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The return of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's first musical
It's a little-remembered musical, but it started a famous artistic partnership.
In 1978 composer Alan Menken teamed with lyricist, book writer, and director Howard Ashman – both in their late 20s – to create God Bless Your Mr. Rosewater, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut.
It was produced in New York the following year at Ashman's WPA Theatre before transferring to the Off-Broadway Entermedia Theater. That production (pictured above) only lasted 49 performances, but it established the artists who would go on to create the scores for Little Shop of Horrors and the Disney animated musicals The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.. (Sadly, Ashman only partially completed his work on the latter before his AIDS-related death at 40 in 1991.)
Now those roots are being revisited. From July 27 – 30, a concert version of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is being revived in New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center series. The show centers on Elliot Rosewater, an alcoholic millionaire who, according to stage notes, "decides to blow his fortune on a town full of pitiable creatures."
"In 1978 I was working exclusively as a composer/lyricist," says Menken via email. "And my dear friend – and fellow composer/lyricist in the BMI Workshop – Maury Yeston asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with some writer/director named Howard Ashman on a musical of God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Given my interest in Kurt Vonnegut and the fact that Howard was also the artistic director of his own theatre, the WPA Theater, I agreed to meet up with Mr. Ashman at my apartment. Howard arrived in torn jeans, wearing a t-shirt and leather bomber jacket, chain-smoking and quite determined to control the situation."
Menken continues, "If I ever had any thoughts about auditioning Howard’s work as a possible songwriting partner, he put that to rest fast. He knew what he wanted and fully intended to keep the pressure on me to prove myself to him. The first lyric he put in front of me, as I recall, was 'I, Elliot Rosewater.' And after making the mistake of commenting on one lyric, I followed his explicit instructions about how he imagined the song working dramatically; the style, scan, build etc. Very quickly we [wrote] our first song together.
"In a fairly short amount of time we became a seamless collaboration. I contented myself with being the most effective catalyst for Howard’s vision. And in time, as he grew to trust me and increasingly depend on my gifts as a composer and musical theatre dramatist, we became one voice; a beautiful and powerful voice that will never be equaled in my life and career, regardless of where the future takes me."
The original production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,, which was never recorded, closed before a young Michael Mayer had a chance to see it, but when the director was working on a later revue of Ashman's works for the WPA in the '90s, he was able to listen to demos made of the songs from the show. He also read Ashman's script.
"It was very faithful to the book," Mayer recalls. "He captured the spirit and a lot of the language [of the Vonnegut novel] in the same way Alan Jay Lerner did for Shaw in My Fair Lady. You hear in their first score together the feeling of what's to come: the brilliant lyrics, the soaring melodies, that feeling of the ache of longing."
Mayer, who is directing the Encores! revival, notes the choices the freshman composing team made -- and didn't make. "It suggests their musical path for future shows," he says. "Sophisticated, without offering easy solutions, and of course, with the 'Cheese Nips' comic number, the 'food songs' that would follow." (Fans of The Little Mermaid's "Les Poissons," Beauty and the Beast's "Be Our Guest," and Little Shop's "Feed Me" will know just the songs he means.)
So why did the show fail? "It might have been a bit ahead if its time," says Mayer. "People who saw it say it was a very accomplished production and that Howard was a fabulous director. It sounds like he was in top form."
Another reason: bad timing of the political zeitgeist. The Vonnegut book arrived after the 1964 election in which Barry Goldwater ran for president on a right-wing platform. The production, though, opened during the Carter administration, and the times were very different. Mayer feels the story's themes might resonate more today, particularly the idea of what money can do to people. "Trump is the antithesis of Elliot Rosewater, who has a social conscious," he says.
This revival will also remind us what we lost when Ashman died so young. "We could have had this fantastic voice creating works for the theatre for decades," Mayer says. "With God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, I feel like he put so much of himself in this work. We have a sense of who he was as an artist and as a person."
Says Menken: "Howard was just getting his feet wet with Rosewater. He had never attempted to be a lyricist before. (The project actually started with Dennis Green as the lyricist and quickly evolved into Howard wearing the three hats he handled so well: book, lyrics and direction.) The sense of economy and stylistic specificity and pace and humor and heart that informed Little Shop of Horrors,, The Little Mermaid,, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin started with this first little musical."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Go here to browse our current offers.
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Top photo: A scene from the original off-Broadway production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, photographed by Roger Greenawalt. Show art for the upcoming revival by Paul Gaschler.