Arthur Laurents, some years ago
Arthur Laurents, some years ago
"Arthur's writing up a storm!" exclaimed David Saint, the artistic director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Saint has already presented at his theater Laurents' recent plays Claudia Lazlo and Jolson Sings Again, as well as his adaptation of the South American comedy Venezia, and a revival of his 1965 flop, Do I Hear a Waltz? What's more, he's scheduled a Laurents one-acter for this season called, The Vibrator. (Arthur, you devil!)

Now, Saint told me, the 84 years young Laurents is rewriting Hallelujah, Baby!, his flop that opened April 26, 1967 and ran 293 performances at the Martin Beck. Back then, April 15 was the cutoff for the Tonys, so while all the record books put Hallelujah, Baby! in the 1966-67 season, it wasn't eligible until 1967-68, where, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, it won the Best Musical Award -- after it had been closed for months.

"You always win for the wrong one," said Jule Styne, who composed Hallelujah, Baby! -- and such Tony-losers as Gypsy and Funny Girl. Styne meant his statement both ways; he won a 1954 Oscar for "Three Coins in the Fountain," and spent the rest of his life fully admitting that the prize should have gone to Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin for "The Man That Got Away." But I honestly believe that next to Gypsy and Funny Girl, Hallelujah, Baby! is Styne's best score, with some smart Comden and Green lyrics. So wouldn't it be wonderful if Laurents solves the problems with the show?

That won't be easy. Laurents created an original story that examined how blacks, though oppressed, pressed forward. So I hope he'll cut the line that our heroine, Georgina Franklin, told us right at the beginning of the show: "I've always been lucky, even when I really didn't know it." That didn't suggest we were about to see the story of an abused people.

The gimmick of the musical was that Georgina would always stay 25, even though she travels from the turn-of-the-century to 1967. (Will Laurents now make it 2003?) But the device of not having the characters age turned them into archetypes, making their actions seem symbolic rather than specific. The show might be better if each Georgina was the daughter of the one before her.

But back then, Georgina's boyfriend was a black man named Clem, though she was admired by Harvey, a white man who was kind and gentle. Seems that Laurents, Styne, Comden and Green didn't want to blame white men for black oppression, but, frankly, it's a logical place to put it. Harvey was always on Georgina's side, mostly because he was attracted to her. That was too cliched and convenient.

In the original, Georgina made two white female friends while doing a WPA show, and they championed her rights all night long. If the show was about racism, like it or not, we had to see more racist white characters. Aside from a quick scene where two bigots objected to Georgina's performing on a Southern stage, there weren't any. Was racial bias too bitter a pill for the collaborators to dispense, or one they feared would be too hard for us to swallow? Whatever the case, by not coming to grips with it, they didn't create much of a musical.

Indeed, Harvey seemed to be there just to create a romantic triangle. And yet both he and Clem eventually, when the show reached the '50s, told the then-upwardly mobile entertainer Georgina, "I don't want to become Mr. Georgina Franklin." A man's problem in not being as successful as his wife is another matter entirely, and one that had nothing to do with the racial theme of Hallelujah, Baby! It just seemed, though, that that was a familiar story to the authors and one they understood, so they included it when they just didn't know what else to write.

There were other problems Laurents will now have to address. When early in the show Georgina took issue with her mother's calling Clem "a boy" -- insisting that he was a man -- Momma said that if he's black, he's a boy. But then Momma said, "You ain't marryin' no boy," which implied that she wanted Georgina to marry a Caucasian. And while she never approved of Clem for the duration of the show, she didn't much urge Georgina to marry Harvey, either. So what was the point?

The collaborators erred when choosing to make Momma a big Earth Mother type who bombasted her way with wisecracks and an I-take-no-nonsense-from-no-one sensibility -- while also having her tell Georgina to forget her dreams and get "back in the kitchen." There was one quick line where Momma mentioned that she was a slave, and perhaps that idea should have become a song. How fascinating Momma would have been had she told Georgina that she remembered a time when food, shelter, and clothing were routinely provided, and once she had to make her own way in the world, she feared getting fired. Back then, I would have liked to have seen Ruby Dee play it as a small oppressed woman who sensitively understood her daughter's dreams of having her own house and life -- but just believed they were way beyond her reach. Momma would be better characterized with a calm, full-of-regret demeanor, where her eyes tell Georgina she knows her daughter is right, but it's still a white man's world. But this stock big black mamma was there just to ridicule her daughter's dreams. How did that help?

Georgina made her way into show business, which made sense, for that was one legitimate outlet available to blacks back then. Clem, though, said he was going to climb out of the ghetto by becoming a bootlegger. But that was never mentioned again, so we never found out if he succeeded at it, or failed, or was jailed and had to learn that lesson the hard way. We should have been told.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Funny how one 1967 concept has changed in a way that the authors didn't anticipate. Georgina and one of her white girl friends joked that maybe they should do a sister act -- all so we could laugh at the absurd thought of two people from different races trying to pass as sisters. But 20 years later, there was black Terry Burrell playing sister to white Lauren Mitchell in Into the Woods. The world did change and improve.

Moreover, if this show really had a political agenda, why did it have such an escapist entertainment title as Hallelujah, Baby!? Early on, Georgina told Clem, "You're good enough" to succeed, though later she insisted to herself (in a good song) that "Being Good Isn't Good Enough." Still, considering that the show wanted to champion blacks and their progress, Good Enough would have been a much better title. If, indeed, the show had been good enough. Aside from those thrilling set of Jule Styne melodies, it wasn't.

After a York reading a couple of years ago, artistic director Jim Morgan held a talk-back, in which he said that Laurents didn't understand why York wanted to revive the show. (Indeed, in his memoir, he gave Hallelujah, Baby! only a passing reference.) Then Morgan disclosed that Comden said the problem was that "How could four Jews write about blacks?" That may sound valid, but 14 years after, via Dreamgirls, a non-black bookwriter, composer, and director-choreographer dealt fairly, entertainingly, and brilliantly in a story of how blacks found their niche and triumphed. So the race of the collaborators wasn't what sunk Hallelujah, Baby! Let's hope Laurents gets it right this time around.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]