September 1, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Picnic is William Inge’s beautiful slice-of-life drama which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. Two years later, it was made into a hit film starring William Holden and Kim Novak and, has forever after never managed to go out of fashion. It’s been revived on Broadway twice (most recently in 2013), which is a bit surprising, considering that its status over the years has gone from being something contemporary to a period piece. But the sexual repression of the 1950s is still a subject that draws directors and actors to plays of this ilk (like much of Tennessee Williams). Picnic is aided immeasurably by Inge’s ability to write characters from which subtext can be endlessly explored. It’s an old story: about a drifter awakening nearly everyone in a sleepy southern town. It doesn’t dig too deep; its comedy is low key. But if you get the right actors, they can make it feel like a very satisfying meal.
Its original Broadway production, directed by Josh Logan, featured a cast with actors perfectly suited to their roles (they do say that ninety percent of a director’s job is casting, and Logan was something of a master at it). It starred Ralph Meeker, Janice Rule, Eileen Heckart, Arthur O’Connell, Betty Field and two young actors on their way up: Kim Stanley and Paul Newman (in his Broadway debut).
Then in 1965, it was someone’s idea to make a musical out of it. Well, why not? Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker had just been successfully transformed into Hello, Dolly! The same thing could work for Picnic, right? And it was probably no accident that David Merrick produced them both. But the team he put together (along with co-producer Leland Hayward) did not come close to duplicating the success of Picnic. Not by a long shot.
The show was retitled Hot September and very much attempted to recreate the sizzle first caused by Picnic ten years earlier. Inge must have passed on the idea of rewriting his play into a libretto, so the task fell to Paul Osborn, a playwright who had at the time been more recently writing screenplay adaptations of novels such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and James A. Michener’s Sayonara). The score was by Kenneth Jacobson and Rhoda Roberts, pop song writers who had never written before for the theatre. Josh Logan, who had not only staged the original play, but directed the film version as well, re-upped to see this musical to fruition (which probably explains what Leland Hayward was doing co-producing, as they were longtime friends since attending Princeton together in the 1920s).
Opening out of town in Boston, the reviews for Hot September all agreed that the show was terrible:
“Picnic was honest, sound and deeply moving,” wrote Elliot Norton in the Boston Post. “Hot September is slick, fast and synthetic.”
“A deadening parade of mere showmanship, nearly everything about Inge’s play is contained, but now it is romantic cliche blared up full and loud.” — Kevin Kelly (Boston Globe).
“It needs to be clarified whether it’s Picnic with music or Hot September with a tinge of Inge.” — Variety.
After these reviews, the decision was made to not bring it to the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) where it had been booked for an October opening. It closed in Boston, the end of the road. Among its cast was the noted character actor Eddie Bracken, who took on the supporting role of Howard Bevans that had earned Arthur O’Connell an Oscar nomination for the film of Picnic. An actress with the unlikely name of Lovelady Powell played Rosemary, the role created on stage by Eileen Heckart and later done on film by Rosalind Russell. The two leads were cast with virtual unknowns who never went on to much fame or fortune, Sean Garrison and Sheila Sullivan.
Though Kenneth Jacobson and Rhoda Roberts saw their one shot at Broadway end ignominiously, they did get a moment’s worth of glory. How many unknown composers can boast that Frank Sinatra (in his prime) found one of their songs record-worthy? “Golden Moment” wound up on an album Sinatra culled mainly from favorite theatre songs he had previously recorded. Calling it “My Kind of Broadway,” (if Hot September can be considered “Broadway,” considering it never made it there), you can listen to it here, if you care to.
And it wasn’t the only song from their never fully recorded score that Jacobson and Roberts forced upon the world. An instrumental version of their “Theme From Hot September” was produced as a 45. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to dig it up to hear what it sounds like.
Of course, looking at the titles of some of the other songs from this musical, I kind of wish Sinatra had deemed the show’s opening number “Another Crummy Day,” worth recording. That’s one I would like to hear.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.