Bill Nuss and Stephen Weiner Bang, Zoom Their Way to Paper Mill With The Honeymooners
Ralph Kramden comes to the stage in this new musical comedy inspired by the legendary television series.
Every New Year's Day, countless families across the country sit around their televisions watching the annual marathon of The Honeymooners. Over the decades, the four core characters, Ralph and Alice Kramden (Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows) and Ed and Trixie Norton (Art Carney and Joyce Randolph), and their zany exploits have attained mythical status. The show first aired more than 60 years ago, and while there were only 39 televised episodes, ardent fans can still quote beloved routines like "address the ball / hello ball" word for word.
Two of those fans, television professionals themselves, decided to turn The Honeymooners into a musical. Bill Nuss has created more than 300 hours of prime-time TV, writing and/or producing The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, and Pacific Blue, among other shows. Dusty Kay received an Emmy nod for HBO's Entourage and was the supervising producer of Roseanne. When Nuss hit upon the idea of turning the celebrated sitcom The Honeymooners into a stage show, Kay's response was "don't kid me."
The pair crafted a wholly new idea for their version of The Honeymooners: Ralph and Norton win a jingle-writing contest and leave their bus-driving, sewer-working worlds behind to become Madison Avenue ad men. After hearing a demo of their 2010 musical Iron Curtain, Nuss and Kay enlisted Stephen Weiner and Peter Mills to pen the musical's Golden Age-style score.
Now, the long-aborning musical opens at Paper Mill Playhouse tonight, October 8, with a cast headed by stage vets Michael McGrath (Ralph), Michael Mastro (Norton), Leslie Kritzer (Alice), and Laura Bell Bundy (Trixie). In preparation, Nuss and Weiner, representing their writing partners, described how turning The Honeymooners into a musical was a labor of love…once they stopped being daunted by the show's place in television history.
Bill, when you're creating a new storyline for some of the most beloved characters in television, where do you start?
Bill Nuss: We felt that we needed to turn it into a two-hour conclusion of The Honeymooners that you never got to see. The first act is very traditional, like your father's Honeymooners, but the second act is very, very different. We felt that them winning a jingle contest and winding up as jingle writers on Madison Avenue would make them fish out of water. The story is really about the pursuit of the American dream, getting over that bridge from Brooklyn to the big time, and what success costs you in terms of friendship and loyalty.
Stephen, how did you develop a musical language for each of the four core characters? What does Ralph Kramden singing sound like?
Stephen Weiner: Each character has a unique musical signature that captures their cadence and quirky worldview. Ralph's first song has kind of a bombastic, brash military feel to it. Trixie has more of a showbizzy kind of music; Alice has both tender and confident music that expresses her strong side; Norton has sentimental and funny music. This is 1950, so we have to stay true to who they were and what the music was like at that time. It harkens back to a traditional melodic heritage that you would expect to hear if you were seeing a Jule Styne or Frank Loesser musical.
Was there ever a point in the writing process where the show's mythical status stymied you?
Stephen: Yes. Every time I sat down at the piano, I started freaking out. I was really intimidated. You're writing for some of the greatest iconic characters in American culture. But once I got into it, once Pete and I got deep under their skin, I fell hopelessly in love with them.
Bill: We had to be very conscious of delivering iconic moments that people have known forever, but we also felt that we needed to make sure that people who had never seen The Honeymooners could catch on very quickly.
With that in mind, how do you go about paying homage to the original series while still creating your own piece?
Bill: No one knows more, or has watched The Honeymooners more, than my partner Dusty Kay. He knows the series and the lost episodes inside and out, as does Michael McGrath, our lead actor. There are a percentage of things that are taken from the original because they are so iconic, including Captain Video, "Swanee River," and the golf scene. But it goes far beyond that.
Steve: For the rabid Honeymooners fans to remember, theater is a different medium. We have a cast of 21; we have secondary characters. It's taken on more than just kind of a faithful rendition of a previous TV episode. We worked very, very hard to make it theatrical — and to make the stakes high enough and yet very authentic to the series.
Have you heard from anyone involved with the original series, either Joyce Randolph, the only surviving star of the "classic 39," or family members of her costars?
Bill: The other night, Brian Carney, Art Carney's son, was here, and he surprised Michael Mastro backstage by bringing the original hat that Art Carney wore in the series. I reached out to Joyce Randolph years ago, and she has been to a couple of our labs and readings and loves it — and loves our Trixie. We believe she is coming to the opening, and I believe Brian is coming back as well.
Art Carney's son Brian Carney came to see our show last night, and brought @michaelfmastro the hat his father wore while playing Ed Norton on The Honeymooners. Michael, who plays Ed in our show had NO idea what he was about to pull out of the box. In perfect Jersey fashion that's me saying "OH MY GAWWWDDDD" towards the end. Thank you to @michaelwaltersonstage for arranging all this!