Saturday, June 6, 2015

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S PIPE DREAM; or, Don't Make Speeches--Start the Show!

The seventh of R & H’s stage works, Pipe Dream came along at a particularly vulnerable time in their partnership. After the revolutionary Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945)—with, above all, two of the most remarkable scores ever heard to that point—they disappointed many with Allegro (1947), eventually revealed to be intensely influential as the first “concept musical” but built around a strangely deconstructed score using bits and pieces and giving the leads too little to sing, the musical equivalent of Pixy Stix.

       R & H shows were supposed to produce great cast albums; Oklahoma!’s 78s moved past a wonderful overture on side one to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” on the next disc, “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” right after that, and so on—twelve cuts of absolutely first-rate music theatre, its characters jumping out of the speakers at you. Just to hear Alfred Drake’s Curly conjuring up the experience of a surrey ride expanded the American musical’s horizons after years of “The Best Things in Life Are Free’ and “Easter Parade.” Anybody could sing those songs, but only this particular cowboy—braggy and full of himself yet hiding a fierce tenderness for his sweetheart—was right for “Surrey.”

       Allegro’s cast album sold so poorly that it wasn’t transcribed to LP till a generation later. Then came South Pacific (1949) and The King and I (1951), R & H back in form with character-rich scores. However, another setback followed. Me and Juliet (1953), by any other team, would have satisfied, as a backstager with fabulous scenery and a ton of dancing, completely devoid of generic cliché. Unfortunately, it was devoid of everything else, too, with a lot of principals but no interesting conflict—Oklahoma!’s cold war of landowners (the farmers) and laborers (the cowmen), for instance, or The King and I’s battle to the death between two egomaniacs. And Me and Juliet’s score was no better than agreeable: here was another cast album that didn’t sell.

       So R & H was right back where it had been after Allegro, and the team needed to reaffirm the brand, as we now put it, with another of their great “musical plays,” an Oklahoma! or so. However, it was the 1940s that hosted their serious works. In the 1950s, they were doing musical comedy, a less highly strung format, with none of those angsty musical scenes or soliloquies that tear the heart open. After The King and I, R & H wrote in a more direct communication style. You know…songs.

       And that’s when Pipe Dream happened along, breaking one of the creative world’s primary rules: Don’t make art with your friends. R & H were personally close to novelist John Steinbeck and his wife, Elaine (who had been a stage manager on Oklahoma!), and someone thought it would be fun for R & H to do a Steinbeck musical. But the complex alchemy of writing and putting on a big show is very demanding on everybody’s ego. There will be criticism, blaming, and good old-fashioned screaming. You can make art with people you respect, but not with people you like, because you will need to hurt their feelings.

       But then, Pipe Dream didn’t start with R & H and the Steinbecks. It was originally a project for Frank Loesser with producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, because all three had presented Broadway with Guys and Dolls, and Steinbeck’s fiction, set in northern California among society’s outlaws and the women who love them, seemed to promise another smash hit of the same kind.

       Then Loesser drifted away, R & H got involved (and bought Feuer and Martin out for a percentage), and Steinbeck, who was supposed to write  a libretto based on the storyline of his novel Cannery Row, announced that he didn’t want to write a libretto and, anyway, Cannery Row didn’t have a storyline. It was an atmosphere piece.

       Instead, Steinbeck wrote a novel, Sweet Thursday, set in Cannery Row and inventing what every musical needs, a love plot. This one united two Steinbeckian winner-losers (that is, interesting people who for neurotic reasons aren’t having interesting lives). Doc, a marine biologist, is loafing his days away with scientific busy work, and Suzy is a vagrant who fronts her vulnerability with dangerous anger. But musicals do love odd couples, from Naughty Marietta to Marie Christine.

        So Hammerstein turned Sweet Thursday into a libretto, R & H gave it lift and emotion with their fifties-style musical-comedy numbers, and they renamed it Pipe Dream because at one point Suzy takes up residence inside a boiler pipe. (Yes, really). The show marked a departure from R & H because of the wastrels and bordello girls in the narrative. And yet it was typical R & H as well in its strong sense of community (as with Carousel’s fisherfolk and South Pacific’s seabees); in its making room for an opera soprano, Helen Traubel, as the bordello madam (because Rodgers vastly preferred singers who act to actors who sing; most R & H productions had sopranos or mezzos in at least one role); in its lack of high-fashion choreography, which had given South Pacific an extra shot of realism; and in the offbeat nature of the show as a whole, as every R & H project had been offbeat except Me and Juliet.

       So far, so good, but Pipe Dream did not work. Some blame Helen Traubel, though, as we can see in MGM’s Sigmund Romberg bio, Deep In My Heart, she was a performer of warmth and power, exactly what her part needed. She may have been on the stately side, though, and the musical as a form needs vitality from its stars.

       Some feel R & H had trouble getting into Steinbeck’s earthy worldview. They didn’t exactly tiptoe around it—some of the scenes were set inside the bordello, and, early on, Doc’s latest one-night-stand, Millicent, feeling ignored by Doc, assumed that his pal—a man named Hazel—was Doc’s boy friend. “Maybe that explains the whole thing!” she cried, angrily, as she left. It’s a very advanced moment for a musical of 1955.

       Nonetheless, there was the feeling that Pipe Dream ended up an R & H musical but not a Steinbeck musical, and I think I know why, because, some years ago, in London, I gave a speech introducing a staged concert of Pipe Dream. Then, home again, I did exactly the same thing way up town, in a theatre so far to Manhattan’s northeast that it should have been under water. The English had enjoyed my improvisational talk well enough, but I decided to prepare the second talk, so I opened with the first lines of Cannery Row, in which Steinbeck describes his setting as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream…Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he means Everybody.”

       I quoted these lines to emphasize that Steinbeck’s world is writerly and paradoxical and above all anarchic. It’s everything going off at once yet nothing ever happens—and musicals are about people who make things happen. For instance a belle vamps the football hero so he’ll play for the home team and Win the Big Game! (That’s Leave It To Jane.) Or a sinner  blows his money on the temptress known as Miss Georgia Brown and, she, feeling religion coming on, gives it away to the church so he gets into heaven after all! (That’s Cabin in the Sky.)

       Thus, Pipe Dream couldn’t have worked, because its characters resist the musical—especially the R & H musical, which is orderly to a fault. Cannery Row is disorderly, so when Pipe Dream’s people are running around trying to fix Doc and Suzy up, it’s not natural, because it overturns the authentic Cannery Row environment. The show really needed lazy songs, pointless songs, songs that sneak up on you and then wander away; but what kind of musical is that?

       True, the score is wonderful as sheer music, and some of the character numbers work well. Suzy’s “Everybody’s Got a Home But Me” catches her strength and wistfulness at once, and Hazel’s “Thinkin’” is properly goofy. Doc sounds the forgiving Steinbeckian philosophy in “All Kinds Of People.” But “How Long?,” a choral number when Cannery Row is heartening Doc up in his courtship of Suzy, is too darn organized. It has a terrific vocal arrangement, which eventually reaches six-voice harmony, but it misrepresents Cannery Row. The inhabitants don’t spend their time heartening anyone, and, frankly, these people are not in harmony with each other or anything else. Remember, Cannery Row is a stink, a grating noise, a dream. It’s eternally inconclusive, and if there’s anything an R & H musical is, it’s conclusive. Every song finishes off a scene, an idea, a hope.

       So that’s what I said in my New York speech before a performance of Pipe Dream, and the whole time I was talking I saw the audience glaring at me in fury. They didn’t want a speech. They wanted the show to start.

       I bring this up now because there was a thread recently on one of the Broadway sites on this very matter, as theatre buffs, trolls, and the usual “me, too” schmengies discussed whether or not managers of small theatre companies should program an address before a performance. Are they imparting information we need to have? Or are they just showing off before a captive audience?

       I was especially taken with one post, recalling an organization in San Francisco that gave an annual luncheon that was ruined for several years  by a co-chair who, at the very end when people wanted to leave, would launch into a ramble through whatever was on his mind, including pauses during which he would grin while slowly reaching for his next paragraph. The poster called it “insufferable.” The second year the co-chair did this, some folks got up and left while he talked, and though the facing bench told him to mind the light (as they put it in Quaker meetings), he kept on giving his insufferable talk till he was removed from his co-chairmanship.

       Now, why did he do this? Was the occult pleasure of controlling the room enough to outweigh the disadvantage of appearing selfish and needy? And are speeches a bad idea altogether? Because the one I gave before that little New York Pipe Dream sure was.

       I didn’t take part in that online thread, but I’m posting now. I think these little-theatre organizations have to decide whether they lean toward Broadway or the church-basement bake sale. The former is professional, sophisticated, polished. The latter observes clubhouse manners, rustic and informal. Both attitudes are viable; it’s simply a matter of fixing your ID in one tone or the other. If you want respect, omit the speech and start the overture. If you want the relaxed air of friends getting together, keep the speech. But if the audience is glaring at you while you give it, it may be that you and your public have incongruent agendas.

       And don’t make art with your friends.