The last six months saw the deaths of two fine character actors. Both were 90. Both were best-known for TV sitcom roles in the 70s. But I bristle at that, as both had roles in wonderful Jule Styne musicals on Broadway. And the more important (to me) thing they had in common: both attended my musical, Such Good Friends.
Neither Jack Klugman nor Jean Stapleton could be expected to perceive I’d written the music by asking myself, “What would Jule Styne do?” What was more important was that they had lived through the era Such Good Friends depicts, the “scoundrel time” of blacklisting, Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. As such, they knew people – fellow actors, or behind-the-camera folks – who’d been forced into the horrible choice my characters face: Do I testify that certain old friends and acquaintances attended a meeting or a function a couple of decades ago?
When I started work on Such Good Friends, back in the 90s, I foolishly assumed everyone has a certain familiarity with the Witch Hunt. Years went by, and I found more and more young people who knew next-to-nothing about what so many of our entertainers had experienced. It was as if, in school, they’d studied American history, but they’d only gotten up to World War Two as time ran out in the school year. So Such Good Friends, for certain audiences, became something I’d never intended: a history lesson.
Jack Klugman had previously appeared in a Jeffrey Sweet play about blacklisting with my leading lady, Liz Larsen. As Jeff has been a friend for many years, I won’t even hint as to which show the two liked better. But I get the feeling that both Klugman and Stapleton had experienced, with a certain horror, that same ignorance of the period among the young. So, when Jean Stapleton leaned in towards me to tell me my show was not only wonderful but “important,” it felt like she had, on her mind, the memories of so many show biz friends whose lives were ruined or ended by the Red Scare.
You know, I met Klugman and Stapleton exactly the way I like to meet people. They’d seen my work before casting their eyes on me. (Such Good Friends is the show I’m most proud of.) And both envisioned a happy future for it. It only would be “important” if it reached a large audience of those who need to know about the McCarthy Era. And neither lived to see that happen.
I think, in aspect, when you’re considering what musical to put on, an “important” musical, or a history lesson about a troubled time, seems eminently less appealing than other types of shows. For instance, shows that are very funny. Or shows that show the craziness that happens behind the scenes in some odd corner of the entertainment world. Or even shows that explore the dynamics of long-standing friendships. I didn’t write Such Good Friends to alert audiences to the scourge of witch-hunting; I wrote it to entertain. For years, I’d been interested in the period, and what led friends to betray friends. But I didn’t start writing a show about it until it struck me that if I could focus on truly funny people going about their business of putting on a variety show in the early days of television, then, and only then, I could create something so entertaining that a little consciousness-raising about McCarthyism could be palatable. We go to school to learn history, and, for many, history isn’t their favorite school subject.
And I’ve sat through countless theatrical explorations of important issues, bored out of my skull. Some call it “spinach theatre” – stuff you’re supposed to swallow cause it’s good for you, but is really ick. And hell, I’ll name names: Wallenberg, a musical about – you guessed it – Raoul Wallenberg, one of those ever-so-noble Jew-saving daredevils of World War II. Each scene shows him doing something heroic, and you walk away thinking Wallenberg was certainly a terrific fellow. You’ve consumed the spinach, but you haven’t been entertained.
The problem I encounter with Such Good Friends is that people hear “a musical about blacklisting” and instantly assume it’s spinach. It’s why I prefer to say it’s the story of old friends struggling to create comedy in the early days of live television. It’s very funny, shows the craziness that happens behind the scenes and mines emotion from the dynamics of long-standing friendships. Its main love song is about the feeling one gets working side-by-side with platonic pals one truly cares for, Like Love.
The late great Jack Klugman and Jean Stapleton took the leap of faith that they’d be seeing a new musical that would be fun, not good-for-you. And they had loads of fun, and were highly complimentary. The world needs more people like them. And I’m not talking about warm and wonderful character actors who can enchant audience both on the small screen and the Broadway stage. I’m talking about folks willing to take a gamble that a funny musical that depicts what the House Un-American Activities Committee did to people doesn’t taste like spinach at all.