The Place of Places - Episode 49: Athenee Palace Hotel, Bucharest, Romania, 1969

 

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This is a sort of sequel to the previous chapter. Here Saroyan encounters more Soviet administrative struggles and ends the chapter, “After I had settled down I began to think, ‘Hell, I went to a hotel called Bucharest, in Moscow, in 1935, precisely 34 years ago. The Manager of the Bucharest lied to me, he was a spy, he didn’t mail my story to New York, he stole it, and now he’s dead, the records are all shot, perhaps the story is lost forever, or even destroyed. Well, forget it, forget it, plenty more where that came from.’ But it’s not so at all. Moscow in Tears is the only one of its kind.”

And this is the punchline of the chapter. It’s unclear how Saroyan wrote Places Where I’ve Done Time – if he wrote each chapter chronologically or edited them all together later, or maybe a bit of both. In this case, it certainly seems like one place reminded him directly of another place, and in this way we feel like we are in a casual conversation reminiscing with him.

buchBut there are other pieces of this chapter that are of interest in a larger contextual picture. He tells us that in 1969 he decided to travel from his home in Paris to Vienna, then sail the Danube to Odessa. He had visited Odessa in 1960 and enjoyed it, including the Jewish cemetery and synagogue. The barnlike synagogue that he describes is the Brodsky Synagogue, built in 1863. Banned from living in St. Petersburg, Moscow, or Kiev, many Ashkenazi Jews ended up in Odessa, where they constituted over one third of the city’s population at the turn of the 20th century. These were the streets of writer Isaac Babel.

He wants to walk the neighborhoods and streets which he imagined Isaac Babel would have noticed as a child. Babel published Odessa Tales in 1931, a collection of short stories about gangsters in his hometown. He also wrote plays and was endorsed by Gorky. Babel was fluent in French, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. His early works were written in French and inspired by Guy de Maupassant. You can see a trend of similarities arising between him and Saroyan. In 1940, he was murdered by the Stalinist regime and his literary legacy blotted from existence in the Soviet Union until Stalin died and Babel was posthumously exonerated in the 1950s. Babel’s name appears multiple times throughout Saroyan’s memoirs, and though it seems they never met, Saroyan clearly admired the man. He was also tickled that Babel’s grandmother had to told him “You must know everything” and in Obituaries, Saroyan wondered if it was his paternal or maternal grandmother, probably thinking of his own grandmother Lucine, who could have made a similar demand.

Saroyan wrote in I Used to Believe I Had Forever Now I’m Not so Sure, “A lot of great men in Russia were driven to the wall or stood up against it by the tensions, suspicions, fears, and poor mental health of the highest members of the Soviet government during its first three decades. Isaac Babel from Odessa, for instance—not even Maxim Gorky could protect him from the paranoid men who ran the show, and made a success of it, too, as we all know. What we don't know, and perhaps can never be sure of, is that any other government might have made an even greater success of Russia and its people, at no cost at all in humanity, honor, truth, integrity, dignity, and the lives of its geniuses.”

In many ways, Saroyan was drawn to Russia even though he was disgusted by its government. For nearly fifty years he would occasionally find himself somewhere in the Soviet Union. And like any empire, citizens were mostly allowed to travel within the land, and this meant many Armenians lived throughout the member states of the Soviet Union. This was interesting to Saroyan as well. In Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, he wrote, “In Moscow I was at the home of a composer of music who sat at the piano and played a little piece he had just put together out of an old song of the Armenians. It was a good thing to hear, a mixture of sorrow and anger, and a push in the direction of love. I listened to the piano and thought about the Armenians in relation, first, to the Russians, because Moscow is in Russia, and then in relation to the Americans, because I started in America. After I had considered the Armenians in relation to the Russians and the Americans, I began to consider them in relation to the English, in memory of Shakespeare, most likely, and then in relation to the French, because for more than a year I had been living in Paris, and had only lately gone up to Le Havre and taken a ship which had carried me to Leningrad. And then I considered the Armenians in relation to the Italians, the Germans, the Spanish, the Chinese, and the Japanese. I can't imagine why I didn't consider them in relation to the Jews and the Greeks. Perhaps it was because I think the Jews and the Greeks are almost as difficult to understand as the Armenians, but the following day I began to consider them in relation to the Jews and the Greeks, too.” Without being very explicit about it, Saroyan thought about Empires throughout his career and how they interacted with the cultures absorbed into them. And perhaps America and the Soviet Union were two sides of the same coin in that regard.

odessSaroyan did admire Odessa and had intended to go there in 1969. He wanted to go to the Opera and think about the “great number of concert musicians born and brought up in Odessa – but apparently not one composer.” He was impressed with cultures that celebrated beauty and art even if they suffered in every other way. 

However, there was trouble with his passport, according to the Russian Consul in Paris. Furious, he demanded satisfaction, received it, and then canceled his trip entirely out of disgust for the incompetent bureaucracies of countries. He had planned to go to Yerevan from Odessa, but explains, “I just didn’t like the idea of not being able to get a visa in a routine way. I didn’t like the production that was made of granting it.” He made a new plan to go down the Danube anyway, but hit other spots. On a Russian ship, he arranged to take a tour that would allow him short visits to Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Ruse, and Giurgiu, Romania, at which point he would take a bus 50 miles north to Bucharest. These towns were technically not soviet but were part of the eastern bloc of communist countries closely allied with the Soviet Union.

Saroyan had an affection for eastern European and Russian writers, feeling they had a strong understanding of humankind. In Days of life and Death and Escape to the Moon, he wrote, “Take them by geography and nation: Russia and Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky, and hundreds of others. One can almost see, smell and hear them as they arrive at appropriate places to meet one another, to light their nervous cigarettes, to speak and speak, and then to go away, each to his lonely room and desk, to the paper and pen, and to the work that must be done. It is absolutely breathtaking in its beauty: an almost barbaric people struggling with the whole new idea of the soul. And in the midst of their most heroic struggling is heard the sound of their incredible laughter —there is a long joke in all of the greatest writing of the Russians, and then very oddly it is found in their lesser writing, too. Seeing that the joke is central to the human experience may be partly the reason for the never-failing appeal of Russian writing, even in translation, which is the only form it has ever come to me in. Little Father this, and Little Father that, but after the Revolution, there was no more of the Little Father stuff. Instead, there was a long look at the liberated little man himself. The writing class enlarged enormously, moving from the aristocracy to the proletariat, but still the humor, the comedy, the big joke continued to show its color, flash, and face —until suddenly the Government said Stop!—to the great comic writer Michael Zostchenko, for instance, and to the great serious writer Isaac Babel, and to hundreds of others whose names are unknown to us.”

armytSaroyan doesn’t tell us exactly why he wanted to visit Bucharest, but he had read in a travel brochure that the Athenee was the best hotel in town and he liked to travel. The Athenee Palace was built in 1914 and was a known den of spies from both East and West during World War II and the Cold War. The Romanian Communist government nationalized the hotel in 1948 and famously bugged every room, while every employee and prostitute was an informer. Again, an interesting place for Saroyan to embed himself. At first, he was denied a room because the hotel was full, apparently of international delegates for various conventions. However, upon name dropping himself, and the fact that his works had been translated into Romanian and he had staged plays in Bucharest, the staff did some research and his celebrity secured him a room at the Athenee. Did his American citizenship influence them? Were they interested in surveilling him once they knew he could be of interest? These are the implications that garnered him an FBI report spanning 100 pages from 1956 to 1970. An editor’s note: Forever Saroyan has attempted to acquire this FBI report under the Freedom of Information Act, from the National Archives where it resides. The wait time to access it was 39 months as of August 2020 and there is currently no ETA.

Saroyan tried to see the common ground among us all, though, and maybe he was naïve about the hotel’s surveillance and maybe he felt just fine about it, feeling he had nothing to hide or be ashamed of that would matter to those bureaucrats. In I Used to Believe I Had Forever, he writes, “I am not a member of P.E.N., or of any other official literary group or order, but I do feel a personal responsibility to readers and writers all over the world. There is scarcely a country in which somebody has not read in his own language something I wrote in English, which somebody translated. I do permit myself to notice that nothing I have ever written has been destructive, hateful, anti-people, anti-life, or anti-God—anybody's God. And so, thinking of readers of my stuff in faraway places and among some of the smaller tribes of the human family, I feel that I am a friend, and I am pleased and proud whenever I read that I am taken for one.”

PEN refers to the nongovernmental organization of "Poets, Essayists, Novelists", that promotes friendship and intellectual cooperation around the world.

armytsAs an addendum to the previous chapter, and taking place 34 years later, this chapter is a testament to Saroyan’s lifelong ethos, the one that Mark Twain popularized with his quote from the book Roughing It: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

And of course this chapter is also about Saroyan’s ability to hold a serious grudge. He really did regret losing Moscow in Tears. And by 1969, he had seen enough bad times in life that recalling his salad days and the impressive product his mind was creating then would have been a release for him. This chapter meanders a bit, like the Danube itself, but it’s also the kind of writing that welcomes the reader in, coffee and a snack in hand, to listen to an old campaigner tell his tales.

The Place of Places - Bucharest Hotel, Moscow, 1935

 

 

Since 2020, Archivist Dori Myer has been taking on Saroyan's memoir Places Where I've Done Time chapter-by-chapter in her YouTube series The Place of Places. Her work has delved deep not only into the places, but into the various forms of William Saroyan that inhabited each of them. 

This episode, about Saroyan's 1935 visit to Moscow following the success of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, hits on some incredibly poignant topics to the world situation today, as well as the course of 20th century world history. This is a transcription of the full video with abbreviated visuals.

 

The Place of Places - Bucharest Hotel, Moscow, 1935


stalinWelcome back to The Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Williams Saroyan's 1972 memoir, Places Where I've Done Time. Today, we check into the Bucharest Hotel, Moscow, 1935. This was part of Saroyan's first big European trip. He would stay in London, Paris, Sweden, Austria, Russia, Finland, Soviet Armenia, and others along the way, traveling by ship and train. Stalin had taken control of the Soviet Union following Lenin's death in 1924, and by the 1930s, it was clear that his regime was totalitarian and incredibly abusive, to the great shame of international communists who had supported Lenin and Marxism. In the United States, the Communist party of the United States of America (CPUSA) was fighting for workers’ rights, unions, and for fairness against an ultra-capitalistic economy that was exploiting workers and making business owners into oligarchs. Saroyan was for workers’ rights and his ideology did align with the American communists on a lot of issues, but he was always quick to point out that he never joined their cause officially, though at times they wanted to take credit for him. In Obituaries, he wrote a diatribe that settled the issue:

"And I have never had any use at all for any kind of foreign government or system and was especially amused when all of the supposedly or theoretically good and important writers of America got themselves into a lather, believing that by God at last, the world was going to be decent to everyone. And the whole human race was going to be given a chance to breathe freely at last and enjoy the fruits of wealth by means of Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist, Russianist, Bullshitist, social revolution.

Gad, what jolly and mean bastards all those superior punks, male and female were, what poisons they released inside themselves and through the pores of their bodies upon such fools as all who did not join them. And I did not, could not, would not, both because they were full of shit and because they were all sentimental slobs and all-around assholes. But for a while, during my earliest years as a published writer, I actually believed that something, by God something, could and would make for a more equitable balance among all of the peoples of the world, or in any country or on any continent. I believed that because I wanted that balance to happen, but after I visited Russia during the first half of 1935 and saw the truth and the light and came back to America, I knew I had better put my thinking and longing and believing on another track, moving in another direction and likely to reach either something like the same happy destination or likely to reach the kind of awareness that would make the imbalance at least a little less painful and wrong than it had always been."

For many communists, socialists, and sympathizers, Stalinism was a huge blow that turned them against the Communist party entirely, believing it had been co-opted and corrupted. Saroyan meets William Z. Foster, a high ranking American communist, while in Moscow. He says, "One morning outside the Bucharest Hotel, I chatted with an American who turned out to be William Z. Foster, the candidate for president on the Communist ticket several times. He was sick with despair because Stalin had starved 20 million peasants to death as punishment for not handing over all of their crops and livestock to the Party."

PeasantsThis refers to a major famine that occurred during the winter of 1932 to 1933. Five to nine million people died for Stalin's industrialization campaign that routed all resources, including agricultural, to the cities. This included his intentional starvation of millions of ethnic Ukrainians who had always resisted control and collectivization, leading to many rebellions. This forced starvation wasn't brought to the world's attention until the 1980s, when it was widely considered a genocide. Despite Foster's apparent misgivings in 1935, he would come to openly support Stalin. This type of ideological scheming did not appeal to Saroyan nor to many rank and file socialists and communists in America, as that movement dwindled when war struck Europe.

Moscow was a little unsettling to Saroyan in 1935. He was only 27, traveling the world alone. Upon arriving in Moscow, he was given an Intourist guide to show him around the approved sites of Moscow. Intourist was founded in 1929 to show foreigners around the Soviet Union. It was a propaganda arm, possibly with ties to the KGB, in order to show foreigners only certain aspects of their totalitarian state. Saroyan was assigned a young woman guide who spoke “the odd kind of meticulous, incorrect English that all such people speak.”

She showed him Red Square and Lenin's tomb, but Saroyan was never much interested in sightseeing so much as experiencing the heart and soul of a place. He made his escape from his guide and wandered around Moscow, occasionally getting stopped by Russian officers for stepping into forbidden places. This was likely more dangerous than Saroyan knew, but he made it out unscathed.

mausOne evening, he went to the theater and "Saw something musical and bright that made me so happy I kept laughing, which compelled people to turn and look at me. Laughing is not frowned upon in Russia alone." He describes watching a play in New York where he laughed so loudly that an usher asked him to be quieter as he was upsetting other audience members. Saroyan's laugh has been described by himself and others as a roar and he became known for it. The play he saw in Moscow was Strauss's Die Fledermaus, which is indeed a comedy. Maybe Russians just chuckle on the inside. Saroyan calls it The Bat and says that the Russians called it, The Flying Mouse, which aligned with the German name. It contained aspects of Vaudeville, which we know would have appealed to Saroyan. He describes eating habits and meals in Moscow, and then meets two New York college boys who annoyed him by claiming to prefer Jack London, which Saroyan also did, and were "obviously rich sons of bitches and Communistic in a snide way."

He decided to write every day on this trip and then go experience the culture outside. Typically he churned out a quick short story and was out in late morning. On his second day in Moscow, he spent four hours writing Moscow in Tears, which he was particularly happy with. Not having any stamps, he gave the story to the hotel's manager to mail to his agents in New York. The story was never sent and is lost to time. Later he suspected that it was read and confiscated, being somewhat critical of the USSR. He called on the Soviet consul in San Francisco about tracing it and the consul admitted it was probably confiscated, asking why he didn't have a carbon copy. Saroyan didn't like using carbon paper and as a result, we learn of many lost stories from those early traveling years.

The Party had asked him to write his impressions of the USSR and the results were not appealing to the Soviets. So, he wasn't allowed to meet Maxim Gorky, who had been recruited to lead Soviet writers due to his fervent support of Bolshevism. With time, Gorky was asked to censor writers more and more, and he fell out with Stalin. Gorky died in 1936 and Saroyan regretfully never met him.

According to biographer Leggett, in May, 1935, Intourist announced to the American press that this, "Brightest meteor in the literary sky would spend a month among his people, and then proceed to Moscow. He was quoted as wanting to know how Americans felt about the 'New Order.' He said he 'would know if they laughed loudly, like the Armenians of Central California did.'"

Saroyan found the people of Russia dour, and that the promise of equality actually meant the promise of equal poverty. He ran into critic Edmund Wilson in Moscow, who was there on a grant, learning Russian and studying the government for the book To the Finland Station. Wilson would follow Saroyan's career closely and devoted a chapter to him in the book The Boys in the Back Room about Stanley Rose's bookshop. Wilson had to warn Saroyan not to be so vocal about his criticisms of the Stalinist government, as he knew that informers were everywhere and Saroyan was not the type who could keep his mouth shut. Somewhat surprisingly, Saroyan made it out of Russia without becoming a political prisoner.

The Bucharest Hotel was at the time called the New Moscow and it was nothing fancy. It was built in 1898 and first known as the Osipov building, which contained residential units, mostly for government people. 

moscowIt changed hands after the October Revolution and was then known as the Hotel Novomoskovskaya or Hotel New Moscow. In 1933 Intourist took ownership and used it as a hostel for foreigners to showcase the wonders of Communism until it was renamed the Hotel Bucharest in 1957. In 1992, it was renamed again to the Hotel Baltschug-Kempinski. At seven stories tall, it overlooks the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral.

There are several chapters in this book dedicated to that influential 1935 trip. Still a young man, Saroyan was confident and rising in society. Here we have a captivating moment before the USSR was truly closed to foreigners. We see that he ran into Americans there, as the USSR was something of a fascination to Americans long before the Red Scare would paint Communism as the ultimate evil in the world. We also get a powerful glimpse into Soviet Armenia and the feelings of disdain that conquered culture had for its Soviet overlords. Saroyan, though on tour himself, acts as a tour guide for a secretive place at a time of great change.

Why did Saroyan write this chapter? Like New York, Armenia was a place he needed to go to understand his identity. Why didn't he give us a chapter on Soviet Armenia instead? He never did make it to Bitlis that year, his visa not extending that far. Just after the Armenian genocide, the country was annexed by the USSR. Armenia seemed a shell of what Saroyan's family had known in the 1800s. But to tell the story of Moscow was in some ways more thematic to him in this book. He walked around the city and existed as any regular person would - saw a play, ate local food, had a great time on vacation. He writes, "I felt that I was in a world that was different, but not really strange, and I considered everybody a friend." Communists and anti-communists had a certain vision of Moscow, but mostly in his experience, it was just people doing the same things in their city as he did in his, and that included frowning at him when he laughed in a theater, as they did in New York. People were people to Saroyan and this is one of the main themes of Places Where I've Done Time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Dori Myer, Archivist, Forever Saroyan, Mammoth Lakes, CA, March 25, 2022

 

 

For more of The Place of Places, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztSuv7hCAyA&list=PLQJXPLW9BbFfaUf9sTX4_tPlWHz7RTJo7

 

 

 

The Human Comedy - The Musical

Covers125William Saroyan’s death in 1981 re-ignited interest in his works. It was a different world than the 1930s and 40s had been, when the man was at the peak of his powers. Theatre, or at least the musical form that has been popular on Broadway for decades, had gone through a series of dramatic creative explosions in the 1960s and 70s, from the introduction of the rock musical with Hair, the flowering of the Steven Sondheim-Hal Prince collaboration, to the technological advances that included everything from rear-projection to computer-operated lights. Saroyan’s plays had been hits (and a few misses…) on Broadway in the 1940s, with The Time of Your Life being both a critical and financial success. Saroyan had worked on bringing some of his works to the stage as operas, but never a musical comedy, as they were called at the time. That is doubly strange because he had talent as a songwriter, as is evidenced by his lyrics to Come On-a My House.

In 1983, two years after Saroyan had passed, work began on a musical version of his most popular book, The Human Comedy.

Saroyan’s novel itself was based originally on a script. The script had been written for Louis B. Mayer, the second ‘M’ in MGM Studios. The script told the story of the Macauley family of Ithaca, California, a thinly-veiled variation on Fresno, Saroyan’s hometown. The story follows the lives of family members and those townsfolk in their orbits. While a more-or-less traditional narrative, it doesn’t use the plot as the driver, instead serving a series of vignettes and character interactions that allow the reader to become deeply involved with the characters and their growth. It is a story of a small town and the impact a changing world has on it. It is a story of hometowns during World War II, and it is a coming-of-age story. It has the Saroyan wit and pacing, as well as his clear understanding of character and dialogue. Many consider the book to be his finest work, and it has become his most enduring work.

galtIn the early 1980s, one of the most influential writers of musicals still working was Galt MacDermot. He had revolutionized (and scandalized!) Broadway in the 1960s with the rock musical Hair, for which he won several awards. He followed that up with Two Gentlemen of Verona, a rock ‘n roll musical adaptation of Shakespeare that starred Raul Julia and Clifton Davis, and was the Broadway debut of Jeff Goldblum. These had made MacDermot one of the top songwriters for the stage, though he had slowed somewhat since the 1970s, when his shows Dude and Via Galactica failed at the box office. He was constantly writing, especially for films such as Rhinoceros, Gold Apples of the Sun, and Cotton Comes to Harlem. At some point, it’s not entirely clear when, he picked up a copy of Saroyan’s book, The Human Comedy.

“This tiny little book,” he said in 1984, “it absolutely knocked me out,” adding “I thought he was the most original writer I’d ever read. Saroyan liked the people he was writing about a lot. And they like music and were always singing. That was the way the Macauley family was. But they also take an interest in minute details of their daily life, which I think is what theater is: you’re looking at people doing a thing, moment by moment. Saroyan’s people care about every little thing.”

Inspired by Saroyan’s book, MacDermot began working on music for a show. His idea was an opera, but also not quite an opera. MacDermot had written operas before, notably 1969’s Cressida. He began to work with author and librettist William Dumaresq to provide lyrics for the show. Dumaresq had worked on the films Duffer, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Mistress, all scored by MacDermot. The two worked up a show that would express the story entirely through song, and the songs would not be traditional Broadway songs. The music MacDermot wrote ranged wildly, from gospel to corridos, rock to calypso. Several of the songs take up traditional dance rhythms such as waltz and rumba. The effect is an interesting one, as it refuses to settle the story of Ithaca in any single time or place, whereas Saroyan had taken pains to settle it directly in the Central Valley of California in the midst of World War II. MacDermot had gone to great lengths to capture his characters, though he had failed to notice an important element – World War II. Newsday reported “It was as if he had a longing for a simpler time when happiness was singing about a ‘Coconut Cream Pie,’ as is done in The Human Comedy.” His librettist, William Dumaresq, pointed out that the pivotal telegraph office in Ithaca sent out “an awful lot of black-bordered messages of young soldiers’ demises in the course of the show.” Perhaps that was due to the fact that doomed soldiers shipped overseas was a major theme of Hair, but Dumaresq made certain that theme was retained. MacDermot was determined to do the entire show with no spoken dialogue, and this required Dumaresq to create lyrics for every moment in the show.

“The idea of a whole show sung, or at least motivated by music, appeals to me, because I always get bored when the talk starts,” MacDermot said in 1984.

To accomplish the amount of story The Human Comedy required, MacDermot and Dumaresq created more than 80 songs.

HUcomedy“When I wrote The Human Comedy, I wasn’t doing it for Broadway,” MacDermot said, “so I didn’t feel any need to use a conventional book. I told Bill Dumaresq [who dramatized Saroyan’s novel for MacDermot] that I wanted to try to make the whole thing songs, even if a song was only one line long, so he wrote the dramatization that way. I wanted to use music to tell this story.”

The staging of the piece was as unusual as the music. The majority of the cast are on the stage at all times, stepping forward to take on their characters in the piece. Several actors play multiple roles, and the stage was largely empty save for a couple of chairs, a few props that are essential to the story. This minimalist approach to the work had been pioneered by early versions of Our Town. While the characters are dressed as if from Small Town America of the 1940s, the starkness of the set and simplicity of the staging allow the characters to inhabit a sort of no-place, while still being of the time of the story. This fantastical element may have helped to bring the piece to an audience of the 1980s, so far removed from the reality of the War Years.

Despite the use of rhythms and melodies from across the American songbook, the score was unamplified. “Essentially,” McDermot told the Hackensack Record, “I’ve used contemporary pop rhythms, but they’re played on acoustical instruments – strings, unamplified guitars, woodwinds, and so on. Because the piece is set during World War II, it was appropriate to use those instruments. The electronically amplified kind had not been invented yet.”

The lyrical approach was likewise a bit unusual. Dumaresq chose to write the lyrics in rhymed couplets, a simple technique that is one of the oldest in theatre. Arguably the simplest form of rhyme expressed in poetry and song, it lent the music a certain simple charm that spoke to commonness of the scenario being presented.

TheHumanComedyProgram006The show received its first production under the watchful eye of Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre. The Public Theatre was founded to bring new voices and theatrical concepts to the stage. The Public Theater’s first production in 1967 had set the tone for the future of the group – Hair. MacDermot’s long association probably helped gain Papp’s participation, including a fairly large budget for the time – $800,000. The show opened on December 28th, 1983 at the Anspacher Theater in New York, and ran through March of 1984. This off-Broadway run received good notices, especially for the cast. With no major names (though Mary Elizabeth Mastriantonio would go on to be a major star of stage and screen just a year or so later), the show was able to focus across the cast, which allowed the switching of parts during the show to work fluidly.

The New York Times legendary theater critic Frank Rich said of the show, “MacDermot’s music is far more sophisticated than the ambiance suggests. What usually presents Saroyan’s novel from becoming saccharine is its style: the riffs of language and the edgy, eccentric narrative events. The composer preserves that tone in his score, which is written in the true operatic manner, recitatives included. As befits Saroyan’s pantheistic sense of community, the music is also highly eclectic; it encompasses gospel, jazz, swing, hymns, barbershop harmonies, blues, and plaintive lullabies.” Rich added, “Not all of the score is at the same level. Sometimes MacDermot’s high aspirations outstrip the music – much as Saroyan’s classical character names add excess grandiloquence to his novel. Nor is William Dumaresq’s sometimes confusing libretto always up to the score.”

Papp, perhaps wishing to take in a bit more of the eight hundred grand he laid out for the piece, transferred the show to Broadway, specifically to the Royale Theatre. The cast of the original production was retained, and it was seen as a bit of a risky proposition. Broadway at the time was dominated by flashy productions like La Cage aux Folles or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which The Human Comedy would replace at the Royale, or shows that showed off the talents of big names from film such as Shirley MacLaine, Ben Kingsley, and Ian McKellen.

“…The show’s ‘niceness’ may be one of its liabilities in the age of the big thrill and the $45 Broadway ticket,” the Daily Time of Mamaroneck noted. “Will audiences go to Broadway to hear good singers sing some lovely songs and tell a simple story of family love in wartime?”

TheHumanComedyProgram008The show remained exactly the same: same direction, same cast, same score, same scenery. The result of the opening was not the same. The response from critics was much less rosy. Part of it had to do with the location. Newsday noted, “…the Royale isn’t as comfortable a home for the show as the Public’s smaller Anspacher Theater; for one thing, miking, although less obtrusive than usual, breaks down some of the intimacy.”

While the upbeat, optimistic tone of the production was lauded in the reviews of the original production, it became a point of criticism for reviews of the Broadway run.

Clive Barnes, one of the leading reviewers of the Broadway stage at the time, wrote a negative review in the New York Post: “It is warm and sentimental – and some people… will find it too warm and too sentimental, like mushed-over goo. I myself find it mawkish, and like all of Saroyan for me, fundamentally insincere and phony.”

Not all critics were so cruel. Michael Kuchwara, the AP Drama Critic, wrote, “The whole show is sung, and some of the songs are extraordinarily effective.”

John Beaufort noted, “In its musical form, ‘The Human Comedy’ adapts the loving vignettes of Saroyan's novel to the operatic needs of aria, recitative, and vocal ensemble. Along with its poignancy and heartfelt feeling for home, the adaptation captures Saroyan's joie de vivre.”

The mixed reception from critics, coupled with the opening of other major shows at the same time (Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich, David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross, Sondheim’s highly anticipated Sunday in the Park with George, and six other shows opening within a month of The Human Comedy), led to the show flat-lining quickly. After only 13 performances, the show closed, largely forgotten as a footnote in the career of MacDermot, though the experience seemed to have revitalized his interest in writing musicals, as he created several more before his passing in 2018. It was first revived at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Chicago in 1989. The reviews were not as positive as either of New York’s productions. Musicals in Mufti presented The Human Comedy at the York Theater in 1997. Though not a fully-staged version, it received some notice, though again, largely mixed reviews.

HumComedyLater stagings seemed to suffer from a different issue – the dated material, and the now apparent weakness of Dumaresq’s lyrics and libretto. Musical theater has gone through three generations of evolution since The Human Comedy first projected itself on the stage: the Weber-Rice era of the event musical breaking in the 1980s and early 90s; the explosion of RENT, another rock opera that drew in a younger crowd to the theater; followed by the massive, more mainstream Broadway audiences of the second decade of the twenty-first century turning shows like The Book of Mormon, Wicked, and Hamilton into legitimate pop culture drivers. These turned older Broadway shows, other than the nostalgia revivals like Oklahoma or Grease, into a harder sell, and with new audiences come new expectations which have left minimalist and experimental art feeling bland and colorless.

No one has attempted a Broadway revival of The Human Comedy, though several regional and university theaters have done versions, including a 2006 production by the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts. Perhaps as the world rediscovers the work of William Saroyan, and Galt MacDermot’s work receives more attention, we’ll see someone attempt to stage it again, bringing the simple joy of a Coconut Cream Pie back to the Broadway stage.

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