Book by Neil Simon
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
adapted from Hamlisch and Sager’s life together

INFO:

Opened at the Imperial Theatre    February 11, 1979    1,082 performances
Original Director: Robert Moore
Original Choreographer: Patricia Birch
Original Producer: Emanuel Azenberg
Original Leads: Robert Klein, Lucie Arnaz
Cast Size: Male: 1    Female: 1    Ensemble: 3 m, 3 fm    Total Cast Size: 2 (plus 6),  8.
Orchestra: 19-20 (Could definitely work with a much smaller orchestration. Say two keyboards, drums, bass, guitar, for 5.)
Published Script: Samuel French
Production Rights: Samuel French
Recordings: Original Broadway is fine.
Film: None
Other shows by the authors: Hamlisch: A Chorus Line    Simon: Sweet Charity, Little Me, Promises Promises
Awards: Nominated for 4 Tonys, didn’t win any.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

A very small show, cast of 2. I’d consider having the “voices” on stage, bringing the cast to 8. Ideal for a Little Theater, Dinner Theater, stock company with a crowded schedule looking for an easy fit, smaller regional houses, Off-Broadway (if this will still play in NYC). Probably too small a production for college and university theater departments.

Be Warned:

There’s nothing objectionable in this show, really. No audience will find I offensive. They may no love it, but there’s no reason to warn you about the content.

The show is small, and won’t fill a large theater or stage. Better for more intimate environs.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: A grand piano occupies center stage. An apartment in NYC. A 34 year old man, Vernon Gersch, plays a melody. He creates a melody, writes it down. The doorbell rings, but he’s too involved to hear it. He finally goes to the door. Enter Sonia Walsk, late 20s, attractive. It’s they’re first meeting, but he’s composing and so ignores her at first. She is almost afraid to talk to him. They finally talk. He asks if he did something to maker her nervous and she responds, “Yeah. You won two Grammies and an Academy Award.” She is very forward, asks what it’s like to be rich, and points out her own clothes are from “The Cherry Orchard” – not a store, the Chekhov play. A girlfriend of hers did the play – the clothes are almost new. 38 performances and 6 previews.

But she’s there because she submitted some lyrics to him – and to her surprise, he’s already written music to one and is ready to play it for her. (“Fallin’) Hearing it, she loves his music, but feels her lyric in inadequate. They have a sort of argument, and she agrees to leave the lyric alone…but mentions she doesn’t love the first eight bars of music. Somehow, they agree to write five songs “for Barbara”, and rather quickly. She is determined to make this work, to be on time, to even wear her dress right side front next time…

Five days later, the studio. Vernon impatiently looks out the window. He records a journal, and announces that Sonia is over a day late. Then, she pounds urgently on the door. She rushes in and demands the bathroom. He starts to argue, then she advises him that is his carpeting is expensive, he’ll point her to the bathroom. Relieved, she explains that she didn’t show yesterday because she “broke up with Leon.” He scared to ask, but discovers her dress is from a theatrical version of “Of Human Bondage”, playing in Dallas. He’s worked on another piece of hers, “Workin’ It Out”. She’s thrilled he liked the lyric. He didn’t, he just liked the title. He starts playing using her title, and “la-la” for lyrics. She gets upset. She can’t just spit out lyrics, she writes alone, in a comfy chair…talking to her little voices within. (3 offstage voices that sing with her.) They start working together on the song. (“Workin’ It Out”) She starts singing with the other hers, the others voices. The “girls” all complain about having to write lyrics to his music, that he kept the title and threw everything else out. In the mean time, he rocks out, singing with “his boys” (3 male offstage voices). She knows she’d better come up with something quick to work with him. He’s convinced his music is great (he always is).

He insists that to work with him, she needs to know him a little bit. He resists, she insists, asking questions about his life. She talks him into a “get-to-know-you” dinner – not a date. He tries to set up a time, but she’s always busy with Leon, the guy she broke up with. He goes to the phone to make a reservation and she wonders what he’d think “If He Really Knew Me”. He wonders if there were no music, he wasn’t able to compose, would she still want to see him tonight? They both feel incomplete, and wonder if the other can “find” the part “they left behind.” (Not sure what that means, by the way.)

They meet at a nightclub. She’s very late. Turns out she’s had another fight with Leon, and wants him to leave her place. She clearly has begun to like Vernon, when he stops the frustrating discussion because the band (or DJ) put on a new piece, and “They’re Playing My Song”. He goes just about wild with joy, and it surprises and amuses her…until they play one of hers, and she has the same reaction. She suggests they do get to work in the morning, but he suggests tonight. She makes a decision, and hurries home to kick Leon out, asking Vernon to meet her there in 1 ½ hours.

Her apartment, 1 ½ hours later. Sonia is teary eyed as Vernon enters her small, shabby apartment. She weeps because Leon has left, determined to make something of himself, and she’s touched. She is upset and needs to talk to someone. She asks if he’ll sit in a chair and pretend to be her analyst. He tries to pretend to be her doctor (pretty funny), but she just needs someone to listen. She gets around to when she met Vernon, and how he makes her feel – like trying harder to be better at things. As she does, he thinks to himself, reprising “If He Really Knew Me”.

She wants to get to know him, but she’s doing all the talking. Maybe he’d like to lie down, and she’ll be the shrink? He says he analysis himself for an hour a day, now, but will have to stop soon because he goes on vacation in August. As he talks, she thinks to herself, reprising “If He Really Knew Me”. He gives her a choice, work over the weekend, or go away together. She selects going away together. He exits to prepare. She sings “Right”, because it seems right, it feels right…until her voices start screaming it’s “Wrong wrong wrong!” She’d going to “do it again, now.” But if she’s going to do it, make it right.

On the street, Vernon drives up to pick her up. He knows he’s found a terrific woman, or he’s making a horrible mistake. She gets in the car, as they both yearn for this to be “Right”.

On the road, they drive along quietly. They’re very lost. She wants to call Leon to ask him to take care of her plants, since he has a key. Vernon does not understand why she wants to talk to that guy. They argue, and the car dies. She grabs her bags and walks away. Vernon sees that it’s all “Wrong” ( a reprise of “Right”).

The beach house, in Quoque, where they were headed. Sonia checks her answering service. He drags the bags in, wishing he was dead. She insists that now they’re there, they enjoy themselves. As they speak, he realizes they’re in the wrong house, it’s not a friends house. She admits she broke in. The right house is next door. She likes this house better. He asks her how she’d like a 2-5 year trip to the Big House? But he succumbs to her charms (as always), runs next door to put their bags where they belong, and promises to be right back. Alone, Sonia hopes that “Just For Today”, they can love each other. Vernon rushes in breathless, scared to death they’ll be discovered.

The phone rings, she goes to answer it when he reminds her this is not their place. But she left this number with her service before she knew it was the wrong house. It’s Leon. Vernon is furious, and heads next door. In her own way, she finally says goodbye to Leon, and decides if it’s a relationship Vernon wants, here it comes. The phone rings again, but she heads next door.

ACT TWO: Vernon’s living room, in semi darkness, four in the morning. Vernon paces in his pajamas and shouts into his recorder-journal. He’s in love. The doorbell rings, in comes Sonia. She’s a nervous wreck. She was home, when Leon showed up, broke and needy. She could not turn him away. So she’s shown up with suitcases packed to move in with Vernon. He’s very angry at how this is happening, but admits he was going to ask her that night, anyway. He wants to make her happy. (“When You’re In My Arms”) Vernon works at the piano as Sonia prepares for bed. He’s still working, and she insist that it stop. They have better things to at 1 a.m.

Bedroom, middle of the night. The phone rings. It’s Leon (of course). She takes the phone to speak to Leon, while Vernon wonders why she gave the jerk his unlisted phone number. Leon sounds very strange, perhaps drugged. She hurries out to help him, protesting her love for Vernon even as she runs out the door.

Inside the booth at a recording studio. Vernon has called Sonia 17 times, and can’t get a hold of her. He’s with a record producer, Phil (offstage). He’s there to record their song, and as he says, unless she’s been in a terrible accident, he’s going to kill her. She shows up, apologizing, and says Leon went crazy when she tried to call Vernon, and ripped the phone out of the wall. Leon’s going to California, and will never bother them again. She swears she’ll never take a call from him again, and Vernon insists she write that promise down.

Finally, they get to the recording, which Phil has been waiting to engineer all day. But she’s so angry, she can’t sing. She hates that he made her write her promise down. They’ve written the five songs they were supposed to write, and their collaboration is going strong – but she feels their relationship could use some work. He feels like they may have one relationship too many. It’s not going to work. She tearfully asks why. He’s afraid that he can’t be a good enough man for her. It’s not working. She plans to move out, but sings this last song they wrote anyway. (“I Still Believe In Love”) After she sings, Vernon makes a quick goodbye and exit, letting her know he’s getting out of New York for a while.

Their song is a huge hit.

A few months later, in a hospital room, in Los Angeles. Vernon is in a bed, leg in a cast. On the phone, he explains he was hit by a car that ran a red light. He thinks of calling Sonia often, but doesn’t do it. Sonia walks in with a gift-wrapped box. She read about his injury in Variety. She’s recording a big album and living with the producer, he was in Paris scoring a big film. She says Leon is very ill, but she hasn’t seen him in three months. He’s dating someone he met on the beach. She gives him the gift, a toy piano that really plays. They almost emotionally connect, but whatever she was thinking of saying goes unsaid as she exits.

Alone, he plays the toy piano. He observes that when you play an instrument and hit the note, you get the note, it’s simple. But Sonia and Vernon were not simple. He writes a love song for her to “Fill In The Words”. (Nice idea for a song, perhaps the strongest song in the show.)

Her NYC apartment, a few months later. Night, winter. Her phone rings. She answers. It’s Leon. He’s doing better,, and wants to make sure she’s okay, which is a switch. She wishes him a happy life. She opens the door, about to step out – and Vernon is there, limp and all. They talk. Vernon met Leon in the hospital. (He was there, too.) Vernon was direct with him, calling him a “pain in the ass.” Leon’s response – everyone has a Leon in their life. But Leon was happily dating another woman and is done with Sonia. He hands her a recording of a song he wrote for her, she’s going to London tomorrow to work with a new collaborator.

He leaves, she puts the song on to watch him go, as she promised (underscoring for their last scene, a funny idea). Her doorbell rings. Vernon lost his cane in the snow and has crawled back to her door – so much for a grand final scene. She rushes out to get him help…and finds the cane by her door. He admits he wants her to skip the new collaborator in London and collaborate instead with the new Vernon – the old one was driving him crazy. She demands that it work better this time…and decides to stay. He stays the night.

THE SONGS:

“Fallin’”, “Workin’ It out”, “If He Really Knew Me”, “They’re Playing Our Song”, “Right”, “Just For Tonight”, “When You’re In My Arms”, “I Still Believe In Love”, “Fill In The Words”

Hits include “I Still Believe In Love”

MY OPINIONS:

As always, feel free to skip my opinions and rating. If you do, don’t be surprised if the song they’re playing is “Taps”, or the “Bankruptcy Blues.”

The music is generally pretty predictable, the kind of pop that was successful in the 70s-80s. It rarely rises above serviceable. It’s also fairly heartless, pop at it’s most meaningless for the most part. And it’s dated. This is not a strong score when it gets romantic. It works better in the funny parts, and the piece calls for some energy in the lyrics and music. Better.

The lyrics are sometimes less than serviceable. The score has too many imperfect rhymes, and non-rhymes, often in key and very noticeable places, like “another-cover”, “sure-more”, and “understand – am”. In Musical Theater, there is a standard lyricists are expected to rhyme to, and it’s a technical term, not a value judgment, called a “perfect rhyme.” It has to do with the anatomy of actual rhymes, dealing with vowel-consonant combinations. Ms. Sager didn’t bother to come to grips with this important quality of theatrical lyrics. I found this frustrating in listening to the score. The lyrics feel incomplete, half-done in places. Overall, for a show that is about a composer and lyricist getting together in life and as artists, the score these two actually composed is less than wonderful. And there isn’t much score there, certainly less than most Musicals. Nine songs isn’t quite enough, in my opinion. The average Musical has about twelve-fifteen songs. As is true of the quality of the lyrics and music, the number of songs strikes me as a bit lazy.

By the way, this Musical is the more-or-less true story of the authors of its score. Here’s a photo of Hamlisch and Sager together

The man not in the photo is Neil Simon, the author of the book. He had his hands full, as so little of this show for a Musical is score. And he had two characters to work with. When we hear the voice of Phil the Engineer, it is quite a relief!

Simon also didn’t have much to work with in way of story, but he makes the scenes come to life. His dialogue is, as almost always, snappy, clever, fun, the sort of thing people wish they’d thought to say. For me, I found it petty hard to care about the two self-involved individuals in the piece, and the stakes seemed quite tiny. Can two successful songwriters work together to make more hit songs, and learn to love each other? To which I unfortunately ask, “who cares?” I’m afraid I do not, not much. If not for Simon’s clever, funny book, and this is a strong statement to make about a show with this kind of talent involved, I can’t imagine why anyone would do this show. But Simon’s work, as always, is superior. The characters are at least interesting, they have fun and telling dialogue, and they are huge roles, a tour-de-force for two actors bound to keep this play alive for a while.

In a world of cell phones, landlines and answering services are pretty passe. And there are a lot of phone calls in this play, too many for good dramaturgy. It’s a problem in the book that a smart production may need to solve. If you keep this a period piece (in the 70′s? Yuch), then you’re okay. The music is certainly dated.

Let’s talk about the six actors who play the “Voices”, three each for Vernon and Sonia. To help remedy the lack of variation in the show, I’d have the “Voices” on stage, dancing, watching, perhaps whispering occasionally into the leads ears. At least sporadically! Seeing a lead and three back-up singers will add color to the show visually, and allow some choreography to occur. Just a little, it will help the show. I think they should be actors and actresses who look a little like your stars. They should be seen. They could be dressed as variations of the personality of the character they are a part of. One of the guys and girls is the “cool” version, how the character sees him/herself when they have their act together and people stare at them as they walk down the street. Perhaps another couple is the “insecure” version of each lead, gawky, awkward, shy, not sure where to turn. Perhaps the final couple is the “aggressive” couple, eager to live and experience life. In any event, their demeanor, costuming, even their make-up could be variations on the main theme. They are possibilities, inner voices suggesting action or inaction. And they’re back-up trios for bigger numbers. These characters being visible and part of the action will provide the show much needed changes in the visual content, and give your leads something else to react to. They will deepen the show, and offer possible ways out of some of the more mechanical, clumsy dramatic tools Simon was forced into by the two character approach.

You can also use the Voices for the lead characters to talk to. Instead of Vernon recording a journal, Simon’s device to allow the character to tell us what’s going on, have him talk to a version or two of himself. And let them respond appropriately, non-verbally, but variously and surprisingly, perhaps not always for laughs (but usually).

The show has the appeal of a tell-all book, or a peek-through-the-keyhole article in a rather mean-spirited magazine. It has those two big roles to attract stars. It has one hit song that had a life. It has major names attached to its writing. It is easy to do, with that tiny cast, a mightily reduced orchestration, modern costuming, and a simplified and interesting idea for the sets I’ll describe shortly. There are some very favorable aspects to this show, for a Producer.

MY RATING: * (A better-than-average and interesting show, right for many groups.)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

The music is very much a product of its period. It’s easy to play, relatively, if you understand pop music of the 70s. If not, you probably should not Musical Direct this one. It is a LOT of music for your leads, even though there are so few songs. Plan to take the time to help them through the score. All in all, not the hardest job for a Musical Director. One of the easiest.

Vernon – Baritone. Must sing well, pleasantly, with personality and character. Acting comes first, though. And he really should play piano fairly well.

Sonia – Mezzo/alto. Must sing with energy, character intact, with emotion.

Background voices – Good at harmonizing, strong belts.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

It’s a two character play, and they’re both “writers”, played by middle-aged actors, basically. There’s not going to be any real dance of any kind, here.

One problem you’ll have is the tempo and pattern of some of the songs are very similar, particularly “They’re Playing Our Song”, and “When You’re In My Arms”. You’ll need to discover some bright ideas to make these numbers (with so few bodies on stage, so few changes in the look of the show) unique.

A Choreographer will likely work with “Workin’ It Out”, “They’re Playing Our Song”, “Right”, and “When You’re In My Arms”.

A key to these numbers is to understand which character is the focus. In “Workin’ It Out”, she’s the focus. He’s at the piano, so he’s not going to move anywhere. She is the one losing her mind, trying to devise instant lyrics, add water and stir. And she is losing her mind, which is where the humor should come from. You cannot have anyone “dance”, unless it’s her commenting, inner voices. If the Voices are around, they could suggest lyrics, some helpful, others awful, whispered in her ear, written on her pad. She might get an idea, write it, the other girls look at it, shake their head, she tears it up in disgust. The urgency she feels should be the core of the movement, its motivating factor.

“They’re Playing Our Song” is a happy feet, energized celebration of success. Both characters indulge (in a public place), and each should have their own unique movement, and form of celebration. Perhaps for him, it’s a football or basketball slam dunk, high fives. For her, maybe a stroll down the red carpet, waving to the adoring fans and cameras. Whatever it is, look for character-appropriate images and actions that differentiate the way these two characters celebrate. This number needs to be fun, high-energy, and memorably funny.

“Right” seems like a ballad until she arrives at “Wrong wrong wrong”. It should launch there, with a sense that she longs to escape, to get out, to be anywhere but here. And then, she turns around, desperate to make things work. This can only be “choreographed” if the Voices are whispering in her ear to escape, stay, be cool, whatever. Their involvement, revolving always around Sonia, could provide some movement and vitality. Keep it fun, funny, desperate and eventually hopeful.

“When You’re In My Arms” involves the Voices, and bringing them on stage opens up some options. It’s an upbeat love song, a celebration, around and utilizing the piano on stage. (More about the piano to follow in the comments on the set.) Vernon can be climbing all over and under and into the piano with his Voices, celebrating love and sex. She integrates in and perhaps gets sucked into the fantasy display of joy. It could get gymnastic to some extent, and those aspects can be done by the “cool” couple of Voices.

Anywhere else in the show where the Voices are heard, you may be able to get some movement going. I’d do it. Just keep the two leads at the center and focus of action.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Vernon – mid 30s-early 40s. A New Yorker, on the Hebraic side of things. Successful, intense, at home at a piano far more than with people. Funny, clever, his tongue can be too sharp, too brutal for his own good. He does not always think before he barks. And he does not like to be pushed at all. He does not like being moved outside his narrow comfort zone. At the start, he takes his success too seriously, I think, so why would he change anything? He doesn’t like the idea of change very much. And he has an ego. He admires his work more than anyone else does. Cast for acting, type, voice, some movement.

Sonia – mid 20s-30s. Sexy, cute, adorable in many ways. Over-emotional, a bit unstable. She loves completely, and refuses to withdraw her love once given. A bit insecure, but she loves what she does and ultimately believes in herself. She is no beginner, she’s had hits, and has her own way of working. She can be moved off her comfort zone as an artist, but she also doesn’t like it much. Able to let go of difficult moments and move on, it comes easier to her than him. Cast for acting, type, voice, some movement.

Background Voices – Described above. They should somewhat resemble the actor or actress they are “a part of.” Cast for type, voice, dance, acting. (If you do it my way. If not, just voice.)

Phil – An off-stage voice. (Use one of the Voices.) Dry, bored, a pro, impatient.

SETS:

A piano is the first thing we see. It think it should be a part of every location. It is the thing that unites these two artists and people.

I believe this show should feel reasonably modern, and simple. Whatever you do, the rest of the show is inexpensive, and I’d find a presentational approach way built around the piano

Act I Scene I and II is Vernon’s expensive NYC apartment. A couch, the piano, maybe a small end table, everything tasteful. A window could be placed (dropped from the rafters), but it could also not be a part of the set.

Le Club can certainly have a piano in it. The Voices could be “performing”, one of his doubles at the piano. When they play her song, perhaps one of her double takes over the piano, Could be fun. Other than that, push the couch to the back of the stage, and have it look like a low bar when its backwards, or something along those lines. Have the Voices bring in a small table and two chairs for the leads.

Sonia’s apartment. Limited in size by lighting, smaller than his grand place. The piano remains, in the dark. Messy, maybe crowded. A guitar somewhere, a small desk can be rolled on by the Voices. Use the same couch, but place two-three throws and blankets over it to cover it, and they should be shoddy.

Remove everything but two chairs, and perhaps a street lamp rolled on, for Scene 5, a street and Vernon’s car. Remove the street lamp for scene 6, just the two chairs, which are “the car”. Isolate the actors with lighting. Create lighting effects to show the occasional car headed the opposite direction.

Behind the chairs, roll in the beach house. The couch with a rustic throw on it, covering it, warm and inviting. His end table with a false top, a coffee table now. The sounds of the ocean just outside, to help the setting feel unique.

Act II, back to his apartment. Scenes 2-3 are his bedroom. Isolate a corner of the stage in lighting, and roll out a reasonably large bed, an end table with phone attached to the bed.

The recording studio is the piano isolated in light, and a mic with pop shield on it. Throw the rest of the stage into darkness and strike the bed. We do not need to know where Phil is, but I’d place him where the audience is, so when they talk to him, they look front, as if the audience was Phil, watching all the action.

The hospital room is just a hospital bed, perhaps rolled in exactly where the other bed was, a comment on happy times gone by.

The last scene is Sonia’s, described above. Strike the hospital bed in the shadows.

This show does not need to be much of a drain, and the sets can be as simple as described. Approached this way, a relatively simple job.

Make a deal with a local piano store to lend you a piano for a free ad in your program, and a thanks.

COSTUMES:

All 70s, pretty modern, easily costumed through thrift stores and closets. A very simple job. Lots of photos of Hamlisch and Sager exist from the period, and they are your model.

PROPS:

Manuscript paper, things on tables, a guitar, the table cloth Vernon pockets from Le Club, phones from the period, a recorder from the period (if you use one), simple luggage for when they go out of town. There will be more. Not too rough a show.

LIGHTING:

Very important if you do the show as described. You’ll need to be able to isolate action, throw the rest of the stage into the dark. His apartment should feel well-lit, but a bit antiseptic. Hers should be dimmer, dingier, but warmer. Le Club can use smart lights circling, a mirror ball (yes), and saturated colors. The nighttime drive should have a light source, like the moon. It should feel like night. The oceanside house should be simply lit, warm, romantic. The recording studio is simple, cold lighting, as is the hospital. These are real places, you know what they look like! A job for an experienced Lighting Director.

MAKE-UP:

Unobtrusive, simple. May need wigs for some of the Voices, if we see them.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Musical Director, Choreographer, Vernon, Sonia

MY THOUGHTS:
The show could be fun to do with strong leads. I think we need to see the Voices, as described. I believe the show would benefit from a creative Director’s approach to sets, the Voices, some sound effects appropriate to changing locations, and that sort of approach to ambiance. The picture must change, including the audio “picture”, for the show to remain interesting.

A very inexpensive show with simple values in sets, costumes, music and choreography, something more newby companies should be able to produce if they have the two strong leads.