That Bright Tomorrow: Golden Boy's JourneyDate: 23 June 2003
Clifford Odets' 1937 play became a 1964 musical vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr, but with a flawed script, it soon after faded into obscurity. As it's revived for the first time in London, director Rick Jacobs reflects on Golden Boy's 65-year journey
Musical History Rewritten
Someone once said that musicals aren't written, they're rewritten. Never was this saying more true than in the case of Golden Boy, a musical that first premiered on Broadway in 1964 - just about.
After going through an extremely troubled out-of-town tryout, the show came into New York and became a bonafide box-office hit, although the material was compromised by a scattershot script, an exhausted creative team, and a stellar leading man who had consistent vocal problems throughout the run. When the show closed after 18 months, it faded into obscurity. As Golden Boy is revived at Greenwich Theatre in London, I'd like to explain what brought me to revisit the script and delve into why I feel that this classic, abandoned show is worthy of rediscovery.
Golden Boy started life in 1937 on Broadway as a tough stage play by Clifford Odets. The show was an immediate hit and rode the crest of the wave of American idealistic plays detailing the harsh life many Americans were facing during the Great Depression. In the play, a gifted young Italian-American has to make the choice between pursuing a career as a violinist, or following his more natural talent as a boxer. The play is still electrifying to read, and is frequently revived by theatres all over the world.
In 1962, Sammy Davis Jr was looking for a vehicle to bring him to Broadway. Producer Hillard Elkins approached Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, the composer/lyricist team hot off of Bye Bye Birdie to adapt the play into a musical. Strouse originally deemed the task impossible, and refused, but when he was told Davis Jr was involved, he and Adams immediately signed up for the project. Odets was on board to adapt his play, and Peter Coe, the British director who'd just directed Oliver! in London and New York, was hired to direct.
Before rehearsals started, Odets passed away. By the time Golden Boy began its pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia, it was deemed a disaster by the critics. By sticking closely to the 1937 play while trying to update it for 1964 audiences, and transforming most of the characters from Italian immigrants to Black Americans, the whole project creaked under the strain. Panic set in, Coe was fired, and the show travelled to Boston with a new director and book writer. Strouse was given a bodyguard in Philadelphia because the theatre was receiving death threats, due to the love story between a black and a white character.
Sufficient reworking continued. Sammy Davis' character changed from a boxer, back to a violinist, to a pianist, and in true desperation, a medical student. Strouse estimates he and Adams wrote a total of 50 songs for the show before it came to New York, with the cast rehearsing one version of the musical during the day, and performing another one at night until the changes could settle in.
Golden Boy finally opened on Broadway to mixed reviews, but Sammy Davis' star power kept the show running for 18 months, considered a decent run for a musical in those days. A limited run at the London Palladium in 1968 saw even more revisions. Aside from a brief American tour in the 1980s and a handful of regional productions in the US, Golden Boy faded into obscurity as an ambitious musical tainted by a poisonous tryout period, and the legacy of a star that was difficult to match.
Rediscovered & Resurrected
I first came across the Golden Boy cast recording while researching a university paper, and was amazed that I'd never heard it before. With a driving jazz-influenced score (very unusual for 1964), adroit lyrics and an astonishing cast singing these beautiful songs, I couldn't understand why it was never revived.
After finding the script, I realised why. Despite endless revisions, the script read badly, was over-politicised to deal with the civil rights movement tearing America apart, and had an ending that totally let down the story that preceded it. The score, however, is one of the most underrated ever written and, I felt, deserved another hearing someday.
After having some success working as a director and playwright on London's fringe, in 2000 I approached Hilary Strong, the new executive director of Greenwich Theatre, with a view to stage the show in a new production. We both eventually agreed that a new book would need to be written to stage the show, and after contacting Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, they agreed to start work on the show again. Somehow, I managed to persuade the powers-that-be that I do the book rewrites. Why I thought I could succeed where others have struggled is beyond me - but I had nothing to lose by trying.
In July 2001 I met Strouse and Adams in New York to discuss how I felt the book needed be reshaped. During that meeting, they looked at me with a combined sense of ennui and déjà vu. How many times had they been down this road with yet another book writer promising their changes were going to make the show work? I'd like to think my enthusiasm for the piece rubbed off on them as they came around to most of my ideas. I was, however, so nervous to meet these legendary musical theatre heavyweights that after a trip to Charles' bathroom, I got lost in his flat trying to find my way back to his studio, and had to ask one of his maids for directions.
Not Strictly by the Book
So far, so good. But back in London I panicked because I realised I actually had to write the thing. The process of trying to fit a similar story around the existing songs - while using a different style of narrative than the original book had followed - well, it was daunting to say the least.
It seemed that the problems of the 1964 version mostly stemmed from sticking very close to the play and its Depression-era sentiments, while adding songs that suited Sammy Davis' vocal style (not necessarily benefiting the story). This mélange created a schism that made the show incredibly hard to follow, and most importantly, it made it impossible to sympathise with any of the characters. So I did the smart thing: read the play once, put it down, and got to work.
I decided to keep the book set in the early 1960s, but that the civil rights movement did not affect the black characters as an allegory for the miserable situation most of them are in. This freed me up to concentrate more on the emotional core of the story, about failed dreams, and love and fame that comes with a huge price attached. Extraneous characters were fused together - one woman is an amalgamation of three different people in the show.
Additionally, Golden Boy is about boxing and the nature of violence in human beings, and now that we are totally de-sensitised to violence from films and TV, I decided to push the boundaries very far. The violence depicted on stage is likely to shock a lot of theatregoers - not just for titillation purposes, but to further push the brutal nature of some of these characters' lives.
Real Life Input
I'm probably making the whole project sound unbearably bleak - and I think by the time I got to the fourth draft, it was. A workshop at Greenwich to further develop the script last autumn was absolutely electric, with some of the West End's top black actors coming in to assist in sharpening the show. Their contributions were invaluable, drawing from their own experience as musical theatre actors, and their personal experiences as black people working in the white-dominated entertainment industry.
For example, I never realised that a current West End musical revival has a not-so-secret policy of not hiring black actors, as it wouldn't fit into the all-American image the show is trying to portray. To think that this discrimination is still taking place in 2003 makes the subject matter of Golden Boy even more relevant than I expected.
Ultimately, the workshop and subsequent reading brought out some more humour, which Strouse and Adams felt added tremendously to the piece. After the workshop, I realised some new songs would be needed, and Strouse obliged by providing two new numbers - one of which, called "Winners", is destined to be seen as one of the best he's ever written. Bless him. At 75 years old, Charles Strouse still wants to make this show work. The tenacity that drives him is incredible to witness. He totally believes in the power of Golden Boy and that the mixture of his songs and the story will continue to strike a chord in audiences.
As I'm writing this article, we've started rehearsals, and the show is taking on its own direction - changing, morphing and, hopefully, thriving. To watch the script that has been collectively nurtured spring to life in front of us all ... well, only time will tell if the musical of Golden Boy will finally have the success it so deserves. But the journey to get there has been thrilling nonetheless.