ALLIE GOES TO TEXAS WHILE BEN ROLLS ALONG MERRILL-Y
On Facebook last week, an oft-made complaint cropped up again.
Young theater lovers have no interest in shows that opened before they were old enough to be paying attention to theater.
I saw this thread only days after attending a panel in which the moderator told a story about Jonathan Larson writing RENT with dramaturgical help from Lynn Thomson. “Jonathan always planned to give Lynn a fair share,” said the moderator, “but then he died suddenly before the first preview.”
From the collective gasping intake breath of surprise from many young people in the house, I realized that this was the first they’d heard of it; to them, 1996 is already ancient history.
I’m happy to report that this myopia is not true of everyone. Allie Mulholland and Ben West are young men who investigate the theatrical past with archeological fervor. Both have events occurring this month, and to use an expression that may be new to young theatergoers, attention must be paid.
For the last few years, Mulholland has been staging plays that were originally produced by the influential Group Theatre, which gave Broadway 26 productions from 1931 through 1940. He came to them from reading about them in
REPRESENTED BY AUDREY WOOD, the memoir of the famous agent who helped Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and William Inge to their legendary careers.
“Most theater fans cite ACT ONE as their most influential book,” says Mulholland, “but Audrey Wood’s memoir is mine.”
So Mulholland took notice when Wood mentioned Preston Jones, a playwright who died in 1979 at 43 from complications after surgery. Six years before, however, he had written A TEXAS TRILOGY, which caused a sensation at the Dallas Theatre Center. That got Wood to Dallas, where she was mightily impressed. She signed Jones and got the plays to Broadway, although Joe Papp wanted them badly for his downtown theaters.
“But the New York reviews were brutal, and the plays closed after playing about 20 performances each,” mourns Mulholland. “However, all three – THE LAST MEETING OF THE KNIGHTS OF THE WHITE MAGNOLIAS, LU ANN HAMPTON LAVERTY OBERLANDER and THE OLDEST LIVING GRADUATE – are unbelievably wonderful.”
That got me to take out my hardcover copy that I’d bought from the fondly remembered Fireside Book Club in the late ‘70s but had never read. Mullholland is 100% accurate. My God, what plays! There’s potent subtext in virtually every line. I’d say THE TEXAS TRILOGY is mandatory theatergoing. Never mind that the Tonys completely ignored the three plays that season; believe the Drama Desk committee, which voted all three as 1976-77’s Best Plays.
While each stands tall on its own, do see the complete trilogy to get the full power. For example, in the first play, Lu Ann’s mother claims that the teenage years are the best of anyone’s life. Lu Ann can’t believe that, but we’ll see if she agrees in the second play that takes place a decade later – but still in Bradleyville – “which,” says Mullholland, “Jones patterned after Colorado City, Texas” – a town that measures in at 5.3 square miles and sports a population around 4,000.
Dale Laverty meets Lu Ann and starts talking about how much he loves driving a big truck and how living in a trailer would be his ideal life. Lu Ann agrees, but she soon tires of Dale because he only talks about trucks and he arranged for them to live in a trailer. Ah, but Dale didn’t mislead her with promises of owning the trucking company or a mansion on the hill. He was being himself, but Lu Ann wasn’t smart enough to realize that.
The others range from Colonel J. C. Kinkaid -- who must think his initials stand for Jesus Christ, for that’s the way he see himself because he fought with (under, really) General Pershing in two wars -- all the way down to Milo Crawford, whom everyone thinks is a weirdo because he’s collecting money to “Beautify Bradleyville.”
Says Mullholland, “Milo should really get out of this town, and if it weren’t for his devotion to his mother, he just might. But people who live in small towns tend to stay there,” adds the native of Wauseon, Ohio, at 5.2 square miles a bit smaller than Colorado City but with a population almost twice as large.
Perhaps New York ignored the trilogy because three plays instead of one seemed daunting. Then dealing with the rigors of repertory scheduling (“I can go on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I’m never free on Thursdays”) and investing an outrageous expenditure of THIRTY DOLLARS on weeknights let alone THIRTY-SIX DOLLARS on weekends for good seats to ALL THREE – well, forget it.
Actually, you won’t spend much more to see them now: an $18 ticket swings it for each. And may I point out that $10 and $12 back then translates to $41.89 and $50.27 now?
All right, you won’t be seeing Diane Ladd, Henderson Forsythe, Fred Gwynne or Josh Mostel as Broadway did 38 years ago. But Mullholland, who’s directing all three, has 22 game performers ready to go. They’ll perform in McAlpin Hall at 165 West 86th St.
“We’ve created an environmental setting there,” Mullholland says. “The theater has the feeling for a meeting hall that MAGNOLIAS needs. We’ve also made a space for a bar where LU ANN takes place, too.”
This transformation has demanded tremendous man-and-woman-power, and Mulholland is grateful for the volunteers who have “gutted, painted and put in a new floor. Our renovations allowed us to get a break on the rent, which has helped. Our ticket prices don’t allow us to bring in much.”
Hence, there’ll be two consecutive Saturdays of benefits – Aug. 16 and 23 – when all three plays will be offered in one day, with wine and cheese after the first and a real down-home barbecue after the second. Those tickets are $100. But $18 will swing it for all other performances that run from Aug. 7-24. Visit www.regrouptheatre.org.
And two days before TEXAS makes its bow, Ben West will give us UNSUNG BOB MERRILL – with nothing from FUNNY GIRL.
West puts up a hand as if to ward off an attack. “I know it was his biggest hit,” he says. “But there are so many songs for which he wrote music and lyrics that I decided not to include even one from any show where he had another composer.”
So no FUNNY GIRL, PRETTYBELLE or even a sprinkling of SUGAR – the three musicals in which Merrill furnished lyrics to Jule Styne’s melodies.
“I’d rather concentrate on his own pop songs,” says West. “Most people only know ‘Mambo Italiano,’ ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ and ‘If I Knew You Were Comin’, I’d’ve Baked a Cake.’ He did many others that are definitely worth hearing.”
The genesis for the evening began when West was considering reviving Merrill’s first show (and first hit) from 1957: NEW GIRL IN TOWN. “Then Irish Rep did it, so that was that,” says West.
And yet, by then his research had uncovered that Merrill’s adaptation of O’Neill’s ANNA CHRISTIE had started as a planned film called A SAINT SHE AIN’T.
(Some may know the title from the 1999 London musical. No – that’s another show entirely written by Dick Vosburgh of HOLLYWOOD/UKRAINE fame. May I say that I met Vosburgh in 1994 when he was doing WINDY CITY outside of, fittingly enough, Chicago, and found him to be quite the musical theater maven. As a result, I’m certain that he knew that Merrill had written A SAINT SHE AIN’T and decided to homage him and the unmade film.)
West gives the facts: “George Abbott was filming THE PAJAMA GAME with Doris Day, and she mentioned that she’d considered this musical movie version of ANNA CHRISTIE that was set in contemporary San Pedro California, with Anna now a barmaid. When she told Abbott that the film was shelved because of a bad screenplay, he asked to hear the score. He liked what he heard and thought it had Broadway possibilities, but wanted a musical of ANNA CHRISTIE to be set in the original time and place – 1912 New York. Because of this, only two songs from the film made it to NEW GIRL IN TOWN: ‘Roll Yer Socks Up’ and ‘It’s Good to be Alive,’ and even that last one had some lyrics changed.”
That West found A SAINT SHE AIN’T was fortuitous, for much of it was attributed to Henry Robert Merill Lavan – the composer-lyricist’s real name.
NEW GIRL played 53 weeks, but Merrill’s second show (and second consecutive hit) TAKE ME ALONG amassed 55. His third show (and third consecutive hit) CARNIVAL racked up 88. But as a composer-lyricist, Merrill would never remotely reach such success again. Of the final three shows that he aimed for Broadway, the most successful was HENRY, SWEET HENRY -- at a mere 14 weeks. THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET in 1978 couldn’t make it out of Boston and let’s not forget the first and biggest bomb of them all: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, which might as well have not left Boston, for it played four previews before legendary producer David Merrick closed it before it could open because he knew it stunk.
“Merrick blamed himself,” says West. “He said that he originated the property, and if three fine writers – Nunnally Johnson, Abe Burrows and Edward Albee – couldn’t lick it, it must have been a bad idea.”
Yes-- but a 1996 double-disc studio cast album showed there was a good deal of fine work in Merrill’s score. We’ll hear some of it at 54 Below.
The songs will be accompanied by a piano, bass and drums.
What, no xylophone? West laughs at the question. “It IS true that Merrill composed on a xylophone that he bought for $1.98. A story that I DON’T know to be true is that when he was a kid, his mother took a violin, hit him on the butt with it and broke it, which made him resist music for a long time. We DO know that he eventually bought a more expensive xylophone.”
West won’t divulge what specific songs that we’ll hear from Anastasia Barzee, John Bolton, Erin Davie, Bradley Dean, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Nick Gaswirth, Marc Kudisch, Karen Mason and Christine Pedi; he keeps his cards closer to his vest than Rosie Brice and Mrs. Strakosh ever did. What he does promise is many songs that did – and didn’t -- make it to opening night on Broadway. (Liz Larsen, who’s doing beautiful work in BEAUTIFUL, will send her regards via an audio recording of an obscurity.)
Arguably best of all, West may include a song from THE GRADUATE – yes, a musical version of that famous 1967 film that Merrill wrote but has never been produced.
“When I told Christine I was doing a Bob Merrill night,” says West, “she was very excited. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I recently recorded “I Did It on Roller Skates,” a song dropped from FUNNY GIRL, so I can do that.’ She was sad when I told her she couldn’t.”
However, in a manner of speaking, FUNNY GIRL does play an inadvertent part of UNSUNG BOB MERRILL. “I’m told,” says West, “that on opening night of FUNNY GIRL in New York, Merrill was seated next to George Roy Hill, and they started talking. What came up was the movie that Hill had just finished directing: THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. And that started the ball rolling for its musical version HENRY, SWEET HENRY, which Merrill wrote and Hill directed.”
UNSUNG BOB MERRILL plays Tuesday, August 5 at 9:30 p.m. at 54 Below at 254 West 54th Street. Tickets are $25 and $35 with a $25 food and/or beverage minimum. Call (888) 950-7631 or visit www.54below.com
— Peter Filichia