Posted on March 3, 2007 at 10:39 pm
Soon after I got to New York, I passed by the Broadhurst Theater and noticed that a new play by Neil Simon was opening. What really caught my eye on the poster was that the incidental music was written by Stephen Flaherty. I thought (and still think) that Once On This Island is one of the most wonderful musicals of the past twenty-five years, and when I saw Stephen’s name on the Neil Simon poster, I thought, “Man, that’s what a career looks like. When I really get going, I want to write a Broadway musical AND the music for a Neil Simon play!”
I knew I couldn’t just call Neil Simon and ask for a gig, so after I got my Tony, I started asking everyone I worked with if they would consider me to write the incidental music for any play they were working on. David Petrarca was the first director to take the bait (we were rehearsing the tour of Dinah Was in Dallas at the time), and he hired me to write the score for David Lindsay-Abaire’s wonderful play Fuddy Meers when it opened at Manhattan Theater Club in 1999.
The play did very well, and my music got a nice notice in the Times, so suddenly I was on “the list,” and I got called at least once a season for the next couple of years to work for Manhattan Theatre Club, usually with Lynne Meadow directing. (I always worked with a great sound designer named Bruce Ellman, who had to do all the heavy lifting of sitting in tech and editing the cues to fit the scene changes – thanks, Bruce!) Some of the plays were successful, some were not, but I always had a nice time working with Lynne, and I liked the whole vibe at MTC.
I was packing to do a week of concerts in Raleigh, North Carolina with Lauren Kennedy when I got a panicky call from Bruce. Apparently, Lynne was in tech for a new play, heard the music Bruce had selected, and decided it was not to her liking. Bruce had tried to find some other music, but Lynne was having none of it, and she told him to call me and see if I would come in and, very very quickly, write a new score for this play. The show was Rose’s Dilemma, starring Mary Tyler Moore in her much-anticipated return to the stage. And amazingly, it was written by Neil Simon. No shit.
Be careful what you wish for. I went to see the invited dress rehearsal that night at City Center, and it was clear that this was not a happy family. The first preview had been cancelled because Mary Tyler Moore was having trouble memorizing her lines, so there was an intern sitting in the front row with a script calling out lines to her. Neil Simon, meanwhile, was very ill (a couple of weeks after the show closed, he got a kidney transplant, but at this moment, he was still going to dialysis every day, and he apparently felt awful all the time), and he was clearly displeased with the way things were going, to the point of snapping at one actress in the company after virtually every line she delivered. I was very excited to meet him, of course (I yield to virtually no one in my admiration for Neil Simon’s writing), but he merely grumbled at me and hid behind his wife when we were introduced after the rehearsal. And the play itself was, well, not vintage Neil Simon. No, I’m just gonna say it: the play was bad, bad in ways that made no sense – there were things going on that no college playwriting student would ever have put on paper, much less on stage, and the dialogue was oddly stilted and expositional. The reason Mary Tyler Moore couldn’t remember her lines is because they were ridiculous and illogical. I could not imagine how Neil Simon could have written this. I was equally confused about why Manhattan Theatre Club chose to put it on when it was so clearly not ready for an audience. (To make things more confusing, an earlier version of the play, called Rose and Walsh, had opened in Los Angeles a couple of years earlier, and had actually gotten fairly positive notices. I’ve never read that version, so I don’t know if a lot of changes were made or if the L.A. critics were just suckers.) Regardless, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to fulfill this particular fantasy, so I took a deep breath and dove in.
I stayed after the rehearsal to talk to Lynne, and she told me what she was looking for. I’m not sure, but I think the music Bruce had selected was Dave Grusin’s score for Heaven Can Wait, which Lynne liked in theory but she felt it was too whimsical and Hollywood-y, and she wanted something a little darker, a little more mysterious. I said I would try to come up with something, but my time was very limited because I was leaving for Raleigh in two days, so I could really only afford to take one shot at it, and if I missed, she’d have to find something else. (There was a precedent for this conversation: the previous show I had done with Lynne, she actually sent me back into the studio after I had delivered the entire score because she and the author decided they didn’t like my use of the bassoon. So I did it again, recorded the entire score, almost identically but without the bassoon. And they were slightly happier. I was beginning to fall off “the list,” but I didn’t know it at the time.)
So off I went, writing my one draft. The play was roughly based on the relationship between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, but it took place many years after the Hammett character’s death; I decided to write something that felt like a combination of the 1940’s and the 1970’s, a music that might suggest a blending of two worlds without getting overly programmatic about it. I chose to use two instruments to represent the two leading characters: a Stéphane Grappelli-style violin (played by Christian Hebel, who had been the violinist for The Last Five Years and then went on to be the concertmaster at Wicked) and a Jaco Pastorius-style fretless bass (played by the always funky Randy Landau). I played the Fender Rhodes, Gary Sieger played acoustic guitar, and Tom Partington played the drums. We had a great time at the session, I was really happy with the music, I sent it off to Bruce, and I went off to Raleigh. I presumed I’d come by on opening night, hear my little cues, watch Mary Tyler Moore triumph, and all would be well.
Actress Mary Tyler Moore has quit a new off-Broadway play amid claims of being “pushed out”, just two weeks before the show is due to open. The TV comedienne was meant to open in a production of acclaimed writer Neil Simon’s new play Rose’s Dilemma at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York on December 18 – but, according to the New York Times newspaper, Tyler quit the show after receiving a letter from Simon criticizing her for not learning her lines. Moore missed two preview performances on Wednesday and has since been replaced by Patricia Hodges. In a statement in Friday’s Times, Moore’s spokeswoman Mara Buxbaum says the star is “devastated and completely debilitated professionally and personally”, adding, “Mary has been working tirelessly for months but feels pushed out of this production.” Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove of the Manhattan Theatre Club respond only, “We are disappointed that the Neil Simon-Mary Tyler Moore collaboration did not work out.”
Amidst all the hubbub following Ms. Tyler Moore’s departure, my score never got teched into the show. Lynne just kept the old music, Mary’s standby went on, and the show got predictably killed by critics and audience alike. So no one ever heard a single note of my score for Rose’s Dilemma, maybe not coincidentally the last score I wrote for Lynne, the last score I wrote for Manhattan Theatre Club, and the last piece of incidental music I’ve been hired to write.
[Update in 2018: I wish my Neil Simon story had a happier ending, but I’m still honored to have gotten to write the score for one of his plays, even if he never heard it. He was a master, and so much of my comic sensibility was shaped by his work.
Also, I did end up writing more incidental music for the theater when You Can’t Take It With You was revived in 2014, and Prince of Broadway was produced at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2017 so I have managed to work there again too.]
Music by Jason Robert Brown
Christian Hebel: violin
Randy Landau: electric bass
JRB: Fender Rhodes electric piano
Gary Sieger: acoustic guitar
Tom Partington: drums and percussion
Recorded at Avatar Studios, NY NY, December 3, 2003