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

By Mervyn Rothstein
March 23, 2012

John Steinbeck's California coastal community of Cannery Row was described by the novelist as "a poem, a stink, a grating noise." Learn how Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II turned the world into the musical Pipe Dream, currently in rehearsal as an Encores! concert.



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It is, Ted Chapin says, the Rodgers and Hammerstein show "nobody knows."

Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, is talking about Pipe Dream, which is being presented as part of the City Center Encores! concert series March 28-April 1. It was the composing team's seventh musical, coming after major hits — Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I — but also immediately after a relative failure, Me and Juliet. Pipe Dream opened in November 1955, and with 246 performances is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that had the shortest run on Broadway.

Based on "Sweet Thursday," a 1954 novel by John Steinbeck set in Monterey, CA — as was Steinbeck's previous "Cannery Row" — it tells of a marine biologist who falls in love with a prostitute. Opera star Helen Traubel was hired to play Fauna, the madam of a bordello. A Broadway veteran, William Johnson, who had replaced Alfred Drake in Kismet, portrayed Doc, the biologist; the hooker, Suzy, was Judy Tyler, who had played Princess Summerfall Winterspring on TV's "Howdy Doody Show."

The much starrier Encores! cast features Will Chase (Michael Swift/Joe DiMaggio of TV's "Smash") as Doc; Laura Osnes (Bonnie and Clyde, Anything Goes, South Pacific) as Suzy; Tony Award winner Leslie Uggams (Hallelujah, Baby!) as madam Fauna; and Tom Wopat as Doc's friend Mac. David Ives, an Encores! regular, has adapted Hammerstein's libretto. Marc Bruni, who directed Fanny at Encores!, directs.

From the very beginning, he says, "Encores! has always felt that shows by great musical theatre writers that may not have succeeded originally were always worth taking a look at, were always worth revisiting. It underscores the notion, which some people find hard to take on, that Encores! is not about pre-Broadway possibilities but really about giving an audience in New York that likes musical theatre a sense of what shows from another era were like, hopefully accentuating the positives and minimizing the aspects of the shows that weren't that great."

William Johnson and Judy Tyler in the 1955 Broadway production
Courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein – An Imagem Company

Jack Viertel, the artistic director of Encores!, says that he "has wanted to do Pipe Dream for a long time. It's the Rodgers and Hammerstein score that's not from one of their immortal classics that I love the best."

"The original cast album is not a very good representation of it, for various reasons," Viertel says. "It has always been on our list of shows that we've been interested in. Rob Berman, our music director, has particularly always wanted to do it."

Viertel says he has always loved the two Steinbeck novels about Cannery Row, and the character of Doc, "the sort of hero of this show. I grew up with the books. So leaving the show aside completely, I'm positively disposed toward the material."

Pipe Dream did not get totally negative reviews — they could probably be best described as mixed, or mixed to negative. Brooks Atkinson, the theatre critic of The New York Times, then the most powerful influence on Broadway success, called it "a pleasant, lazy romance," adding that it was "tender and entertaining" with a "beautiful score," one that "retains the melodic richness that characterizes" Rodgers' work. (Although Atkinson did go on to note that it was "minor Rodgers and Hammerstein" and that the show "divided newspaper reviewers into two camps" — those that found the show "pleasant" and those who "regard it as a bore." And that "nobody considers it a worthy successor to Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma! and The King and I.")

Chapin hopes that the Encores! audience will be attracted to that "beautiful score," one that in many ways is typical Rodgers and Hammerstein. "That's what I think the discovery will be for the Encores! audience," he says. "That's what I hope will be a pleasure. They'll hear an overture where they think, yeah, this sounds kind of familiar. We sort of know this. And then we'll see and hear how the songs all work with the characters. It'll be interesting for all of us to see and hear what this one sounds like."

Viertel adds that "one of the really lovely things about Encores! is that you get to hear these scores played by this orchestra," which for Pipe Dream will have 30 members. "And the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization is taking great pains to provide a really pristine version of the orchestrations, which are Robert Russell Bennett's, all except one song. What's remarkable to me about listening to the score is you never for an instant would mistake it for anything but a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. You hear the overture and ten seconds into it you know. It's like you're in a dream. You know you're hearing a Rodgers and Hammerstein overture but you can't identify which one. And I love that quality."

Will Chase and Laura Osnes star in the upcoming Encores! production
photo by Joan Marcus

So what went wrong with the original? One thing was the problem of audience expectation. The billing, Chapin says, was "sort of a mismatch. Starting with the fact that the billing was 'Helen Traubel in Pipe Dream.' That's like saying 'the Mother Abbess in Sound of Music.' Or 'Nettie Fowler in Carousel.' Those characters are facilitators. Those are the kinds of characters that Rodgers and Hammerstein used very effectively all the way through their shows — the older, wiser woman who comes into the story at the point where the lead characters need to be boosted into another area — the characters who sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' or 'Climb Every Mountain.' That shouldn't be the lead."

Chapin also says that Traubel was "a strange choice" for the musical, perhaps selected because of the success Rodgers and Hammerstein had had with another opera star, Ezio Pinza, in South Pacific. "And I don't think she was very good in the show."

Viertel says that "casting Traubel as the madam was a disastrous mistake. Not to take anything away from Helen Traubel the artist. It was just bad miscasting. And then she insisted eventually that all the songs she had be put into a soprano key so she could sound like an operatic soprano. It's like casting Patti LuPone as the Mother Abbess [in Sound of Music], in reverse. It just wasn't meant to sound that way. And so the whole show lost balance because the tone of it suddenly got very confusing. And in the end, I don't know that it would ever have been a smash hit, because it has this relaxed, day-at-the beach quality. It's informal, and fun, and light, and I think audiences had come to expect from Rodgers and Hammerstein something momentous, Earth-changing. And this just isn't that show."

He says, though, that he is "completely fascinated by the idea of Rodgers and Hammerstein trying to wrap their arms around a bunch of sort of indolent but charming lay-abouts as opposed to the characters they usually wrote about who were involved in real life-and-death struggles of one sort or another. This is a very light show. It's almost more like a Rodgers and Hart show in some ways. The meeting of the minds — the meeting of Steinbeck's rambling rovers and Hammerstein's impulse toward strivers — creates a very interesting tension."

That tension was a key aspect. It has long been noted that the grittiness of the Steinbeck novel — after all, two main characters are a prostitute and a madam, figures with which Hammerstein was likely uneasy — was toned down in the libretto. (One doesn't usually think of Hammerstein librettos being inhabited by prostitutes.)

"You can understand," Chapin says, "why Rodgers and Hammerstein were, in the mid-1950s, attracted to the Steinbeck characters, who were much more gritty and much more earthbound than the characters Rodgers and Hammerstein were attracted to in other shows." How Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that "since they were the innovators, why not try to do a show that involves people like this. I remember talking to [producer] Cy Feuer about this years ago, and he said that Rodgers and Hammerstein just did musicals with pretty girls in dresses with bows on them' and it was time for them to do a 'mug show.' Pipe Dream is their attempt to do a 'mug show,' like Guys and Dolls."

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."