August 2, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The novelist Truman Capote (1924–1984) burst onto the literary scene in 1948 (at the age of twenty-four) with a book of short stories Other Voices, Other Rooms. An overnight sensation, he followed it with other triumphs, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and his true masterpiece, In Cold Blood (1965). He also aimed his sights on the theatre, and even if it was only twice in his career, they were interesting attempts. The first was an adaptation of an early novella, The Grass Harp, which played the Martin Beck (now the Al Hirschfeld) for four weeks in 1952 (funnily enough, it would return briefly to that same theatre nineteen years later as a musical, but Capote had nothing to do with it).
But he took on a complex project in 1954, when he wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics for an original musical, House of Flowers, loosely based on his story by the same title, published in The New Yorker. Working with the estimable composer Harold Arlen, Capote had first envisioned it as more of a play with music, but once the collaboration with Arlen began in earnest, Capote was inspired to see just how far he could go as a lyricist. We’ll never know quite how far though, as the final billing gave Arlen co-credit for the lyrics (they wrote everything almost entirely by phone and mail). It was an arduous path to its Broadway opening on December 30, 1954, with multiple firings and backstage drama. The consensus was there was much that worked, but not enough to warrant success. Closing after 165 performances, the experience took its toll on Capote, who vowed to never write for the theatre again (which he held to). In an interview he gave to Playbill Magazine in 1966, a dozen years after House of Flowers had opened and closed he claimed “I watched while somebody broke all the bones of my child.”
For a novelist used to working almost exclusively on his own, the collaborative nature of the theatre can be a daunting one, especially on a musical. In the case of House of Flowers, its turbulent rehearsals, with infighting and firings, made for a difficult time. And the self-claim that all the blame could be deposited at the door of everyone else but Capote, is a dubious one. From the reporting I’ve read, Capote quit the show prior to its official opening, walking away from his responsibilities and leaving the dwindling creative team in the lurch.
Hired to helm House of Flowers was Peter Brook, the British director whose mammoth career is still thriving after seventy-five years and countless productions the world over (Brook is ninety-three). Though not yet the extraordinary innovator he would become, even in his earliest days, Brook was considered someone of rare skill, criss-crossing between classical theatre and opera in his native London. To create the dances, George Ballanchine was brought on board; not only a veteran of Broadway (he had staged “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” for Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes in 1936), but was one of the most respected ballet choreographers of his day. Both were fired during the Philadelphia tryout. Though retaining his director credit, Brook was replaced (primarily) by Herbert Ross, who was already choreographing after Ballanchine was let go. In addition, according to theatre historian Ken Mandelbaum, “Otto Preminger did some work on the show, and Johnny Mercer contributed some new lyrics.”
Its two warring madams were played by Juanita Hall (Tony Awarded for her Bloody Mary in South Pacific in 1949), and Pearl Bailey, already well-known for stealing shows she appeared in, like Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s St. Louis Woman (1946) and Morton Gould and Dorothy Fields’s Arms and the Girl (1950). But it was a nineteen-year old singer/actress who was causing a commotion almost as soon as House of Flowers began rehearsals. It was clear right from the start that Diahann Carroll was poised, beautiful and had a singing voice to die for. Bronx-born, Carroll grew up in Harlem, and after some modeling gigs and nightclub appearances, made her feature film debut in Carmen Jones, which was released just three months prior to House of Flowers’ opening night.
It was quickly apparent in the mind of Pearl Bailey, that Carroll’s youth, beauty and freshness posed a threat. It is well-documented that no sooner than Carroll was given a new song, then Bailey demanded it be given to her. This not only demoralized Carroll, but caused a decent amount of resentment from co-star Juanita Hall. As a result the battles backstage between the two Madams was more intense and hostile than their onstage dueling. With no room to even get a word in edgewise, the Haitian-American actress/singer Josephine Premice, walked off the show. Two survivors of the cast were the actor/dancer/director/choreographer Geoffrey Holder, and a woman he met on the show and to whom he would stay married 59 years until his death: the brilliant dancer and recent Kennedy Center honoree, Carmen De Lavallade. As she wrote in her autobiography As I Remember It, De Lavallade recalled “this one, tall, handsome man from Trinidad named Geoffrey Holder took us under his wing. Three days later he proposed; four months later I accepted.” Also in this illustrious chorus were future stars Donald McKayle, Arthur Mitchell and a twenty-three year old Alvin Ailey.
What happened was that Capote’s oh-so-slight tale got swallowed up along its rocky sea voyage en route to Broadway. With many a musical hanging in the balance based on the strength of its score, a threadbare plot can sometimes work, but with House of Flowers, the story was practically translucent. This was it: in the West Indies, two neighboring bordellos compete for business. When one of the prostitutes falls in love, her madam unsuccessfully plots against the impending marriage in order to keep her. The end. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times offered little in the way of kindness with his opening night review, writing that “Mr. Capote has invented a trickle of story.” Worse was Variety, which wrote that it was “one of those shows in which everything seems to have gone wrong.’’
But for anyone who has listened to the original cast recording of House of Flowers, that well-known feeling occurs whereby you swear that a show with a score so strong could certainly be rescued from its subpar book, if given the chance. But an off-Broadway revival in 1968 (led by Josephine Premice, finally getting her chance to do the show, now playing one of the leads), was both downsized and disappointing, closing in six weeks. And for a show that practically defines the mission statement of City Center Encores!, its 2003 production, with a refurbished book by the playwright Kirsten Childs, didn’t advance the cause that it deserved further productions, formally solidifying its cult status. This in spite of a cast that featured Brandon Victor Dixon, Stacy Francis, Maurice Hines and Nikki M. James, with Armelia McQueen and Tonya Pinkins as the warring madams.
Besides its title song, perhaps the best known song from the score is “A Sleepin’ Bee,” which Barbra Streisand beautifully recorded before her fame took off. Other numbers include the calypso number “Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree,” the haunting, “Don’t Like Goodbyes” and the ballad “I Never Has Seen Snow.” You can check them all out by way of the show’s original cast album. It’s a genuine treat, despite the bruising of its once broken bones.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.