The Dilemma of the Composer Who Stoops To Conquer

Classically trained composers have often sought (even craved) not just the money but the cultural validation of success in commercial media. Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), a left-winger, privately disdained Broadway, but he was very much a composer of music for dramatic media: The Cradle Will Rock, No for an Answer, Regina (an opera that did, improbably, run on Broadway in 1949), various film and radio scores, the famous adaptation of Weill’s Threepenny Opera, etc. He was also a freelance composer unballasted by an academic sinecure; he constantly needed projects to earn his livelihood. In the mid-1950s he wrote the book, music, and lyrics for an ambitious, diffuse original musical called Reuben Reuben that eminent Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford took on. Despite the first-class creative talent of cast and production, it closed in tryouts in Boston. Not long after that debacle, bookwriter (i.e. librettist of musicals) Joseph Stein approached Blitzstein to ask if he would collaborate with Stein in adapting Sean O’Casey’s 1924 play Juno and the Paycock into a musical for Broadway. Still licking his Reuben Reuben wounds, Blitzstein jumped at the chance.

Juno, Blitzstein’s only book musical to play Broadway, opened in 1959 with a miscast Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Booth in the lead roles, and ran for only 16 performances. But the production was recorded by Columbia Records’ Goddard Lieberson, and the show has lived ever since among theater aficionados in that nether-Valhalla of hallowed rejects of our bitch goddess Broadway. Two weeks ago New York City Center’s Encores! presented a striking “concert” revival of the piece that was de facto fully staged by brilliant Irish director Garry Hynes. Highlights were an earth mother performance by Victoria Clark, vigorous Agnes de Millean choreography by Warren Carlyle, and the first revival of the original 1959 Russell Bennett/Hershy Kay orchestrations (a 30-piece orchestra with 15 strings! Hallelujah, those were the days), wonderfully conducted by Eric Stern. All this for five performances, rehearsed in only nine days! A remarkable feat.

But though I have long been an unstinting admirer of much of Blitzstein’s music (I know a lot of it, the obscure as well as the familiar), and notwithstanding the strong case this presentation made for the material, I still find Juno, as I have for over 30 years, a classic object lesson for all composers (not just would-be composers of musicals): namely, what can happen when a composer trades his native voice for a chance to work and win. What I heard on March 29 was what I’ve heard at other revivals and on the 1959 album: a composer expunging from his music all his individual quirks in favor of the generic quality he thought the medium demanded. And it doesn’t work. Some other longhair composers had the same issue writing Broadway shows: Morton Gould, for example, in Arms and the Girl. Somehow Bernstein and Weill managed to straddle that fence, to be both commercial and themselves (though many doubt even that of the American Weill).

Blitzstein had been badly burned by the creative risks he took on Reuben Reuben, and here he was being immediately sought to write another musical for Broadway. He felt he had to conform, to play it safe, consciously or unconsciously. He tried to confine his writing to the stock formulas of Rodgers and Hammerstein, to write non-parodic 32-bar songs. (There exists a fascinating demo recording of Blitzstein himself singing and playing his Juno songs at the piano.) Despite its reputation, Juno is actually not at all adventurous musically (West Side Story, a commercial success, is much more so), nor, despite a couple pleasant tunes, memorably melodious. What its music is, however, is somber and earnest. And the unwashed ear in 1959, and the latter-day album connoisseur, listens and says, “Ah, somber, it must be elevated! Earnest, this makes it beautiful! Low in charm, this makes it adventurous!” More surprising for Blitzstein, his score has little acridity. He was far more charming, melodious, and harmonically interesting when he could be acrid, as in Cradle or Regina.

Blitzstein would have composed a much more interesting score had he had a free hand to write a Broadway opera in the style of Regina. (According to Blitzstein’s biographer Eric Gordon, Sean O’Casey was visited by Hugo Weisgall before Joseph Stein got the rights; O’Casey urged Weisgall to make an opera out of Juno and the Paycock.) For those of you who want to check out Blitzstein’s music unfiltered, there’s a YouTube video of his piano performance of his ballet score for the 1947 Jerome Robbins ballet The Guests.

I have always been of the party that felt that O’Casey’s language is profoundly musical in itself and that interpolating songs adds little to the drama. Nevertheless, I have to admit that the Encores! production enhanced my regard for the Stein-Blitzstein adaptation. In a panel discussion after the Saturday matinee, the almost 96-year-old Joseph Stein spoke movingly about the trials and tribulations of the original production and the successes of the Garry Hynes/Eric Stern production, which restored some material never used in the original score. Readers know that I consider all but the discreetest use of sound design in the theater an abomination, and I would have preferred to hear the Encores! orchestra without the jungle of mikes and loudspeakers. But one could hear that the mandolin is much more muted in the ensemble than the 1959 studio recording makes it out to be.

Still, stooping to conquer is a tricky strategy for a composer, and it backfired on the chronically unlucky Blitzstein. A composer needs to have a distinct voice and to be able to use it, for better and worse. Because it’s all he or she’s got—if they’ve got anything at all.

3 thoughts on “The Dilemma of the Composer Who Stoops To Conquer

  1. robteehan

    Well, for my money, a composer who sets out to “stoop to conquer” is not likely to succeed, because by using that phrase, he is starting out with the assumption that the task he is about to undertake is beneath him. I don’t think that composers who write in the classical tradition possess some innate skill, simply by virtue of their choice of tradition, that guarantees success in the commercial field. We in the New Music tradition tend to value music which is uniquely voiced or musically adventurous. But those characteristics do not, by themselves, make good commercial music. The Broadway tradition values music that, above all other considerations, supports and enhances the drama on stage (am I right?), just as the advertising industry is primarily interested in music that can trigger the emotional response that will persuade the listener to buy the product being advertised. Each of these examples requires a skill that must be learned – and it’s not taught in conservatories.

    If a classical composer wishes to ‘cross-over’ into Broadway with the expectation of steamrolling his way to the top – he must first make sure that he’s able to create music that fulfills this primary requirement of the tradition. If the music he creates is adventurous and unique, then more’s the better – but if this music is adventurous and unique without serving the drama, then he has failed. For us to call such a score – one with interesting music but dramatically a failure – ‘good music’ is to judge the music on standards foreign to its original conception. It may be ‘good music’ by our standards, but it’s not good composing.

    So, what I’m saying is that I find your closing statement – “A composer needs to have a distinct voice and to be able to use it, for better and worse. Because it’s all he or she’s got—if they’ve got anything at all” – troubling, because I think there is much more to writing music than simply having a distinct voice. We simply focus on this one characteristic because it is the primary criterion for excellence in our tradition. But composers who are lacking in this area can still earn a living writing music – they just have to compensate by learning the skills necessary to compose in other traditions, and while we may want to look down on such music as unoriginal, we should not assume that our ability to write original music grants us higher status in those other traditions in which originality is not as highly-valued a commodity. It seems to me that the best music in the commercial field is that which satisfies the requirements of its genre while still being musically innovative or adventurous (c.f. West Side Story).

    I don’t know if I’ll ever try to write Broadway musicals, or other commercial music. But if I do, I’m going to make sure that I do my homework and learn how that industry defines successful music. To do otherwise – to assume one’s uniqueness or originality alone is enough to ‘work and win’ – is to apply our habitual definition of success without respecting the different definitions of success that apply to different traditions. What’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander; perhaps this is what makes ‘stooping to conquer’ such a tricky proposition.

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  2. ljlehrman

    On April 7, 2008, Mark Grant wrote me:
    You may disagree with some of the things I said; you’re welcome to post any additional comments. It would be good to get your voice in there.
    Cheers,
    Mark N. G.

    Here is what I said at the Mar. 29 JUNO talkback I attended, at which I was recognized by the moderator, Jack Viertel, given a microphone, and invited to speak from the audience.

    Jack’s introduction:
    Also with us are two Blitzstein experts, who happen to be performers as well–and man and wife, which is very, you know, nice, because they can go around the country performing, and stay in one hotel room, I guess: Leonard Lehrman & Helene Williams who are here with us. (Applause) Leonard has been helpful in so many ways including that–much of this work was tinkered with in one way or another between its rehearsal process and its Boston opening, its Washington opening, its Boston opening, its New York opening, and what came after. And Leonard is the editor of Blitzstein’s work, and has had many, many things to contribute in terms of our finding authentic lyrics, authentic music, authentic routines for things. So thank you for that. We appreciate it. (Applause) We’re going to now take questions, but let me just hand this [mike] over to Leonard to say something quickly. We’re not going to stop him, so here he is!

    What I said:
    Thank you all for a gorgeous, gorgeous production. Thank you for bringing back “I Wish It So” as a reprise. (Applause) Remember I wrote you about that. That was not in the original version [only the sketches], but thank you for doing that. I’ve been crying every time you’ve done it. I want to tell you that there’s somebody else in the audience who was very important to the work of Marc Blitzstein: Donald Saddler. Would you stand? (He did, to much applause.) The program note on Marc Blitzstein noted that when he died he left incomplete TALES OF MALAMUD, which I completed. It did not note that his magnum opus, to use his own words, was SACCO AND VANZETTI, which I also completed. Donald Saddler directed it in August 2001 at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut, just weeks before 9/11, after which nobody wanted to do an opera where anarchists were the heroes and cops were the villains. But I hope that this will be a turnaround for Blitzstein’s fortune in this magnificent production, and that we’ll be seeing lots, lots more of him. Thank you.

    Later in the talkback an audience member asked Joe Stein and me to comment on earlier productions of the show since 1959 (in 1974, 1976, and 1992).

    What I did not get to say, but wrote to Jack in an email, after seeing the dress rehearsal Mar. 26 and reading Ben Brantley’s review in the Mar. 29 NY Times, was that I unfortunately had to agree with Brantley that “a credible portrait of a marriage” was missing from the Juno-Boyle duets in this production, in large measure because of the unfortunate excision of one of the best numbers in the show: “Quarrel Song.” Part of that number was used in the 1992 Vineyard Theatre production, but only part. I had asked Jack to introduce Helene & me as the only ones ever to perform that song complete, which we have done live many times, and on the 1990 Premier CD 2005 A Blitzstein Cabaret, band 11, in a version prepared for the 1974 Williamstown and 1976 Long Wharf productions with Geraldine Fitzgerald and Milo O’Shea, who however never sang it. You can find the song in The Marc Blitzstein Songbook v.2 pp. 104-113 (Boosey & Hawkes, 1999-2003). In that same volume, on pp. 115-127, and on the same recording, band 9, you can also find the complete “What Is the Stars,” only part of which was used in the Encores production because, Eric Stern told me Mar. 29 apologetically, “there just wasn’t time to make it work.”

    One more beautiful number written for the show, “Ireland’s Eye,” found its way into the Vineyard production but not this one. Greg Mercer sings it on the 2001 Original Cast Records CD OC-4441 “A Marc Blitzstein Songbook,” band 12, which also contains the only recording of “Farewell, Me Butty,” a number restored at both Vineyard and Encores. Both those numbers are printed in The Marc Blitzstein Songbook, v. 2, pp. 86-92 and 93-97, respectively.

    In response to Mark Grant’s remarks:
    It’s hardly fair to say that Blitzstein disdained Broadway. His THE CRADLE WILL ROCK and NO FOR AN ANSWER were the first two original cast Broadway albums. REGINA received better critical reviews on Broadway than it ever did in the opera house; just not enough to sustain a lengthy commercial run. The music of REUBEN REUBEN had another life, reworked by Blitzstein (and later by me) into other works of his, including the cantata THIS IS THE GARDEN and the opera SACCO AND VANZETTI. Mark Grant attended one of the White Barn performances of SACCO. Why he has never written a word about it, that I know of, is a mystery. Every critic who did attend and has written about it praised it. See http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/SaccoAndVanzetti.html and
    http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/NMCv10no1ltr.html

    It’s also not fair to imply that Blitzstein was being condescending in his musical language in JUNO. Since the 1930s, he had been a pioneer in the musical setting of simple and accented speech: proletarians, Poles, Greeks, Blacks, Italians, Jews, and in JUNO Irish. The dirge-like Hymn in Act II of JUNO is quite adventurous harmonically, and inspired Mary Donovan’s extremely dramatic scene in SACCO, Act III. Grant’s phrase “a couple pleasant tunes, memorably melodious” hardly does justice to a song like “I Wish It So” which is a standard that appears in the recorded recital library of virtually every university and conservatory in the country, not to mention being the title song of the wonderful crossover 1992 album Dawn Upshaw did with Eric Stern. “One Kind Word,” as sung by the character Jerry, originally created by Loren Driscoll, is so beautiful it prompted one listener to remark (Driscoll told me) that the show should be called JERRY instead of JUNO. Juno’s “Lament,” the music of which opens both acts, should be – and has been – sung by church choirs.

    One lack, also aptly noted by Brantley, is that of a number in which the title character can soar. “His Own Peculiar Charm,” written for Shirley Booth but cut, and transcribed & edited by me at Encores’ request (though not used by them either), is limited, as were Booth’s vocal resources. “Grand, O Grand,” written by Richard Maltby and Tom Fay for Geraldine Fitzgerald in 1976 for Long Wharf, is even more limited. It was a good idea to give Victoria Clark a solo verse in “The Liffey Waltz,” but she could have used another number written just for her. Had I been asked, then the composer Leonard Bernstein called “Marc Blitzstein’s dybbuk”–listen to http://audio.nextbook.org/podcast_feature335.mp3
    –would have written it for her.

    Grant mentions composer Hugo Weisgall as having expressed interest in setting O’Casey to music, but does not mention that Elie Siegmeister did so, settling on THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS – his own self-styled magnum opus – when JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was not available. I’m grateful to Grant for having pointed out the presence on YouTube (for about 4 months, I guess) of a video, not of Blitzstein playing, but of someone playing a 78RPM Concert Hall recording of Blitzstein playing, excerpts from his 1949 ballet with Jerome Robbins, THE GUESTS, aka SHOW, and a number of other working titles. I have recorded vitually all of the music from that ballet, along with a great deal of other Blitzstein music, in an album of his Complete Piano Music that has been sitting at a couple of recording companies’ offices since 2005, waiting for action.

    Interest in Blitzstein was widespread during his centennial year, 2005; that year my book, Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography was published by Praeger at Greenwood Press. 2009 will be Elie Siegmeister’s centennial. Already performances of his works are in the planning at BargeMusic, Great Neck House, the National Opera Association Convention in Washington DC., Great Neck Library, Massapequa Library, United Methodist Church of Huntington & Cold Spring Harbor, Bethpage Library, Downtown Music at St.-Marks-in-the-Bowery, Syosset Library, Hofstra University, Queens College, Brooklyn College, Columbia University, and throughout Colorado. Scarecrow is scheduled to publish the bio-bibliography, now in progress, of Elie Siegmeister. Shouldn’t someone consider mounting a revival of his opera, THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS?

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  3. MarkNGrant

    Blitzstein’s attitude to Broadway
    I am grateful that Leonard Lehrman, the leading expert on Blitzstein, made his post and furnished all the further information. I would only add that, regarding Blitzstein’s disdain for Broadway, I was told that in person by Trude Rittmann, who had long known Blitzstein well and who worked on Juno, in 1998, and I have her remark on a tape recording. She may have been referring to an expression of attitude Blitzstein made earlier in their acquaintance than 1959, however.

    As for the rest, I think I made clear in my first post above my genuine enthusiasm for most of Blitzstein’s music; I wrote about him highly admiringly in my book. I find Juno highly creditable as theater, but disappointing musically when compared to several of his other theater works. I for one find little comparison between his unique colloquial musical settings of, say, “Penny Candy” from No for an Answer or “The New Zipperfly” and his musical renderings of Irish colloquialism in Juno. But that’s just my opinion.

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