Published in In Theater

Joe Masteroff has never been one to follow tradition — or rest on his laurels. In 1963, he wrote the book to a tiny little, small-cast, lush, no-chorus operetta (“She Loves Me”) and in 1966, the book to a dark, decadent musical about Nazis, bisexuals and abortion (“Cabaret”). And now, he’s writing the book and lyrics for “a 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.”

“Paramour” will have its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre (September 26-October 31).   At 79, Masteroff is having a ball.

He’s wanted to write this musical 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 made a lousy British movie” [directed by John Guillermin in 1962, starring Peter Sellers].

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 that Anouilh so often wrote about, a woman married to 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.

“I love the play,” beams Masteroff.   “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.”

One particular piece of dialogue comes to mind in this regard. Having found her true (young) love, the virgin who’s waited 17 years for the disgruntled but shackled older man, exclaims with glee, “I’m no longer a dog without a collar.   I have a little cord around my neck with my owner’s name on it. How good it feels.” Oy vey.   Try playing THAT during Women’s History Month…

So Masteroff has 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 Len Cariou, a role created by Ralph Richardson in the original Broadway play).

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 Bock and Harnick on “She Loves Me” and Kander and Ebb on “Cabaret”). He once 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!’  

“I always wanted Howard to do the music. We’d done “Georgia Avenue” at Goodspeed-at-Chester [at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut] and we work splendidly together.   And Joe, who was recommended by the producer, has worked at the Globe before (directing Shakespeare, Sheridan and Molière), though he’d retired to France. I also retired years ago [his last big project was the libretto to Edward Thomas’ opera of “Desire Under the Elms” in 1989], but I still keep working. Now, I don’t do anything I don’t want to; I only work for fun.”

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.

“And everything takes such a long time these days. I started working on this 5-10 years ago. 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.   This is a one-set show, not a huge cast or chorus, but it still costs. And people are less willing to take a chance in New York. These days, San Diego is one of the best regional theater cities to start. The world of musicals has really changed. Very few new ones go anywhere. So they keep reviving old ones, like ‘She Loves Me’ and ‘Cabaret.’

But that keeps Masteroff plenty busy.   He attends all the major openings of those two shows (“ten openings, all told, in the West End and on Broadway”) and he’ll leave San Diego mid-project, to catch the new cast of ‘Cabaret.’  

Meanwhile, back with his “Paramour” (which the Old Globe is touting as “a witty and satirical musical farce reminiscent of an absurdist version of Gilbert and Sullivan”), Masteroff has stayed very close to the original, though he’s changed some names (from Leon to Henri, from Ghislaine to Angelique) — “not euphonious or easy to rhyme.”   And he’s eliminated a subplot about the doctor having a suspected affair with his patient, the wife of the browbeaten General who can’t seem to keep his eyes and hands off the young ladies.  

“The play just goes on forever,” Masteroff complains. “Those French never know when to shut up. When you have songs, you can’t go babbling on.”

And what about the songs?   “Well, it’s not rock,” he admits.   “It’s theater music.   Pretty much the sort of thing Sondheim or Richard Rodgers would’ve put together. Not quite as old-fashioned as Rodgers and not quite as modern as 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, though, which are mostly age 80 to 90.   I always envision ladies with their lorgnettes falling off…. But really, 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.”

Masteroff has always preferred a somewhat beaten path; he typically works on adaptations. “It’s much easier,” he says. “A new musical is probably the hardest thing in the world.   If you’re adapting, you know where you’re going and you know it’s already worked for an audience.   New York is in the offing.   We’ll have to see what the critics from San Diego and Variety and the L.A. Times have to say.   If they all say it’s lousy, we just go home.”

Home is Greenwich Village, as it has been since 1948, when Masteroff arrived after “a quiet Philadelphia childhood,” a degree from Temple University, four years in the Air Force and two years as a Florida movie theater manager. For awhile, he held odd jobs like an elevator operator, and continued writing plays, which he’d been doing for years (“I always knew exactly what I wanted to do”).

His first big break was “The Warm Peninsula,” his 1956 comedy that starred Julie Harris, June Havoc and Farley Granger.   It toured the country for a year, then opened in New York, and ran for three months. It was enough to catapult him from a $25/month apartment to a $250/month apartment. “Because of that success, I got to do ‘She Loves Me,’ and all of a sudden, I was a musical writer.”

He still is. His current project, he confesses, is bittersweet.   “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. It’s far from just entertainment. 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.”

©1998 Patté Productions Inc.