An odd couple make Shaw sing.
“The reviews basically said, ‘Forget about it,’ and the show was endless, so we didn’t get to the bar until midnight.”
Legendary theater artist Austin Pendleton is describing a steamy summer night in 1964 Detroit. The setting is a postshow saloon where the company of a seemingly doomed Broadway-bound musical had settled in to cope with the most recent round of lousy reviews, which, as in all the cities the show had run, had predicted disaster.
Pendleton, then a 24-year-old Yale grad and a relative whippersnapper in his first big musical, sauntered up alongside the project’s implacable director, Jerome Robbins, and asked him what he was going to do about the impending fiasco.
“I’m going to fix ten things a day,” the most frighteningly powerful man in American theater said to him. “By the time we get to New York, a hundred things will be fixed.”
When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway that September, Robbins had famously fixed enough things that the show was almost immediately enshrined in the musical-theater canon and ran for eight years (an unheard-of longevity for a show on the pre–Cameron Mackintosh, preservative-injected Broadway).
“It wasn’t, ‘Let’s sit down and start over again,’?” Pendleton recalls of Robbins’s pragmatic approach. “It was, ‘How do we improve on what we have?’?”
Pendleton followed his role as Motel in the seminal Jewish folk musical with a ridiculously prolific career in the entertainment business. He sparred with Orson Welles in Catch-22, directed Elizabeth Taylor in her 1981 stage debut and became one of the first non-Chicago members of Steppenwolf’s ensemble. The Ohio native still finds himself on the front end of American theater. As he recalls being a young man surrounded by industry giants, another young man sits by his side.
Josh Schmidt, 33, is the intense composer of Adding Machine, the chamber-musical take on Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionistic play about an office lackey who goes berserk and kills the boss. Schmidt’s strange and wonderful musical treatment, which captured the attention of the Off-Broadway community when it transferred from Evanston’s Next Theatre in 2007, is virtually unclassifiable in its style. He assures us that A Minister’s Wife, his and Pendleton’s new musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s 1897 play, will be no easier to categorize.
“Part of the problem with the stagnation of the [musical theater] form is that we’re looking too much into the history of the form,” insists the Milwaukee-born composer, who gained prominence as a sound designer before receiving the Next commission. While there is certainly precedent for making pleasant musical diversions of Shaw—Lerner and Loewe tweaked the resolute feminist ending of Pygmalion into a heartwarming trifle called My Fair Lady—the tightly woven Candida is, like Adding Machine, no one’s idea of a no-brainer musical adaptation.
To state it gently, Candida is the virtual opposite of the kind of Hollywood blockbusters whose recognizable titles are hoped to lure ticket buyers to Broadway. A Minister’s Wife examines a single day in the life of a Christian Socialist who must choose between her teetotaling hubby and a fervent poet who courts her. Pure Shavian morality play, Candida is a delicate intricacy that defies typical book-musical streamlining.
Yet Pendleton and Schmidt have been charged with the task by Writers’ Theatre’s artistic director, Michael Halberstam. Halberstam, who conceived and directs the piece, originally planned to take on the book-writing duties as well but handed them over to Pendleton when it became clear both tasks would be overwhelming.
The result of pairing these old-school and new-school personalities is yet to be seen—“I welcome spectacular failure,” says Schmidt, who often speaks in declarations—but for now the unlikely duo is happily gearing toward opening, fixing a few things a day.
A Minister’s Wife opens Thursday 4.