Hey. Got a great idea for a show. How about a musical starring a mentally retarded 32-year-old guy, a repressed schoolteacher and a hyped-up laboratory mouse? Terrific, no?
"You've got to be crazy," said David Rogers who wrote the book and lyrics for Charlie and Algernon .
"That's the dumbest idea I ever heard," said Charles Strouse who wrote the music for Charlie and Algernon . Scene: The Eisenhower Theater rehearsal hall, Kennedy Center, July 2, 1980 .
It's a reunion. The cast of Charlie and Algernon , a small musical produced by the Folger Theatre Group for the Terrace Theatre of the Kennedy Center during the month of March, is about to start rehearsal. This time it's a pre-Broadway run in the bigger Eisenhower. Shouts, hugs, backslaps and kisses all around. Most of the group, which had first met in a Capitol Hill church basement in February, is reassembled. Objective: to take this 10-actor, 9-musician, one-mouse musical to New York in September to be a hit on Broadway.
Louis W. Scheeder, the usually rumpled producer/director of the Folger, has cut his hair for the occasion and donned a navy blazer. He is barely suppressing a wide grin. An awed silence greets the arrival of Roger Stevens, Kennedy Center chairman, producer of Broadway hits and eminence grise to Charlie and Algernon . The public relations department has a photographer on hand to immortalize the magic moment.
To work. The cast gathers around the piano, new scripts in hand, Charles Strouse and David Rogers playing and singing the music for the first read-through. There have been some changes but the basic story is the same: Charlie, mentally retarded, undergoes an experimental operation to increase his intelligence. Algernon, the mouse, has already had the procedure and is brilliant. Soon, so is Charlie -- and in love with his teacher. Then something goes wrong, and Charlie and Algernon plunge back to where they started.
Despite the early doubts of its creative parents, Algernon has persistently tried to scamper toward stardom. However, the route has sometimes seemed as tortuous as the maze he runs through in the play. He has undergone extensive surgery; he has faced premature burial. But, according to Isobel Robins Konecky, the singleminded producer who has backed the show from the beginning, "Each time we learn something. There is a little bit of each production in this one, and we're still finding out what works."
The odds on making a Broadway success -- getting back your investment -- are long. Of the almost 70 shows that prepared for a Braodway debut last season, only three are counted as full successess, another 15 are unsure and the rest are failures, according to the industry bible, Variety.
Of all the art forms, the creation of a Broadway musical comedy has to be one of the most collaborative. Unlike a single artist producing a sonnet or a sonata, you are dealing with a seeming cast of thousands. The script and music are, of course, the point of departure, a collaboration of two or three writers. In the past few decades, the director has become a third collaborator, not only moving actors around the stage, but scenes and songs around the play. Playwright David Rogers, for example, did not care for the underlying concept of one of the productions of Flowers for Algernon (the play's original name) but had to acquiesce to the director. Only half in jest, Charles Strouse, composer of Annie and Applause , imagined what a Jerome Robbins or Gower Champion might tell Puccini about the opening scenes of La Boheme : "Listen, we'll introduce her quickly and then get right to a big scene that sets the feeling of the Bohemian life. I don't care what her name is, or that her hands are cold." A director can make or break a good script.
Fourth collaborator, according to Strouse, is the audience. "In a musical, the audience tells you what to do." Every cough from the second balcony is monitored and analyzed. Is it flu or is it boredom? Why are the programs rattling? The idea, ultimately, is to keep the audience so entertained that it can barely take the time to breathe much less sneeze.
Charlie and Algernon, like most Broadway-bound shows, has had its ups and down, twists and turn. Writer David Rogers claims to have drawers full of versions of the play he wrote some 11 years ago based on the Daniel Keyes novel, Flowers for Algernon . The play, not yet a musical, was commissioned by Rogers' publisher, Chris Sergel of the Dramatic Publishing Company, and became one of the best sellers in his catalogue. The play has been performed by countless schools, colleges and local stock companies.
When Strouse first read his long-time friend's play he was impressed but only gradually came to think of it as musical material. ("Of course, at first I thought the idea of a musical about "Annie" was dumb, which shows how good my judgment is. But we really didn't think of it for Broadway. We thought it might have a limited success in the regional theater . . ."
And, in fact, it was in the regional market that the musical version of Flowers for Algernon started. Originally the show was slated to open in Buffalo at the Studio Arena, but the production was sidetracked by a rights dispute with Cliff Robertson who had made the movie "Charly" based on the book. After that was settled, John Davidson expressed an interest which had everyone hopping for a bit, but that fizzled. Finally, in the winter of 1979, Flowers for Algernon opened at the Citadel, a well-respected regional theater in Edmonton, Canada. (P. J. Benjamin, now the star of the show in the role of Charlie, auditioned for and was offered the secondary role of Frank in the Canadian production. He was also offered the lead in the musical sarava , which he took.)
The show received good notices and an enthusiastic crowd for the month it was scheduled. From there, the director Peter Coe, who had also directed Oliver , mounted a production in London with popular British star Michael Crawford in the part of Charlie.
Why the London show did not catch on is a matter of dispute and conjecture. Certainly it had many good reviews and its closing provoked editorials, a Punch cartoon and a march on the theator. Isobel Robins Konecky, who produced the show with an English producer, believes they did not have the time to build an audience and that the timing was bad. (While expressing admiration for Coe's concept, the authors found the production somewhat cold and clinical.)
"I cannot tell you how dead that production, that project, was when it closed in London," recalls Michael Sheehan, associate producer at the Folger. "As far as any one was concerned, it was finished and done."
Except that Dramatic Publishing's Chris Sergel, who has been the spiritual godfather to the show from the beginning, still believed. His enthusiasm, and Louis Scheeder's lack of a spring show for the Terrace meshed with a gratifying clunk. (Roger Stevens is on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library, home of the Theater. He offered the Terrace to Scheeder for two productions a year. Charlie and Algernon was to become the second production.)
Scheeder's reaction to Sergel's suggestion was, "We don't do musicals." But, as Sergel had written one play for Scheeder and obtained a couple more, he read the script as a favor. By the closing scene he was convinced -- and desperate. It was mid-December and the show would have to go into production in February. In fact, as the negotiations took place, Folger employe Tom Madden waited outside the door for the go-ahead to deliver the casting requirements to the agents the theater uses most often.
The first conferences with Rogers and Strouse produced remarkable agreement. Rogers particularly was pleased. "From the questions Louie Scheeder asked," says Rogers, "I could tell he had much the same concept I did. And a lot of what he wanted, I had already. I'd tell him it was in the brown script or the blue one or the yellow one. For example, the 'Jelly Donuts' number was written for London but never used. Someone told me they don't have jelly donuts in England, but after the opening I passed a bakery and there they were. But also, Louie wanted to move the action out of the hospital and make a lot of what were dream sequences into current action."
"One of the first things we did was change the title," says Scheeder. "It gave us a good, new feeling, as though this were a new project. It also gave us a title song, which is no small thing." (It tends to be the show-stopper, which is also no small thing.)
Not everything came easily, of course. Both Strouse and Rogers had to march back to the drawing board, knowing full well much would never be used. Strouse estimates that he has written about 10 songs that have not been used -- there are some 18 in the show. The song, "Tomorrow," now the hit of Annie , was in the show briefly during a period when Annie was going nowhere. When the cast for the Terrace production turned up for first rehearsal, they go their first look at the revised script, and Scheeder had started scratching in changes. SCENE: Folger Theatre Group rehearsal hall/Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, February 5, 1980 .
Eleven actors, gathered together for the first time, eye each other with curiosity. Two 10-year-old boys, one of them my son, John-Carlo Paolillo, and the other, John Mueller of Arlington, are set to alternate in the role of little Charlie. They are the only non-Equity -- the actors' union -- members of the cast. Two actors, Sandy Faison who had appeared in Custer at the Terrace earlier as well as on Broadway for two years in Strouse's Annie, and local actor Bruce Ed Morrow, have worked for the Folger before; the others are strangers to the small, regional theater which is in its tenth season. Powdered coffee and creamer are on the table, mounds of forms on another and the blue-bound scripts nearby. Martha Knight, veteran of managing the touring company of Annie -- she ran the kiddie auditions, too -- received her script only three days before the first rehearsal. By the time the show opens four weeks hence, she will note that only three pages are unchanged.
Four white mice, refugees from the National Institute of Health, await their formal audition, to be run by the young star of the show, P. J. Benjamin. P. J. uses a technique he learned from a friend who trained seals. He puts food in one part of the cage, and a bright nickel in another. One mouse shows more interest in the shiny object -- or perhaps he is into high finance -- than in the food, and he is awarded the role -- and the name -- Algernon. The second most curious mouse is appoint understudy and given the name Thurlow. (One wears a red dot on his tail, the other a blue.)
But Benjamin has more responsibility than just mouse training. On his shoulders rests the success of the show.
The role is enormous. ("I think he's on the stage all but six minutes of the show," says Rogers.) It is also complex. He must go from retardate to genius and back again, and sing and dance.
"I have been studying for this role all my life," explains Benjamin. "You know that my sister, Margie, is retarded, though I would rather use the word 'special,' and she lived at home with us. I watched when kids were mean to her. At least from the outside, I have an idea of what her life was like."
Obviously proud of his sister's accomplishments, he has dedicated his performance to her. Benjamin ended up in acting by being dragged into a high school performance of Carousel in which he juggled a plate. "With the applause, I was hooked," although he had had plans to become a veterinarian and completed two years of pre-med at Loyola. He won his first professional audition for the road company of Promises, Promises by beating out his own dance teacher.
His audition for Charlie and Algernon was somewhat out-of-the-ordinary as well. He thought he was trying out for the role of Frank -- the one he had been offered for the Canadian production -- as well as for the understudy slot for Charlie. Called back to read again, Benjamin was subjected to more than two hours of readings. Scheeder made him try one part, then another, then another. "I thought they had no idea what they were going to do with me," says Benjamin now. But in Scheeder's mind was the growing realization that this young man was Charlie, not Frank. (Benjamin's agent had cautioned him against reading for an understudy's part in a regional theater. It was beneath him.)
"When Louie called me to say I had the part, I had been out drinking with a friend and I was, well, a bit tipsy. When he said I was Charlie, I spent the rest of the night trying to call all the bars to find my friend so I could tell him. I couldn't even find the buttons on the phone."
After what Martha Knight calls "show-and-tell" about Kate Edmund's set, the company is off on first read-through.
The single rehearsal hall becomes rehearsal halls. Downstairs in the basement some actors are working out a difficult scene while upstairs dancers clank. An elaborate set of rings and bels provides communication. Charles Strouse flees to the "belfry," a small space above the church where the toddlers play during services and the choir rehearses, where he can work out transitions on the piano. David Rogers scratches corrections, changes, new lines, or old lines in a crook in the staircase where he can find peace.
First run-through -- Martha Knight called it "stumble-through -- went the way it was supposed to: terribly. More changes are in the works.
Three weeks into rehearsal, Roger Stevens drops by the Presbyterian Church for a run-through. He says nothing and, according to several sources, never lifts his head from the script.
The next morning, he and Scheeder are meeting to discuss the possibility of bringing the show into the Eisenhower in August. There is a hole in the schedule that Charlie and Algernon could fill.
"When we picked up Charlie and Algernon , I can't say that we weren't thinking that maybe, just maybe this was the show that could go onto Broadway. tYou often think that. But that is not the reason that we picked the show," says Folger associate producer Michael Sheehan. "Producers are always calling us to ask if they can get us to do a tryout for them. They know that it is cheaper to work in regional theater, the Equity costs are lower, and they know that a lot of fine work has come out of the regional theaters. But we are not interested in doing someone's pre-Broadway tryout. We thought that Charlie and Algernon was a Folger kind of show, and our total concentration was on preparing the four-week run in the Terrace." (There has been some criticism of regional theaters for producing "commercial" shows in a nonprofit setting. To counter that, theater people point to the example of Joseph Papp's ubiquitous and totally lucrative A Chorus Line whose profits allow Papp to produce many of his experimental shows. Performance
The first preview has a couple of sticky technical problems but goes relatively well. As an experiment, Scheeder decides to reverse the order of two songs and the preview is a disaster. "The show made no sense," Scheeder remarked later, "but we had a terrific rehearsal the next day, and we learned important things about the show. Lousy Thursdays became a tradition. We would have an awful Thursday and then do wonderful work the next day." The actors rehearse all day, perform in the evening previews. Opening
The curtain comes down on a standing ovation. The audience loves the Saturday night performance. The reviews, however, are mixed; the critics see problems but can't quite figure out, as a group, what those problems are. P.J. Benjamin gets fairly universal raves, and the mouse is an out-and-out hit. Algernon, who with his understudy has had daily training with Benjamin, has learned to climb up his sweater and slide down his arm, as well as dance (!?) in his own tiny spotlight. He follows the sound of Benjamin's soft-taping feet -- P. J. means warmth and protection, perhaps from all this noise -- and appears to be the consummate performer. (If he fails to do anything, Benjamin is prepared to dance around him and the scene still works.) Even The New York Times critic, Mel Gussow, is uncharacteristically gushy about the mouse. Back Into Rehearsal
Throughout the entire Terrace run, the show is in rehearsal during the day.
"If we had gotten completely bad reviews, we wouldn't have rehearsed so much," said one cast member, "but we were encouraged to try to do better."
The two children alternate learning the new lines and business each day -- and stage manager Martha Knight has to be sure to teach the other child what the first had rehearsed -- while the rest of the cast swims upstream. P. J. Benjamin and Sandy Faison sing love songs backwards, forwards, standing and sitting, not to mention walking. On the Friday before the closing (Sunday), Scheeder restages the main love scene, "Whatever Time There Is," for the umpteenth time. He decides to use his own old bathrobe for Ms. Faison's costume.
The more we can do now, the better off we are," said Strouse during a break. "It will cost three times as much when we are pre-Broadway."
Remarkably, no one really blows his or her lines. "Every once in a while you could see the little wheels turning while an actor picked his way though the lines, but usually it worked out so that the audience couldn't possibly have known," said Knight after the run.
Is this rehearsing, all of this rerunning and trying out, isn't this the sign of an unhealthy show? (Next door in the Opera House, a pre-Broadway show is rehearsing and re-rehearsing. Nothing seems to get Swing swinging.)
"I think it is the sign of a healthy show," says Charles Strouse from the sidelines. "We can be making changes right up till the show closes and, when we go to New York, right up till opening night there. Most of these changes are small ones; they are fine-tuning, but they can make a big difference."
Several weeks into the run, Scheeder announces that the show will definitely be coming back to the Eisenhower; he makes no commitments to casting, however. Stevens announces the plans at a Press Club luncheon. Swing announces its closing. Charlie and Algernon cast members are sympathetic; many of them friends of Swing cast members, but they note, "No one's heart was in it. They knew it was a turkey."
The Terrace engagement closes with good houses and a general sense that all has gone well. For a cost of around $190,000, the Folger Theatre Group has put on a show that has made waves beyond Foggy Bottom. Interlude
David Rogers and Charles Strouse plan to write new material before they have forgotten the lessons of the Terrace. Then both have commitments for other work. Scheeder is to direct the final production in the Folger Theatre, Twelfth Night . But the Charlie and Algernon project simmers happily on the back burner. Scheeder and Sheehan start hunting for a theater in New York. They settle, after some negotiation, on the Helen Hayes, which is known as a straight-play house -- seating around 1,000. As a number of straight -- as opposed to musical -- plays are backed up trying to find a stage in New York, Charlie and Algernon 's choice is not popular. f Pre-Broadway
Although the cast is mainly the same -- a few replacements are due either to a change in the concept of the character, a dancer needed for Frank, for example; or the inability to travel and live in New York, my son and his alternate for example -- the early rehearsals for the Eisenhower have a kind of breathless, go-for-broke quality. "There is no question that, for some reason, New York is where you prove yourself, says Strouse.
More changes. Choreographer Virginia Freeman wants to restage the "Midnight Riding" scene from a slow blues number to a fast-paced disco. She and composer Strouse spend a productive day reworking the music, and Freeman resets the steps on Patrick Jude and Loida Santos. A full hour of working on one lift leaves Jude minus some skin on his shoulders.
On the mouse front, Algernon has learned a new trick. Or is it Thurlow? (During the Terrace run, Algernon had started to pull a star temperament. He wanted to sit in the spotlight and enjoy the applause, but not to dance. His understudy, Thurlow, was substituted because, like most understudies, Thurlow understood you have to hustle to get ahead in show biz. Afraid of too much mouse advice, stage manager Knight put a gag rule on the mice and the cast, and it was unsure which mouse did what in the Terrace or the Eisenhower.) After three months of Benjamin's tutoring, both mice know how to climb up his pant leg so long as shoelaces don't get in the way. Virginia Freeman is delegated to find Benjamin dancing shoes that had no offending laces. Two Difficult Scenes
"One Bright Morning," the number which takes Charlie from pyschosurgery to the beginning of his new-found intelligence, has been changed. The new number is "One Step at a Time." Scheeder is not happy with the ending. "I want Charlie to exit waving that blanket like a flag. Pianist Tom Fay makes some changes in the music. "It has a fine beginning," says Scheeder. "We need six versions of the ending." This number is not a working number.
"The Montage," perhaps the most complicated scene to state, is aimed at showing Charlie's mental deterioration quickly and dramatically and at getting more people back on stage for the "production value." To do so, the writers have taken bits and pieces from the script and score and woven them in and out of a nightmare to show how the past is crowding Charlie. The idea is fine; so far the execution is not so fine. "Ask me where I am and I'll tell you I'm writing the 'Montage' again," says Rogers. He's not really kidding. Should the characters be seen or should they be off-stage, disembodied voices? sIn the Terrace Theater version, the characters from the past do a kind of noisy cabaret dance. Now Freeman is trying a phalanx of threatening creatures moving toward Charlie like the hungry cadavers from "The Night of the Living Dead." So far, at least six versions of the 'Montage' have come and gone. Numbers seven and eight are in the works. Opening Night
Another standing ovation greets the cast, although the whistling of some kids bothers audience and actors alike. Algernon -- or is it Thurlow? -- performs beautifully. On first preview, the mouse had (1) headed downhill on Benjamin's sweater and (2) failed to climb his leg. This time, perfection. Is it a new mouse? Or does he understand this is the Big Time?
In first preview, the lights had performed somewhere behind the mouse. First the computer had failed for the press photo call, and then had been "down" up to 12 minutes after the curtain was due to go up.
But on opening night, Algernon/Thurlow, the lights and the cast mesh, and the show brings the audience to its feet.
Again, the reviews are mixed.
Can this show succeed?
The chances of success are exceedingly slim. Industry insiders note that advance sales are likely to be small as the name, P.J. Benjamin, is not going to grab the matinee set. Many people may be unsure about seeing a show about a mouse and a retardate, although the book continues to enjoy a lively success.
On the other hand, the show has the financial backing of Roger Stevens and Kennedy Center Productions, the bunchthat brought us Annie and West Side Story . It has also brought in its share of turkeys.
On the plus side, the show is, for a musical, very cheap. The mini-musical is very much the coming thing on Broadway this year and, contrary to expectations, several of them have done well. Charlie and Algernon is expected to cost less than $500,000 up to the New York opening in mid-September. Forty-Second Street , the Daivd Merrick/Gower Champion extravaganza that shared the Kennedy Center with Algernon, is reputed to have cost more than $2 million in Washington. In New York it spent weeks trying to open at the reported $100,000 a week in rehearsal costs. Obviously, the more expensive show has to do a lot better to make back the investment.
The day after the Eisenhower opening night, an exhausted Scheeder is making plans to go to a baseball game. Eagerly, he asks everyone what they thought, and everyone gets into the act by telling him.
"I think we may try an intermission," He then took it out after a week's trial. Then three weeks into the run a new song was added.
"We just have to try new things. We have the luxury of finding out what works."