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A Golden Team, a Terrible Title and a Show That Vanished

A Golden Team, a Terrible Title and a Show That Vanished
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A Golden Team, a Terrible Title and a Show That Vanished

A Golden Group, a Horrible Title and a Present That Vanished

How do you prime “West Aspect Story”?

Should you’re Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, the reply is: You don’t.

Effectively, you attempt. Ten years after the composer, the lyricist and the director-choreographer of that present (together with its ebook author, Arthur Laurents) modified the musical theater with their modern tackle “Romeo and Juliet,” they rejoined forces to develop one other challenge.

The concept was Robbins’s. He thought that one in every of Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or educating performs, might make a great musical, being quick and pointed and fable-like. In 1967, he requested Sondheim to learn “The Measures Taken,” the primary in a group of 4 translations, for potential adaptation. When Sondheim balked, discovering the fabric too inert, Robbins advised him to learn the subsequent play within the ebook.

That one, “The Exception and the Rule,” is a couple of rapacious oil service provider (learn: capitalism) who races one other service provider throughout a desert to win a profitable deal. Accompanying him are a information and a porter; when the three get misplaced, and the porter (learn: exploited labor) tries to assist the service provider, the service provider misunderstands the gesture and shoots him. Naturally, being of the ruling class, he’s acquitted: Self-defense, the decide decides, applies even when the risk is imaginary.

Sondheim, desirous to work with Robbins, whom he known as “the one genius I had ever related to,” thought this story may work, despite the fact that he discovered most of Brecht, and particularly the educating performs, “insufferably simplistic.” In his ebook “Look, I Made a Hat,” he wrote that there was “an excessive amount of Lehr in every stück” — an excessive amount of educating in every play — “to carry my consideration.”

Certainly, his consideration waned after “taking a stab” at two songs. Giving up, he prompt that Robbins get Bernstein to put in writing each music and lyrics. However Robbins as an alternative requested Jerry Leiber, the phrase half of the pop songwriting staff of Leiber and Stoller, to work with the maestro. Although the odd couple did full some numbers, the present stalled out. Most do, normally for their very own good.

However “The Exception and the Rule,” because it was then known as, had a gleam of chance that saved it from dying utterly. Maybe it will be an exception itself, as “West Aspect Story,” which just about fell by way of a number of instances, was in its day.

What seemed like the important thing arrived when the playwright John Guare, then recognized for surreal way-off-Broadway comedies, joined up with a terrific concept for the difference.

The story would now happen in a tv studio the place the Brecht play is being readied for broadcast. The strain between the star actor enjoying the service provider (who was to be white) and the supporting actors enjoying the information and porter (who had been to be Black) would parallel the category paranoia of the inside scenes, whereas including a component of racial paranoia to the combo. Sondheim, noting that the Brecht could be chopped up by scenes set within the current, “and thus not be so relentlessly Brechtian,” rejoined the staff.

By April 1968, a New York Instances theater column trumpeted a January 1969 opening for the brand new musical. Later that 12 months, the producers introduced that the Broadway star Zero Mostel would play the lead. It appeared a mere glitch in its inevitable success when, in October, the present, budgeted at $600,000 and now bearing Bernstein’s terrible Spooneristic title “A Pray by Blecht,” was postponed till the next fall.

After which: nothing.

It was so lifeless that Bernstein, 9 years later, describing it as “a giant fantastic present that would have been,” obtained its title improper. He known as it “The Measures Taken.”

What occurred? In response to “Look, I Made a Hat,” by which Sondheim relates “nearly all” of the story, the golden collaboration was “no enjoyable in any respect”; he stepped away once more after he and Bernstein, who handled him as if he had been “nonetheless an apprentice” from “West Aspect Story” days, wrote eight songs. Robbins stop quickly thereafter: In the midst of auditions, he excused himself to Guare and Bernstein, left the theater and took off in a cab to Kennedy Airport.

Maybe it’s higher that some reveals ought to die in order that others may stay. After “A Pray by Blecht” collapsed, Sondheim went on nearly instantly to put in writing “Firm,” “Follies” and “A Little Night time Music.” Guare’s 1971 play “The Home of Blue Leaves” jump-started his profession. Bernstein and Robbins would every return to Broadway, albeit with blended success, whereas persevering with to excel in classical music and ballet.

But it was Robbins, the runaway, who couldn’t let the thought die. Within the spring of 1987, at Lincoln Middle Theater, he directed a multiweek workshop of a brand new model of the present known as “The Race to Urga.” Sondheim attended solely two rehearsals, which (he recalled in an electronic mail) had been inchoate and disorganized.

“I couldn’t inform something about it,” he wrote, “besides that it appeared (as I’d all the time thought it was) self-consciously Essential as an alternative of spontaneous and exuberant, which is the chief saving grace of any Brecht play (and was Brecht’s intention).”

Guare, who offered the required new lyrics, not too long ago declined to touch upon the expertise, having “closed the door” on it ages in the past.

One individual was joyful to remark, although: Zero Mostel’s son Josh. Within the 1987 workshop, he was solid (after Kevin Kline apparently withdrew) within the function initially meant for his father.

By the point the present was carried out for invited audiences in Could of that 12 months, he recalled, Robbins had given up on the white vs. Black theme; Joe Grifasi performed the information and Thomas Ikeda the porter, nonetheless sadly known as the “coolie.” However Brecht’s warning concerning the risks of limitless energy remained — and never simply within the coda, throughout which planted actors rose from the viewers to sing about revolution. Robbins himself was a warning about limitless energy.

“Working with Jerry was torture,” Mostel stated. “Thomas Ikeda actually handed out in my arms in rehearsal, from exhaustion. At our final present, Bernstein fell down the steps attempting to get out of there. Jerry was nasty even to Guare, a really candy man. He was so controlling and paranoid he wouldn’t inform us what time the performances had been till proper earlier than they began.

“However I’ve to say the songs had been good. And the ebook was among the finest of any musical I’d been in. Some pals introduced a 6-year-old to the present, and he stated, ‘Is that every one?’ — which is a fairly good evaluation. It ought to have moved ahead, and the explanation it didn’t is that nobody might stand Jerry.”

That’s a disgrace; a musical exploring the prerogatives of sophistication (and the ability imbalances inherent within the theater) could be exceedingly well timed now. At one level, Sondheim has a police officer sing proudly of his beat, “Thirty natives and all so quiet,” to which his companion replies, “Thirty-seven earlier than the riot.”

That’s a lyric that wants no alteration to work as satire, or tragedy — or at any fee a stageworthy little bit of Lehr — in 2020.

Subsequent in Unopened: The Bob Dylan musical that attempted to discover a manner — manner earlier than “Woman From the North Nation.”

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