The Pequod Review:
William Goldman (1931-2018) was best known for his screenwriting career — he won Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President's Men (1976) — but he also wrote several non-fiction books on the entertainment industry. One of his best is The Season, an informed and irreverent account of the 1967-1968 New York City theater season. Goldman focuses on over thirty plays, and explores the production history, box office success (or lack thereof), and key individuals involved in each.
His subtitle promises a candid account, and at every point he delivers. Here he describes the early red flags in the production of Song of the Grasshopper — ones that most observers would be too polite to mention:
As has already been pointed out, Broadway professionals gauge the potential success of a production as soon as the creative elements have been contractually assembled. Some shows start out big and open big: The Odd Couple. Some start out big and open small: Kean. Some start out big and just don't open: Breakfast at Tiffany's.
On any rating system, the lowest rung is reserved for what is called the "Kiss of Death" production. This is the show that under no conceivable conditions can work. When a show feels like the Kiss of Death, it dies. "Feel" is really the operative word here. Louis Armstrong strong said of jazz that "if you can't feel it, I can't explain it to you," and the same holds true for the Kiss of Death. It's like Matthew Arnold's touchstone theory in reverse: no matter how talented the individual members of a production may be, the show is just going to lie there. Something in the combination presages disaster.
Song of the Grasshopper was the first Kiss of Death production of the season. Just why this was so cannot be definitively stated. But a brief study of the billing might prove at least a little instructive:
Gene Dingenary Miranda d'Ancona Nancy Levering
SONG OF THE GRASSHOPPER
A New Comedy by ALFONSO PASO
Adapted from the Spanish by WILLIAM LAYTON and AUGUSTIN PENON
Directed by CHARLES BOWDEN
Taking them in no particular order: the producers not only had never produced on Broadway before, they had never produced together as a trio before. Granted that everyone has to start somewhere; where; still, first producers tend to suffer more than experienced producers, who suffer greatly.
The adapters had never written a Broadway play before. They had, however, written a daily radio serial for the Quaker Oats Company, "Don Quakero," which for five years was broadcast to eight South American countries. So far, then, we have two new writers adapting a play for three new producers. The author of the original play, of course, was that incredibly successful figure, the author of t 12 produced plays by the age of forty, the famous Alfonso Paso.
Now the feel is starting to come. If Paso is so famous, why hasn't anyone heard of him? Obviously because his plays haven't been done here. But if he's so successful, why haven't his plays been done here? Whatever the reasons, valid or not, it must be admitted that there hasn't exactly been a bull market for Spanish plays on Broadway lately. The last Spanish smash was (fill in your own blank). There may never have been a Spanish blockbuster, which doesn't mean there couldn't be one, and if Song of the Grasshopper was going to make it, the director was going to be crucial. For director: Charles Bowden.
Charles Bowden, the producer. He produced Williams' Night of the Iguana and Camus's Caligula, and he worked for 14 years with the Lunts. But in the sixties, he had not been credited with the staging of a single Broadway production. So Song of the Grasshopper was going into production with three untried producers, two untried tried adapters and one at least recently untried director. For star: Alfred Drake.
No "Who?" here. Alfred Drake is famous, gifted, dynamic, intelligent, and he is a terrific musical-comedy performer, the only man active in the theatre who has starred in three blockbuster musicals: Oklahoma!, Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet. But Song of the Grasshopper wasn't a musical; it was a play. And in the sixties Drake had appeared twice previously as the chief star in Broadway plays: Lorenzo, boom, four performances and out, and Those That Play the Clowns, boom, four performances and out.
Total it up: producers who haven't produced, writers who haven't written, a director who hasn't directed, and a star whose selection of straight plays, though admittedly adventurous, has not been much in keeping with the public taste. All of them turning their talents toward a seven-year-old Spanish play.
He also points out how a play can change over time, a fact that was probably more true in the 1960s than today:
So most shows go to hell, sometimes quickly. One of the reasons you may not like a show the critics loved is that you simply may not be seeing the same show. The acting may be flabby, the scene values changed or gone. It is always wisest to try and see a show as soon as possible after it opens. If the version of The Unknown Soldier and His Wife that closed had been as exciting as the one that had opened, I don't think it would have closed. You can't blame the actors for the deterioration. Doing the same precise thing eight times a week, 416 times a year, becomes numbing to the soul. It has been said of Alfred Lunt, who is legendary for remaining fresh in a role, that the reason he can do it is that when he lifts a teacup, for example, he is obsessed with the notion of somehow lifting it right, lifting it perfectly, lifting it better than anyone else has ever lifted a teacup before.
But his harshest criticism is reserved for theater critics:
There is one thing that 99 percent of all critics share with one another: They are failures. I don’t mean failures as critics—my God, that’s understood. I don’t even mean they are failures as people; I mean something more painful by far: These people are failures in life...
Something else to remember: not only are we dealing with failures -- men who could not make it in their chosen line of endeavor -- we we are dealing with failures who have suddenly been given POWER. (But not enough. That's what kills them.) The influence of the critics has been debated for years. The Theatregoers Study indicates that 20% of New Yorkers and 10% of out-of-towners say they are chiefly influenced by the notices. These figures, of course, are only what people admit; still, it's probably fair to estimate roughly that one person in six attends a production because of critical enthusiasm.
This is the kind of bilge you have to look out for. This is how the intellectuals of this world, the bad ones, make their living. And Pinter is their boy now because, being so obscure, he gives them one and all the opportunity to write reams for their little learned journals, and there's enough for everybody. Pinter's like a minor-league league James Joyce, and as long as there's a Ph.D. candidate alive, James Joyce will never die.
All of this may be exaggerated and unfair, but it's still refreshing to hear such unfiltered observations. You know similar thoughts likely go through the minds of other directors and producers when they read critical reviews of their work.
Goldman's book is a bit dated at this point, and he is sometimes glib and gossipy in his analysis. He also does not prove to always be a good evaluator of talent, as he shows in snarky put-downs of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Mike Nichols. Nonetheless, The Season is a fun, exuberant and insightful review of how Broadway really works.