Now's the Green-Up Time
January 20, 2005
By Erik Haagensen
As the economic realities of Broadway make it harder and harder for new musicals by contemporary writers to reach the Great White Way, there has been an increasing tendency to cull the oeuvres of the classic Broadway musical-theatre writers for unknown or neglected works that might possibly be dusted off, spruced up, and added to the repertoire. Recent attempts include "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (Arthur Schwartz-Dorothy Fields-George Abbott-Betty Smith), "Allegro" (Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II), "Señor Discretion Himself" (Frank Loesser), "Paint Your Wagon" (Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe), and "Flower Drum Song" (Rodgers & Hammerstein again). Only the latter actually landed on Broadway, but the rest received full-blown regional theatre mountings, all with a possible eye on Broadway.
Some people question whether it's morally appropriate for a writer's estate to allow such mucking about with the work, particularly when the original show was a hit in its day. But ever since Harold Prince, Hugh Wheeler, and Stephen Sondheim joined forces to make "Candide" a success nearly 18 years after its failure on Broadway (admittedly, in conjunction with the show's composer, Leonard Bernstein, still very much alive at that time), it has been fair game to let new writers try to "fix" old shows.
I have had two experiences with the process, having been asked to work on revised versions of "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" (Alan Jay Lerner-Leonard Bernstein) and "Darling of the Day" (Jule Styne-E.Y. Harburg-Nunnally Johnson). It's a complicated subject far beyond the space of this column, but one crucial aspect of the job came to mind not long ago as I sat in the George Street Playhouse watching Arthur Laurents' revision of his 1968 Tony-winning musical about race in America, "Hallelujah, Baby!" Laurents, of course, was rewriting his own work. But the considerable lyric changes necessitated by Laurents' revised script were the work of Amanda Green, daughter of the late Adolph Green, co-lyricist of the show with his longtime partner, Betty Comden. I found myself admiring the great skill with which Green accomplished her task, a largely thankless but absolutely crucial one if the revision of an old show is to have any chance of working.
Forbidding lyric changes is the great mistake made time and again when old shows are reworked. Lyrics are as much a part of the show's text as dialogue. And good ones are written to fit snugly with the book. When a revised scene alters the dramatic action, or when a character is significantly changed, the lyrics written for that original scene or character aren't likely to fit so snugly anymore. And when a new scene is created, or a new character is born, they almost inevitably call for new musical moments. If this work were being done by the original authors, the lyricist would simply rewrite the lyric, or perhaps he and the composer would write a new song. Unfortunately, the need for revision doesn't change just because they're dead.
The first thing to do is to steep yourself in the work of the original lyricist. You can't just write for the characters in the show; you must write for those characters in the voice of the original lyricist. If you do your job well, no one should know that you've even done it. That's the thankless bit.
Amanda Green, of course, could skip that first part. "I grew up with their [Comden and Green's] stuff. I loved and shared their sensibility, so it wasn't really that much of a stretch for me to find their voice. To be as good as them is another thing, though," worries Green. After Laurents approached her about the project, she first secured Betty Comden's blessing. But she ultimately agreed because " 'Hallelujah, Baby!' was a problem show and I didn't really know it that well. It had problems with tone and story. I'd never touch something like 'On the Twentieth Century.' I think that score is pretty perfect."
Green worked very closely with Laurents. "We went through the whole story several times. And we would come to a number and we would discuss the number -- how we felt about it, what it would say in this new book. And some numbers we'd come to and say, 'I just don't think that needs to be in the show.' We made all those decisions together. And then some numbers we'd come to later on and come back and say, 'Oh, you know, I think that's what that number's about.' We worked the way you'd collaborate with anybody."
Laurents' reason for reworking the show was to return it to his original vision. "Hallelujah, Baby!" tells the story of Georgina, a young black domestic at the turn of the 20th century who is "25 -- give or take," and who always stays the same age as the century carries her along to its conclusion. Georgina pursues a career in show business to escape the effects of racial prejudice and "get out of the kitchen." Written to star Lena Horne, it had to be retailored for Leslie Uggams when Horne dropped out at the eleventh hour. Because Uggams, who won a Tony for her performance, had a younger and gentler persona than Horne, Laurents ultimately felt that he had excessively softened the show and its look at America's racial prejudice.
The fiercer tone is apparent right from the top, and Laurents' new book and his direction of it necessitated some changes to the lyric of Georgina's initial song, "My Own Morning." Says Green, "It's now a song about a desperation to break out of a situation, rather than a dreamy 'I want' song." In the production, this is reflected in the revised scene containing the song, in a different musical arrangement, and in the direction Laurents has given Suzanne Douglas as Georgina. But three lines in the original lyric -- an early solo line and a later couplet -- seemed to fight the reinterpretation. Georgina sings of "The golden hours/Waiting in a line/I can pick like flowers/Hanging on a vine." Green changed "waiting in a line" to "never could call mine." "That line always hung me up. Are they golden hours you wasted waiting in a line? I asked my mom [actor Phyllis Newman] and she said, 'No, it's a poetic image. The hours are waiting for you to grab.' I wanted it to be more direct and less poetic." It's also smart because it references Georgina's desperation to escape a life of servitude -- she has never known any golden hours.
Green's other change was to the final couplet in the lyric: "My own morning/Where every hour is golden/No one to whom I'm beholden." "Beholden" seemed a bit flowery for the new Georgina, and "to whom" was an unlikely grammatical locution for her to employ. Green substituted "To know each day I awaken/That day is ours for the takin'." "It makes her stronger, someone who wants to grab life," notes Green. The use of "ours" also broadens the song beyond Georgina's own personal wants. While, in the context of the lyric, it seems to apply to her and the husband she's wishing for, it also carries a broader suggestion that Georgina, aware that her personal problems are rooted in the suppression of African-Americans, wants everyone's problems solved, not just her own. Such a nascent desire needs to be present in her character at the start of the show because she becomes increasingly devoted to self as the story progresses, and the journey of her character is to find the connection with a world larger than herself.
One thing Green avoided was writing an entirely new lyric. Early in the process, she and longtime collaborator Curtis Moore wrote a new song for the show, but Green looked at it and felt "this just doesn't belong." Jule Styne's widow, Margaret, gave her "a CD with about 18 song snippets, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes and 32 seconds of music" originally written for the show but not used. But ultimately, she chose to work within existing songs. "If a song isn't written for the moment, it's hard to shoehorn it in. Comden, Green, and Styne are pretty specific writers," she says. That, of course, made her job harder, with devotees of the original cast recording peering over her shoulder as she altered the work to fit the new book while keeping the voice consistent. Green reworked, among other songs, such signature tunes of the score as "Being Good," "Not Mine," "Talking to Yourself," and "Now's the Time," along with two cut songs, "When the Weather's Better" and "Same Boat."
Of course, Green has her own distinct voice as a lyricist, and that will be on display Jan. 24 and 31 at Manhattan's Birdland, when she and composer Tom Kitt perform their own songs, including material from an upcoming adaptation of the film "High Fidelity," which will have a book by David Lindsey-Abaire. In the meantime, "Hallelujah, Baby!" plays at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage through Feb. 13.