The Making of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Special Features   The Making of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
As Encores! prepares to revive the first collaboration between Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, we take a look behind the scenes at how the musical was born.
Encores 2016 God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
The Volunteer Fire Brigade in the 1979 Off-Broadway production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Roger Greenawalt

Any Millennial with a wireless connection and a heart probably YouTubes “Part of Your World” more often than they care to admit. The songs of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken sustain us—they’re part of the American subconscious—which makes it all the stranger that the team’s first collaboration, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, has been virtually forgotten. Based on Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, the 1979 musical follows the journey of Eliot Rosewater, a potato-chip-loving millionaire who devotes his life to saving an Indiana town full of lost souls. Savagely funny and unapologetically political, Rosewater is returning to New York this week in a City Center revival. Learn how the show was created, why it flopped Off-Broadway, and why it deserves to live again.

In the late 1970s, Alan Menken was an aspiring singer-songwriter who paid his rent by writing jingles, accompanying club acts, and selling songs to Sesame Street for $135 a pop. Then he met Howard Ashman—and in his words, “nothing was ever the same again.”

ALAN MENKEN (composer): It was the summer of 1978, and I got a call from Maury Yeston. He had been asked to recommend a composer to work with this guy named Howard Ashman, who had the rights to do an Equity showcase—that’s all—of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I was a big Vonnegut fan, and it seemed to be pretty much a guaranteed production, so I said, “Yeah, I’ll meet with him.”

MAURY YESTON (friend, composer of Nine): It was fated for them to work together. I was just the first one who said, “It’d be great for you guys to meet.”

ALAN MENKEN: Howard came to my apartment at the Manhattan Plaza, wearing a bomber jacket and chain smoking. Very Christopher Street. A little defensive. I could tell he was wary of the whole musical theatre world. We discussed what interested us about Rosewater: [this idea that] the world is full of poor, forgotten people who need someone to champion them.

SARAH ASHMAN GILLESPIE (Howard Ashman’s sister): Howard had a political edge. He was interested in people who weren’t getting a fair shot—people who hadn’t been born by the Money River, to use Vonnegut’s line.

MAURY YESTON: Most people tend to write musicals about Camelot, let’s say, or about incredibly highly educated men like Henry Higgins. But Howard came from blue-collar Baltimore, and he loved to write about that Middle America milieu. He related to Eliot Rosewater—this guy with no particular skills, no lust for fame or conquest, who just loved being a volunteer fireman. I think that was Howard’s great achievement: He revealed the simple, surprising poetry of the ordinary person. And he did it over and over. Think about the girl who just wanted to be “Somewhere That’s Green.” Look at what he did for Belle.

ALAN MENKEN: Howard was very cautious at that first meeting—but soon after he said, “Let’s try writing something together.” At the time, Dennis Green was ostensibly going to be the lyricist for Rosewater, and Howard was going to be co-lyricist.

DENNIS GREEN (lyricist): I wrote two songs with Alan: “Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade” and “Since You Came to This Town,” which was then a solo for Diana Moon Glampers. Then Howard called and said, “Why don’t we work on this together.” I took that as a signal that he wanted to write all the lyrics. And that’s basically what happened. He kept the two songs I had written, and tweaked them to make them work within his concept of the show.

Encores 2016 God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
Howard Ashman at work in the mid-1980s. By permission of

Ashman’s vision for Rosewater dated back to his junior year of high school. As he put it, “I read the book when I was 17, and it read like a musical.” He wrote one song with a classmate then—and a few more in college—but didn’t seriously pursue the idea. Still, it was clear to Menken and Green that Ashman had been picturing the show in his head for years.

ALAN MENKEN: He always seemed to be thinking, “I know what I want. Just give me what I want.” Very quickly, I learned to be an effective catalyst for Howard Ashman. He could be very impatient, but I’m a very fluid, skilled composer, so we were a great match in that way. Rosewater had a very eclectic score, which felt true to Vonnegut. We both embraced pastiche. With every song we would say, “What do we think this is like?” The first song we wrote together, “I, Eliot Rosewater,” was a little bit like a hymn. “Rosewater Foundation” was very Gilbert & Sullivan in tone. “Thirty Miles From the Bank of the Ohio” was American roots.

DANNY TROOB (orchestrator): “Rhode Island Tango” was Brecht-Weill; “Fire Brigade” was vaudeville-based musical comedy. I remember with “Magical Moment,” Howard talked about the Jacques Brel influence—that “Carousel” song that gets faster and more manic as it picks up energy. Their use of pastiche was so confident across a huge range of styles—and it wasn’t just clever. It had depth, passion and intensity.

MAURY YESTON: I fell in love with Rosewater as they wrote it. Alan would come in to the BMI Workshop and play the new songs that they had been creating, one by one. I told my father, “I know we’re not millionaires, but you have to invest in my friends’ show. They’re brilliant, and they’re going to be superstars.”

By the spring of 1979, Ashman and Menken had completed the score for Rosewater, and a 12-performance Equity showcase was scheduled at WPA Theatre, a defiantly shabby 98-seat space in the Flatiron District. (Ashman, the WPA’s artistic director, liked to say that the acronym stood for “We’ll Produce Anything.”) During rehearsal one day, they had an unexpected visitor.

ALAN MENKEN: It was out of nowhere. The ensemble was onstage, rehearsing “Look Who’s Here,” and all of a sudden the door opened, and someone walked in. We were still watching the rehearsal. I think somebody nudged me and tilted their head, went “Look.” I looked, and it was Kurt Vonnegut. I gasped; the whole room gasped. Kurt said, “No, no, no—I’m here to watch.”

DENNIS GREEN: My memory is he sat there expressionless through the whole thing, barely cracking a smile. I kept thinking, Oh, Jesus. (laughs) At the end, he just shook everyone’s hand and said “Good work, nice job”—not “I loved it,” or anything like that. But just as he was going out the door, he did what I can only describe as a caper. He sort of jumped up and clicked his heels together.

DALIENNE MAJORS (choreographer): He skipped out of rehearsal, absolutely ecstatically. He was very tall, and was wearing high-top black Converses, which made me feel wonderful. I thought, “This guy can move.”

DENNIS GREEN: We all looked at each other and said, “Well, I guess he liked it.” Very quickly he gave his blessing to the whole project. And, of course, insisted that it be called Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. (laughs)

ALAN MENKEN: We were very young, so god knows we would have taken anything. He could’ve titled it Who the Fuck Are These Composers? (laughs) I would’ve said, “Okay!”

Encores 2016 God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
Holly Villaire, Jonathan Hadary, and Peter J. Saputo in the 1979 Off-Broadway production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Roger Greenawalt

JONATHAN HADARY (Norman Mushari): We did it at WPA when they were on Fifth Avenue. You walked up four flights; it was hot. I think the stage was 12 feet wide.

SARAH ASHMAN GILLESPIE: You felt like you knew everybody in the audience, because you were sitting so close together.

JONATHAN HADARY: It felt humble and scrappy—the way college felt. Like, “Let’s put on a show. We’re doing a show.” Money truly wasn’t an issue; the pay was so low that it didn’t factor into why anyone was doing it. It felt as though it was a lot of people’s first thing.

ALAN MENKEN: It was a peak time of my life. It was my very first produced show, and my sense of connection to the cast and to the show was incredibly visceral, because I was literally a part of the performance. [During the WPA run, Menken played the piano and music directed.] I’m a terrible conductor; I just want people to read my mind. But it was thrilling.

JONATHAN HADARY: Fred Coffin played Eliot Rosewater, and, I mean, he was the guy. He looked like one of the Campbell’s Soup kids. Lumbering but graceful. Moving and hilarious, without trying to be either. Like Eliot. He’d apparently walked in for his audition with a half-size red, white and blue accordion and a song that he’d written called “I Am An American.” They pretty much cast him on the spot. On opening night, Fred gave us all t-shirts that said “Bull hump weenus,” which was an expression of his. (laughs) Sounded blue, and it wasn’t. He would use it to say, “You’re damn right.” Somebody had Rosewater Volunteer Fire Brigade badges made—real ones—and gave them to everybody in the cast. I gave everyone bagels with American-flag toothpicks stuck into them. We were kind to one another, as the show says.

EDITH VONNEGUT (Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter): They invited my dad to see it in this tiny theatre, and he was just enchanted with it. He invited me the next night. Afterwards, we went to a bar and talked about how sad it was that the show had this very short run. Then he looked at me and said, “Would you think of producing it?” Which was crazy. (laughs) I was very young, and not a producer at all. But I’m a dutiful daughter, so I did it.

Encores 2016 God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
Kurt Vonnegut and his daughter Edith during rehearsals for Rosewater. Roger Greenawalt

After agreeing to produce Rosewater Off-Broadway, Edith Vonnegut brought on three commercial producers to help raise the $400,000 capitalization. Some roles were recast, the production number “Plain, Clean Average Americans” was added to the second act, and Kurt Vonnegut contributed a few lines to the script in order “to accommodate ideas he wanted to express differently [14] years after the publication of the book.”

ALAN MENKEN: That was another tricky thing to navigate—Kurt wanted to add a little bit to the script. I don’t remember what lines they were. Later on, he made changes that were not necessarily kept.

SARAH ASHMAN GILLESPIE: Don’t forget that he retained many of the rights to the show, so Howard and Alan truly had to toe the line. I mean, Kurt Vonnegut was Kurt Vonnegut, and Howard was making a living writing cover copy for bad novels. If there was ever a question of “What did you do to my great joke?” he had to defer to Mr. Vonnegut.

EDITH VONNEGUT: I don’t remember [him adding lines], but it’s possible. And that would be like my dad—to want to be part of the family of people making Rosewater into a musical. Howard and Alan wanted to keep the original cast, so we had to find a theater right away. There were no small theaters, so we settled on the Entermedia, which was a huge barn of a theater in the East Village. It was just too big for that tiny, beautiful play.

SARAH ASHMAN GILLESPIE: The Entermedia run was the first time Howard had to deal directly with big-time producers. That just about killed him. They had this attitude of, “Who the hell are you to tell us this is the wrong theater?” Every step of the way, it was painful for him.

ALAN MENKEN: Howard did not, as they say, suffer fools gladly. There were producers who wanted to impart their wisdom about what we should do. As I remember, at one meeting Howard’s response was to publicly open a bottle of Valium. (laughs)

JONATHAN HADARY: I mean, talk about Monday-morning quarterbacking—it’s 35 years later. But my feeling was that we went from a fourth-floor walk-up with no air conditioning to the Entermedia, which looked for all intents and purposes like an ornate Broadway house: red velvet, brass rails, a full proscenium. Subliminally, the demands and expectations of the audience were affected. I think they always are.

KYLE RENICK (producing director of the WPA Theatre): It lost its intimacy, its sweetness, its innocence, and its Vonnegut authenticity, replaced by something bloated, loud, irritating and judgmental.

EDITH VONNEGUT: I felt like a terrible producer—which I was. I should have forced them to wait for a smaller theatre.

Plain, clean, average Americans in the 1979 Off-Broadway production of <i data-rte2-sanitize="italic">God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.</i>
Plain, clean, average Americans in the 1979 Off-Broadway production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Roger Greenawalt

Despite the concerns of many involved, Rosewater opened at the Entermedia on October 14, 1979. The producers had planned to stunt-cast the role of Kilgore Trout with a different guest star every night, beginning with Vonnegut himself. The idea was eventually scuttled, leaving the show without a strong hook in a season dominated by Evita and Sweeney Todd.

EDITH VONNEGUT: The opening night party was on Second Avenue, in a Polish place where you could get pierogi. (laughs) It was not fancy at all; it was just Polish cafeteria food. Everyone was waiting for the reviews to come out—and when they came in, you could see that the play wasn’t going to live.

JONATHAN HADARY: I wanted those limos lined up outside to see our show. And then I think I realized, “Oh, the people that love this show don’t come in limos.”

DANNY TROOB: The show wasn’t in tune with the times. Howard was very much an unreconstructed ’60s radical, and by the time Rosewater opened, we were almost in the Reagan years. I think America was ready for Dallas and Dynasty and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 20-year period of hegemony. I don’t think this rock-and-roll-based American pastiche musical about injustice and the horrors of war was really in the zeitgeist.

The Entermedia production of Rosewater closed on November 24, 1979 after a six-week run.

KYLE RENICK: I know from my diary entry precisely how upset Howard was: He said he was thinking of giving up show business in favor of selling shoes.

SARAH ASHMAN GILLESPIE: Howard took it all very, very personally. In my heart, I don’t believe he ever would have let go of the theatre. But with Rosewater, he felt like nobody got what he was trying to do—and that’s devastating to an artist.

ALAN MENKEN: We comforted ourselves with the thought that there’d be another production—which there was, at the Arena Stage [in 1981]. One of the regrettable things was that we never got a cast album. We just assumed that a record company would come forward and want to record it. But that never happened.

Encores 2016 God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
Marsha Skaggs in the original Off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors Roger Greenawalt

DANNY TROOB: I think the lesson that Howard learned from Rosewater was that you couldn’t slight the physical element, the sensual element. Rosewater was about the plight of the disadvantaged, and it looked it. Little Shop wasn’t so different thematically—it took place on Skid Row—but it was presented as psychedelic candy. The set was brightly colored, there were puppets, and you could enjoy it completely on those terms without ever understanding the political subtext.

ALAN MENKEN: Well, yeah—I guess that’s true. People think Little Shop of Horrors is about a man-eating plant, but it’s really about the end of the world.

In many ways, Ashman and Menken’s second musical was shaped by the failure of Rosewater. They wrote Little Shop for a small cast and arranged for the show to transfer to the Orpheum, an intimate 299-seat venue where it ran for five years. To Vonnegut, the difference between the two shows went even deeper. “You can’t have a successful show in New York with commercial ambitions … that’s about something,” he said in 1985. “Little Shop of Horrors is about absolutely nothing, and it’s a big hit.”

ALAN MENKEN: After Rosewater, there were things that happened. Howard had wanted Kurt to write the liner notes to the Little Shop album, and as I remember, his representation said, “Kurt would be glad to do it, but he wants to be paid a fee.” We were like, “What?” Maybe it was naiveté on their part—or on our part. In any case, he didn’t do it, and it left kind of a bad feeling. Years later, when Rosewater was revived at the York Theatre [in 2005], we did a Q&A, and Kurt came in carrying a whole bunch of roses. He handed each of the cast members a rose, and then he dumped a whole bunch of them in my lap. It was very clearly a love message—and maybe a bit of an apology. I thought he was a wondrous man.

EDITH VONNEGUT: My dad would be so delighted to know it’s being revived. Of all his plays, Rosewater was the one he thought was the most perfect. He was just crazy about it. And you didn’t see him being crazy about that much, you know? (laughs) He always thought that music was the language of the gods—and it’s true that some of the music in Rosewater lifts your heart in a way that words can’t, in places where words are just leaden. It’s the only time I’ve seen his work translated into something that’s even more powerful than the original.

DENNIS GREEN: I have no idea how audiences are going to respond to it now—though I love the fact that it’s about a one-percenter giving away all his money.

JONATHAN HADARY: The idea of the show—that we don’t have to love each other; we just have to respect each other—is remarkably timely. And it doesn’t get said, at least in that way. We tend to say, “We just have to love each other”—heartfelt platitudes that help in the moment, that don’t move things forward. It’s why we’re still having the same issues we’ve always had. The politics of the show were ahead of their time. It’s about humble people who’ve been forgotten by society, who feel neglected.

ALAN MENKEN: I hate to think that the people of Rosewater County would be Trump supporters now. I hope not.

The Encores! Off-Center revival of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater will play five performances only from July 27-30.

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