I was a little shocked while watching Charlotte Moore’s splendid revival of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
I wasn’t surprised that J. Smith Cameron was sensational as Juno, the housewife who’s unlucky to be living in a Civil War-torn Ireland in 1922. That Juno is married to “Captain Jack,” a wastrel drunk (magnificently played by Ciarán O’Reilly) doesn’t help. Making matters worse is that her son (the effective Ed Malone) has already lost an arm in the conflict. Her daughter Mary (intelligently rendered by Mary Mallen) was doing well until she and her co-workers went on strike.
Mary has quite the admirer in Jerry Devine (a fine David O’Hara), but she’s unable to return the feelings. As a fan of Marc Blitzstein’s 1959 musical version — simply called Juno – I knew this moment from the lovely song “One Kind Word,” which is what Jerry claims he wants from Mary.
She’s smarter than he. As Joseph Stein’s excellent dialogue reveals mid-song, Mary says, “There’s no ‘someone else,’ Jerry. At least I haven’t met up with him yet. You won’t be long finding a girl far better than I for your sweetheart. And someone willing to take you as you are. I’m just not as fond of you as you’d like me to be. And I’d be deceiving you if I told you different. And that’s the whole of it. Oh, Jerry, it’s not just a drop of kindness you’re after. I don’t think you need me or anyone that much. I’m not that deep in your heart, Jerry. And if you don’t know it, I do. I can’t give you what you want, and you won’t be happy with” – “one kind word,” Jerry sings again, ending the song in simple sadness.
Barely a word of that lovely speech shows up in O’Casey’s play. Instead, Jerry throws himself in front of the door to prevent Mary from leaving and roughly grabs her arm. He says he saw her with someone else, and we see he’s been stalking her. Not until her father walks in does he pretend that he hasn’t been as aggressive — and now he asks for “one kind word.”
Jerry is suddenly sensitive only because he wants to keep Captain Jack from realizing how violent he is. And while this scene is quite effective in the play, Blitzstein was wise to soften the moment in song.
There are many magnificent moments in Juno. The overture is full of stirring music that suggests “something’s coming, something ominous.” Then comes a stirring anthem for the Irish survivors: “We’re Alive,” they sing — just before one of them is shot dead. Audiences were being warned early that Juno wouldn’t be like Redhead, the most recent Broadway musical to open. Give credit to Columbia record producer Goddard Lieberson; he left the gunshot on the album to let his listeners know this wasn’t an ordinary musical comedy.
Both theater audiences and home listeners were probably more comfortable with “I Wish It So,” Mary Boyle’s beautiful song of longing for Mr. Right. “Someone’s bound to come,” Mary sings, “because I wish it so” — showing a naivete that won’t serve her well in the future. Noted critic Ken Mandelbaum has literally heard tens of thousands of theater songs in his lifetime, but he always lists “I Wish It So” as his all-time favorite. But he doesn’t stop there: Mandelbaum, in his landmark book Not Since Carrie, states that “Blitzstein’s score is the greatest ever heard in a post-war flop.”
Juno’s “Song of the Ma” is a waltz in which she rues that as her children grow, “the ma grows smaller and smaller until there’s hardly anything left at all.” Be careful what you wish for, Juno; your kids will soon need you quite a bit.
Meanwhile, Captain Jack is at the pub with his cronies, all of whom do a quick drunker reel in “We Can Be Proud.” That’s followed by a tuneful strut in which Jack’s best friend Joxer leads all the others in a tribute to a “Daarlin’ Man,” reminding us that in this culture, the word “darlin’” isn’t considered effeminate, but a perfectly respectable masculine adjective.
Juno is not happy that her spouse is soused. “Old Sayin’s” is fascinating because it’s really two songs in one. The “first song” starts with a complaint from Jack: “Why can’t you be like a woman ought to be, spoiling her man?” There are three such volleys, in which Juno always has a smart answer for him, to which he insists “You’re changin’ the subject!” Then the “second song” takes over in which Jack cites “old sayin’s” that prove a wife should be subservient to her husband. Juno wittily responds to each, though Jack feels she’s bending the rules by quoting something “That’s not a sayin’.”
Given that Jack claims to have an extensive nautical background, Blitzstein gives him a sea chanty, “What Is the Stars?” Here, Jack makes us doubt him, when he tells of his adventures on “the Antanarctic Ocean.” More comedy is in store with “You Poor Thing,” where Juno’s four neighbors try to one-up each other on personal tragedies. One widow proclaims, “Once you’ve had it, you can miss it.” The others rebut with such sentiments as “he beats me,” before complaining “but he hasn’t laid a hand on me in weeks.” Another says, “When they locate a strange disease, it’s me they find it in.” For these people, it’s “comedy tomorrow at best, tragedy tonight and every night.”
But then, out of the blue, lawyer Charlie Bentham shows up at the Boyles to tell them of a large and unexpected inheritance from an obscure relative. Well, that leads to the marvelous “On a Day Like This” complete with terrific Irish jig dance music. Ah, characters in musicals sure know how to dance when they come into money, don’t they? (Remember “We’ll Take a Glass Together” in Grand Hotel?) Meanwhile, Mary falls in love with Charlie, in a lovely soprano offering “My True Heart.”
Act Two offers more happiness with “Music in the House” after Jack brings home a gramophone. Blitzstein gives back a nifty parody of those overly sentimental Irish-tenor bits in “It’s Not Irish.” (“Just remember your duty to your mother.”) Matters become more joyous in “The Liffy Waltz,” named for an Irish river.
But this show can’t stay happy. There’s a stirring “Hymn,” an introspective “Johnny,” in which the Boyle’s son faces his day of reckoning. Has a character ever had a more beautiful song about a tragedy than Mary does in “For Love”? Juno has her own serious misfortune in “Where?” another powerful song.
And yet, Juno, Captain Jack and Mary manage to survive. “We’re Alive” closes the show – and through the years has proved to be a strong metaphor for the original cast album that has kept the show alive.
You can’t find many cast albums with a leading lady who won an Oscar, two Emmys and three Tonys (Shirley Booth as Juno). Ditto a future Tony- and double Emmy- and Oscar-winner (Melvyn Douglas as Captain Jack). How about a future three-time Emmy-winner (Jean Stapleton) as one of the “poor things” and a future Tony-winner (Sada Thompson) as another? Directing was Jose Ferrer, who’d won five Tonys and one Oscar – but none came from directing a musical. Choreographer Agnes DeMille had won one Tony (and would have won at least two others had the award been around earlier); Juno’s five lead producers had won six Pulitzer Prizes among them.
And yet, after opening on March 9, 1959, the show ran all of sixteen performances. When Juno closed on March 21, the paint trumpeting the show on the vast Winter Garden sign was hardly even dry. The Tony committee didn’t give it a single nomination.
That Juno was a quick failure haunted Joseph Stein, for he’d initiated the property. He’d traveled to England to secure the rights from O’Casey, who’d long abandoned Ireland as a place to live. Stein did wind up convincing him that a musical could work. “That My Fair Lady had become a smash from an unlikely source helped convince him,” Stein once told me. “But I always felt terrible at how it turned out.”
At least Stein would recover, win a Tony and reap a bonanza from another unlikely-source musical five years later: Fiddler on the Roof. And yet, much of the Juno score could also be called a wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles.