STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Two Gentlemen of Verona

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Two Gentlemen of Verona This week, we observe the quarter-century anniversary of one of the most startling surprises in Tony history.
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This week, we observe the quarter-century anniversary of one of the most startling surprises in Tony history.

... And the winner as Best Musical is ... Two Gentlemen of Verona! How the winners bounded up to the stage and bounced with glee. It couldn’t be, could it? Yes! We did it! We won! We won Best Musical! But there was something even more significant.

We beat Follies.

To those of us who were paying attention at the time, it was the theatrical equivalent of The Shot Heard Round the World.

And several of us felt as if we’d been shot in the heart. It then astonished most of the stagestruck. It still does 25 years later. It has continually astonished subsequent stagestruck generations.

You mean ... Follies didn’t win Best Musical? Are you kidding me? WHAT’s the name of the show that beat it out?

Two Gentlemen of Verona. Based on a play by William Shakespeare. Lyrics by John Guare, whoid eventually write Six Degrees of Separation, book by him and Mel Shapiro, music by Galt MacDermot, who’d already composed Hair.

And it was a hit, they ask?

Yeah, in fact it was. It opened December 1, 1971, closed May 20, 1973, after 627 performances. That may not seem like much today, but back then, it was a run, and a profitable one at that. Which is more than we can say for Follies’ 504 performances and sea of red ink.

So what, many rebut. Has there ever been a Two Gentlemen of Verona in Concert at Avery Fisher Hall, the way Follies was so celebrated a dozen years ago? How many cast albums can you find of Two Gentlemen on CD? You can find THREE different versions of Follies. Go to a cabaret, and you very well might hear I’m Still Here, Broadway Baby, or Losing My Mind. You think you’ll hear Milkmaid, What Does a Lover Pack,or even Night Letter, which was then the musicalis most famous show-stopper?

Admittedly, no. Nevertheless, I come not to bury Two Gents, as it’s chummily known, but to praise it. I suspect that the show won because it had the ingredient that many Best Musicals possess: It was fun. To restate what runner-up Sondheim said many times about The Wiz,you came out of the theater feeling so much better than you did when you went in.

Detractors are right to say that Two Gents didn’t have the finely crafted lyrics that is the Broadway standard (let alone Follies). False accents so taint the words (log rol-LER, meat chop-PER, fantas-TIC) that you might think the lyrics were written in ten minutes.

That, actually, isn’t too far off the mark. The collaborators began writing in March, 1971, had their new musical ensconced at in Shakespeare-in the-Park by July, and at the St. James on December 1.

“It started,” Guare has told me, “when Joe Papp decided that it was again time for Two Gentlemen to play the park and then go on a flatbed truck to the boroughs. Mel -- who’d directed my House of Blue Leaves-- was going to stage it, but felt that the five-act play wouldn’t hold.”

Makes sense. Shakespearean scholars freely admit that Two Gents is one of his “problem plays.” (That’s the term they use to describe the Bard’s lousier works.) Valentine wants to go to Milan with good buddy Proteus, who won’t leave Julia. But his father insists that he go, so he does, after exchanging rings with Julia. (Yup, another exchanging rings plot.) Valentine falls in love with Silvia, but so does Proteus, who immediately forgets Julia, who shows up when he least expects it. Proteus betrays his lifelong friend by telling Silvia’s father that they’re running off together. Valentine eventually finds out, rebukes his friend, who’s immediately contrite, all is forgiven, and the two couples wind up happily.

Recalled Guare, “Mel started hinting that the Shakespeare play wasn’t so sacrosanct -- no one’s even sure how much of it he wrote -- and suggested that we do something with it. And, with Galt the composer-in-residence that year, we decided on a musical.”

Guare hadn’t done a musical before, hasn’t done one since (“Though I helped on Sophisticated Ladies”), but he’s been a fan of Broadway tuners since his youth, when he’d come in from Atlantic Beach many a Saturday to attend a matinee. (Ask him, and he’ll sing you selections from Shangri-la.) So he knows about Broadway craft, and defends the false accents not by citing time constraints, but by saying, "The lyrics were written first, and that’s the way Galt purposely set them, as if they were all foreign words, to make it sound like another time.

“Everything just all tumbled out,” he admitted. “The songs functioned as verses to lead into the text, which is virtually all Shakespeare. We basically wrote it by leaving phone messages and notes for each other.” And because Guare’s work is rarely conventional, any musical filtered through his sensibility would have to be unique.

Lee Adams once wrote, very tongue-in-cheek, in A Broadway Musical that a Broadway musical “doesn’t have one redeeming feature.” At first glance, that would seem true of Two Gents, which often seems to wink at the slapdash Shakespearean work, and leave it at that. But this musical actually did have one very redeeming feature: It helped promote then-rare color-blind casting.

Said Guare, “It promised to be a racially tense summer, so we started thinking multi-racially. We cast actors who were representative of every neighborhood we were going to play on those mobile units.”

That sure had an affect on one teenager who lived in what she describes as “a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood at 98th and Amsterdam. I was hanging around in this playground where a lot of teenagers hung out. We used to stay there all day playing cards, and hoops, and drinking, when all of a sudden this truck drove up, people jumped off and said they were going to put on this show. We laughed, because we didn’t know what to make of this, but they said we had to come back and see it. We didn’t have to, because we weren’t going anywhere.

“And they put on this musical show called Two Gentlemen of Verona, and our mouths just opened wide. We loved the music, but it was more than that. We just couldn’t believe how it related to our lives. I mean, Julia was pregnant, and so were so many of us.

“They did it a second night, and we all were there again -- not just to hang out, but to see this live show with these wonderful people named Raul Julia and Clifton Davis, who were nobodies then. And when the album came out, we all had to have it. I was working in a record store at the time, and we NEVER stocked any cast albums, just r&b and salsa, but I got this one in, and I bet we sold 40 of them in no time, even though it was an expensive two-record set.”

(A digression: Even that double-disc rankled Follies’ fans, because they had to endure the now-notorious single record that slashed the score. But even here Follies had an effect on its more successful rival. “It’s BECAUSE of what happened to Follies,” recalled Guare, “that I fought for two records.” And then Guare delivered the greatest irony of all: “I was an investor in Follies. I loved it, and always regretted that I didn’t say in my acceptance speech, ‘ I wonder how this will affect my investment in Follies.’”

Now back to our Two Gents adherent: This musical represented the first time I realized what live theater was. And I had to get more of it. I started going down to the Public and getting student rush, and then Lincoln Center, and then the TKTS booth. And then all the time.

The speaker is Laura Aden, who now is the executive director of the New Jersey Theatre Group, a consortium of 19 professional theaters around the Garden State. That includes the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, which Aden thought would be a perfect venue for her beloved Two Gents. For years, she told Bonnie J. Monte, the company’s artistic director, that she should do it. Monte was a bit reluctant, for the Festival had never attempted a musical in its 30-plus year history. But Aden, a pretty persuasive person, kept at it, and finally got Monte to listen to the cast album. Last year, the Festival opened its summer season with the summery show, and wound up breaking all of its existing box office records.

Maybe Two Gentsis making a bit of a comeback. Last month, director Jeffrey Dunn staged a nifty version at Marymount Manhattan College. The joy poured from the stage all night long. You haven’t heard of Stafford Clark-Price (Proteus), Willie Jay Campbell (Valentine), Rebecca Borash (Julia), and Bashirrah Creswell (Silvia), but you very well might some day.

By the way, do you know or remember what the other two nominees were for the Best Musical of the 1971-1972 season? Melvin Van Peebles Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and something called Grease -- which was certainly the public’s Best Musical of that season, not to mention several seasons since.

“And Grease,” admitted Guare, “is the one that we thought would win.”

-- By Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.