By 1955, people were already lying about having seen The Golden Apple. To have caught the show was a mark of erudition, a sort of homosexual epaulet. Writer James McCourt included the musical on his “free-association ‘50s queer syllabus” alongside Allen Ginsberg, Eartha Kitt, Rancho Notorious, and Captain Marvel. To be counted among New York’s gay elite, he explained, “You had to know the lyrics to all the songs.”
Dubbed “an instantaneous cult item” by the Daily News, the musical’s legend has only grown since the 1950s. Based on the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Jerome Moross-John Latouche musical resets the Greek myths in turn-of-the-century America, complete with hot-air balloons, boxing matches, and pie-baking contests. True believers covet The Golden Apple; they “guard” it, to borrow the lingo of one Facebook fan page. The show seems fragile, somehow, too divinely sophisticated to survive in the world.
For devotees, the only audience truly worthy of The Golden Apple was the one present on opening night. On March 11, 1954, the Phoenix Theatre resembled “a vast Sardi’s”: Gore Vidal was there, looking vaguely “Luciferian,” and Marlene Dietrich muscled her way backstage after the performance to demand the orchestration for “Lazy Afternoon.” (By June, the song was in her club act.) Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo missed the opening, but wrote that they’d “heard the shouting” all the way from 58th Street.
For the producers, the real triumph had been coaxing people to make the schlep to the East Village. Off-Broadway was still an alien concept in the early 1950s, to the point that Phoenix Theatre co-founder Norris Houghton felt compelled to walk theatergoers through the process of leaving midtown. “Second Avenue is one-way southbound,” he explained, “and once you have a green light, the trip is non-stop from the East 50s on staggered lights.”
Housed in a former Yiddish theatre on 12th Street and Second Avenue, the Phoenix had been founded in 1953 as a sandbox for experimentation far from the commercial pressures of Broadway. “We wanted to see on the stage things we doubted we would see if we didn’t do them,” Houghton wrote. In the inaugural season, those “things” included six-week runs of Montgomery Clift in The Seagull, John Houseman’s Coriolanus, and The Golden Apple.
The Phoenix was a shoestring affair. The floors were caked with chewing gum, the lightbulbs in the dressing rooms kept burning out, and the orchestra seats were conspicuously squeaky despite “continual and energetic oiling.” One night, when the bathrooms ran low on toilet paper, actor Jerry Stiller dashed out and bought a few rolls with his own money. “That was when I got my first taste of social consciousness about the theatre,” he recalled in 1996.
The actors rehearsed in the Bagel Bakers Union building, ate borscht on their lunch breaks, and saw The Golden Apple as a labor of love. At $55 a week, it had to be. “I thought it was very sophisticated,” says Kaye Ballard, who played Helen. “I would joke backstage, ‘Once in a while, I miss a pie in the face, you know?’”
Ballard had the opportunity to do a little shtick on opening night. The orchestra conductor dropped his score right before “Lazy Afternoon,” forcing Ballard to ad-lib for three minutes while he fished around for the pages. In the final moments of Act Two, Latouche fled the theatre and sat on the lobby steps, sobbing. “They’ve ruined my second act—they’ve ruined it—spoiled everything!” he said. (Today, nobody is clear on what was ruined, or who “they” were.)
Backstage melodrama aside, the show had all the symptoms of a smash. Ballard made the cover of Life magazine and the production moved to the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) that April, becoming the first Off-Broadway musical to transfer to Broadway. An esoteric little moonbeam in a theatre district dominated by The Pajama Game and Kismet, Moross and Latouche’s “opera for Broadway” wound up closing after four months. “It wasn’t the sort of show ticket scalpers could sell,” said production assistant Hope Abelson.
Despite the brevity of its run, the show managed to rouse the ire of McCarthyites. The anti-Communist newsletter Counterattack railed against the musical’s “slick mockery of various aspects of American life,” concluding that “Moscow owes a vote of thanks to the many critics who have heaped praise on The Golden Apple.”
A few years later the Phoenix Theatre itself was accused of Communist leanings—but it survived, and continued to produce idiosyncratic work for the next 30 years. In 1959, Once Upon a Mattress premiered at the Phoenix. Harold Prince and Sidney Lumet directed their first plays there; Barbara Harris, Wendy Wasserstein, and Meryl Streep scored early successes there.
To Prince, the Phoenix was “the closest our country has come to the Royal National Theater.” Critics carped that the company had no defining credo—but as Anne Cattaneo once explained, “That was its mission, not to have a consistent identity. It’s born out of an egg, it dies, and it’s born again.”
Now that The Golden Apple is being reborn at Encores!, its reputation as Broadway caviar is worth reexamining. In the era of Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel, the score seems newly approachable; for Kaye Ballard, it has always been an emotionally limpid work. “I understood it in 1954,” she says. “I don’t understand how I understood it, because I’m an Italian from Cleveland. But as sophisticated as The Golden Apple was, it was simple, too. It’s to love the you that’s me, and the me that’s you—I mean, how can you not understand that?”
WATCH: Lindsay Mendez Stars in The Golden Apple:
Matt Weinstock lives in Brooklyn.