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.