How do you top “West Side Story”?
If you’re Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, the answer is: You don’t.
Well, you try. Ten years after the composer, the lyricist and the director-choreographer of that show (along with its book writer, Arthur Laurents) changed the musical theater with their contemporary take on “Romeo and Juliet,” they rejoined forces to develop another project.
The idea was Robbins’s. He thought that one of Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or teaching plays, could make a good musical, being short and pointed and fable-like. In 1967, he asked Sondheim to read “The Measures Taken,” the first in a collection of four translations, for possible adaptation. When Sondheim balked, finding the material too inert, Robbins told him to read the next play in the book.
That one, “The Exception and the Rule,” is about a rapacious oil merchant (read: capitalism) who races another merchant across a desert to win a lucrative deal. Accompanying him are a guide and a porter; when the three get lost, and the porter (read: exploited labor) tries to help the merchant, the merchant misunderstands the gesture and shoots him. Naturally, being of the ruling class, he is acquitted: Self-defense, the judge decides, applies even if the threat is imaginary.
Sondheim, eager to work with Robbins, whom he called “the only genius I had ever associated with,” thought this story might work, even though he found most of Brecht, and especially the teaching plays, “insufferably simplistic.” In his book “Look, I Made a Hat,” he wrote that there was “too much Lehr in each stück” — too much teaching in each play — “to hold my attention.”
Indeed, his attention waned after “taking a stab” at two songs. Giving up, he suggested that Robbins get Bernstein to write both music and lyrics. But Robbins instead asked Jerry Leiber, the word half of the pop songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, to work with the maestro. Though the odd couple did complete some numbers, the show stalled out. Most do, usually for their own good.
But “The Exception and the Rule,” as it was then called, had a gleam of possibility that kept it from dying completely. Perhaps it would be an exception itself, as “West Side Story,” which almost fell through several times, was in its day.
What looked like the key arrived when the playwright John Guare, then known for surreal way-off-Broadway comedies, joined up with a great idea for the adaptation.
The story would now take place in a television studio where the Brecht play is being readied for broadcast. The tension between the star actor playing the merchant (who was to be white) and the supporting actors playing the guide and porter (who were to be Black) would parallel the class paranoia of the inner scenes, while adding an element of racial paranoia to the mix. Sondheim, noting that the Brecht would be chopped up by scenes set in the present, “and thus not be so relentlessly Brechtian,” rejoined the team.
By April 1968, a New York Times theater column trumpeted a January 1969 opening for the new musical. Later that year, the producers announced that the Broadway star Zero Mostel would play the lead. It seemed a mere glitch in its inevitable success when, in October, the show, budgeted at $600,000 and now bearing Bernstein’s awful Spooneristic title “A Pray by Blecht,” was postponed until the following fall.
And then: nothing.
It was so dead that Bernstein, nine years later, describing it as “a big wonderful show that could have been,” got its title wrong. He called it “The Measures Taken.”
What happened? According to “Look, I Made a Hat,” in which Sondheim relates “almost all” of the tale, the golden collaboration was “no fun at all”; he stepped away again after he and Bernstein, who treated him as if he were “still an apprentice” from “West Side Story” days, wrote eight songs. Robbins quit soon thereafter: In the middle of auditions, he excused himself to Guare and Bernstein, left the theater and took off in a cab to Kennedy Airport.
Perhaps it is better that some shows should die so that others might live. After “A Pray by Blecht” collapsed, Sondheim went on almost immediately to write “Company,” “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.” Guare’s 1971 play “The House of Blue Leaves” jump-started his career. Bernstein and Robbins would each return to Broadway, albeit with mixed success, while continuing to excel in classical music and ballet.
Yet it was Robbins, the runaway, who couldn’t let the idea die. In the spring of 1987, at Lincoln Center Theater, he directed a multiweek workshop of a new version of the show called “The Race to Urga.” Sondheim attended only two rehearsals, which (he recalled in an email) were inchoate and disorganized.
“I couldn’t tell anything about it,” he wrote, “except that it seemed (as I’d always thought it was) self-consciously Important instead of spontaneous and exuberant, which is the chief saving grace of any Brecht play (and was Brecht’s intention).”
Guare, who provided the necessary new lyrics, recently declined to comment on the experience, having “closed the door” on it ages ago.
One person was happy to comment, though: Zero Mostel’s son Josh. In the 1987 workshop, he was cast (after Kevin Kline apparently withdrew) in the role originally intended for his father.
By the time the show was performed for invited audiences in May of that year, he recalled, Robbins had given up on the white vs. Black theme; Joe Grifasi played the guide and Thomas Ikeda the porter, still unfortunately referred to as the “coolie.” But Brecht’s warning about the dangers of unlimited power remained — and not just in the coda, during which planted actors rose from the audience to sing about revolution. Robbins himself was a warning about unlimited power.
“Working with Jerry was torture,” Mostel said. “Thomas Ikeda literally passed out in my arms in rehearsal, from exhaustion. At our last show, Bernstein fell down the stairs trying to get out of there. Jerry was nasty even to Guare, a very sweet guy. He was so controlling and paranoid he wouldn’t tell us what time the performances were until right before they started.
“But I have to say the songs were brilliant. And the book was one of the best of any musical I’d been in. Some friends brought a 6-year-old to the show, and he said, ‘Is that all?’ — which is a pretty good review. It should have moved forward, and the reason it didn’t is that no one could stand Jerry.”
That’s a shame; a musical exploring the prerogatives of class (and the power imbalances inherent in the theater) would be exceedingly timely now. At one point, Sondheim has a police officer sing proudly of his beat, “Thirty natives and all so quiet,” to which his partner replies, “Thirty-seven before the riot.”
That’s a lyric that needs no alteration to work as satire, or tragedy — or at any rate a stageworthy bit of Lehr — in 2020.