Peter Stone, Tony Award-Winning Librettist of Titanic, 1776, Dead at 73

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27 Apr 2003

Peter Stone
Peter Stone

Peter Stone, the Tony Award-winning librettist who wrote the books of the Broadway musicals Titanic, My One and Only, Sugar, The Will Rogers Follies and 1776, died April 26 at a Manhattan hospital.

Mr. Stone, 73, a fixture in the theatre community, was also an Oscar and Emmy Award-winning screenwriter. He was stricken with pulmonary fibrosis recently.

Mr. Stone was a respected craftsman and much sought after librettist and show doctor. He won Tony Awards for his books for Titanic, Woman of the Year and 1776.

The patriotic 1776, which told of the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, won the Best Musical Tony in 1969, when the top award went to the writers and producers; the categories for Best Book and Best Score had not yet been created.

The 1776 script is considered by many to be as potent — or moreso — than the score, a rarity in the musical form. The show's unusually long and literate book scenes offer conflict, tension, felicitous dialogue, humor and humanize the Founding Fathers, making the libretto sing even when no music is heard. (The show has detractors who say the work makes cartoons of historical figures, but the durable show is an audience favorite.) Stone also penned the screenplay of the subsequent 1972 film (recently released on DVD), one of the most faithful stage-to-screen adaptations in musical film history.



Mr. Stone was working on at least two unproduced stage musicals: Curtains, with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Death Takes a Holiday, with a score by Maury Yeston. In recent years he had also revised the book to Finian's Rainbow (underscoring the racial angle of the socially-aware fantasy) for a planned Broadway production that never made it beyond its tryout, and he adapted the Annie Get Your Gun that played Broadway starring Bernadette Peters revival (for that, he took out the culturally offensive references to Native Americans).

Mr. Stone told Playbill On-Line he has also been at work on yet another musical, Love Me, Love My Dog with "Wichita Lineman" songwriter Jimmy Webb.

Among his many credits, he also penned to book to the musical, Skyscraper, a vehicle for Julie Harris that earned him a Tony nomination. He co-wrote the book for Tommy Tune's My One and Only, a spin on vintage Gershwin musicals that snagged another Best Book nomination. He was called onto the project late. He adapted Clifford Odets' The Flowering Peach to create Two by Two, the 1970 Richard Rodgers musical about Noah, his ark and his family.

Peter Hess Stone was born in Los Angeles to film producer father and a film writer mother. He would later write the screenplays for Hollywood's "Father Goose" (winning an Academy Award) and "Charade," and wrote many scripts for television. In 1964, he shared the Original Screenplay Oscar for "Father Goose" with co-writers S. H. Barnett and Frank Tarloff.

 

His screenplays include "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?," "The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three," "Sweet Charity" and more.

Mr. Stone's first theatre credit is Friend of the Family, produced at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis in 1948. He also wrote the libretto for the 1961 Broadway musical, Kean, which had a score by Robert Wright and George Forrest (Grand Hotel). Mr. Stone is survived by his wife, Mary.

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A private reading of the long aborning murder mystery musical comedy, Curtains, by composer Kander, Ebb and librettist Stone, was expected to happen in May. It follows a May 2001 reading of the same show. Scott Ellis is attached as director.

The show had a reading in January 2001 and the collaborators have been working on the script since that time. A workshop following the May reading is the next likely step, Stone previously told Playbill On-Line.

Progress on the work has often been slow, Mr. Stone told Playbill On-Line in late 2001, "because Kander and Ebb and I are never free at the same moment. So we've refined it many times, but now we really want to go forward with it."

Mr. Stone told PBOL in January 2001 that Kander and Ebb have been working on Curtains "sporadically for 12-to-13 years. We've each done at least three other shows in that period, so either they've been busy or I have, so it was tough to get together. But we had a private reading three or four weeks ago [in early 2001], just for us, and it was very encouraging. Scott Ellis directed, and we want him to be our director."

Mr. Stone said it would be a blessing to have the tryout at Boston's Colonial Theatre — where the plot takes place.

As of early 2001, Curtains was set during the tryout of a Broadway-bound musical. The show's producers are a married couple, one of whom is murdered in the third scene. Every member of the cast and crew is a suspect, since they all have some kind of beef with the producing twosome. Mr. Stone cautioned not to look for similarities between the Curtains characters and real-life, married producers (such as Barry and Fran Weissler). "There's no similarity to Barry and Fran," he told PBOL. "They're nobody living or dead."

Curtains is a rarity in that it isn't based on source material from another medium or a play adapted into a musical. "It's an original musical not based on anything," Mr. Stone said, adding that after the murder, a homicide detective is brought in, and "by sheer coincidence, he happens to be a remarkably up to-date musical theatre buff. He's thrilled to be there with opinions and suggestions."

In the 2001 reading, James Naughton was the detective, with Debra Monk as the widowed producer and Edward Hibbert the director of the musical-within-the-musical (also called Curtains).

His new work with Yeston, Death Takes a Holiday, is based on Alberto Casella's comedy drama of the same name. First on Broadway in 1929, adapted from the original Italian by Walter Ferris, Death tells of the Grim Reaper visiting earth to discover why people are so fearful of him. Or, as Mr. Stone put it, "What can life be that they cling to it so?" Death then becomes a houseguest at a swanky nobleman's household where an engagement is being celebrated. And that's where he falls in love.

A draft of the show is complete. "It's very lush and romantic and amusing in many aspects, even though it deals with a somewhat serious subject," Mr. Stone told Playbill On-Line.

The story was filmed in the 1930s with Frederic March in the lead, and Brad Pitt starred in a more recent movie adaptation, "Meet Joe Black." "Each time they remake it," Mr. Stone said, "it's farther from the original. We're keeping the locale: Italy, just after the first World War. It's a small musical. Ten principles, all of them important, no chorus."

Mr. Stone said he did very little tweaking to his script for 1972's Sugar, which was recently revived for a tour under the title of its source material, Some Like It Hot.<

The musical criss-crossed the nation in the past year starring Tony Curtis, of the film, in the role of an aging millionaire.

"I restored a few lines of the movie for Tony because it made him happy," Mr. Stone previously told Playbill On Line. "There are some things from the original show that are back that weren't in the picture."

Why isn't Sugar, with a score by Funny Girl team Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, better known today? Some say it's because producer David Merrick didn't get rights to the film title: Who knows what a musical called Sugar is about, anyway?

 

Despite that fact, Sugar was a big hit at the time, Mr. Stone said. "It was very successful, it ran two years on Broadway, it toured very nicely," he explained. "It was David Merrick's last moneymaker before 42nd Street. It was a hit from the first day it opened in Washington, DC prior to Broadway."

Mr. Stone added that Sugar is huge in the stock and amateur revival market.

"It's probably the most successful stock and amateur [property] I've ever done — especially foreign [licensing]," said Mr. Stone. "There are two guys everywhere in the world who wanna get in a dress. And this is the one show they can get into a dress without being gay — they're on the run! It's terribly attractive to two actors, so it's constantly done. It was done in London, with Tommy Steele."

The road to creating the original production was not easy, Mr. Stone said. George Axelrod was the original book writer and under director Gower Champion, Sugar "was practically a new plot," Mr. Stone explained. "Suddenly, they got to a point where Merrick said, 'Wait a minute — we're doing this because everybody loved the movie, and this doesn't make any sense.' The script was thrown out along with Axelrod, who very nicely agreed it was going nowhere, and I was called in. Even some of the casting had been done already when I was called in. Bobby Morse was in, and I think Elaine Joyce was in at that point. They went completely back to the movie plot."

In writing the original, there was some question about using the final line of the film, Mr. Stone said. "Everybody knows it, everybody's looking forward to it, and I said, 'That's why you have to have it.' The audience wants it, and when it comes they explode in it."

Mr. Stone said creating the show was happy until Merrick "went crazy."

Mr. Stone, known for his showbiz anecdotes, said, "He and I had been good friends, and we got to Washington and he decided to call in 11 other writers. It was a hit, it got good reviews. He didn't believe you could do your best work unless you were miserable. He tyrannized everybody. Jerry Herman [who was reportedly sought to write the score before Styne and Merrill] came in to add some songs, which broke Jule's heart — Jule being his mentor. They weren't used. Neil Simon came in and wrote a couple of scenes, which were not used. I didn't let them be. I owned the show, and [Merrick] could not change a word of it. All he could do was pressure. Neil didn't know I was still there. Merrick had told him I had left."

Mr. Stone, once president of the Dramatists Guild, said in summer 2002 producers still threaten young writers with the shadow of replacement writers.

"You mustn't ever cave in," he said. "What you do is you negotiate your way out. You don't give up your money. You may go, and that's fine. If you don't wanna be there for all that and it's driving you crazy. You get your royalty. When I went in on My One and Only and Grand Hotel, it was with the authors' permission. I would meet with them as president [of the Dramatists Guild] and say, 'Look you don't have to do this. They're gonna close the show, but you don't have to do this.'"

The Daily News first reported news of Mr. Stone's death.