The Human Comedy - The Musical
William 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.
In 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.
“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.
The 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?”
The 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.
Later 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.