Joe Masteroff, a musical bookwriter from Broadway’s golden age whose reputation rests primarily on two Harold Prince-directed shows, Cabaret and She Loves Me, died September 28, 2018, at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 98.
Masteroff’s two most famous libretti were among the most literate and play-like to be found on Broadway in the 1960s. Both were based on existing works. She Loves Me, composed by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, drew from Parfumerie by the Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo, about two store clerks who mutually loathe each other, not knowing they are also one another’s admiring pen pals. (The same play was the basis of the movie The Shop Around the Corner.) Years later, New York Times critic Frank Rich said the “Schnitzler-flavored book for the musical is a model of construction and taste.”
Caberet, the musical work of John Kander and Fred Ebb, was based on both Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and I Am a Camera, the John Van Druten play inspired by it. It followed writer Clifford Bradshaw through a disillusioning affair with both Weimer Germany and one of its decadent denizens, Sally Bowles. Mr. Masteroff was nominated for a Tony Award for She Loves Me in 1964. He won three years later for Cabaret.
Mr. Masteroff had one more significant Broadway credit, the 1971 short-lived Kander and Ebb musical 70 Girls 70. He was also brought in to doctor Jerry Herman's Dear World in 1969.
Born in Philadelphia on December 11, 1919, he studied at Temple University and the American Theatre Wing, and began his theatre career as an actor, making his Broadway debut in that capacity in The Prescott Proposals in 1953. Six years later, he reappeared on Broadway as a playwright with The Warm Peninsula, a Julie Harris vehicle that ran a few months.
While not a success, The Warm Peninsula attracted the attention of producer Lawrence N. Kasha. “Larry came to Jerry and me with this proposal,” Harnick told the New York Times, “and said, ‘There’s a young playwright who did a show with Julie Harris called The Warm Peninsula, and we’d like to use him.’ And we had seen it and said it sounds great to us.”
“I told them, ‘I’ve never written a musical,’“ recalled Masteroff, “and Sheldon said, ‘Don’t write a musical; write a play.’ When I came to a place where I thought there should be a song, I would write it as a monologue. A lot of book writers say, ‘Here there would be a song in which she says how much she loves him.’ I just wrote the whole thing, and then Sheldon would use some of that material or not.”
For his libretto, Masteroff was inspired mainly by the 1940 movie, which starred James Stewart. “I was always fascinated with the thought,” he said, “that the show took place about 1938, and I said in two years a lot of the people are going to be dead, or their lives totally ruined, and it fascinated me. It gave the material such another twist that there was always that underlying darkness. And maybe some of the cynicism in the script came from that.”
In Cabaret, Masteroff was dealing with the same weighty time period, though the action was set not in Hungary but in Germany. Prince had acquired the rights to the material, and had commissioned Masteroff to write the book, throwing out an existing book and score by Sandy Wilson. Masteroff’s dark, forboding libretto was distributed between presentational, neo-Brechtian Kander and Ebb songs sung by Bowles and the sinister Emcee at the Kit Kat Club.
In 1996, Masteroff resurfaced with Paramour, a new musical he wrote with Howard Marren based on Waltz of the Toreadors by Jean Anouilh. He wrote both the book and lyrics. The show was workshopped at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and then presented at the Old Globe in 1998. He also wrote the libretto for an operatic adaptation of O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.
Masteroff is survived by his niece, Judith Weiner of Boca Raton, Florida.