Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1998
Mounting a brand new, world premiere musical ain’t what it used to be. And Joe Masteroff oughta know. Masteroff is the acclaimed librettist of “She Loves Me” (1963) and “Cabaret” (1966), among many others.
“The world of musicals has really changed,” he said recently from his home in Greenwich Village. “Everything takes such a long time. In the old days, producers had sources of money. They’d decide to do a show on Thursday, go to their backers and have the money by the weekend. Then, the backers put up $1500. Now, it’s $15 million. So people are much less willing to take a chance in New York. These days, San Diego is one of the best regional theater cities to start.”
So, here he is, at age 79, excited about another new project, the world premiere of “Paramour” (at the Old Globe, through October 31). It’s by no means a $15 million musical — “one set, no huge cast or chorus” — but Masteroff has been working on it for almost ten years. And he’s been planning for it ever since he first saw its source, Jean Anouilh’s “The Waltz of the Toreadors,” which opened in New York in 1956. “I thought it was a natural musical,” he says. But it took years to acquire the rights, which are controlled by Anouilh’s widow.
Says Masteroff, “she’s the wife in the play,” referring to the pseudo-sickly, manipulative spouse of a disillusioned older man who can’t face his age or the compromises he’s been forced to make.
“The Waltz of the Torèadors” was one of Anouilh’s “pieces grinçantes,” or “grating pieces,” which, contrasting youth and age, concern the disaffection implicit in the struggle for survival in a decadent society.
Masteroff is writing both book and lyrics for this “serious French farce with five attempted suicides and one attempted murder.” He adds, with a chuckle, “no one can say they’ve seen this before.”
“I love the play,” he exclaims enthusiastically. “And I used a lot of it directly in the musical. But it is a play of its time. Some things you just can’t say today, or people will stone you.”
So he’s made some changes, but they’re minor. The farcical elements remain intact, along with the snappy dialogue, the chaste male secretary, the buxom young chambermaid, the homely daughters, the sickly old wife, the frustrated young paramour and the blustery, lecherous General (to be played by eminent actor/singer, Len Cariou).
Masteroff is thrilled with the process and with his collaborators: composer Howard Marren and director Joe Hardy. In the past, he’s often worked independently, especially when there was a composer/lyricist team on the project (such as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick on “She Loves Me” and John Kander and Fred Ebb on “Cabaret”). He noted that, during “Cabaret,” he and Kander and Ebb “almost never worked in a room together’… I didn’t much like working alone. I thought, ‘If I write the lyrics and the book, I’d be in the same room!’
Clearly, Masteroff is having fun. “I love the actual writing. When I sit down at the word processor, I write the show from beginning to end, including the lyrics. And it’s absolutely perfect — because no one else has seen it. Then I show it to the composer, and then the director comes in. And with each addition, it changes. Eventually, the audiences come, and the critics come. And then I really hate the whole process. I hate the nervousness and the excitement.”
But he almost never misses an opening. He’s attended ten openings (premieres and revivals) of his two major shows (five on Broadway, five in London’s West End).
Meanwhile, back with his “Paramour,” Masteroff has stayed very close to the original, though he’s changed some names and eliminated some extraneous subplots.
“The play just goes on forever,” he complains. “Those French never know when to shut up. When you have songs, you can’t go babbling on.”
As for the songs, he describes the score as “not rock… theater music. Not quite as old-fashioned as [Richard] Rodgers and not quite as modern as [Stephen] Sondheim…. But it is a very strange piece. It goes from French farce to almost Strindberg. I softened it a bit so there’s not too much of a jarring shift. But we do break some rules. At the end of the first act of a silly comedy, usually the boy and girl are sadly parting. Our last scene has the husband trying to murder his wife.
“I think audiences want to be jostled a little; I hope so. I’m always worried about subscription audiences — and the Globe has a big one — which are mostly age 80 to 90. I always envision ladies with their lorgnettes falling off….
“This show is far from just entertainment. It’s about people adjusting to the fact that their lives are over. The General is fighting to stay young. He’s got to accept his mortality. There’s a great sadness, though there’s also a great deal of fun and farce. But it’s a twilight show. The sun is setting. At my age, I relate to it very much.
“But I have no idea how it’s going to be received. A new show is like setting out into the woods with no path, and no idea where you’re going to wind up. I hope we get to a nice clearing with some sunshine.”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.