Music and lyrics: Mark Blitzstein
Book: Joseph Stein
Broadway Opening: March 9, 1959 at the Winter Garden Theatre
Original Cast Included: Melvyn Douglas, Shirley Booth, Jack MacGowran, Monte Amundsen, Tommy Rall, Jean Stapleton, Sada Thompson, Gemze de Lappe, Arthur Rubin, Nancy Andrews, Rico Froehlich, Clarice Blackburn, Loren Driscoll, Beulah Garrick, Robert Hoyem, Julian Patrick, Robert Rue, Arthur Rubin
When fans of musical revolutionary Marc Blitzstein learned he was planning a musical full of comic faith-and-begorra Irish villagers, they must have wondered whether the veteran social crusader had sold out at last.
But Juno was no lark. By taking on Sean O'Casey's tragicomedy Juno and the Paycock, considered one of the great works of world theatre of the twentieth century, Blitzstein was dealing in archetypes, not stereotypes. It offered him a chance to use his music to embroider rich characters while simultaneously exploring his great theme of the corrupting effect of money that threaded his work and haunted his own life.
"Packed with pathos, humor, anger, tenderness and heartbreak," as Harold Clurman said of all O'Casey's work, the 1924 Juno and the Paycock was written during the Irish struggle for independence. It captures the lives of an ordinary Irish family — poetic souls sucked down in a whirlpool of political oppression, chronic violence and poverty. The play placed fifteenth in the Royal National Theatre's survey of the Twentieth Century's Most Significant Plays.
O'Casey went into something of an eclipse during World War II and the years immediately following. But after Paul Shyre's adaptation, I Knock at the Door, was done Off-Broadway in 1956, followed by Pictures in the Hallway, an O'Casey renaissance got underway in America. Productions included Red Roses for Me in 1956 and a staging of Purple Dust that ran more than a year. (Shyre later directed a TV version of Juno and the Paycock featuring Hume Cronyn and Walter Matthau.)
In this climate Juno was born. But the musical did not begin with Blitzstein. Librettist Joseph Stein first approached O'Casey in July 1956 with the idea of making a musical of Juno and the Paycock. The 66-year-old O'Casey resisted at first. He had previously discussed the idea of making the property into an opera with composer Hugo Weisgall and was unfamiliar with the American musical theatre form. But Stein, who had previously written books for the musicals Plain and Fancy, Mr. Wonderful and Body Beautiful with Will Glickman, visited O'Casey at his home in Devon, England, and explained how the play could work as a musical. That summer's phenomenal success of My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion by fellow Irishman George Bernard Shaw, also helped make Stein's case.
It was Stein's idea to open up the play, which takes place exclusively in the Boyles' depressing tenement flat, and show the somewhat more expansive places only mentioned in the text: Foley's bar, the street, the park. The groupings of the characters seemed to suggest solos, duets and chorus numbers. Their lyrical speech seemed to invite musical accompaniment. At the end of a legendary evening of theatre talk, O'Casey granted Stein permission to refeather Paycock as a Broadway musical — even without a songwriter yet on board.
Blitzstein biographer Eric A. Gordon wrote that it was Helen Harvey at the William Morris Agency who put forward Blitzstein's name as someone who had the right balance of gravitas, melody and brass-tacks Broadway experience to do justice to the subject matter. Stein and Blitzstein had worked together once briefly in the 1940's, and, coming off the 1955 flop of his Reuben, Reuben — for which he wrote his own libretto — Blitzstein was eager to get back in the saddle with an experienced collaborator.
They began work in late spring 1957 and completed a majority of the first draft over that summer and early fall. For Blitzstein, who had always championed society’s underdogs and questioned the power of both government and money in his work, the material seemed heaven-sent. The rich musical background of Ireland, with its hymns, jigs, chanteys, reels and clog-dancing, also gave him a vivid palette to draw from.
At first they called their project Daarlin' Man. The success of Finian’s Rainbow a little more than a decade earlier showed there was an appetite for the patois. But Finian had shown the Irish out of their element, in the American deep South. Musical Broadway had never seen or heard Irish in Ireland, certainly not like this. Developments in the musical theatre form during the previous 15 years since Oklahoma! had given writers permission to deal with more serious subject matter. Juno and the Paycock both celebrates and mourns an entire people and their plight, leaving room for both comedy and tragedy in the score. Stein and Blitzstein deserve credit for resisting suggestions that they give the show a somewhat happier ending.
Blitzstein was encouraged in his work by O’Casey himself, who gave thumbs up to a recording of the in-progress score. Indeed, it proved to be his most traditional and melodic score, the one closest to the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. It was expected to be his most commercially successful score as well.
Everything looked bright for the musical, which began to assemble an impeccable pedigree. Roger Stevens and his Playwrights Company, which had Kurt Weill's major American projects, optioned Daarlin' Man and came aboard as producers. Distinguished British director Tony Richardson indicated he would like to stage the work. Agnes de Mille, choreographer of Oklahoma!, and now one of the preeminent in her field, came aboard to do the dances. They were joined by music director Robert Emmett Dolan, set designer Oliver Smith, costumer Irene Sharaff, lighting designer Peggy Clark, and orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, later supplemented by Hershy Kay. It looked like a dream team.
Things began to get knotty in 1958, however. Casting proved to be a chore. James Cagney was sought for "Captain" Boyle, but the role finally went to Melvyn Douglas, clearly a "name" from his long experience in Hollywood, but with virtually no experience as a singer or dancer. The title role went to Shirley Booth, a beloved character actress who had both musical (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and non-musical (Come Back, Little Sheba) experience (later to star in TV’s "Hazel"). It certainly didn’t hurt that she had also appeared in a revival of Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. But she was considered by many, including herself, as perhaps too gentle for the Gibraltar-like Juno. But Blitzstein was certain his leads could do it — with the proper help from the writers and director.
O’Casey himself proposed Jack MacGowran of the Abbey Theatre for the role of Joxer. He wound up as the lone actual Irishman in the cast. New York City Opera soprano Monte Amundsen later joined the cast as the ingenue, Mary, to provide some vocal glitter to the mix.
In the midst of casting, Blitzstein found himself called before the fearsome House Un-American Activities Committee, then nearing the end of its disgraceful work. Though Blitzstein made no attempt to hide his former participation, the committee did not pursue him as it had others.
But Blitzstein soon found himself with a new challenge, one that would prove to be fateful for Daarlin’ Man/Juno’s future. In early fall 1958, just before the show was to have gone into production, Richardson withdrew as director, citing scheduling conflicts. The team was perhaps over-hasty in engaging Vincent J. Donehue (Sunrise at Campobello) as his replacement. Like Douglas, Donehue had no Broadway experience with musicals, an art form that demands the closest and most complex collaboration among widely disparate artists.
Nevertheless, so much was expected of the project that Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story was compelled to transfer to another theatre to free up Broadway’s spacious Winter Garden Theatre for the show.
But too many learning curves converged on rehearsals that began in late fall 1958 for the show, now called Juno to focus on its star leading lady. Stresses and strains began to be felt immediately, especially by the time the show opened its tryout in Washington, D.C. in January 1959. The main concern was tone. Was it too cartoonishly Irish on one hand? Or was it not truly and deeply Irish enough? Some critics felt the material should have been an opera. Others questioned whether it should have been musicalized at all.
The show benefited from Amundsen’s lovely voice and from de Mille’s dances. The vibrancy of the latter can be imagined from the thrilling dance music, which Godard Lieberson, producer of the Columbia original cast album, made sure was included.
It’s hard to imagine, listening to this recording today, that the lovely and melodic score was criticized as too dissonant and strident. There was a sense at the time that Blitzstein’s melodies taxied up to greatness, but never quite got up the speed to take flight.
The February Boston reviews said much the same, with additional criticism of the casting of the two leads. Douglas gave several ill-advised interviews, disparaging his own singing abilities. Perhaps this was to inoculate himself against criticism, but it wasn’t helpful to the bottom line. Booth was more circumspect about her insecurities about her own performance, at least when the press was around.
But it had become clear that Donehue was not giving the production the kind of firm guidance it needed, and he was fired the day after the Boston opening. Actor Jose Ferrer, who had also done some directing, was brought in to replace Donehue, but he had barely more than a month to whip the show into shape. The collaborators worked fiendishly, cutting, sharpening and rewriting. Notably, the stirring opening, "We’re Alive," was added at this time, and several critics called it the high point of the show. But the show that opened at the Winter Garden March 9 endured much the same reaction it had earned out of town. It succumbed just 16 performances later.
Everyone involved quickly moved on to other projects. Stein wrote librettos to Fiddler on the Roof, Rags, and other shows, many of which drew on his experience with Juno. Blitzstein was working on another project, an opera based on the execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, when he himself was murdered. All that might have been the end of the story for Juno, but for the recording of the original cast album, which is now available.
The quality and fidelity of the Juno score attracted a tiny but devoted cult, much like those that attend Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle or Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife, all of which flopped, but were preserved on brilliant cast albums. Anyone listening to these albums imagines that these are wonderful shows, just waiting for the right production to give them the success they deserve.
With Juno, there have been two major attempts. Geraldine Fitzgerald and Richard Maltby, Jr. made several changes for a 1974 production at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, starring Fitzgerald and Milo O’Shea. It got a further mounting at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Arvin Brown, but got no farther.
Juno returned to New York in 1992 in a production at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre directed by Lonny Price, starring Anita Gillete and Dick Latessa and featuring Malcolm Gets of TV’s "Caroline and the City." With Stein’s blessing, Price and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh reworked the book and added a song for Juno.
"I think it’s the best thing I've ever done," said Price, who earned Tony nominations for his work on A Class Act. "The story is so compelling and moving, and the songs are just so odd. It’s got one of the best opening numbers I ever heard. The orchestrations are amazing. It sounds like no other cast album I ever heard."
Unfortunately, his production got much the same critical reaction as the previous ones. "Critics were just mad that Juno and the Paycock was turned into a musical," Price said. "They thought it was sacrilege: ‘How dare you!’ They just didn’t want to go with it. I’m sorry we weren’t able to solve it — at least for the critics. People who saw it sort of loved it."
Juno will likely continue to be produced and tinkered with until its time eventually comes.
The consensus is that the score may have been ahead of its time, especially harmonically. Blitzstein’s resolute refusal to write for the pop charts, but instead to serve diligently only character and theme, puts him comfortably in the company of late 1990's writers like Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel.
Ken Mandelbaum asserted in his survey of failed musicals, "Not Since Carrie," that "Blitzstein's score is the greatest ever heard in a postwar flop." A website devoted to "Forgotten Scores" called it "A legendary cast album cherished by all who own it and intriguing for the ones who never heard it."
Nevertheless, the show’s brief original run and comparative obscurity of its composer made Juno one of the last of the 1950's original cast albums to be transferred to the CD format. Fynsworth Alley was pleased to correct that oversight. The musical and its participants seem to leap off the CD, asserting, as their characters do, "We’re alive."
—By Robert Viagas