This week, Art&Seek is looking forward to people and events in North Texas arts worth keeping an eye on this next year. Today, KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on a local theater company’s staging of a ‘lost’ musical by a great Broadway composer.
- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online story:
Two years ago, Lyric Stage in Irving was preparing to present Gypsy, the great musical by Jule Styne. In reviving such classic Broadway shows, Lyric has made a name for itself by using a full orchestra. That means 30 to 40 live musicians in the orchestra pit, producing the kind of lush, reverberant sound people don’t get to hear much even on Broadway these days.
But what also sets Lyric apart, when it comes to revivals, is the company’s diligence in retrieving the original orchestration and score. With Gypsy, that entailed re-discovering and recreating, literally, the music that hadn’t been heard since the premiere production in 1959.
This impressed the people at Jule Styne Enterprises, the firm that manages the rights to Gypsy. And it just so happens, they’re also the people who manage Frank Loesser Enterprises. So the Frank Loesser peopls asked Jay Dias, Lyric’s music director — the guy who does the stage company’s archival research — would Lyric be interested in reviving what amounted to a ‘forgotten’ musical by Loesser himself?
It was called Pleasures and Palaces. Steven Jones, the founding producer of Lyric, had only heard of it, and he promptly started researching it online. “I thought, ‘Hey, the chance to do an unknown Frank Loesser musical?” he says. “That opportunity’s not going to come along again.”
True. Loesser died in 1969. He was, of course, one of Broadway’s premier composer-lyricists, winning the Pulitzer Prize for writing the music and lyrics for How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. But he’s perhaps best known for Guys and Dolls, the 1950 musical about New York gamblers that gave us such standards as “Luck Be A Lady,” “My Time of Day” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”
In Dallas, on the other hand, many people who’ve never seen the inside of a theater may still be familiar with one of Loesser’s other songs: He’s the writer of “Big D” as in “Big D, little a, double L, a-s, and that’s spells Dallas.”
In 1965, Loesser wrote Pleasures and Palaces. It’s loosely based on incidents in the later career of John Paul Jones, America’s first naval hero, the Scotsman who famously replied, when asked to surrender by a British captain, “I have not yet begun to fight.” After the Revolutionary War, Jones joined the navy of Catherine the Great in Russia. But he was sidelined by court intrigues against him, including charges of sexual misconduct. Pleasures and Palaces, based on a dud play by Sam Spewack, concentrates on the misadventures of the somewhat naive Jones in the more cutthroat and worldly society of the St. Petersburg court.
Jo Sullivan Loesser, the composer’s widow, says that her husband was always seeking something unpredictably different with each of his shows: “You never knew what he was going to do.” Following the Italian operetta-ish Most Happy Fella and the wistful, smalltown idyll of Greenwillow, Loesser’s new show allowed him to explore Russian music, which he’d never dipped into before. Jo Loesser remembers Frank playing every kind of Russian music — folk songs, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov — night and day for weeks.
Jay Dias, Lyric Stage’s music director, says we can hear that in the score – from its lush exoticism to the men’s ensemble parts that lend some numbers a Soviet Army chorus-sound.
Pleasures and Palaces opened at the Fisher Theater in Detroit — a traditional Broadway tryout venue — but the show got decidedly mixed reviews. One critic declared it ‘lesser Loesser.’ But the show’s director believed in it enough that he offered to put his own money in it to get the show to Broadway. The director was Bob Fosse, who went on to create All That Jazz.
But Loesser decided to do what he’d never done before with one of his shows: pull the plug. Jo Sullivan Loesser wasn’t in Detroit for most of the show’s rehearsal and run — she was expecting the couple’s second child. She thinks her husband may have simply wanted to stay home at such a time.
On the other hand, she says, “Maybe they weren’t ready yet, maybe they needed to change a few things and cut a few things. And Fosse put a lot of dancing in it. And I’ve taken most all of that out.”
In 2004, Jo Loesser worked with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. on completing and producing Senor Discretion Himself, the musical that her husband left unfinished when he died. She’s been looking for years for a company that could do something similar with Pleasures and Palaces — that is, give it a second chance, away from the money pressures and media spotlight of New York.
But it had to be a company that also respected Loesser’s artistry. Which is why she offered the chance to Lyric: “I wanted a place that is devoted to helping and that can really do justice to the score.”
Even so, music director Jay Dias says resurrecting a musical that never made it to Broadway can be hopeless. Most scores and scripts are simply tossed out. Why save them?
But Dias was stunned by what had been preserved. “It’s extraordinary,” he says. “Not only are all the orchestra parts intact but also the stage manager’s script that had Bob Fosse staging in it notated to a T.”
Jo Loesser explains that her husband saved so much from the show — and declined to let the complete score be published — because he always intended to go back and do something with it.
From January 24th to 27th, Lyric Stage will present Pleasures and Palaces for only four performances in a stripped-down ‘concert’ version – meaning there’ll be costumes and some choreography but no sets. This is akin to what Encores does in New York – most famously, with Chicago, helping launch that musical’s long-running revival, a revival that eventually lead to the Oscar-winning film adaptation. Jack Viertel, the director of Encores, is reportedly coming to see Pleasures and Palaces.
Such scaled-back concert versions inevitably highlight the music over everything else — in this case, a score by Frank Loesser that no audience has heard since 1965. Only one song from the musical was ever recorded. It’s a brassier, jazzier version of the original, but here is Lena Horne singing the title song from Pleasures and Palaces. The number belongs to Sura, a would-be lover of Jones who once renounced the life of sensual pleasures — but now has happily renounced that renunciation.
- Excerpt from “Pleasures and Palaces,” sung by Lena Horne, from the CD, Ultra-Lounge: Divas Las Vegas!