DO YOUR OWN THING By Peter Filichia
If you’re attending that musical version of TWELFTH NIGHT on December 12, you can forget about seeing Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch.
When Donald Driver, Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar adapted Shakespeare’s 1601 hit, they dropped two of The Bard’s most famous comic characters. They even had the cheek to drop Sir Andrew Aguecheek, too.
So, considering that they certainly did their own thing with the classic comedy, YOUR OWN THING was an apt title. In their title tune, Hester and Apolinar (who teamed on both music and lyrics) established that they would not slavishly adhere to convention. “It makes no difference who turns away and frowns at you,” they insisted.
Perhaps they were assuming that by playing fast and loose with Shakespeare, theater critics would indeed turn away, frown and do worse after they had left the Orpheum Theatre on January 13, 1968.
On the contrary, after the season had concluded, the New York Drama Critics Circle named YOUR OWN THING the Best Musical of 1967-68. This was only the second time an off-Broadway musical emerged the winner. (THE GOLDEN APPLE was the first to be so honored.)
However, YOUR OWN THING did make history as the first off-Broadway musical to land a movie sale. A cool $500,000 passed hands – equivalent to $4.2 million today.
Alas, no movie happened. The sale was made just before cinematic versions of PAINT YOUR WAGON, FINIAN’S RAINBOW and STAR! would all underwhelmingly perform. Once they had failed to paint a rainbow of starry reviews and met a wagonload of pans and rows of empty seats, no studio would film it.
Although Masterworks Broadway has had the original cast album readily available, the show otherwise never had much visibility after its 937-performance run and national tour. In 1976, when Martin Gottfried, theater critic for the New York Post, reviewed another musical based on Shakespeare — one ROCKABYE HAMLET — he pointed out that TWELFTH NIGHT had yielded not one but two musicals in one season: LOVE AND LET LOVE, a 14-performance flop that had opened 10 days before YOUR OWN THING, was the other. Gottfried stated that the earlier one was forgotten before amending his sentence to add that YOUR OWN THING was forgotten, too.
Well, yes and no. Red Bull Theater has remembered it and will give it that aforementioned December 12 concert version at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Space. It’ll be a fond look-back at a time when young people began wearing a riot of colors, as is substantiated by the show’s artwork of orange and fuchsia.
The concert stars Lilli Cooper, Santino Fontana and Lesli Margherita, but there will be “special appearances” by Michael Cerveris, Robert Cuccioli, Tovah Feldshuh (on her night off from FUNNY GIRL), Richard Kind, Ken Page – who’s not to be confused with Patrick Page, who in fact will be there, too. So will Estelle Parsons, Jay O. Sanders, Mary Testa, John Douglas Thompson and Bruce Vilanch.
Here’s betting that these people will replace the then-innovative slides that projected the likenesses of then-famous celebrities (Senator Everett Dirksen) and still-famous celebrities (God). The Supreme Being, in fact, ended the show by asking His son what many fathers were asking their progeny in 1968: “When are You gonna get a haircut?”
Driver directed, too. As for his book credit, well, much of what he and Hester did was edit. They took a fair amount of dialogue verbatim from Shakespeare. Pity the Bard! First, no mention at all on any WEST SIDE STORY window card, three-sheet or cast album; then here, no one thought to name him co-librettist, which he in essence was.
As in the original comedy, the musical starts with TWELFTH NIGHT’s shipwreck, but Driver added another conflict: Viola and Sebastian have a brother-sister singing act, so she wants to return to the ship to save their orchestrations while Sebastian is more intent on saving himself. Their fight makes each declare “No One’s Perfect, Dear,” which leads to Sebastian – not Viola, mind you – returning for the charts while she arrives safely in Illyria without him.
Viola then sings that Illyria (read: Manhattan) has a dearth of “Flowers” in this canyon of skyscrapers. She wonders, “Can I ever call this place home?”
For that matter, can Sebastian, who does get to Illyria, as well? But in an era where unisex fashions were the rage, that they dress alike adds a nuance to Shakespeare’s mistaken identity.
As for Olivia, in this version, she runs a disco — and runs away from any reminder that she’s 30. Hence the bittersweet song “The Middle Years.” Yes, that birthday is, as many of us will attest, the first one to which we don’t look forward.
Orsino is now simply Orson, a talent agent who believes in a new group called The Four Apocalypse. Make that Three; although band members Famine, War and Death have thus far avoided the draft, Disease isn’t as lucky.
The real names of the three remaining band members are Danny, Michael and John – all named for the performers who played them.
Danny was in fact Danny Apolinar, who must have enjoyed the immediate gratification of hearing audiences wildly applaud his music and lyrics eight times a week.
Perhaps his success spurred both Michael Valenti and John Kuhner to write musicals as well. Alas, Valenti was plagued by bad luck and worse books; the longest run of his three Broadway musicals was a mere four performances. And yet, when musical theater aficionados get together, it’s a rare confab where someone doesn’t mention Valenti’s expert way with melody.
At least he got to Broadway. John Kuhner co-wrote a musical called JESUS CHRIST ALMIGHTY that was optioned not long before two young Englishmen made a concept album that employed the first two words of Kuhner’s title. That was enough for producer Richard Barr to drop the project.
(The irony here is that Barr co-produced the 1962-63 Tony-winning play by Edward Albee that started with the words “Jesus Christ,” albeit interrupted with a middle initial that has never been substantiated as Jesus’ actual one.)
The reviews favored Leland Palmer and Rusty Thacker as Viola and Sebastian – “which made Donald very jealous,” says Leland Palmer – or should we say Linda Posner? That’s her real name, and the one to which she returned after leaving show business. “People I knew in those days will tell you that the role I really wanted to play was that of a mother in real life.” Posner did add that role to her resume, as her daughter Pearl will attest.
When YOUR OWN THING received its first sit-down production at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston in late 1968, distinguished theater critic Elliot Norton pointed out that, for all the talk of a forward-looking musical, YOUR OWN THING’s song titles didn’t seem revolutionary: “When You’re Young and in Love,” “Don’t Leave Me,” and “What Do I Know?” True enough, but the first is a fetching jazz waltz; the second is a tender ballad while the third is a rock-infused one.
Finally, every self-respecting musical even in the early era of disco would be dutybound to include in its score a new dance that “everybody” is doing. So, submitted for your approval is “The Hunca Munca.” It’s sung by The Apocalypse (and Sebastian, who’s replaced Disease).
The dance is described as “hypo, micro, psychedelic,” although it’s not one of those songs that tells you how to do it (a la “The Varsity Drag,” which instructs “Down on your heels! Up on your toes!” or “Time Warp,” where we’re told “It’s just a jump to the left and then a step to the right”).
Who knows? When you hear it, you might just be moved to do your own thing and do your own dance.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.