Fate, that cruel goddess, has given composer Larry Grossman everything in life except his heart's desire -- a hit Broadway musical.
He's tried five times; every one has been a flop of sobering proportions: Minnie's Boys, Goodtime Charley, A Doll's Life, Grind and Paper Moon. Yet something special has been going on. All but the last of Grossman's scores has been recorded. All but one of those is still in print. Grossman keeps getting produced. And major theatre talents, from actors to directors to designers, still jump at the chance to work with him.
Grossman is developing two shows right now, including a rewrite of Paper Moon that ran June to September at Goodspeed Opera House, and will play through Nov. 3 at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
What's the mystique? What keeps Grossman going? And what happened with those shows?
Consider his life as the plot of a classical drama: Bright young composer wants to write big Broadway musicals. He comes to New York in the early 1960s, and, bang-o, gets a song ("I Was a Pawn for Werner Von Braun") in one of the Upstairs at the Downstairs revues just weeks after arriving. The legendary Tommy Valando, who brought together Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, takes him in hand and hooks him up with promising young lyricist Hal Hackady. They get their songs recorded -- sometimes within days of writing them -- by a who's who of that period's pop singers: Tony Bennett, Ann-Margret, Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley Bassey, and many more. Life looks like green lights right down the turnpike.
And then Grossman starts to write musicals. Big musicals. And what does he get? Flops. Not two or three interspersed with hits. But five, one after the other. Flops with Comden and Green. Flops with Hal Prince. Flops with Ben Vereen. Flops about the Marx Brothers. Flops about saints.
Grossman himself comes right to the point: "I think I've been done in by some lousy books and by some stars who re-shaped the material for their, in quotes, talent. Shows get misshapen when they become star vehicles. But the test of it is the shows still get performed and the albums are in stores and get sold. But I'd still like to have a big hit, obviously."
Lewis J. Stadlen, who played Groucho in Minnie's Boys, said, "He and Hal [Hackady] are part of the old school: they're obsessed with craft. There's always a lot of love in his work. To this day, people come over to me and talk about the music in that show. But he got caught up in a disastrous production. Through the chaos of all that, Larry was one of few really realistic people who was trying always to make the show better. But he was in a terrible situation: His work was subverted by the chaos of a misguided production."
And that's pretty much been the story of Grossman's career, at least on Broadway.
But wait. Imagining Grossman's career as a page of music, the Broadway flops have been the treble line. The bass line has been the steady, throbbing, achingly ironic march of Grossman's hits on TV, films and in Las Vegas. Big hits. Emmy-winning hits. Michael Jackson hits.
Grossman has actually won six Emmys out of 15 nominations, plus two ACE Awards. Grossman won a Peabody Award for his three years as music consultant on The Muppet Show. One of his most memorable contributions, the song "Eight Little Notes," for the dog Muppet Rolf, was originally written for the Beethoven-loving Peanuts character Schroeder in Snoopy!!! (since retitled Snoopy, The Musical.
Grossman wrote music for the compilation film That's Dancing! and the animated feature The Great Mouse Detective. TV movie scores include Suspicion and Displaced Person. The theme music for the TV series Love Connection is Grossman's.
More irony: Grossman has earned his highest industry accolades composing incidental music for awards shows: the Oscars, the Grammys and, yes, the Tonys. That's where Grossman won most of his Emmys. His work on the Oscars included "Not Even Nominated," a song with a Fred Ebb lyric, for the 1979 Oscars. Grossman has done music for the Tonys for the past several years, including the 1996 show. He was nominated for Tony Awards of his own twice, for his scores to A Doll's Life and Grind -- both directed by Hal Prince -- but neither won.
In person, Grossman is tense, compact man with a high-domed head that looks like the combined heat of creativity and worry have burned the hair off the crown. He has very expressive eyebrows; when he raises them ever so slightly -- a millimeter, even -- his face lights up and he looks like he's having a ball. What keeps Grossman banging that head against the wall of musical comedy?
"It's the most fulfilling," he said. "It's always what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still do. People think I'm crazy. But a lot of people who build their careers in television understand why. TV is much harder to measure. By and large, you're judged on how much money you make. If you stick with it long enough, you might have a body of work that you can point to and be proud of. But most of it is disposable entertainment. It gets performed once and is never heard again."
Not surprisingly, Grossman provides an exception to that rule as well. He and Buz Kohan wrote a song, "Gone Too Soon," for a forgotten TV special. It wound up on Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" album, which sold 23 million copies. "It did nicely for us," Grossman said mildly. "But the chances of that happening are, oh . . . about one in a trillion."
It's the sort of liquid success that has evaded and taunted Grossman on the one street that counts most to him.
At least until now.
A 1994 York Theatre revival of A Doll's Life helped renew interest in his work. The musical director for that production, David Kirschenbaum, put together a revue of Grossman's songs, Save Me a Song, which wound up extending its engagement February through April 1996 at Don't Tell Mama nightclub in New York.
During auditions, Grossman and Kirschenbaum were pleasantly surprised, not only at the unusual number of singers who auditioned, but by how many of them owned the sheet music from his shows and were able to audition with his own -- obscure, he thought -- songs. Grossman tunes were out there, buried in the piano benches of the world, waiting to sprout again.
One night late in the revue's run, Grossman was seen watching impassively as a group of latecomers tried to wheedle seats for the New York revue from the Don't Tell Mama maitre d', who patiently explained over and over that the show was sold out. Was he thinking that he was finally SRO, though a block and a half from Broadway?
Also this past spring, a San Francisco theatre troupe did a concert version of Goodtime Charley. Upcoming is the Goodspeed rewrite of Paper Moon which is scheduled to transfer to the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia come September. And then, well, who knows?
Born in Chicago in 1938, Grossman said that "even as a little kid, I had the notion that I wanted to write songs. He remembers listening very closely to the radio, though there was no special emphasis on theatre music per se. "I fell in love with the whole notion" of writing songs, he said.
Grossman's predilection crystallized when he got to Northwestern University in the late 1950s, and came under the influence of the legendary Joe Miller. Though Miller's official title was director of student affairs, he was founder and director of the school's annual Waa-Mu Show, a musical revue written entirely by students.
"Joe Miller was the single most influential person on my career," Grossman said. "He exposed me to a lot of the literature of the musical theatre, which I didn't know and hadn't had access to."
Grossman said the brightest, highest moment he remembers in his career was when he was doing the initial production of Snoopy!!! in San Francisco. "One afternoon in the lobby of the theatre I was writing at the spinet with Hal Hackady. Inside, the show was being rehearsed. Something struck me at the time: I was really happy and lucky doing what I wanted to do. Hearing my music performed while I was writing it a few feet away. It just swept me up and overwhelmed me."
The blackest moment Grossman remembers in his career was the last days before Grind closed its brief run, in which his score had been twisted beyond recognition. "The whole experience started to sour at a certain point," he said, "and at the end I couldn't even bring myself to go to the theatre."
Grossman turns 58 this year, putting him approximately midway in age between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. Unlike the scores of other two, none of Grossman's scores is through-written, though A Doll's Life, his most ambitious score, comes closest to that. If anything, Grossman is the missing link between Frederick Loewe (of Lerner & Loewe) and William Finn. Like Loewe, Grossman never misses an opportunity to write a sprawling, lusciously harmonized melody. "Mama, a Rainbow" from Minnie's Boys is Grossman's "Almost Like Being in Love." "Born Lover" from Goodtime Charley is his "C'est Moi." "No More Mornings" from A Doll's Life is his "I Could Have Danced All Night."
But Grossman rarely paints songs in a single bold color. Like William Finn, he prefers to compose each moment in each song -- each line, sometimes each word -- in distinctive melodic hues. Yet he usually does this while staying within the boundaries of the song form. Here are some examples of his deft embroidery:
* In "Learn To Be Lonely" from A Doll's Life, the music under the opening lyric, "Make a new life," is quietly hopeful, almost cheerful. But by the time she gets to "Alone in the sky," her courage is deflating. The song's bridge shows a building determination, and she runs up a scale to the song's climax. But by the time she decides she'll have to "learn to be lonely," the bass sighs with her.
* Despite its title, "Be Happy" from Minnie's Boys is a catalog of woes. Grossman uses a Weill-like declining minor scale as harmony as Minnie Marx tells her boys that life is hard, and they should gather roses where they can.
* The lyric to the title song of Goodtime Charley is a portrait of bonhomie for the dauphin who hopes never to become king -- but Grossman's melody belies the false cheer, and reveals Charley's underlying melancholy.
* "Pretty Like Your Mama" (Paper Moon) is sung to a young girl, but a shimmering piano figure keeps pulling the male singer into his memories of her mother.
* In "Katie, My Love" ("Grind") a former IRA terrorist reveals the dreadful secret that one of his bombs accidentally killed his own wife and child. Though structured like an Irish lullabye, Grossman's music simultaneously illustrates the man's horror, guilt, infinite sadness and inexpressible loss, while at the same time revealing the essential sweetness and simplicity of the man himself.
His ability to express exotic alloys of thought and feeling musically are his trademark, and make him an ideal collaborator for a sophisticated lyricist.
If Grossman's melodies are not always hummable in an immediate Irving Berlin sense, his harmonies are always surprising. Just when you think you're going to hear something familiar, he turns on a dime and lands you in a completely unexpected place.
Whether by intent or by accident, Grossman's scores can be divided into two categories: those basically flavored by classical music, and those flavored by pop of the 1920s and '30s. While he bristles at being categorized, he acknowledged, "I wish I'd lived during that time [the early 1930s]. I loved what was happening musically."
It shows in score after score throughout his career. Minnie's Boys, Grind, parts of Snoopy, and certainly all of Paper Moon. Grossman can write a timeless score like Goodtime Charley, and draw on Grieg and 19th century northern European art music for A Doll's Life. But his underlying thought seems to slip most easily into the paths of swing, Chicago blues, a little New Orleans, a little Cotton Club, a little Big Band. Listen to the stride piano figures beneath "Girls Like Us." in Paper Moon and you're listening to a composer at home.
Speaking of listening, Grossman is well aware that the recordings of his music -- sometimes on major labels, sometimes on small but devoted ones -- have been his salvation. On record, Grossman's scores usually sound like they should have been hits, but weren't, a la Anyone Can Whistle, The Baker's Wife and Oh, Brother! Like Grossman's shows all the aforementioned had concept and/or book problems.
Paper Moon (lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh; one version had lyrics by Carol Hall) was booked to open on Broadway in 1993, but never got beyond tryout at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. A musical adaptation of the Ryan O'Neal/ Tatum O'Neal film Paper Moon, the musical told the story of a con man on the run in the Great Depression with a little girl who might or might not be his daughter, but who most certainly is as good a con as the old man.
Paper Moon may be the best reflection of Grossman himself. The characters find a way, not only to survive economically in the midst of the adversity of the Great Depression but they learn to keep their love, hope and humanity alive -- all the while immersed in the music of the 1930s.
Grossman (not to mention his dedicated partisans) are hoping that this summer's new Paper Moon will be the breakthrough they're all waiting for. But Grossman has learned the hard way not to get over optimistic.
"It's rare in this business that you get a second chance," he said. "We're obviously redoing it. I think we've learned by our mistakes. We learned, largely by virtue of that large production [at Paper Mill], that it's a small show and can't be blown out of proportion. The show now has 14 people, a small orchestra and a unit set. Where at Paper Mill we had a car that cost $80,000, we're now going to have four suitcases -- that's the car in this production. I'm very hopeful, but God knows, based on previous experience, you never know how it's going to go."
If not, there's always Grossman's other new project. He's writing a musical based on the Henry Fielding novel Tom Jones, about a randy young man in 18th century England who makes his way in the world based on the power of his wits -- and other attributes further south. The book and lyrics are by James Goldman (libretto for Follies). Grossman said he anticipates a London premiere at a date TBA.
But why put himself through that wringer again?
"My guess," said actor Lewis J. Stadlen: "The thing that made him gravitate to being a composer in the first place, some childhood sensation of wanting to be in the musical theatre and seeing himself in the middle of it. He knows deep down inside how gifted he is. Nobody will remember he had five flops in a row if the next show is a big hit. He's enough of a realist to know that all it takes is one."
LARRY GROSSMAN ON (AND OFF) BROADWAY:
Minnie's Boys (1970; 77 performances)
Goodtime Charley (1975; 104 performances)
Snoopy!!! (1975; produced in San Francisco)
A Doll's Life (1982; 5 performances)
Snoopy (1982 off-Broadway debut; 152 performances)
Grind (1985; 79 performances)
Paper Moon (1993; closed out of town)
A Doll's Life (1994 revival) Save Me a Song (nightclub revue) (1996, nine weeks)
Escape, a musical about Houdini with Grover Dale and Hal Hackady.
Quasimodo, a musical based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Hal Hackady.
Burlesque, based on the 1920s play, with Denny Martin Flynn and Hal Hackady.
Dancing David, a musical based on the Bible story of King David, with Sidney Michaels and Hal Hackady.
Bluesbird, a musical about a Janis Joplin-like singer, with Drey Shepard.
LARRY GROSSMAN ON RECORD:
Minnie's Boys: Original Broadway cast with Lewis J. Stadlen and Shelley Winters -- Project 3 Records (SPRD 6002).
Goodtime Charley: Original Broadway cast with Joel Grey and Ann Reinking -- RCA Red Seal (ARL1-1011) (Vinyl only; Out of print.)
Snoopy!!!: Original American cast -- DRG Records (DRG 6103)
Snoopy Original London cast -- TER Records (TER 1073)
A Doll's Life: Original Broadway cast with Betsy Joslyn, George Hearn, Edmund Lyndeck -- Original Cast Records (OC 8240)
Grind: Original Broadway cast with Ben Vereen, Timothy Nolen -- TER Records (CDTER 1103)
The Animated Adventures of Mumfie: (Soundtrack of animated children's series -- Music Collection International (Mumfie CD CD001) in UK; Forte Music Entertainment (FMCC-5048) in Japan.
-- By Robert Viagas
This story originally appeared in the summer 1996 issue of Show Music magazine, and is used by permission.