Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Maybe That's Why We Always Wear Our Hats"

The artist who provides the dialogue, and often the overall structure, of a musical comedy is the unsung hero of the genre. It's said that he must be prepared to sacrifice every beautifully written word to the composer and lyricist, who are likely to boldly steal the librettist's words and put them into song. This week, we lost one of the giants of those red-headed step-children, the musical's book writers.

Joseph Stein


If it weren't for Zero Mostel, we may never have heard of Stein, who was one of the preeminent musical librettists of the 20th century. But he didn't start out that way. He was a social worker (he held a masters degree in the subject from Columbia) when a chance meeting with Mostel rerouted his life. At a party, Stein impressed Zero with his quick one-liners; the star encouraged Joe to submit material for use on the radio programs of the day. He contributed material for Henry Morgan, Tallulah Bankhead, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason, before landing a writing gig on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. He joined Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and Larry Gelbart as alumni of that fertile training ground, and made his first Broadway contribution to the revue Lend An Ear. In 1954, he was asked to write the book for a new musical in the vein of Oklahoma, but taking place in Pennsylvania. You might not think that a musical about the Amish would amount to much, but Plain and Fancy had a healthy run of several years, and is still remounted annually at the Round Barn Theatre at Amish Acres in Indiana, where it has topped 3000 performances.

Joesph Stein is remembered most famously for taking a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem, written in Yiddish, about a Jewish milkman living in poverty in Czarist Russia, and creating a blockbuster.

Everyone was sure Fiddler on the Roof was folly; no one believed such a specific story, with such Jewish overtones, would appeal to the mainstream audience of 1964. Everyone was wrong. Fiddler went on to become the longest running musical in Broadway history, until it was overtaken by Grease!, and has seen four Broadway revivals and a film version.

(The above is from the most recent revival, with its replacement cast of Andrea Martin and Harvey Fierstein)

The original production was nominated for a whopping 10 Tonys, winning all but one (guess Boris Aronson had an off-night), with Joe winning for Best Musical and Best Book. Along with the song-writing team of Bock and Harnick, Stein created a very specific story of a man attempting to hold onto traditions in a changing, sometimes brutal world. The themes are universal, and Fiddler on the Roof is surely one of the masterpieces of American Musical Theatre.

Stein's other work is often overshadowed by the monster success of Fiddler, and he had his share of moderate hits and downright flops. He provided Mr. Wonderful as a starring vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. (who put his father and uncle in the show; the thin book reflected the show's real purpose: to showcase Davis's nightclub act), and he retooled an old musical from the 20s, Irene, as a vehicle in which Debbie Reynolds, already an established musical star, made her Broadway debut (an unknown Carrie Fisher, Debbie's daughter, also made her Broadway debut in Irene, in the chorus). Stein turned Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, Ah, Wilderness, into the musical Take Me Along, which won a Tony for Jackie Gleason and featured a young Robert Morse in the cast.

Some of Stein's missteps included a misguided effort to turn Sean O'Casey's Irish melodrama Juno and the Paycock into a musical; Juno lasted only two weeks in 1959. Our hero spent many years involved with various incarnations of Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing, as script writer for the play, the film, and for its musical version, So Long, 174th Street. The musical, with Robert Morse in the lead and with Rita Rudner, of all people, in the cast, lasted only 16 performances in 1976, but recent tinkering with the piece has had some success. The Off-Broadway York Theatre presented a revival last year, returning the show to its original title, Enter Laughing, and issuing a cast album. The show has been announced for a Broadway transfer.

Stein was the book writer for a musical version of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which had its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Virginia in 1999.
At the time, the show was called Over and Over; I saw the production and can attest to They had Kander and Ebb writing the music, and Stein of course adapting source material which had won the Pulitzer, its cast included Broadway legend Dorothy Loudon and livewire comic Mario Cantone:

Stage stalwart David Garrison did his best, though original star Bebe Neuwirth bolted (or was fired, who knows?) from the production during rehearsal and was replaced by an unknown named Sherie Rene Scott, only a year before she took Broadway by storm in Aida (she gave the strongest performance in the show). But the creative team just could not get the thing to work. It continues to be retooled, and received a full production at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2007, under the title All About Us.

Stein had two quite famous flops back-to-back in the late 80s. Rags lasted only four performances, a victim, everyone says, of massive overproduction by director Harold Prince. Joe's next project, The Baker's Wife, has become such a legendary failure that star Patti Lupone devotes a chapter to it in her memoir. She has frequently quipped that, if Hitler had lived, a suitable punishment for his crimes would be to put him on the road with a musical in trouble, and The Baker's Wife was that musical. The problem seemed to be infighting among the creators, though the stars had their problems, too. Lupone clashed with Israeli star Topol, who had earned an Oscar nomination playing Fiddler's Tevye on film, but who was, apparently, a pig. He was originally hired to play the male lead and toured with the show during its lengthy tryout period; once Topol was sacked, Lupone had just as much trouble with his replacement, Paul Sorvino. As for book writer Stein, he was never able to create a viable way to turn its source material, a French film, into a workable stage script. Lupone reports that, during the show's pre-Broadway stop at the Kennedy Center, The Baker's Wife took the record for the smallest audience ever to attend a performance there. In a house seating 2700, only 25 people showed up. After that catastrophe, the show closed, never having reached Broadway.

But not every attempt Stein made to transfer a film into a musical ended so disastrously. In 1968, while Fiddler was still packing them in, he teamed with Kander and Ebb to turn Zorba the Greek into a stage musical. It was also a hit, and Joe lived long enough to learn that a revival is currently being planned with Antonio Banderas in the lead. Zorba was Stein's favorite work, and he often used the philosophy of the show as his own:

"Life is what you do until the day that you die, so you better make use of all of it."

Joseph Stein died this week as a result of a head injury sustained during a fall. He was 98.