is the great cheer-up in the language of all countries … Life is good … the streets, winter and summer, trees, cats: I love ‘em all.” But later, when Bonaparte sees that Joe has been solely pursuing boxing, he tells his son, “It’s too late for music” and that a man “must be free and happy for music.”
That brings us to the 1964 musical version of Golden Boy that Odets was creating when he died. His mentee William Gibson finished the book which was set to an evocative Charles Strouse-Lee Adams score.
And yet, why didn’t Strouse and Adams write two songs based on those lines that Bonaparte had? Did star Sammy Davis not want the character of the father to have big moments? Of the 13 songs, Davis was involved in nine of them, and dominated more than half.
In 1978, Strouse and Adams wrote a Broadway musical literally entitled A Broadway Musical that thinly veiled their torturous Golden Boy experiences. They made clear that mega-star Davis got what he wanted every step of the Philadelphia, Boston and Detroit tryouts. For all we know, in Strouse’s piano bench and in Adams’ desk there may well be two very good songs for Bonaparte.
Actually, the musical renamed Bonaparte as Wellington. (Cute: the 1815 battle of Waterloo had the Duke of Wellington defeat Napoleon Bonaparte.) A name change was necessary because Bonaparte suggests an Italian-American family and not an African-American one – and thanks to producer Hillard Elkins, the musical of Golden Boy would make Joe a black boxer who pursues the white Lorna. This considerably raised the “eternal triangle” stakes and kept the plot from seeming threadbare.
One wonders, however, if Elkins got the idea for the racial switch from a line Moody has in the first scene: “Find me a good black,” he says, meaning one who can box.
If Davis only wanted songs that centered on him, then Strouse and Adams missed at least one good opportunity. When Joe is alone with Lorna for the first time, Odets had him say, “With music, I’m never alone … that’s like saying, ‘I am man! I belong here! How do you do, world! Good evening!’” Now there’s a song! Why didn’t they write it?
Again: perhaps they did. Although the collaborators originally changed Joe’s instrument from violin to piano -- Davis could play the latter -- in Detroit they eventually chose to drop the music and make him simply a disaffected young man. Hence, by the Broadway opening, a song about Joe’s passionate feelings towards music would have become a useless appendage.
However, take it from someone saw Golden Boy in Boston when Joe was still tickling the ivories: for this scene, Strouse and Adams wrote “Playground Songs,” as the program called them, in which Joe and Lorna traded memories of childhood while sitting on swings. Yes, these established that something nice was happening between them, but a better solution would have had Lorna intrigued by Joe’s love of music and sympathize with his struggle he has between it and boxing. (Odets had another smart moment here: out of the blue, Joe starts whistling, simply because a melody has occurred to him – and Lorna starts whistling, too. What a nice way of showing that they were in tune.)
Playwrights must like when characters grow during intermission; that saves them a lot of work. The difference between the eager, just-tell-me-what-to-do Joe in Act One and the top-of-the-world Act Two Joe of six months later is palpable. Between Acts Two and Three, Joe has moved away from Tom in favor of Eddie. We’ve seen throughout history that power corrupts. Golden Boy shows that brute power corrupts, too, and that Joe has lost the virtue of being loyal.
Lorna hasn’t. As much as she’s attracted to Joe, she chooses to stay with Tom. While we witness Joe winning virtually every fight, we see him kayoed by Lorna.
Seth Numrich admirably shows Joe’s growth. While watching Numrich become more confident, I thought of the 1999 Annie Get Your Gun that had many people preferring Reba McEntire to Bernadette Peters. I favored Peters because she calibrated Annie’s growth from one scene to the next, which McEntire didn’t bother or know enough to do. She was the same homespun girl from beginning to end, while Peters developed along with her reading ability, experience and sophistication. Similarly, Numrich tells us how much time has passed in the way he becomes cockier and cockier.
How well Numrich’s face shows his realization that boxing is a short-term solution to economic success. He sees his career coming to an end, partly because he doesn’t want to do it anymore, partly because he’s not getting any younger.
Golden Boy is a 20th century American version of an ancient Greek tragedy. Odets made Joe a god and then had him fall. He had another classic theme here: “It was beauty killed the beast” (who wound up killing the beauty, too). And because a boxer’s hands are literally considered lethal weapons -- as dangerous as a gun – we’re reminded of what Tom Destry taught us in another Harold Rome musical: “Those who live by the gun die by the gun.”
Early on, Lorna, in wanting Tom to face reality, says, “It’s the 20th century. No more miracles.” It’s now the 21st century, and the miracle is that Golden Boy – thanks not only to Odets, but also to Bartlett Sher and Seth Numrich – works as splendidly as it does.
— Peter Filichia