Pipe Dream, Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1955 Musical About Outsiders, Awakens in NYC

By Mervyn Rothstein
23 Mar 2012

Mike Kellin in the 1955 Broadway production
Courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein – An Imagem Company

In the Steinbeck novel, sex was the text, not the subtext. "There's a wonderful quote somewhere from Oscar Hammerstein," Chapin says, "that says if sex isn't at the core of the story, it's probably not worth writing. And of course here sex is right on the surface. For these characters, their trade is sex. And that's kind of not what Rodgers and Hammerstein do. [In Sound of Music], there's a nun who feels something stirring within her for a guy; [in The King and I], there's a very prim and proper Welsh school lady who falls in love with the King of Siam. There's inner emotional and sexual fire within all these stories. But it's not people who trade in it."

Chapin said that the producer Billy Rose "once said to Rodgers and Hammerstein that the problem with Pipe Dream is you guys have never been to a whorehouse. Which is interesting, whether it was a fact or just a conjecture on Rose's part."

When through the years there has been interest in the show, Chapin says, "a lot of people have wanted to do an adaptation and put more Steinbeck grit in it, because one complaint people have had was that Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to turn it into something more user-friendly." But, he says, "I've always had a fear that you can't ask characters to say 'F**k you' and then sing something like 'Some Enchanted Evening' — that putting grit back into the book and keeping the score the way it is may not be a good mix. What would be great is if somebody finds a middle ground that allows the show to have a life that it doesn't have today."

He is glad that David Ives is doing the adaptation — "he's really rather brilliant at figuring out how much of the story to tell." For Pipe Dream, Viertel says, Ives is "basically cutting. Half the job is just making the show performable without large numbers of props. Making it shorter. Making it maybe a little clearer. But there's almost no writing. It's almost all just editing."

Another important reason for the musical's lack of success, Chapin says, was that Rodgers was ill with cancer. "Rodgers was at the first rehearsal reading of the show and then he went into Sloan Kettering and had surgery for cancer of the jaw. Elaine Steinbeck, who had been stage manager in the original production of Oklahoma! and then married Steinbeck, said that nobody could hold a candle to the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein — from the minute the show went into rehearsal until opening night in New York, they were focused. They knew exactly how to edit their shows, how to change them. They were brilliant. But now the team was vulnerable. She said that Hammerstein kind of panicked, because Rodgers wasn't there. No matter what they may have felt about each other, they were smart enough to know that it was a really important and good team."

Viertel agrees. Rodgers' illness, he says, "restricted their ability to fix the show on the road, which was how they worked. Back in those days they went out of town, found out what they had and then they fixed it."

Chapin says he has a feeling that what Pipe Dream "will seem like at Encores! is a little unfinished, because things that might have been changed out of town never were because the team was not operating at full tilt. The team was still able to do 'Cinderella,' Flower Drum Song and Sound of Music, so they could still do it. But this one didn't quite make it."

Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn't been involved in the original plans to musicalize "Sweet Thursday." Steinbeck was thinking of having it adapted for the stage, and [producers] Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin had the rights, "and everybody wanted Frank Loesser," Chapin says. "Doesn't it seem like a logical follow-up to the Damon Runyon characters of Guys and Dolls" (which Feuer and Martin had produced)? "But Loesser wanted to write an opera. He was writing The Most Happy Fella, and he didn't want to do it. Rodgers and Hammerstein became attracted to it, and Feuer and Martin assigned them all their rights. It was a stretch for them. But they wanted to do it. They thought, what an interesting idea."

Watch Playbill Video's look at songs from Pipe Dream in a special Encores! rehearsal-hall press preview:



Among those considered for the lead role of Suzy was Julie Andrews. "For years she's told a beautiful story," Chapin says. "She auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein and Rodgers asked her if she was auditioning for anything else. She had already done The Boy Friend," in which she had been a huge success. "She told Rodgers she had been auditioning for a musical version of [George Bernard Shaw's] Pygmalion. Rodgers said that if that comes to pass it sounds like something you should do, but if it doesn't, we'd really love to have you. And the rest is history."

Instead of Suzy in Pipe Dream, Julie Andrews got Eliza Doolittle in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady.

Pipe Dream actually got nine Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical. It won only one — Alvin Colt's, for costume design. And it lost out as Best Musical to Damn Yankees, which was the only other show to be nominated in that category that season. Pipe Dream's two main stars had sadly truncated careers. William Johnson died of a heart attack in 1957 at age 40. And that same year, Judy Tyler, after going to Hollywood to appear with Elvis Presley in "Jailhouse Rock," died in a car crash with her husband. She was 24.

In the end, Chapin says, Atkinson of The Times was right. Pipe Dream "is Rodgers and Hammerstein in a minor key. It's not terrible. It's not brilliant. It just is what it is."