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Joseph Stein Chat with Robert Armin

Robert Armin's Online chat with Joseph Stein

(November 24, 2003)

[RobertArmin] Good evening and welcome to the Fynsworth Alley chat room.

[RobertArmin] Tonight, I am delighted to welcome that rare breed of individual -- the Broadway "bookwriter."

[RobertArmin] And one of the best -- Joseph Stein.

[RobertArmin] Hi, and welcome.

[JosephStein] Well, I am glad to be here.

[RobertArmin] We had originally hoped to get together a few months ago, but you were in the process of casting the new revival of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

[JosephStein] That's right. It is now completely cast and I think we have a marvelous, marvelous company

[RobertArmin] Alfred Molina is, of course, playing Tevya. Who else can we expect to see?

[JosephStein] Randy Graff is playing Golde and Barbara Barrie is playing Yenta.

[JosephStein] And we are very happy with all of them.

[RobertArmin] The director is the same man who brought us the revival of NINE, so we can expect a fresh approach?

[JosephStein] That's right.

[JosephStein] David is a very exciting director.

[JosephStein] and it is a wonderful experience working with him

[JosephStein] and I expect we will see a very fresh and innovative approach

[JosephStein] He is really great to work with.

[RobertArmin] pooet101 asks if the production has been completely cast yet?

[JosephStein] Yes, it has. We go into rehearsal a week from this Monday, December First

[RobertArmin] FIDDLER is, unquestionably, one of the masterpieces of the musical theatre. How did you get involved in the original production?

[JosephStein] Well, it started with the fact that Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock and I had worked together on an earlier show

[JosephStein] which was quite unsuccessful, called THE BODY BEAUTIFUL

[JosephStein] but despite the failure, we really enjoyed working together and were looking for another project to do together that we would be happy with

[JosephStein] Without going into to much detail

[JosephStein] we remembered the Tevya stories by Sholem Aleichem, a famous Yiddish writer

[JosephStein] The stories are actually written as brief monologues

[JosephStein] each one involving the adventures of one of Tevya's daughters

[JosephStein] And, FIDDLER is based upon three of those stories.

[RobertArmin] Arnold Perl had written an earlier play called TEVYA AND HIS DAUGHTERS.

[RobertArmin] And received credit on FIDDLER.

[JosephStein] None of it is based on any of Arnold's work. His involvement was simply a financial one. We had to make a deal to get the rights

[RobertArmin] That's what I suspected.

[JosephStein] But FIDDLER is based only on the stories, loosely based on the stories

[JosephStein] Actual dialogue isn't from the stories nor are most of the scenes.

[RobertArmin] FranklinShepardInc asks: Who created the overall concept of the tradition of the family being broken down as the culture is being broken down - you or Jerry Robbins?

[JosephStein] It's… we did it jointly.

[JosephStein] There was a lot of preliminary discussion with the three of us -- Jerry and the writers

[JosephStein] And out of that discussion came the concept

[JosephStein] The fact that each of the stories broke one of the traditions of the community.

[JosephStein] And that was inherent in the material we started with.

[RobertArmin] There were so many wonderful songs written for and not used in the show, it seems that the hardest job was just paring down the material to an appropriate running time.

[JosephStein] Well, I think this was typical of every musical.

[JosephStein] We cut a number of scenes I liked very much, we cut a lot of music we liked

[JosephStein] There was one particular song that we all loved dearly,

[JosephStein] “When Messiah Comes”

[RobertArmin] Oh, yes.

[JosephStein] We tried it all kinds of ways

[JosephStein] It was originally to be sung by the Rabbi

[JosephStein] and it didn’t work

[JosephStein] We tried it with Tevya and it didn’t work

[JosephStein] And despite it being a lovely song, it just didn't work at that moment in the show

[JosephStein] The audience didn't want that kind of light-hearted song at the moment

[RobertArmin] It's a wonderful number. Would there be any way to fit it into a new movie version? Maybe even over the end credits?

[JosephStein] No, it would still be a problem.

[RobertArmin] Let's step back a bit.

[RobertArmin] Way way.

[RobertArmin] To LEND AN EAR, which was, I believe, your first Broadway credit.

[JosephStein] LEND AN EAR. God!

[JosephStein] I think so

[RobertArmin] You were a sketch writer.

[JosephStein] I was writing at the time for television

[JosephStein] I was working at the time with Will Glickman

[JosephStein] And we were asked to contribute some sketches to this show as it was coming to Broadway

[RobertArmin] This was of course, Carol Channing's big breakthrough show.

[JosephStein] And, I remember writing these two sketches for a curious lady

[JosephStein] of course, Carol Channing, a very delightful lady

[JosephStein] I guess that was my first writing for Broadway.

[JosephStein] I also wrote sketches for a revue that was out-of-town

[RobertArmin] You also wrote sketches for ALIVE AND KICKING

[JosephStein] That's right

[JosephStein] But I first became acquainted with a person, Carl Reiner, who was in the cast

[RobertArmin] Your connection with Carl Reiner would come to full fruition some years later when you adapted his novel, ENTER LAUGHING.

[JosephStein] I wrote a number of sketches for Carl and Jack Gilford

[JosephStein] one was called “The Smoking Sketch,” which was done about a hundred times on television

[JosephStein] We became very good friends then

[JosephStein] and we worked together when I joined YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS

[JosephStein] and subsequently the SID CEASAR SHOW

[JosephStein] I started doing a lot of television

[JosephStein] It was a great, great experience for any young writer

[RobertArmin] You, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon all worked as writers for Sid Caesar.

[JosephStein] I worked with Mel and Neil and Larry Gelbart and Mel Tolkin

[RobertArmin] Your first full book musical came in 1955 – PLAIN AND FANCY.

[JosephStein] Yep

[RobertArmin] Which, incidentally, has been running for 12 years in Kansas!

[JosephStein] Continually

[RobertArmin] Making it’s one of the longest running shows in U.S.theatre history.

[JosephStein] I'm sorry, it is not Kansas it is Indiana

[RobertArmin] Yes, you had told me Kansas earlier and I believed you!

[JosephStein] Well, for a New Yorker, Indiana and Kansasare identical

[JosephStein] But I did see the show in Indiana

[JosephStein] in fact, it was running there for ten years and I wasn't aware of it

[JosephStein] I was getting royalties but I didn't know about it

[JosephStein] I was called by someone to see if I wanted to come to the tenth anniversary

[JosephStein] That is one of the lovely things about the theatre

[JosephStein] A show has a life somewhere

[RobertArmin] New Yorkers tend to forget that there is plenty of theatre between the "coasts"

[RobertArmin] pooet101 writes: I read that you were a social worker?

[JosephStein] Yes, that is true. I studied as a social worker

[JosephStein] And worked as a social worker for a very short time, and then

[JosephStein] drifted into radio

[JosephStein] Actually, from meeting a fellow named Zero Mostel

[RobertArmin] How did that come about?

[JosephStein] Zero, at the time, was doing a radio show, was doing a five minute monologue on a radio show.

[JosephStein] When I met him at a dinner party he had just run out of material

[JosephStein] And I suggested something that he found amusing

[JosephStein] And he asked me to write it out

[JosephStein] and I found myself writing his monologues for the rest of his stay on that program.

[JosephStein] I was subsequently asked to write for other radio shows and then for television

[JosephStein] And, I said farewell to my career as a social worker.

[RobertArmin] It's interesting how the people you met during your early years all come together in later projects. Zero Mostel would later star in your greatest success.

[RobertArmin] And your next show after PLAIN AND FANCY would team you with Jerry Bock

[RobertArmin] but without, yet, Sheldon Harnick.

[RobertArmin] That show was MR. WONDERFUL.

[JosephStein] That was MR. WONDERFUL.

[RobertArmin] Yes, what was that experience like, writing for Sammy Davis? It's well known that he did his "night club act" in Act 2. Did you write the night act or was it a combination of things he had been doing?

[JosephStein] It was a given that a section of his act would be part of the second act

[JosephStein] that was a condition for writing the show

[JosephStein] We did not write his act, we did not write that section

[JosephStein] The fact we had to use his act as a climax of the second act determined the structure of the show

[JosephStein] It was a pleasure to work with Sammy

[JosephStein] He was outrageously talented, not only as a singer, but as an actor. He could do anything

[JosephStein] That show was very successful

[JosephStein] But Sammy left at the end of his contact and the show could not go on without him

[RobertArmin] Has MR. WONDERFUL had a life without Sammy?

[JosephStein] There have been a few productions with other stars or major performers

[JosephStein] but it has really not had a life without Sammy. And, I have never again written a show with a specific performer in mind.

[RobertArmin] Jerry Bock had been introduced to Sheldon Harnick by Jack Cassidy and the two teamed together for THE BODY BEAUTIFUL. It was not a success, but it was certainly a stepping stone for both of them.

[RobertArmin] Tell me a little about THE BODY BEAUTIFUL and is it revivable?

[JosephStein] To answer the second part first

[JosephStein] I doubt if it is revivable

[JosephStein] It has some good songs and some good scenes

[JosephStein] It began because the producer of PLAIN AND FANCY wanted to produce another show with a prize fight background

[JosephStein] he was a prize fight buff

[JosephStein] So in a sense, THE BODY BEAUTIFUL was written on order

[JosephStein] We were young writers and happy to write a show with a prize fight theme.

[RobertArmin] Ironically, Sammy Davis would later return to Broadway as a prize fighter in GOLDEN BOY.

[JosephStein] That, of course, was GOLDEN BOY, based on a Clifford Odets story

[RobertArmin] Before I move on, pooet101 wanted to ask if MR. WONDERFUL had an integrated chorus?

[JosephStein] A very good question, and yes,

[RobertArmin] And was Sammy responsible for that?

[JosephStein] Sammy was responsible

[JosephStein] Originally, the chorus selected was all white

[JosephStein] I questioned it and so did Sammy

[JosephStein] The chorus was the community where the stars lived and it felt absurd to be an all white chorus

[JosephStein] so the chorus was enlarged to include a number of black performers.

[RobertArmin] I think your next show after THE BODY BEAUTIFUL is a gem that is, unfortunately, rarely revived...

[RobertArmin] But I am delighted to say that the long lost cast album is now available from Fynsworth Alley.

[RobertArmin] The show is, of course, Juno, and Marc Blitzstein is the composer-lyricist.

[RobertArmin] What was it like adapting a classic play by Sean O'Casey?

[JosephStein] First of all I want to say I am enormously proud of JUNO

[JosephStein] I love the show and Marc did a beautiful score.

[JosephStein] But back to your question,

[JosephStein] I met Sean O'Casey

[JosephStein] because he wanted to know how I planned to adapt his play

[JosephStein] He was thoroughly pleased with my adaptation.

[JosephStein] And he gave me the greatest compliment when he said he could not tell what part of the script was his and what part of the script was mine.

[RobertArmin] pooet101 asks if O'Casey was able to hear the score?

[RobertArmin] Or see the show, for that matter.

[JosephStein] No

[JosephStein] He never saw the show

[JosephStein] He never came to the States

[JosephStein] He did listen to the score and read the lyrics as they were sent to him.

[RobertArmin] I've always thought JUNO was one of those marvelous little works that require a virtually perfect cast and production to work. Were you happy with the York Theatre revival?

[JosephStein] Yes, I thought the York Theatre production was a little gem

[RobertArmin] Did you make many changes to the script?

[JosephStein] For that production?

[JosephStein] Frankly, I don't remember.

[JosephStein] I'm sure I did

[JosephStein] I was very glad to see it again and would be very happy for it to be revived again.

[RobertArmin] Is the show available for production?

[JosephStein] I imagine so.

[JosephStein] But I am sure it has to be worked out with the O'Casey estate

[JosephStein] If someone wanted to do it, I'm sure it could be worked out.

[RobertArmin] I hope more theatres will take a look at the show -- it's an extraordinary work.

[RobertArmin] Although JUNO was not a hit, your next show was. TAKE ME ALONG starred Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon and was based on AH, WILDERNESS by Eugene O'Neill. But it was O'Neill's one "comedy."

[RobertArmin] Did the casting of Gleason throw the balance of the show off at all?

[JosephStein] Not at all, because we actually wanted that character, the uncle, to be a motivating force and we cast it with a star

[JosephStein] Jackie by the way was really wonderful to work with.

[RobertArmin] The show also featured a very young Robert Morse as the son.

[JosephStein] Yep

[RobertArmin] pooet101 asks: I read that Gleason could not get along with the show’s director?

[JosephStein] He did not get along well with the show’s director and neither did I. I frankly don't remember his name

[JosephStein] My least favorite director

[JosephStein] And he had never worked on a musical before and it was a very American show and he was English

[JosephStein] But it had a very good cast and Bob Merrill wrote a very delightful score

[JosephStein] And I feel that show worked very well, despite the director

[RobertArmin] One of the hardest things for a bookwriter of a musical to deal with is the fact that the lyricist will often "steal" some of his best lines for the lyrics. Do you find being a bookwriter at all frustrating? And how do you approach an adaptation of a classic writer like O'Casey and O'Neill?

[JosephStein] Well,

[JosephStein] you approach the material with respect but with the knowledge that it was not written for a musical

[JosephStein] you keep the basic line of the original material and remain true to the feeling of the original material

[JosephStein] But, beyond that, you write as freely as possible

[JosephStein] As far as the lyrics using part of the script, that is par for the course

[JosephStein] It is a natural part of collaborating on a musical.

[RobertArmin] You have managed to find the correct tone for your scripts, even though the characters have been as varied as Eastern European Jews, Irish, Amish, Greek, etc.

[RobertArmin] One of your few non-musical works is the classic comedy, ENTER LAUGHING, based on Carl Reiner's roman a clef novel about his early days in the theatre.

[RobertArmin] Was Reiner instrumental in helping bring that show to Broadway?

[JosephStein] Not at all

[JosephStein] I was intrigued by the book

[JosephStein] In a great way it paralleled my own experience of breaking into the theatre.

[JosephStein] And I wrote it, really, as a kind of love letter to the theatre.

[JosephStein] I had a great deal of fun writing it.

[JosephStein] And the audience had a great deal of fun with it.

[JosephStein] But, unfortunately, it opened during a newspaper strike.

[JosephStein] But it had a very good run and it is still produced fairly frequently

[RobertArmin] And it introduced the amazing Alan Arkin to the theatre.

[JosephStein] That's right

[JosephStein] It was Alan's first show.

[RobertArmin] And the original “Adelaide” -- Vivian Blaine -- created the part later played by Elaine May in the movie version.

[JosephStein] In the movie, right

[RobertArmin] And, of course, that time Carl Reiner WAS involved.

[JosephStein] In the movie, yes

[JosephStein] He directed it.

[RobertArmin] And you produced it.

[RobertArmin] Was that a new experience?

[JosephStein] Well, we made it a joint effort

[JosephStein] He directed it. I wrote the script and we both produced it.

[RobertArmin] pooet101 reminds me that Alan Arkin had been on Broadway before with Second City, which I knew, but not in a "legitimate" play.

[RobertArmin] What did you do with WE BOMBED IN NEW HAVEN?

[JosephStein] No, that was written by Joe Heller, who was a very dear friend of mine

[JosephStein] I worked with him on it, but he had never written a play before

[JosephStein] He, of course had written a classic novel

[RobertArmin] CATCH 22

[JosephStein] Yes, CATCH 22

[JosephStein] As a matter of fact, he dedicated the play to me

[JosephStein] He was and remained a very dear friend to his last days

[JosephStein] And, I did help produce it.

[JosephStein] Cause the idea of raising money was totally foreign to Joe

[JosephStein] And, fairly foreign to me

[RobertArmin] We skipped over FIDDLER, because we had talked about that show earlier. Your next show was another important work, which, remarkably enough, was even more successful when it was revived more than a decade later.

[RobertArmin] That was ZORBA.

[JosephStein] ZORBA was actually suggested by Herschel Bernardi.

[JosephStein] who was playing Tevya at the time

[JosephStein] He was very eager to play Zorba and he asked Hal Prince and me to shape a musical around the novel

[JosephStein] And Hal suggested John Kander and Fred Ebb to do score

[RobertArmin] Why do the think the original was not fully successful?

[JosephStein] Well, actually, as I remember it, it was successful

[JosephStein] The revival was more successful because the revival starred Anthony Quinn, who was more right for Zorba

[JosephStein] Herschel Bernardi was not Anthony Quinn

[JosephStein] It has been revived quite regularly and has been very successful in Europe through the years.

[RobertArmin] More than most writers, you have seen many of your shows revived on Broadway and off-Broadway. Have you generally been open about revisiting earlier works and making changes?

[JosephStein] Yes

[JosephStein] I love looking at early works and trying to bring them up to date

[JosephStein] Actually, recently, we had a revival of a show you haven't mentioned

[JosephStein] THE BAKER’S WIFE

[JosephStein] at Goodspeed where we made changes

[JosephStein] One of the joys of working in the theatre, is a play or musical is a living thing

[JosephStein] And you can continually make changes, which is untrue of a film or novel

[JosephStein] Only in the theatre does a work remain alive and can be changed

[JosephStein] I actually have made a few minor changes in the script of the current production of FIDDLER

[JosephStein] probably unnoticeable to anyone but me.

[RobertArmin] Can you give us an example?

[JosephStein] Just a matter of cutting some words out of a speech or extending a phrase

[JosephStein] I can't be specific without going through the whole script

[JosephStein] Sometimes during an audition

[JosephStein] you hear a scene read frequently and you can see how the scene can be improved in some small ways.

[RobertArmin] I saw the original production of THE BAKER’S WIFE in Los Angeles with Topol and Patti LuPone and although it wasn't entirely satisfactory at the time, I am delighted that you and Stephen Schwartz have continued to work on it.

[RobertArmin] It's a lovely show.

[JosephStein] A major leap, on working on THE BAKER'S WIFE, was when Trevor Nunn produced and directed it in London and

[JosephStein] we made some important and desirable changes at the time

[JosephStein] The recent revival at Goodspeed was another major advance, and I think we finally have the show that Steve and I always wanted.

[RobertArmin] I think you just answered it, but FranklinShepardInc. asks: Do you feel you've corrected all the problems in THE BAKER’S WIFE’s book?

[JosephStein] As far as we can see, yes.

[RobertArmin] Will this version be published as the acting edition?

[JosephStein] Yes, this is the version that will be playing from here on in.

[RobertArmin] Fishbach writes: Mr. Stein - (sorry I'm late and you may have already answered this), but what inspired you to adapt Mr. Aleichem's stories into a musical?

[JosephStein] I remember the original stories having heard them from my father

[JosephStein] beyond that I have already spoken about this.

[RobertArmin] I will have the transcript of this chat up within a day or two, so you can read his comments. Thanks for joining us.

[JosephStein] How come you were late?

[RobertArmin] You were involved with the Broadway revival of IRENE with Debbie Reynolds.

[RobertArmin] Tell us about the famous moment when John Gielgud played the title role?

[JosephStein] I don't remember John Gielgud playing the title role

[RobertArmin] Debbie Reynolds had lost her voice, I guess, and at one performance out-of-town Gielgud stood on the side of the stage and read Debbie’s lines while she did the action. Apparently, it didn’t go over all that well.

[JosephStein] Debbie Reynolds called me when she was in Toronto

[RobertArmin] Gielgud had been directing the show out of town.

[JosephStein] Gielgud was already leaving the show.

[RobertArmin] So you came in to work on the show while it was on the road?

[JosephStein] I was called in with Gower to make changes

[JosephStein] When Gower and I came into the picture they decided to postpone the Broadway opening

[JosephStein] giving us time to work on the revisions.

[RobertArmin] In answer to your earlier question, Fishbach replies: I am a high school teacher and am directing HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS...just got out of rehearsal. Sorry!!!

[JosephStein] OK

[RobertArmin] You are forgiven!

[RobertArmin] pooet101 asks if your name was included in the credits of IRENE?

[JosephStein] Well, ordinarily, when I am called to work on a show out of town

[JosephStein] I never take credit because it is not my baby

[JosephStein] basically, not my baby

[JosephStein] that has been my rule for all of the shows

[JosephStein] Except for IRENE, because Debbie called me into her dressing room and said to me

[JosephStein] “Are you ashamed of this show?”

[JosephStein] “Not at all, it is a very pleasant, delightful entertainment.”

[JosephStein] “So,” she said, “Then put your goddamn name on the show!"

[JosephStein] And I said, “I will if Gower will.”

[JosephStein] So we both took credit.

[RobertArmin] I was a big fan of ENTER LAUGHING and I was so looking forward to a musical version.

[RobertArmin] But SO LONG 174th STREET was not very successful. What do you think were the biggest problems with that show?

[JosephStein] There were many problems with that original production

[JosephStein] The casting was wrong

[RobertArmin] Casting Robert Morse as a young boy was certainly the first of the problems.

[JosephStein] Because they had cast a grown man for the part, we had to do it as a flashback

[JosephStein] starting as a grown man telling his story

[JosephStein] which hurt the structure of the show

[JosephStein] We have revised it

[JosephStein] And we hope that someday the revised version will be done

[RobertArmin] So you think the changes will help to put the show back into the repertory?

[JosephStein] Hopefully, we live in hope

[RobertArmin] We're running short of time, so I'll just mention KING OF HEARTS briefly. Have you revised that script, too?

[JosephStein] No

[RobertArmin] I did want to mention one show -- CARMELINA -- which is talked about a lot lately, because of the success of MAMMA MIA. Was your script officially based on the movie BUENA SERA, MRS CAMPBELL?

[JosephStein] Yes

[JosephStein] Actually, Alan Jay Lerner originally started the project with Burton Lane

[JosephStein] And Alan called me in to work with him on the script

[JosephStein] I don't know how MAMMA MIA came up with the same plot.

[JosephStein] stumbled on the same plot

[RobertArmin] Most interesting because MAMMA MIA gives the film absolutely no credit for being the source material.

[RobertArmin] Funny about those things.

[RobertArmin] When CARMELINA gets revived, it may look like a revival of MAMMA MIA. We know better!

[RobertArmin] We have enough time to talk about one of your later -- and best shows -- which has been revived in numerous productions, always in a somewhat different form.

[RobertArmin] That is, of course, RAGS.

[RobertArmin] Why do you think that RAGS has been so problematic -- and yet always loved in each incarnation?

[JosephStein] I don't know, except for the New York opening, every single production of RAGS had been well received

[JosephStein] The New York Times review was negative, but it has always had a positive reaction every production since.

[RobertArmin] As with THE BAKER’S WIFE, have you settled on a definitive book for RAGS yet?

[JosephStein] Substantially

[JosephStein] but if and when there is a major production, Stephen and Charles and I will do some work on it.

[JosephStein] You know, of course, I am working on a show with Kander and Ebb

[RobertArmin] You had mentioned a revival of ZORBA is in the works.

[RobertArmin] So that's two Kander and Ebb projects.

[RobertArmin] Tell me about your new show.

[JosephStein] We are doing a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH

[RobertArmin] Is that going to finally happen, I hope.

[JosephStein] There has been a workshop production of it

[JosephStein] And there will be another one in March.

[JosephStein] It is an ambitious and enormously exciting project.

[JosephStein] I am very proud of it.

[JosephStein] And I am hoping it will have a future.

[RobertArmin] As do we all.

[JosephStein] Fred and John have written a thrilling score

[RobertArmin] I know it has been difficult transcribing your comments in this way, with Kristine typing for you, but thank you for taking the time to join us tonight.

[RobertArmin] I have admired your work for 40 years and it is really a thrill to finally meet you in person.

[RobertArmin] and several of our readers second (and third) that opinion.

[RobertArmin] Thank you so much.

[JosephStein] I was delighted to be here with you.

[RobertArmin] Next week, we will talk about the original production of Follies, with the author of the recent book on the subject: “Everything Was Possible,” Ted Chapin. Join us then

[JosephStein] Ok, that's it.