PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING
Comden & Green (and now add Beane)
Adapting Betty Comden and Adolph Green's 'The Bandwagon' was a labor of love for Douglas Carter Beane.
PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING: Douglas Carter Beane at a rehearsal of "Dancing in the Dark" at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. (Sean Masterson, For The Times / March 2, 2008)
What did occur with me was entirely the opposite. As I grew more confident as a writer and as my own style became more recognizable, I was eager to explore the paths started by other writers. It was a peculiar opportunity to spend time in the room with other writers. Even ones recently deceased. Before we sound like an M. Night Shyamalan rewrite, let me start at the beginning.
I was well into my first bit of stage adaptation, a musical with the unlikely name of "Xanadu." Now "Xanadu" had the distinction of being a well-known property but also well known as the crippler of young film careers. In musical book writing circles we call this a lose-lose situation. Happily, I had been a single gay man in New York for a substantial amount of time and knew well how to play this hand.
As I spent my day eschewing Shubert Alley scorn for attempting to bring the Olivia Newton-John piece to life (as one of my downtown friends called it), I received a phone call from my theater pal Jack DePalma. With a twinkle in his voice, special only to men over 40 who have dedicated their lives to the American musical theater, Jack asked if I had considered doing a stage version of the classic MGM film "The Bandwagon."
An irresistible project
NOW, "The Bandwagon" is a tricky property in that it is beloved by those in show business, but it's not as well known by regular folks. So it's a well-known property that really won't sell tickets on its name recognition. Lose-lose. Of course, I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Also, the film has a legion of highly intellectual fans who seem unfazed that -- and here's a good one -- the original screenplay is unfinished. No, really: MGM wouldn't renew the screenwriter's contract, so they just filmed specialty numbers to finish the film. So no matter what I did to fulfill this unrealized work, a barrage of attacks would come from people who knew a lot of very big words. Again, lose-lose. I was smitten.
So I put aside the Electric Light Orchestra of "Xanadu" for a bit and took a few moments of contemplation for "The Bandwagon." First, there is the score by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Holy moly, it's a thing of wonder. And many original Dietz theater lyrics, pulled from various scores to sew together "The Bandwagon," had been so sanitized by the Freed Unit that to hear them would set the audience on its ear.
At a first reading of my script using the original lyrics, I heard the audible gasp from the audience when, in "I Love Louisa," the known movie lyric, "Ach when I choose 'em, I never wanna lose 'em" was replaced with the 1931, "Ach when I choose 'em, I like a great big bosom." Also, in "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans," the '50s version of "I overlooked that point completely before the big affair began" became the original, "I'm glad I bought these blue pajamas, before the big affair began."
That was exciting, I must admit, but it wasn't my initial draw. It was the chance to work on something started by the great team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This astonishing writing couple, never married or romantically involved, set a precedent for loopy yet sophisticated entertainment from the '40s all the way to the '90s. They are spoken of with the utmost respect in theater circles for their sublime musicals, namely the big three New York shows: "Bells Are Ringing," "On the Town" and "Wonderful Town." Movie fans gush when you say their names, starting with the screenplay for "Singin' in the Rain" and winding up with the "Barkleys of Broadway" and "Good News," then they cry and say something unintelligible about "It's Always Fair Weather."
It is impossible for me to tell you how much Betty and Adolph meant to me, artistically and personally. I first met them back when I had a little theater company down on Wooster Street in SoHo. Our second production was the 1929 comedy about songwriters, "June Moon," which they both attended on separate occasions. Betty first, looking like a visiting head of state of some elegant nation. She approached me after the show, shoved out a hand for me to shake and said: "When you do plays like this, it makes me want to come down to your theater and lick stamps." Adolph arrived a week later with his lovely wife, Phyllis Newman, another elegant head of state (Perhaps the land is called "Upperwestsidia"?). He regaled the cast afterward with stories about breaking into the music business in the '30s.
I began to see them at opening nights and fundraisers for my company. Highlighted memories are watching Betty leave our deconstruction of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," singing along with the Nine Inch Nails' song we had chosen as exit music. "Bow down before the one you serve," Betty sang as happily as she sang, "New York, New York! It's a helluva town!" Adolph once came to a fundraiser, and as each song was sung he happily shouted out the composer, the year it was published and the show it was from.
You see, they weren't just creators, they were enthusiasts -- they just seemed delighted that anyone ever had gotten the notion of putting on a play or writing a song. As I get older, I do notice that almost anyone can create something. But to have that much delight in creativity itself -- that takes a certain breed of cat.
One day I woke up and NPR was playing "Just in Time," and I knew the world had suddenly taken a step toward taste or either Betty or Adolph had died. Taste did not win that day; within seconds the voice-over announced the passing of Adolph. At his memorial service, the curtain went up, and there was Betty. She said that she never felt quite so alone. And it was around this time that I got my call from twinkle-in-the-voice Jack DePalma. "The Bandwagon," huh? Hmmmm.
Theater people love "The Bandwagon" and only with sterling justification. It is funny and truthful about how a show goes out of town, gets completely pretentious by the ham hands of a preposterous British director (insert present-day analogy here -- I'll wait). But there is a sly joke within it. The writing team, Lily and Lester Marton (played to perfection by Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant), though a bickering married couple, is almost certainly based on Comden and Green. Comden and Green writing themselves into a screenplay. What if I took that all the way? What if we talked about their early days in Greenwich Village and did a revue, just like Betty and Adoph did with Judy Holliday and Leonard Bernstein in a group called "The Revuers." What if the way the writers pitch the story to the director and the stars was like their famous two-person Broadway show, "A Party With Comden and Green." What if the show-within-a-show was along the lines of "Bells Are Ringing" or "Wonderful Town"?
All systems go
SO rights were assembled, and word came back from Betty that she was looking forward to seeing a first reading of what I had come up with. She also sent the original shooting script, which had a few cut scenes and was a huge help in filling out the story.
I was about halfway through the second act when I received word that Betty had passed away. As I finished the new book, it oddly took on a feeling of mortality and choices and lives in the theater.
When we began work on "Dancing in the Dark" in San Diego, an odd sort of feeling that I was not alone in the process took hold. Compliments would come for a turn of phrase or a plot twist. "That's Betty and Adolph," I'd say, giving them due credit. But the tone seemed to imply they were in the next room, pencils in their teeth, Underwoods at their fingertips. In my still moments, I read any interview or work they had done. The results became almost subconscious. After hearing the stunning four-minute Eric Stern overture for our production, I rearranged the order of the first act, confident that my new opening scene was going to shock everyone in the audience. It wasn't until I was in bed a few nights later that I realized Betty and Adolph had solved a similar problem with "On the Twentieth Century."
And so it goes. I'm not alone in the room. Which for a writer is as close as we get to comfort. There are other writers I miss so terribly but alas haven't left anything for me to work on. Wendy Wasserstein -- no first acts sitting on a shelf. Dorothy Parker could be fun, and Noel Coward. But for now, my next couple projects will be with living composers. Lewis Flinn, Douglas Cohen and Mary McBride. That won't be like having another writer in the room. That will be having another writer in the room, which is a completely different thing.
Beane wrote the plays "The Little Dog Laughed" and "As Bees in Honey Drown" and the film "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar." He is developing a television series with Lorne Michaels for NBC.