Marc Blitzstein's musical Juno, which has long been on the musical theatre lovers' most-wanted list, has finally been transferred to CD. It is intriguing, to say the least.
This was the 1959 musicalization of Sean O'Casey's 1924 classic Juno and the Paycock. Not a typical candidate for musical comedy. Rodgers and Hammerstein had tried their hands on Molnar's Liliom in 1945 and done exceedingly well; Blitzstein's protege, Leonard Bernstein, had joined with Robbins, Laurents, and Sondheim to give us West Side Story in 1957. But Broadway musicals about civil war and intolerant hatred and murder were a hard sell at the time. (Unlike today.)
Juno opened March 9, 1959, at the Winter Garden. (West Side Story moved to the Broadway to make way for Juno; a voluntary transfer, presumably, as both shows came from Roger L. Stevens. West Side returned to the Winter Garden as soon as Juno's dust settled.) Juno received severely mixed-to-unfavorable reviews, and closed after a mere 16 performances. The show was clearly unfocused and hazy; there were three directors involved, Tony Richardson, Vincent J. Donehue, and Jose Ferrer. None of them had much musical experience, as was evident. Agnes de Mille was on hand as choreographer, and contributed much of what worked in the evening. (Thirty-odd years earlier, de Mille had served as dresser for operetta star Lina Abarbanel, Blitzstein's mother-in law.) In retrospect, this was the sort of show that would have benefitted from a couple of workshops at Lincoln Center Theater and a tryout at the Old Globe; but that sort of development did not exist in 1959.
While I am a strong admirer of the composer, I must confess that I have always found Juno admirable and engrossing but not especially enjoyable. Blitzstein was wildly talented, but in Juno he seems to have been restrained by the shadow of O'Casey. Time and again in the score, I sense that Blitzstein is reminding himself to write Irish music — and that hampers his creativity. The score ranges from exceptional to mundane; the weaker portions make it very clear to us, today, that Juno simply couldn't have worked. There have been at least three major attempts at "fixing" the show, in the same way that Bernstein's Candide was "fixed." But only Blitzstein himself could fix Juno, and he was murdered in 1964.
The orchestral prelude and the opening number, "We're Alive," show Juno at its best. Slashing chords, a proud-but-dirge-like rhythm, a full choir, and what is presumably a truncated version of ballet music combine for a strong and powerful start. There are a couple of lovely art songs, "I Wish it So" and "My True Heart"; and a searing closing number ("Where?") in which the title character mourns her son, shot as an informer by the I.R.A. Blitzstein's ballet music for the tortured boy, "Johnny," is searing. All of the dance music, which is scattered through the score, is exciting.
But too much of the score misses. "What Is the Stars?" has some interesting themes but wanders around too much for my taste; "Daarlin' Man" has a charming Irish bluster, but weakens in the bridge and doesn't quite pay off; other songs sound formulaic. "Old Sayin's" illustrates one of Juno's main problems. Blitzstein really tries to make a go of it in this song-battle between Juno and her Paycock-of-a-husband; but the song is neither funny enough nor harsh enough, leaving us feeling undernourished.
This song, in particular, also leaves me feeling that Tevye and Golde had Irish cousins; librettist Joseph Stein moved on to Anatevka, and he apparently packed some ideas in his suitcase. There's a section of "On a Day Like This" in which Captain Boyle expounds on what he'd do if he were a rich man; the most important men in town would come to fawn on him, more or less, and he would "study poetry that don't even rhyme." Elsewhere, there's a song slot featuring a gramophone that resurfaced in Stein's Rags. (The song slot resurfaced, not the song itself.)
Nevertheless, even the weaker material is interesting. And everything sounds wonderful, musically. Blitzstein collaborated on the orchestrations with Russell Bennett and Hershy Kay; the conductor was Robert Emmett Dolan, who composed two lesser Broadway musicals of his own (Texas, Li'l Darlin' and Foxy).
Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas starred, and not happily so. Both were skilled performers, but miscast. Booth came to the role with a fair share of musical comedy experience, as well as three Tonys and an Oscar; she also picked up twin Emmys in 1962 and 1963. Douglas — best remembered as the man who tamed Garbo in Ninotchka — had never performed in a musical (although he had produced the exuberant 1946 revue, Call Me Mister). Douglas immediately followed Juno with a Tony-winning performance in 1960 in The Best Man; he also won Oscars in 1963 and 1979.
Monte Amundsen sings the art songs, as the Doyle's daughter Mary; Tommy Rall danced the non-singing role of Johnny (and was reportedly very good). There was a quartet of biddys, including the already-familiar musical comedy character comediennes Jean Stapleton and Nancy Andrews. Joining them, and singing well enough in her Broadway debut, was Sada Thompson. (She has the third verse, "Paddy, he beats me.") Prominent among the chorus was Arthur Rubin, whose ringing high tenor is identifiable in a half-dozen spots.
So Juno is now finally available, and that is all to the good. This was the second of only two full-scale Blitzstein musicals that made it to Broadway. (His most popular work as composer, The Cradle Will Rock, was presented in truncated form when the producer — Uncle Sam— withdrew the day of the opening and locked up the scenery and orchestra parts. Blitzstein's 1955 musical, Reuben Reuben, closed during a highly troubled pre-Broadway tryout.)
That leaves us with his first full musical, Regina, the 1949 musicalization of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. This is one of Broadway's most accomplished pieces of serious musical theatre; parts of it are in a class with the great Sweeney Todd. The Broadway version of Regina went unrecorded, but a 1958 mounting at the New York City Opera was recorded by Columbia as a three-LP set [O3S 202]. It is of primary importance to anyone interested in the dramatic possibilities of the Broadway musical. No CD release is on the horizon, at least to my knowledge, so you might want to grab any copy that you come across. A complete studio version of Regina, restoring material cut from the 1958 production, was released on CD in 1992 [London 433 821, out-of print]. Unfortunately, the sound reproduction is so uneven that many of the vocals are indecipherable.
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