Saturday, March 9, 2024

This Day in Musical History (Adaptation of O’Casey’s ‘Juno’ Opens, Then Flops)

Mar. 9, 1959—Juno might not have been a “can’t miss” musical, but it came loaded with expectations because of its constellation of talents when it opened at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater.

Its music and lyrics were by the creator of a legendary Depression musical, with a book by a playwright who would eventually write Fiddler on the Roof; a male lead with Hollywood credentials for comedy; an innovative choreographer who changed how dance worked in musicals; an Oscar-winning actor equally at home with directing for the stage; a beloved actress returning to Broadway; and an Irish playwright whose tragicomedy formed the foundation of the show.

But Juno the musical, like its titular heroine, was plagued by misfortune—more specifically, critics who couldn’t hide their disappointment with the result of this all-star team. It closed after 16 performances, and, despite defenders who have attempted revivals, it remains seldom performed.

The musical was based on a 1924 landmark of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Juno and the Paycock, generally regarded as the best entry in Sean O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy” set in the period surrounding the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. (See my blog post from a decade ago that reviewed a production at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre.)

The first adaptation of the play was for the screen rather than the musical stage, in a 1929 movie by Alfred Hitchcock—what biographer Peter Ackroyd called the director’s “first thoroughly conceived and consistent talkie.”

Uncharacteristically, that film included few of Hitchcock’s visual flourishes, but at least it stayed largely faithful to the source. It turned out to be more successful than Hitchcock’s last couple of releases, as he transitioned from silents to talkies.

But Hitchcock, possessed of a vigorous if often twisted sense of humor, may have felt little need to tinker with O’Casey’s dialogue.

In contrast, it was O’Casey’s socialism, not his comic sense, that appealed to songwriter Marc Blitzstein, who had achieved notoriety two decades before with his agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock.

More recently, his translation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera had turned that tale of Weimar corruption into what was then the longest-running musical in Off Broadway history—and giving him as much clout with investors as he would ever receive.

Book writer Joseph Stein, though no longer a Marxist, retained enough progressive sympathies as an Adlai Stevenson Democrat to work well with the more leftist Blitzstein.

All of that may have helped secure early on O’Casey’s approval of their project (called, at this initial stage, Daarlin’ Man). 

The playwright never left his home in England to view rehearsals or performances of this musical, and he could be caustic toward anyone who looked askance at his work (as the Abbey Theatre, which rejected some of his more expressionist plays after the “Dublin Trilogy,” could attest). 

But a discussion with Blitzstein and tapes of the songs contemplated for the show led O'Casey to green-light the project.

One fact, had it been considered more thoroughly, might have forestalled this blessing: though Stein and Blitzstein may have shared O’Casey’s leftist sympathies, they did not exhibit the sharp sense of humor that had leavened Juno and the Paycock

The tone of the musical, according to future Juno star Victoria Clark, more closely resembled another Weill piece of musical theater, the tragic Street Scene.

Two out-of-town tryouts, in Washington and Boston, proved increasingly troubled. In the spring and early summer of 1958, Blitzstein barely survived an appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in which he admitted to Communist Party membership till 1949 but refused to name names.

Just when the production appeared to be coming together, Tony Richardson, a rising British theater talent who soon became famous for the film version of Look Back in Anger and the Oscar-winning Best Picture Tom Jones, backed out as director because of scheduling conflicts. His replacement, Vincent J. Donehue, had limited experience to that point with musicals.

Neither did movie and theater star Melvyn Douglas, called in to take over the role of “Captain” Boyle when the choice of the creative team, James Cagney, would only participate if the property were adapted for the screen.

Although the actress who played Boyle’s long-suffering wife and family mainstay, Shirley Booth, had somewhat more experience than Donehue and Douglas with musicals, she was nervous about executing Irish stepdances and playing a “heroic” figure that demanded “an Irish Judith Anderson.”

The production's only Irish actor, Jack MacGowran (suggested by O’Casey), after being provoked repeatedly by Donehue, unleashed a profanity-laced rehearsal diatribe indicating that nobody in the show knew anything about O’Casey or what they were trying to do.

This represented “a fusillade of abuse for director, company and producing organization such as I have rarely heard in many decades of performance work,” Douglas recalled, stunning all concerned because, the leading man conceded, “there was a great deal of truth to what he said.”

Though Blitzstein tried to stay even-tempered, even he was prone to snapping, as when he unloaded on choreographer Agnes de Mille (whose work in this instance, some would later say, was among the best of her career).

Reviews of the January 1959 performances in Washington, while observing that O’Casey’s play presented unique challenges in adapting, still pointed out the musical’s deficiencies in tone and tightness.

A month later, Boston critics—aware of word of mouth already spreading, as well as interviews in which Booth and especially Douglas confessed to their insecurities about the demands required by their roles— noted the same problems.

That proved the undoing of Donehue, who was sacked the morning after the Boston opening.

The history of Broadway includes occasional shows that are rescued from near-certain disaster. But it’s more often the case that the problems apparent before an opening are not fixed in time.

And so, despite the replacement of Donehue with Jose Ferrer, who brought considerable stage credibility and film renown (including an Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac), and new, better songs from Blitzstein (“It’s Not Irish” and “For Love”), the creative team behind Juno could not improve matters enough in the month before opening on Broadway.

Years later, theater professionals and fans alike would wonder how a show with so much talent behind the scenes and onstage (not just Booth and Douglas, but also, in early stages of their careers, Jean Stapleton and Sada Thompson), could have misfired.

One of the less charitable detractors was Broadway composer Richard Rodgers. In the taxi ride home from the show, he and his wife ridiculed the show's “prosaic lyrics and unmelodiousness,” remembered their daughter Mary Rodgers in her posthumous memoir Shy

“Maybe the driver could sing ‘We Have Reached Our Destination’ to similar effect,’” Richard said acidly.

If Broadway musical history is filled with disasters, it also includes shows that, years after their underwhelming openings, find far longer lives, either through audiences who could better appreciate what its creators were attempting (Pal Joey, Chicago) or a combination of more appropriate stagecraft and casting (the current Stephen Sondheim revival, Merrily We Roll Along, starring Daniel Radcliffe).

Blitzstein had an example closer at hand: his Threepenny Opera translation that thrust the Weill-Brecht work into the elite circle of most-performed musicals. Undoubtedly inspired by that example, Juno revivals have been mounted over the years at New York’s Vineyard Theater and City Center, and Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre.

The outcome has been the same: a good try (especially in these productions’ unbending refusal to provide a happy ending), but still a failure. It’s not likely that this verdict will change soon--unless, perhaps, it's staged as an opera rather than a musical (as has been the case over the past four decades with Street Scene and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd--and how Blitzstein's Regina was fashioned from its 1949 creation)

The best way to understand why that situation is so sad is to listen to YouTube performances of some of the musical’s songs, including Rebecca Luker’s rendition of “I Wish It So” or the Celia Keenan-Bolger-Clarke Thorell duet of “My True Heart.”

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