I have many memories of the musical, for I attended a backers' audition at the Alvin on September 26, 1977; the gypsy-run through at the Minskoff on February 27, 1978; and one of the final Boston performances at the Shubert on April 14, 1978. At the last venue, the musical played seamlessly and the crowd was most enthusiastic, suggesting that this was a show that should have never closed out of town. Believe me, I've seen hundreds of inferior shows come in.
Nevertheless, I will say that I saw some Big Mistakes made along the way. I hope that Barry Kleinbort, who's staging the concert for Jewish Rep -- and who is one of our best musical theater minds -- will correct them. Merrill's widow has given him permission to tinker with the show, and Kleinbort will. I'll bet he can salvage this musical, which really doesn't need that much work to succeed. While we'll have to wait till next week to see what he's done, let me tell you what Bostonians saw.
The Prince of Grand Street starred no less than Robert Preston as Nathan Rashumsky, the biggest star of the turn-of-the-century Yiddish Theatre. Rashumsky was patterned after such downtown luminaries as Boris Tomashevsky and Jacob Adler -- and if you doubt that those guys were immensely popular with their audiences, see page 379 of Jacob Adler: A Life on the Stage. There you'll find a picture taken on the day of Adler's funeral, when sidewalks were literally packed from curb to building with fans waiting to watch his cortege pass by.
Merrill, greatly respected for his scores to New Girl in Town, Take Me Along, and Carnival!, as well as his lyrics for Funny Girl, didn't have much luck after 1964. Breakfast at Tiffany's, Henry, Sweet Henry, Prettybelle, and Sugar preceded The Prince of Grand Street, his final produced show. He did go Off-Broadway with Hannah...1939 in 1990. He also adapted The Graduate as a musical but it didn't get on; and he did some doctoring of The Red Shoes under the pseudonym Paul Stryker.
The backers' audition of TPOGS, in which Merrill sang his tuneful Semitically-tinged score, showed that he had a good premise for a show. Like Fiddler, The Prince of Grand Street was a musical about traditions changing. Here, though, they were theatrical traditions. Should Nathan continue to adapt classics like Romeo and Juliet to suit his Russian-Jewish immigrant audience? (He made Mr. Capulet and Mr. Montague business partners who had a falling out over a dry goods shipment.) Should Nathan, now 62, still play Romeo? Well, Nathan insisted that all theater was illusion, so what did it matter?
TPOGS began with this (musicalized) Romeo and Juliet. Immediately following the performance of that show within the show, Nathan's producers announced to the audience that Reba Rashumsky, Nathan's wife of 47 years, had died that day but added that Nathan felt the show must go on. Merrill then took us back stage to a hardly upset Nathan. "If God summoned her," he intoned, "he doesn't know what he's in for. My wife was a disagreeable human being." Big Mistake #1: When Merrill got to this incident in the backers' audition, he mentioned that Nathan and Reba met on their wedding day in an arranged marriage; by the gypsy run-through, this information was missing, and its absence made Nathan seem callous. If the audience had been immediately told that Nathan had stayed in a marriage that he never wanted, they would have wished him all the best in trying to find the right woman after all these years.
Big Mistake #2 soon followed, as Nathan's producers planned seven nights of shiva for Reba and Nathan proclaimed that he didn't want them because he was an atheist. A character's not believing in God often distances some members of an audience. What's more, Nathan's atheism was never again a part of the story, so why include it? (To establish that Nathan was his own person, that's why; but it didn't help the audience bond with the character.)
The show then shifted to the shiva, where we heard "50 Cents," a purposely doleful song that could have just as easily been titled "Call the Professional Mourners." Leah Goldfarb (Neva Small) got there too late to be chosen as one, but she so desperate for a job to support herself and her grandfather Itzak (Sam Levene) that Nathan hired her anyway. Leah then wildly overdid her crying, which was supposed to be funny.
Local drama critic Julius Pritkin (Werner Klemperer) came to the service, and asked Nathan, "Is there anything I can do?" Nathan quipped, "Write better reviews," then instigated an argument into which Pritkin didn't want to be drawn. That Pritkin wanted to take the high road and Nathan the low was Big Mistake #3. How could we like this character who always needed to be right and used his wife's shiva as a battleground?
But Nathan kept baiting him, so Pritkin complained of Nathan's "bastardizing of classics into cheap song and dance." Nathan said that that's what his audience wanted. Pritkin then complained about Nathan's playing young roles, which the actor pooh-poohed, too. So a frustrated Pritkin finally said, "Why don't you just go and play Huckleberry Finn?" -- words he'd come to regret.
Nathan turned on Leah, firing her for crying much too loudly and getting on his nerves. (Was that a Big Mistake, too? Maybe, maybe not, but displaced hostility isn't an admirable quality. Let's call it Big Mistake #3A.) Leah later went to Nathan's house and apologized in a powerful song called "I'm a Girl with Too Much Heart." Afterwards, she asked Nathan if he was religious, and he said he was. Big Mistake #4: We see that Nathan would lie to impress a young woman on whom he has designs. And this seemed all the more unsavory because he was approximately three times her age.
Nathan made it clear that he wanted to get Leah into bed. She was (understandably) scandalized that he wasn't mourning. "I was forced into marriage when I was 14," he told her. Big Mistake #5: Bringing up the arranged marriage now made it sound as if Nathan were telling Leah (and us) another lie. If the arranged marriage information had stayed in the first scene, the audience would have known Nathan was telling the truth and wasn't just handing the kid a line.
So there was Nathan, inviting Leah to live with him. When she said she just couldn't, he cavalierly told her -- -- Big Mistake #6 -- that he could get any woman he wanted "for the honor and the free tickets." (Not a bad joke, though.) That led to his singing "I'm a Star," his rationalization for any bad behavior he might display. Nathan then asked Leah if she'd at least spend a weekend with him in Atlantic City. She relented, and once they were there, he sang "Do I Make You Happy?" which had the feeling of a lovely Yiddish lullaby. It resulted in their dancing together and the audience applauding wildly.
Immediately, though, came Big Mistake #7. The very next day when Leah was out, a maid came in, recognized Nathan, battered her eyelashes, and into bed they went. Returning, Leah was shocked and hurt, but Nathan again used as explanation "I'm a Star" before adding, "Never say you'll be back in an hour and come back in a half-hour." Leah was not going to shoulder the blame for this, and prepared to leave. Nathan implored in a pretty song, "Stay with Me," but Leah wouldn't relent. Once she was gone, Nathan sang a reprise in which he noted, "First she takes my heart, and then she takes the train." Good lyric, but who could blame the lass? Who expects your new beau to bed someone else on the first weekend that you go away with him?
After that scene, there weren't any Big Mistakes for the rest of the act. Nathan returned to New York, desperate to find Leah. He learned from Itzak that she was now working in a sweat shop, and went there (in time there to hear "Sew a Button," a mournful waltz). He: "I love you." She: "Will you marry me?" He: "Yes." She: "When?" He: "Eventually." Nathan did point out that he'd be in serious trouble with his public if he married before he observed a year's mourning.
That struck Leah as true and mollified her for the moment, but Nathan had other troubles: Julius Pritkin again panned him for "not joining the 20th century" and for taking the same outrageous liberties with the classics. Nathan did have a moment of introspection when he admitted that he needed people to "Look at Me," a jaunty number. Afterwards, he announced to his producers that he was going to marry Leah. They were horrified, convinced that his career (and theirs) would be over if he wed this soon after his wife's death. He said they'd talk more after his (musical) performance of The Sailor of Sebastapol. During the curtain calls, Nathan told his audience that they could hate him if they must but, that afternoon, he had married Leah. They forgave him as the curtain fell, as it will here. If you're intrigued enough to read about Act II of The Prince of Grand Street, tune in on Monday.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]