De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Of the dead, say nothing but good. But how can I when writing about Jerome Weidman and George Abbott's book for Tenderloin?
Don't misunderstand. When I caught the 1960 musical last month at the Turtle Lane Playhouse in Newton, Massachusetts, I was grateful to director Paul Farwell for giving me the chance to see it. And I'm sure his excellent cast was glad, too, to have the opportunity to do Jerry Bock's delightful music and Sheldon Harnick's earthy lyrics.
But good heavens, what an awful book.
I shouldn't be surprised, considering that chapter in William Goldman's The Season, where he tells of Harnick's working out-of town on an unnamed show. After the bookwriter read the lyricist's rewrite of a rotten scene, he asked Harnick his opinion on the new version. "The trouble with washing garbage," he reportedly said, "is that after you're done, it's still garbage." I've often heard that the show was Tenderloin, and now I wouldn't bet against the guess.
There's no one to root for. Maybe we could get behind Dr. Brock, who wants to close that nefarious part of gay '90s New York known as the Tenderloin -- but he's depicted as such an arch sobersides. As for Tommy, a reporter for the wicked Tattler, he's a genuine double-agent, who pretends to be Brock's friend in order to get information -- which he then delivers to the corrupt police officials, in order to advance his own career. What Tommy does have, though, is a lovely voice -- one that entrances the high-born Laura Crosbie, when he does a turn-of-the century art song, "Artificial Flowers."
An aside: I've known this song for almost four decades, and I'm still not sure if it's supposed to be serious or funny. It would seem to be on-the-level, given that it tells of poor little Anne, alone in the world since her parents died, relegating her to make and sell artificial flowers in order to survive. Thus far, Harnick seems to be sympathetic to the waif's plight, but deep in the song, he has Tommy sing, "And wiring and waxing, she waned." Great joke -- but does it belong here? One could pardon Farwell for going for a broad, flat-out rendition at Turtle Lane. It did get the sought-after laughs from the crowd.
By that point, though, I was realizing what was wrong with the show. We need to see what's horrible about the Tenderloin. We need to see Tommy trying to get on a good newspaper, and, being unceremoniously turned down, settling for the tabloid.
So I went home and read the novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams on which the musical was based, and saw that Tommy did try to get on a good newspaper before settling for what he could get, figuring it'd be a start, anyway. We also see two of the more promising young men in town infected as a result of their trips downtown. (Was this dropped because of the times, or because of George Abbott's well-known prudish bent?)
I also found a character, Dan Adriance, who works for the prestigious Star -- though he isn't above coming to the tabloid one day a week to make some extra money. That's more support of Tenderloin's theme of hypocrisy.
Dan hates Tommy (good conflict), and rather likes Laura -- but, burned by a previous relationship, is reluctant to trust again. That doesn't matter to Laura, who doesn't have the ability to love. "Let's be more than friends, though," she tells Dan. "Let's be cousins" -- a cue for a charm song if I ever heard one.
Dan's attention is diverted when his tabloid editor asks him to get something on Dr. Brockholst Farr (as he's called in the novel) so that the Tenderloin won't be closed. But the good Dr. was helpful in getting Dan his job on the Star. Nice complication there, too -- totally lost in the musical.
Odd as it may sound, My Fair Lady's success may have been a component in Tenderloin's failure. Once Rex Harrison showed that good singing was no longer a necessity in a musical leading man, a flurry of such performers were suddenly cast and starred in shows. Here, it was noted Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans, whose Dr. Brock was greatly enlarged for the musical (perhaps causing Dan's excision).
But while Henry Higgins is witty and fun, Dr. Brock is not. Poor Evans had a good deal of florid lines ("noisome pestilence" is just one example), and he speaks in a lofty manner that distances him from his parishioners -- and us. Maybe if the part had been played by a good-looking young minister instead of an aging, bearded one, the authors would have provided more audience-friendly dialogue.
Here's the more significant problem: the Tommy of the novel is desperately willing to spend his hard-earned money for English lessons -- just as Eliza Doolittle was. Both respect education, and want to better themselves. Perhaps the four collaborators felt that if they kept those values, Tenderloin would seem like warmed-over Fair Lady, which was still drawing crowds in 1960. But eliminating the best of Tommy's nature didn't help.
One final nit-pick: There's a character in the show named Deacon. Wouldn't you assume he's connected with Dr. Brock's church? Not at all. He's a habitue of the Tenderloin, and Deacon is his last name. Of all the surnames available to the authors, did they have to choose one that would confuse audiences into thinking he's on the other side?
Nevertheless, bless Turtle Lane, a semi-pro playhouse, for doing Tenderloin with love and care. During the overture (in which Ken Grady perfectly executed that very difficult trumpeting), handsome slides of the era were projected. Farwell wisely cut the many in-ones, and let the show flow on a unit set, with a rooming house on the left, the police station on the right. There were enough costumes to provide a decade's worth of Halloweens, and the performers in them were terrific.
Farwell did make one mistake. As originally written, the prostitutes sing that they must leave "Little Old New York" in favor of "Little Old Detroit" - which Farwell changed to "Little Old Boston." That provided some nice local color, but the word is "BOS-ton," not "Bos-TON," as the cast pronounced it, and that sounded awkward.
By the way, at the end of Bajour -- which also enjoyed a recent Massachusetts revival -- the gypsies, too, leave New York for Detroit. Seems that both Bajour's Walter Marks and Tenderloin's Harnick knew there aren't too many major two-syllable cities where the accent is on the second beat.
But would prostitutes come to Boston, the American city most famous for being strait-laced, where so much was banned? (Come to think of it, maybe they would.)
Wasn't it nice of Jerry Bock himself to show up at Turtle Lane's closing performance? At the curtain call, after Farwell introduced him from the stage, the composer graciously said, "Thank you for bringing back a lost child from lo these many years, and making Tenderloin something we could see again." Despite my many reservations, I agree.
Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com