This season is full of shows I've been wanting to work on for a long time. But I honestly didn't think I'd ever really get the chance to work on this first one...
Back in the late 1960s, with the profits from their hits The Fantasticks and I Do! I Do!, lyricist/bookwriter Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt opened the Portfolio Studio in New York, in which they could experiment with the modern musical as an art form, away from the economic pressures of Broadway and off Broadway. Their first experiment there, in 1968, was a ritual based musical called Celebration, inspired by an ancient Sumerian ritual play (no kidding), an allegory in which the villain Edgar Allan Rich (not only a pretty funny pun of a name but also a parody of the widely despised producer David Merrick) and the hero, Orphan, go to battle over the not so angelic heroine Angel.
Schmidt and Jones had been working on the show off and on, since The Fantasticks had opened in 1960, but kept putting it aside for other projects. Two of their earlier projects, Ratfink and The Bone Room, "contained the genesis and inspiration for Celebration," according to Tom Jones. Full of masks and symbolic props, Celebration was inspired by Peter Brook’s work in England, combining ritual or “holy” theatre with street theatre and populist theatre.
Its reception was widely varied. Some found it pretentious, while others thought it was terribly sophisticated. It opened on Broadway in January 1969. John Chapman, in the Daily News, called it "a hapless, helpless, hopeless little musical charade. It tries to be cute and smart but it just isn’t. It is sticky and icky."
Critic Martin Gottfried wrote, "Though Celebration seems highly experimental when compared to other Broadway musicals, it’s not because the show is so fresh but rather because Broadway’s are so archaic that anything even eight years out of date will seem inventive."
But instead of moving from the 100-seat Portfolio to a mid-sized off Broadway theatre, the producers took the show straight to Broadway where it seems to have been accidentally transformed by its surroundings, and where it just could not sustain its magic. It closed after only 110 performances.
But the show still made its mark. The Portfolio was home to a very new process in creating musicals – the workshop process that would become more common a decade later after A Chorus Line found major commercial success using it. In fact, perhaps the only thing that killed Celebration was putting it in a theatre that was too big for it. Also, Celebration’s sense of style and look presaged some of the more successful musicals of the following decades, most notably Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. During the 1970s, the Portfolio financed (with profits from The Fantasticks) a series of small musicals, all minimalist, all happily free of the constraints and limitations of Broadway.
My personal relationship with Celebration starts in high school, when I saw the Webster Conservatory production of The Fantasticks. It Blew My Mind. I went out and bought my first full piano-vocal score so I could play those songs over and over. And a few years later, I discovered the cast album for Celebration and fell in love with it as fast and as deeply as I had with The Fantasticks. About that same time, I found the published script.
And really, though nothing could ever replace The Fantasticks in my musical theatre nerd's heart, Celebration is really more my kind of show, most adult, more cynical, more R-rated, and yet still so magic and so joyful.
There are lots of laughs, but they bite.
And I think I love it most because it's really about storytelling, about why we tell stories, why we need stories. It's about the most primal kind of theatre. The show starts with a monologue by our host, the Loki-like Potemkin:
In ancient days, in Winter,
When the sun kept sinking lower in the sky,
Men started to wonder if it could die.
"Look;" they said:
"The Day is being eaten by the Night!"
"Look," they said:
"The darkness is devouring the Light!"
And they were frightened.
And so the people gathered by the fire.
They drank and sang and made up plays.
They painted their faces, and in the blaze,
They waited –
Hoping for a sign.
We're like those ancient people, in a way.
We've gathered by the fire to do a play.
Our night is dark like theirs.
Our world is cold.
Our hopes seem frozen
Underneath the snow –
And yet, if you will just assist us
With your imagination,
We'll try to make this empty space
A place for Celebration!
I can't imagine a better description of what New Line Theatre does. Even with all his money, Mr. Rich still needs stories to survive. We all do.
Fast forward to last year. I'll never know exactly why but Celebration was back in my head. Maybe it was the election. And New Line was back in a blackbox. It seemed perfect. Only now do I see the freaky parallel between our villain, now named William Rosebud Rich, and our Republican nominee for President.
One of my awesome theatre friends was able to hook me up with Tom Jones, and I told him we were going to produce his show, but I really wanted to talk to him about it. It's a weird show! And then he told me he had been working on a revision and would love for us to premiere this new version. It's not a radical departure from the original, but certain aspects are very different, including both the beginning and end.
So we started music rehearsals this week and what a joy it is to have this music swimming around in my head all the time. I really love this fucked-up, awesome show.
Fucked-up, you ask?
Take away the artistry, Tom Jones' beautiful-ugly, deliciously smartass dialogue and lyrics, and Harvey Schmidt's luscious, rowdy, jazz-rock music, take away all the dressing, and at its heart Celebration is about a rich guy who can't get an erection. I mean, that's not exactly what it's about... no, fuck it, that's really what it's about.
That's the spine (if you'll pardon the pun) of our story.
Of course, along the way the show explores two fundamental worldviews, one focused on material gain and comfort, "success," power, control, safety; and the other focused on the joy and mystery of the journey of a human life, the surprise, the fun, the passion, the music, the life of a human life.
Now that I've typed that, I realize the companionability between these two shows may not be an accident after all. Zorba opened in November 1968. Celebration opened on Broadway in January 1969. There must have been something in the air. The legendary concept musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (which New Line produced in 1997) explored many of the same themes, opening a year before Celebration. A few years later, both Pippin and, arguably, Follies, wondered many of the same things.
Maybe these times we live in are another of those periods in American history when unfettered capitalism has caused lots of collateral damage, and we wonder aloud as a culture if the love of money really is, after all, the root of all evil, if success might be defined better by measures other than dollars (as Michelle Obama argued at the 2012 convention), and if we have come to admire the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
After all, money is power, and power corrupts.
So yeah, Celebration is sort of about Erectile Dysfunction, but it's also about a lot more than that. Another incredible, wild, New Line adventure is ahead...
And meanwhile, we're still running Tell Me on a Sunday through August 27. If you haven't seen it, you really should. Sarah Porter is extraordinary.
Long Live the Musical!