“How could a musical that boasted what many have called Blitzstein’s most melodic, accessible music have failed?”
So asked Jeff Godsey in 2007. He was writing a paper on the 1959 musical JUNO for a historiography class at The University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He shared it with me, and I’m glad he did, for we all want to know more about JUNO – the first musical to run only two weeks and still receive a recording.
Godsey titled his paper A DAARLIN’ SHOW, partly because DAARLIN’ MAN was the original title of this musical version of Sean O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. It came from the song in which Joxer Daly flatters his Dublin drinking buddy Jack Boyle.
It’s a fine song among many, bolstering Godsey’s question. Marc Blitzstein had written the controversial THE CRADLE WILL ROCK and the opera REGINA (based on THE LITTLE FOXES), both of which failed to sell many tickets.
What thrived, however, was Blitzstein’s 1954 adaptation of THE THREEPENNY OPERA that would become off-Broadway’s longest-running show (until THE FANTASTICKS surpassed it). But Broadway? Godsey said “In order for Blitzstein to reach a larger audience, he would have to focus on creating a big, integrated, Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical.”
Yet there was nothing R&H about REUBEN, REUBEN, a 1955 musical whose hero was literally unable to speak in most situations. Doesn’t sound like a character who sings, does it? REUBEN, REUBEN didn’t last much longer than it takes to eat a Reuben sandwich: twelve days in Boston.
Meanwhile, Joseph Stein began thinking that O’Casey’s play, “lent itself peculiarly to musical treatment because its language soared and sang.” He wrote O’Casey, who said he knew nothing of musicals except that he’d heard of this just-opened show MY FAIR LADY. So Stein went to Torquay, England to visit him and brought a copy of the FAIR LADY cast album – only to find that the playwright didn’t own a phonograph.
That’s surprising, considering that a gramophone figures prominently in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. When Jack is told he’s come into money, it’s one of the first luxury items he purchases.
Blitzstein biographer Eric A. Gordon stated that “Fortunately, Stein was able to describe his vision … vividly enough to sell O’Casey on the idea.” May we assume that Stein’s persuasive arguments included “And considering that your play has a gramophone, there’s a natural place for song and dance”?
Hence, “Liffey’s Waltz,” which, as Godsey wrote, “set a whole Dublin tenement rocking on its heels and skipping under bridges” – at least for a few minutes. “It’s stopped cold by the spectral entrance of a widow on the way to her son’s funeral.”
That’s JUNO for you. It takes place in the early twenties when Ireland fought England for independence. Juno and Jack’s son Johnny lost an arm in battle. Their daughter Mary will wind up pregnant and abandoned.
According to Gordon, Blitzstein – who’d once been an avowed Communist – “felt right at home with O’Casey’s Marxist humanism and with his tragic vision of life” as well as the play’s look at “imperialism, violence, the place of women in society, alcoholism, and political commitment.”
What excited Blitzstein didn’t enthrall Will Glickman who had collaborated with Stein on books and revue material on six previous Broadway shows. Glickman “insisted on a happy ending,” wrote Godsey. When his colleagues refused, he resigned, leaving Stein to write his first-ever solo libretto. (His next such attempt would be FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.)
Blitzstein sent songs to the O’Caseys as he wrote them.” Mrs. O’Casey wrote “I found ‘Bird Upon the Tree,’ ‘One Kind Word,’ ‘I Wish It So,’ ‘You’re the Girl’ all very catching and charming. ‘Quarrel Song’ is grand and clever lyric.” O’Casey himself added “I listened the other night to the BBC Third Program giving Poulenc’s ‘Chanson Francaises’ and when they ended I ejaculated, ‘Well, the music of JUNO is as good as that.’ Eileen, who was listening too, adding ‘Better; a lot better.’”
Godsey quoted Gordon’s information that I’ve seen nowhere else: “O’Casey became so intrigued with the project that he wrote the lyrics for Boyle and Joxer’s duet ‘What Is the Stars?’ and Juno’s ‘Song of the Ma.’”
But who’d produce? New-kid-on-the-block David Merrick had found JUNO “too morbid.” Eventually The Playwrights Company sponsored the show (and Carol Channing invested).
Garson Kanin and Peter Hall were considered as directors before Tony Richardson, who’d staged the groundbreaking LOOK BACK IN ANGER, was signed along with Agnes de Mille as choreographer.
Godsey related casting difficulties. Rosalind (WONDERFUL TOWN) Russell turned them down. Tony and Academy-Award winner Shirley Booth was approached, and while she didn’t feel she was right for Juno, she said she’d think about it. So Thelma Ritter (a recent Tony-winner for NEW GIRL IN TOWN) and Uta Hagen were considered before Booth finally agreed.
All hoped that Danny Kaye would play Joxer – especially if he’d be able to get his friend (which may be a euphemism) Laurence Olivier to play Jack. No from both. The role was also offered to James Cagney, who said he’d be happy to play it – when the film was made.
Also considered for Jack was Ernest Borgnine. Wouldn’t it have been something if he and Ethel Merman had done JUNO? She would have been right for the part, so the two could have met, fallen in love and marr – oh, never mind.
Eventually, Melvyn Douglas was cast as Jack and Jack MacGowran as Joxer. Carroll O’Connor and Pat Harrington, Jr. who’d reach great success in TV’s ALL IN THE FAMILY and ONE DAY AT A TIME, were asked to be their understudies. Both took other jobs.
In fact, O’Connor took two – not only understudy in the Broadway play GOD AND KATE MURPHY, but also as its assistant stage manager. It too was set in Ireland, but it lasted not even as long as JUNO: twelve performances.
But someone else who’d be connected with ALL IN THE FAMILY did join JUNO: Jean Stapleton, the future Edith Bunker, would play a neighbor of the Boyles.
Names we know from 110 IN THE SHADE, THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER and HELLO, DOLLY! – respectively Inga Swenson, Florence Henderson and Eileen Brennan – auditioned for Mary before the creators chose opera singer Monte Amundsen. For Johnny, Tommy Rall, later in MILK AND HONEY, bested Bobby Van, who’d a dozen years later have a great success with NO, NO NANETTE.
Richardson resigned only two months before rehearsals would start. He’d committed himself to directing OTHELLO at Stratford-upon-Avon, but Paul Robeson, first choice to play The Moor, would do it only if the schedule were changed.
Richardson had to oblige. He wrote to Blitzstein, “I believe in your wonderful, original and daring work more than I can say and it really is the greatest disappointment in the theatre that I have ever had that I can’t do it.”
So the producers hired Vincent J. Donehue, who’d have a great success later in 1959 with THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Godsey reports via Gordon that “he coddled Booth, who needed strong direction. She exasperated the cast and crew; de Mille wanted her replaced.”
Worse, “Donehue did not get along with Jack MacGowran at all, and MacGowran became quite outspoken.” In describing a rehearsal, we’ll clean up what MacGowran’s biographer Jordan R. Young reported by using an Irish euphemism for a profanity:
“‘Just a feckin’ minute,’ said MacGowran, in a broad Dublin accent. There was dead silence in the house. He turned and looked at them from the stage. ‘There’s not a feckin’ one o’ you down there that knows a feckin’ thing about Sean O’Casey or this feckin’ play. You’ve no feckin’ conception o’ what the play says, o’ what the man is sayin’, o’ what the actors should be sayin’. Now would you kindly decide which feckin’ one o’ you is gonna direct this feckin’ mess, and then let me know – and I’ll do whatever the feck he says!’”
When the producers confronted both during the Boston tryout, Young wrote “MacGowran looked at Donehue and said, ‘Sack him, not me.’”
(Not right away.)
When JUNO opened in Washington in January, 1959, Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post saw “grand moments.” While noting that “Booth and Douglas do very neatly with their patter songs,” he did stress that “it is something of a relief to hear Monte Amundsen, the ingénue, sound out with a few silvery notes.”
Although Jay Carmody of the Evening Star praised Blitzstein’s music for being more melodic than it had ever been, he questioned the need for musicalizing O’Casey. This wouldn’t be the only time this observation would be made.
Meanwhile in Boston, Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman (who obviously knew Blitzstein from REGINA) were working on CANDIDE. Nevertheless, they came to Washington to give advice. Hellman thought the show would be fine before adding “Will somebody come to Boston and help with CANDIDE?”
That’s where JUNO played in February. Although Melvin Maddocks of the Christian Science Monitor cited the success of merging musical comedy and musical drama, the other critics echoed Carmody in questioning a musical of this play.
Still, Elinor Hughes of the Boston Herald loved the leads; Cyrus Durgin of the Boston Globe thought it “a pleasant enough evening.” Peggy Doyle of the Boston Evening American stressed what the other three critics had noted: Tommy Rall’s dance of frustration at a good friend’s murder at the hands of the British was riveting.
Not long before JUNO arrived on Broadway, Jose Ferrer replaced Donehue.
Godsey was mystified by John McClain of the New York Journal-American’s review that said “the musical was no fun but then he proceeded to list every aspect of the show as positive.” Although Godsey admitted that the reviews were not uniformly affirmative, he found some good nuggets. Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times “loved ‘We’re Alive,’ the opening number, writing that it epitomized the strength and fury of O’Casey’s original.”
Of Richard Watts, Jr. in the Post: “Everyone knows that there is no finer actress extant than Shirley Booth, and she is an admirable Juno … Melvyn Douglas is effective as the Paycock, but I thought there was more of the O’Casey comic spirit in the Joxer of Jack MacGowran.” Thomas Dash of Women’s Wear Daily went further, saying that Douglas gave the performance of his career and that MacGowran delivered the character performance of the season.
(Vincent Donehue must have loved reading those opinions. But MacGowran and Douglas must have concluded that Dash was a daarlin’ man.)
All raved about Rall’s dance, but Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune, described it best: “With fire in his eye and no real hope in his heart, he decides that he will stomp the earth into some sound of gayety. Tommy Rall’s frantic feet now flail and stammer at happier rhythms; choreographer Agnes de Mille gives him a bewildered girl or two to clutch at; and the simultaneous presence of rippling meter and mournful mood is achieved. Nothing in the evening is better.”
The dance is lost to us; its music is not. The cast album made room for “Johnny,” played by a powerful orchestra.
Godsey calls the recording “an extraordinarily beautiful cast album that has caused many a musical theatre fan to shake his head in confusion, wondering how such a beautiful musical could have flopped.” He quotes Ken Mandelbaum (in NOT SINCE CARRIE) stating that Blitzstein’s score was “the greatest ever heard in a postwar flop.”
And Godsey isn’t above noting that this was the era of CANDIDE and THE GOLDEN APPLE.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.