STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Stuart Ostrow Remembers

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Stuart Ostrow Remembers He gave us 1776, Pippin, The Apple Tree, M. Butterfly, and La Bete. Now Stuart Ostrow has given us a book -- A Producer's Broadway Journey (Praeger; $19.95) -- that is a must-read for all of us stagestruck.

He gave us 1776, Pippin, The Apple Tree, M. Butterfly, and La Bete. Now Stuart Ostrow has given us a book -- A Producer's Broadway Journey (Praeger; $19.95) -- that is a must-read for all of us stagestruck.

Ostrow starts by telling of being in the Air Force and having the idea of Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows writing a show for the men. That he got them to agree was a good harbinger of the success he'd have. And why it didn't happen is pretty fascinating and sad, too.

He tells what Frank Loesser did to Frank Sinatra on the set of Guys and Dolls, adds a funny story about an audition a Yiddish actor gave for The King and I, then another about a bagpiper on Brigadoon that doesn't reflect well on the musician's union. Then there's the salacious mistake that Art Lund made while singing "Joey" at his first Most Happy Fella performance.

Ostrow recalls how he approached Bob Fosse after there'd been a bomb scare at the theatre where Pippin was rehearsing. Fosse's reaction may very well be exactly what you'd expect. So too his promise to give Ostrow one percent if he helped on Chicago; once the show clicked, Fosse reneged.

While Ostrow says he's the one who talked producer Roger Stevens out of replacing Martin Charnin with Mike Nichols as the director of Annie, he doesn't particularly aggrandize himself. He readily admits that casting Ron Silver, who left La Bete in Boston after a disastrous opening, was his idea. He writes that he has "mixed feelings" about having created the Pippin commercial, which revolutionized the way shows were marketed -- and added to the budget, and suggested to the public that if you didn't have a commercial, you just weren't an important show. But what comes through is the much-heard opinion that today's show business producers understand business but not shows. Ostrow's detailed analyses of 64 productions proves that he does know the territory. Those occasional reference to ninths and dotted 16th notes let you see he's savvy about music, too.

The most interesting stories involve The Apple Tree. Ostrow remembers that two unknowns made an impression on him when they auditioned: Al Freeman, Jr. and Dustin Hoffman. (A year later, the musical's director, Mike Nichols, remembered the latter when casting "The Graduate.") He says that "Jerome Robbins [was] the original director of The Apple Tree," and then enigmatically adds, "Don't ask."

Of course I wanted to, so I called him up. Ostrow reluctantly semi- elaborated: "Jerry had a hard time making up his mind about doing the show. He kept saying, 'What's it about?' which is a great question, and the toughest one ever to answer. It was originally called Come Back! Go Away! I Love You! because two of the stories were different. One, 'Show Biz Connections,' based on a Bruce Jay Friedman story, was the 'Come Back' story. 'Young Goodman Brown,' based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, was the 'Go Away' one. And 'I Love You' was Mark Twain's 'The Diary of Adam and Eve.'

"I got antsy and wanted to get it on and so did Jerry Coopersmith. Bock and Harnick had what I'd call a love-hate relationship with Robbins from Fiddler. We were all weary. I knew Mike Nichols, who was really hot, so I asked him."

Nichols said yes, and as I remember the show from its Boston tryout, he did a fine job. Ostrow writes, though, that "Nichols was a terrific comedy director but froze every time the music started." More significantly, he told me something not in the book: That it was Nichols who drastically changed the show, and caused its title to be replaced, too. "Mike hated 'Show Biz Connections,'" he said, "and we accommodated him. Then the whole piece went topsy-turvy," as Bock and Harnick went on to write book, music, and lyrics for "Passionella" and "The Lady or The Tiger."

No, Ostrow's feelings about Nichols aren't what they were in early 1967. In the book, he states that Nichols unnecessarily cost him $80,000 on a set for 'The Diary of Adam and Eve' segment. The Garden of Eden's trees, lake, and animals were translucent plastic, and Ostrow says that early on, he knew it wouldn't work, but that Nichols threatened to walk if it wasn't retained. Quips Ostrow, "Like the snake in Eden, I didn't have a pit to hiss in." Only when no one could see the actors up there did Nichols relent. Ostrow then remembers seeing designer Tony Walton sitting in the Boston Common that spring redesigning the set. (Actually, it was fall.)

Then in our conversation, he noted that "Jerry Robbins came in to help us when Mike begged" (Ostrow then paused for two full seconds to let me know that's exactly the word he meant) "for help. Mike was a charismatic Caesar who would never allow a confrontation but would charm away any argument. No creative abrasion, which I like."

For those of us who have always been puzzled by star Barbara Harris' odd, distracted acceptance speech when she won the Best Musical Actress Tony, Ostrow tells us what happened. (Hint: Warren Beatty was a factor.)

Though Ostrow makes a statement that will seem heretical to many -- how Sondheim's domination of the '70s was not necessarily a good thing -- he did tell me that, "One regret is that I've never done a show with Steve. I've almost done three." The first he mentions is a bit of a stretch: "Wise Guys," he says. "I'm the one who gave Steve that book on the Mizners."

The other two he cites in the book. One is A Pray by Blecht (you read that right; it's an intentional spoonerism on A Play by Brecht, specifically The Exception to the Rule). John Guare, Leonard Bernstein, and even Jerry Leiber were also involved.

And then there was Follies. Though Ostrow did tell me what he writes in the book -- that he dropped out of producing it "for personal reasons" -- and said "It just wasn't going right," he then added, "No, put down 'for personal reasons.'"

I knew enough not to pursue the question with the man who produced 1776. This is, after all, the show in which the newly arrived Lyman Hall tells the Continental Congress that he is "able to vote my own personal convictions." To which Rutledge asks, "And they are?" To which Hall answers, "Personal." (And speaking of 1776, Ostrow tells why Howard Da Silva quit his role as Ben Franklin -- and why he quickly un-quit. )

Still, the most shocking news to me was that Ostrow got Bob Dylan interested in writing a musical of The Devil and Daniel Webster with Archibald MacLeish, the noted poet and sometimes playwright (J.B.). I never heard this in the early '70s, when Scratch (as it was called) was being readied. In fact, I saw Scratch during its Boston tryout, and there was certainly Dylan music.

I immediately checked with Star-Ledger rock critic Jay Lustig; Dylan is to him what Sondheim is to us. He gave me Clinton Heylin's Dylan biography which says, "In the summer of 1970, he became involved with the production of a new 'musical.'" (Yes, the word "musical" is in quotes, almost as if Heylin doesn't know what to make of it.)

Heylin goes on to report that "[Dylan] played MacLeish and the producer three new songs -- 'New Morning,' 'Time Passes Slowly,' and 'Father of the Night' -- but they didn't see eye-to-eye on 'Father,' so he backed out of the production." These songs wound up on the Dylan album "Nashville Skyline." The question is: Will those of us who have to have everything theatrically related now go out and buy this album in the name of completeness?

Ostrow writes well. In discussing We Take the Town, his Pancho Villa musical that starred Robert Preston and closed out-of-town, he says, "Villa was assassinated in Mexico City in 1923 by his critics, while we were merely slaughtered when we opened in Philadelphia in 1962." He goes on to say he wanted to cast Barbra Streisand in the show, but Preston didn't want her, and Jerome Robbins would have taken over the direction had he not fallen ill.

He also gives a look at the future, touring a new musical called Doll, which involves Gustav Mahler's widow and an admirer she spurns -- so he makes a doll that looks exactly like her. Ostrow's most intriguing theory: That Disney will buy out the Shuberts.

Still, Ostrow fails to give us enough about his own shows. How musicals go from page-to-stage has been the subject of scholarly studies (Show Boat, Porgy and Bess); benign documentaries (Oklahoma!, The Fantasticks, and Big); fluffy books by the show's authors (Annie, Best Little Whorehouse); and those oversized picture books that emerged in the '80s (Les Miz and Phantom to The Who's Tommy to Lion King). The words "The Making of" have been seen on books about Cabaret, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler, and, most notoriously, No, No Nanette. There have been three books on A Chorus Line, and even the one-performance flop Kelly gave birth to a heavenly article of 12 pages that was published on April 24, 1965 in the Saturday Evening Post. And let's not forget that Florence Rome, Harold's wife, published all the correspondence she wrote and sent during her stay in Tokyo -- when her hubby was working on Scarlett, the Japanese-language musical adaptation of Gone with the Wind. Her book, of course, was called "The Scarlett Letters."

But Ostrow writes only four pages on 1776, three on The Apple Tree and Pippin, not much more than a single page on We Take the Town, and just one long paragraph on Here's Love.

He also includes observations on his play productions -- but M. Butterfly gets merely two pages; Scratch and La Bete each get two, while two paragraphs go to Stages, the five one-acts he wrote that closed on opening night. (21 years later, I still can't believe that play. Lawyers hit each other with those vaudeville bladder-shaped pillows. People carried big rocks on their backs. Very avant-garde.)

These analyses are only slightly more lengthy (and sometimes less) than he gives the 47 hits and six flops on which he worked (anything from go fer to associate director), or just plain saw. Indeed, the first 62 of the book's 164 pages are solely about those. When I asked him why he gave such short shrift to his own babies, he said, "Do you think people really would have been interested in such detailed examinations?" in a voice that suggested that it just never occurred to him. Oh, yes, indeed I do, Mr. Ostrow. I'm looking forward to that book.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com