Friday, January 20, 2012

Obscure Musicals: "Golden Boy"

This one is less obscure than some of the other shows I've written about on this site. It had a run that normally qualifies a musical as a hit: 569 performances. But it didn't make money, one of two shows in 1964 that ran over 500 performances and lost money (the other was What Makes Sammy Run?, which I've written about before). This had never happened before around 1961, and it was a sign of the new economic gap on Broadway, where the profits in a smash hit were greater than ever, but there was no money to be made in a musical that wasn't a smash.

The young producer of Golden Boy, Hillard Elkins, decided to make a musical from Clifford Odets's play. His idea was that if the Italian-American boxer from the original play were changed to an African-American, he could have a timely show, and a great vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr. Odets was signed to write the show, and for the score, Elkins got Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who had done one hit (Bye Bye Birdie) and one flop (All American). According to Strouse's autobiography, Put On a Happy Face, one of Davis's conditions for signing was that he would have approval of every song in the show. "This was the kind of agreement," Strouse writes, "I would advise any author or composer to decline."

Odets died after writing the show but before it was ready to go out (Wikipedia says that he died during the tryout, but he actually died some time before), and it's a sign of Golden Boy's tryout problems that going into tryouts without a writer was not one of its top problems. After Paddy Chayefsky turned him down, Elkins got William Gibson (Two For the Seesaw, The Miracle Worker) to take over on the road. Gibson didn't care much for musicals, but he considered Odets a friend and mentor, and found the original play still powerful. During the tryout, while Gibson, Strouse and Adams were rewriting, the original director stepped down: Peter Coe, one of several hot British directors named Peter (Glenville and Brook and Hall were the others), fell out with Davis and left. Gibson asked Arthur Penn, who had staged The Miracle Worker and Two For the Seesaw, to take over, and Penn did; it was the only Broadway musical he ever got credit for directing, though he was fired from a couple of others.

Gibson's rewriting of the show required that it move farther away from Odets's play. Odets's original draft changed the race of the lead character but otherwise, apparently, stuck fairly close to what he had written earlier: a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, whose parents would prefer him to go into a culturally-respectable line of work, decides to get into boxing as a way of making a fast buck. Davis felt that the show was not timely enough, didn't deal forthrightly enough with contemporary race issues, and tiptoed around the interracial romance between his character and the character of Lorna (Paula Wayne). All of these criticisms were correct, and all of them Gibson and Penn tried to fix, trying to sharpen the interracial romance theme and take Davis's suggestions on how to make the show reflect the real black experience. By the time the show came in, it was the first musical that ever dealt with these issues in anything but a superficial way.

The big production number, "Don't Forget 127th Street," was the most conventional Broadway number in the show, and yet it was a sign of how different it was: a big song-and-dance set piece where the star is celebrated by the ensemble, it is sort of this show's "Hello, Dolly!," except that it's bitter, sardonic, and mocks the whole idea (not unfamiliar in musicals) of poor people being content with their lot and loving the slum where they live. This is a production number about, and against, the happy world of Broadway production numbers. It also shares a certain autobiographical resonance with other moments in the show; this one was seen almost as Davis's response to charges that he had sold out by "sipping champagne with high class white friends."

So Davis was influencing the show in the right direction a lot of the time, and he was, of course, Sammy Davis -- a big draw and an incredibly talented man, if a bit too old for the part. But the trouble with a star having veto power over everything that happens in a show is that stars have to be as concerned with their own image as with what's right for the show: the show will end, but the star's brand has to remain intact. So much of what happened in the show was geared to allow Davis to show off the things he could do, and that his fans expected him to do. Elliot Lawrence, the musical director, recalled that Davis's entourage kept telling him "you're not doing enough of this, you're not doing enough of that."

So tough and serious moments stood shoulder-to-shoulder with moments that could have come from Davis's nightclub act (his previous musical, Mr. Wonderful, had literally incorporated his club act as part of the evening). This seems to have gone on more as the show went on; a reference to Bing Crosby in one of the songs was turned into a Dean Martin shout-out at some point.

Strouse, who saw Golden Boy as his chance to really stretch himself as a composer, was frustrated with what he saw as Davis's smoothing-out of the music. Particularly Davis's first number, "Night Song," Strouse's own favorite song and possibly the best in the show. Strouse felt it was an art song, but Davis wouldn't sing it that way, threw out several arrangements, and finally wound up doing it as a fairly conventional I-want introductory song. "I couldn't help feeling that, somewhere along the way, my harmonies and rhythms were washed and dried out in that bright-shiny-money-back-guaranteed washing machine known as Sammy Davis Jr.," Strouse complained. "Was it my imagination, or did it sound like he could have been singing almost any song?" On the other hand, Strouse has also admitted that the number worked the way Davis did it, that people seemed to like it.

There was a lot else to like in the show, including an opening number that Penn helped craft. "We changed it into a number where someone was punching a bag to one rhythm, someone else was shadow-boxing to another rhythm, someone else was skipping rope, and so on," he recalled. As a number that relied almost entirely on rhythm -- musical, verbal and physical -- it was like a more serious version of "Rock Island" from The Music Man, and an acknowledged highlight of the show. The cast album can only preserve the audio portion of it, but at least that's something.

The final version that came into Broadway was one that didn't shy away from controversy or innovation, but it wasn't a unified show: it had been so frantically reworked during tryouts and provoked such divergent audience reactions (sometimes from night to night) that there was a little bit of everything thrown in. Also, Davis was working so hard on the show -- Penn, unlike Strouse, seems to have gotten along with him and admired his dedication to the character -- and had so much to do in the show, that his voice sometimes gave out. (This was not uncommon for club or recording stars in a Broadway theatre without amplification; the producer apparently did mike the show when Davis started encountering vocal trouble.) This was very apparent on the original cast album, but more about that in a second.

The show lives on through its score, which is, as I said, Strouse and Adams' attempt to get more ambitious than the light material they had done so well in Bye Bye Birdie (and not quite as well in All American). Strouse got to show off not only his great melodic gifts, but to write a type of moody jazz music that had hardly ever been heard in a conventional Broadway score. The result is not only the team's most ambitious score, but probably also their best overall. "Night Song" is one of the best I-want songs ever written (in any version). "I Wanna Be With You," the big love duet, is as un-contrived a statement of passion as I've ever heard in a musical: Broadway love songs tend toward cuteness and prettiness, but this is raw and powerful, a song for a love affair that won't end well. Billy Daniels, as the unsubtly named gangster "Eddie Satin," got another great nocturnal jazz song, "While the City Sleeps." There's a big angry gospel number in "No More," a number that's a bit overlong but makes brilliant serious use of a type of music that Broadway usually uses only for parody purposes. And there are some great songs in Strouse and Adams' lighter vein, like the ode to vice "Gimme Some."

The score does have a couple of problems that reflect the whole show being such a patchwork. One, again, it's not unified; Joe expresses himself in so many different styles -- heavy and light, jazz and pop -- that it feels sometimes like he's anything Davis wants him to be at that particular moment. And second, even as it's not unified, it's not varied; some of the songs overlap with each other in what they're like and what they're saying. (The female lead's two songs, "Lorna's Here" and "Golden Boy," are practically the same song.) It's still one of the most extraordinary scores of the '60s, not always a great time for Broadway scores that truly dazzled; this one did dazzle, and Strouse and Adams never quite matched it again.

The cast album is available on iTunes, though it's never existed in a really satisfying form. The strain in Davis's voice was very plain when he made the album, and exacerbated by the way cast albums were made (in one marathon recording session). He sounded hoarse on a lot of it. He later tried to fix this by re-recording a bunch of the numbers, but this had its own problems, because by then he was performing the songs more as himself and less in-character. Example:

It's the second version of the album that is available on iTunes and all CD releases; some collectors hang on to their versions of the original LP (which I unfortunately don't have, so I can't share it with you); but none of them do full justice to the score. It could use a new recording that separates the score and the character from Davis a bit -- an Encores! version in 2002, starring Alfonso Ribeiro, was very well-received.