I got to thinking about what I knew when I was a teenager, perhaps because I wrote a piece for another blog about my expectations of my college students. Or perhaps because I met a high school performer who was totally unfamiliar with the word, “soliloquy” and, as with Proust’s Madeleines, I recalled something I rarely recall. In Sixth Grade, we read an abridged version of Hamlet out loud in class. I was Hamlet, starting off my lifetime of indecisiveness. And then, this past month. E. L. Doctorow died.
Musical theatre fans seem most likely to know his name as the author of the novel, Ragtime, which was made into a rather remarkable musical. Me, I seem to take a perverse pleasure in having thoughts that are different than other people I know, so I went back to my adolescent discovery of The Book of Daniel.
And methinks I hadn’t been previously aware that an author could take events from American history, and tweak them to make them more entertaining, more dramatic, in a work of fiction. Only historians have a duty to be accurate. Free of that, you have the liberty to get to the emotional truth of a story, one that differs from the actual events, and tell a better tale, a more memorable one. That’s what Doctorow did in Ragtime, in which made-up families co-exist with Henry Ford and Harry Houdini. Houdini – the subject of a musical we keep hearing will come to Broadway and yet never does – was an illusionist. Which makes me think that maybe he didn’t exist but managed to hoodwink everyone into believing he did. (Similarly, I keep talking to people who assure me the Houdini musical’s on its way in. Sure: just like Rebecca. And Busker Alley.)
The Book of Daniel, I barely remember, had something to do with the son of convicted Americans who’d been spying for the Soviet Union. The reader muses on the legacy of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg even though Doctorow doesn’t use their names. The execution of the Rosenbergs was the result of The Trial of the Century. Except musical theatre fans believe the Harry Thaw case was The Trial of the Century. Because that’s what it says in Ragtime.
And if you’re a lover of rhymes but not musicals – such as “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit,” then you think the O.J. case was The Trial of the Century. Some of you, reading this page, remember that one. (I know I’ve at least one reader who remembers the Rosenberg trial.) But if you think O.J. Simpson got a lot of media coverage, it’s nothing in comparison to the Thaw murder of master architect Stanford White. So I say you’re wrong, WRONG, WRONG!!! – knowing that people who love rhymes but not musicals probably aren’t reading this.
Back to this ordinary Jewish couple, parents, who were killed by a government at the height of the Red Scare, the Rosenbergs: key players in their trial were major parts of the lives of both my parents. My mother’s mother’s best friend was married to prosecutor Irving Saypol. My father, as a young lawyer, clerked for judge Irving Kaufman. That’s two separate relationships, since they were established before my parents met each other – and both Mom and Dad were horrified the Rosenbergs were put to death. I heard a lot about the case, and the Red Scare in general. Julius was likely guilty, but the entertainment industry blacklist, borne of a similar hysteria, affected innocents, with almost no exceptions.
Thoughts about this fraught time in America percolated in my mind for years and years. There was a fascinating movie called The Front. It was filled with jokes, yet effectively dramatized the sad fate of blacklisted writers and an actor working on a 1950s television show. The closing credits showed the dates that many of the actors and behind-the-scenes creators had been blacklisted themselves. Given that so many movie makers had experienced the Witch Hunt, it’s surprising that there weren’t more movies about it.
But what about a musical? Surprisingly – but good for them – very few musical writers had suffered due to McCarthyism. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for two of the best musicals ever, Gypsy and West Side Story, made it a plot point in his screenplay, The Way We Were.
Jerome Robbins, who directed both Gypsy and West Side Story, had named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, never apologizing for it. These were among the facts in my head when two of my comedy writing heroes, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, came out with fictional portrayals of their early TV era days, writing for Sid Caesar. Brooks produced (but didn’t write) a film, My Favorite Year (later a musical) and Simon wrote a Broadway comedy, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Fascinating and funny, I thought, but no mention of the scourge of the time and place? How did blacklisting get whitewashed?
And so I set out to write a musical that was a little more truthful about how the HUAC had an awful impact on the funny folk who put on early TV variety shows like Sid Caesar’s. In doing research, I was fascinated by the machinations that led Lucille Ball to survive the discovery of her Communist Party membership card, while another popular sitcom star of the time, Philip Loeb, lost his job and eventually took his own life, unable to work.
To get to the emotional truth of the situation, I chose not to write about Lucy or Loeb but a made-up TV star, writer and director, Such Good Friends. Remembering how The Front worked, I made sure to pack it with as many laughs as possible. And Such Good Friends enraptured an audience consisting of some people who’d lived through the era, and some people who didn’t know a thing about it. “Did this really happen?” young people asked. No, but something very much like it did.