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Arthur PennAmerican Director$

Nat Segaloff

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813129761

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813129761.001.0001

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Golden Boys

Golden Boys

Chapter:
(p.162) 15 Golden Boys
Source:
Arthur Penn
Author(s):

Nat Segaloff

Publisher:
University Press of Kentucky
DOI:10.5810/kentucky/9780813129761.003.0016

Abstract and Keywords

Arthur Penn and William Gibson collaborated not only in terms of producing well-known works in American theater such as Two for the Seesaw, The Miracle Worker, Golda, Golden Boy, and Monday After the Miracle, they were also able to include their families and share their lives for fifty years. As with all great friendships, theirs underwent a significant challenge, particularly in how they rescued the Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy in 1964. The Golden Boy, which was written in 1937, contributed not only as a fundamental element of Clifford Odets or Group Theatre's scribe-in-residence, it also rescued the organization from financial problems. Also, it initiated a financial legacy for Walt and Nora Odets.

Keywords:   William Gibson, Golden Boy, Broadway, musical adaptation, Joe Bonaparte

The collaboration between Arthur Penn and William Gibson is one of the most fruitful in American theater. While its public milestones are Two for the Seesaw, The Miracle Worker, Golden Boy, Golda, and Monday After the Miracle, the partnership also includes their families and fifty years of shared lives. Like all great friendships, theirs was tested in battle and survived, most significantly with the extraordinary rescue of the 1964 Broadway musical adaptation of Golden Boy.

Written in 1937, Golden Boy was more than the latest play in the socially relevant canon of Clifford Odets, scribe-inresidence of the left-leaning Group Theatre. It was created to rescue that organization from financial straits, which it did. An additional gift is that, some thirty years later, it also created a financial legacy for Odets’s children, Walt and Nora.

In a plot that would later become the stuff of parody, but which was serious, even touching, at the time, Golden Boy follows the family turmoil, professional conflicts, and moral dilemma of Joe Bonaparte, a violin prodigy who can escape his lower-class life only by becoming a prizefighter. While the most obvious jeopardy in such a trade-off is to his musician’s hands, the collision of art and violence, thuggery and family, and fate and free will provide innumerable textures.

Margaret Brenman Gibson—Odets’s biographer as well as William Gibson’s wife—notes that Odets wove his own strained relationship with his father, Louis, into the tensions between Joe (p.163) Bonaparte and his father, to whom he doesn’t even give a first name. Fight promoter Tom Moody sees Joe as his ticket to success and sends his mistress, Lorna Moon, to woo the lad into staying in the ring. The drama comes to a head when Joe accidentally kills an opponent and ends when, brooding over his guilt, he commits suicide by running his car off the road, taking Lorna, the fallen woman, with him.

The idea of turning Golden Boy into a musical came from producer-manager-agent Hillard Elkins. Elkins, who had represented lyricist Lee Adams and composer Charles Strouse for the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, caught a show-folk-only “midnight matinee” with Sammy Davis Jr. at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in the early 1960s. Elkins says he had a “vision” during Davis’s show in which Odets would update Golden Boy into the civil rights era, Adams and Strouse would write a “serious” score, Davis would headline, and Broadway would gobble it up. Sammy agreed, and Elkins began working with Odets, who was in declining health (he died on August 14, 1963) as well as declining ability.

Odets’s update was rooted in 1930s sensibilities, something its young British director, Peter Coe (no relation to Fred), was incapable of noticing, and Odets, for obvious reasons, did not correct. The show was in trouble from the start.

“We were on the road with Golden Boy for twenty-two weeks, longer than most plays run on Broadway, because we were afraid to come in,” wrote Sammy Davis Jr. in his autobiography. “We opened in Philadelphia and got rapped badly. We had four weeks there to fix the show before our next out-of-town tryout in Boston.” The reviews for their Boston opening in the fall of 1964 were, in the producer’s word, “blistering.” Continued Davis, “Elliot Norton, their most astute critic, cut us to shreds. Hilly invited Norton to lunch and picked his brains.”1

“We knew we had a problem on the road,” Elkins agrees. “We knew we had a book that wasn’t working. Our director went back to London while the show played, and I took the liberty of inviting Paddy Chayefsky to come up. Paddy saw the show and put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Close it.’ Then William (p.164) Gibson—whom I didn’t know—came up to me and said, ‘Would you like a first act?’ I said, ‘Yes, please.’”

Only later did Elkins learn that Gibson had been Odets’s protégé and that he would do anything for the man and his memory. “People in the show were saying [Odets’s] dialogue was ‘dated,’ Gibson wrote in his preface to the published Golden Boy. “Simply untrue. It remained what it always was, the best dialogue ever written by an American; what they meant was that dialogue written for a white couple in 1937 was unbelievable in the mouths of a Negro youth and a white girl in 1964.”2

Gibson delivered a rewritten first act and Elkins summoned Coe back from London for a reading. When he heard it, Coe responded, “Well, yeah, that’s pretty good, but you could get any hack to stage that.” Fumes Elkins, “Bill Gibson is six foot three, an Irishman, and his jaw is going like this. He’s just done this for nothing, right? And I said, in this room full of people, ‘I think you’re absolutely right. I’m going to get another hack. You’re fired.’” At that, Gibson turned to Elkins and said, “I’m going to ask Arthur if he’s free.”

Penn was. He and Aram Avakian were editing Mickey One in the barn on Penn’s Stockbridge grounds. The director drove to Boston, watched the show in preview, cringed as expected, read Gibson’s new first act, and agreed on the spot to take the helm. Together the two men began one of the most remarkable rescues in Broadway history.

In technical terms, they rewrote a new show “inside the old one.” This meant that the cast would rehearse the new show during the day while performing the old one at night. They had no choice; the name of Sammy Davis Jr. had drawn such a massive advance sale that Elkins was obligated to bring the show to Broadway. The reality was, at this point, there was no show to bring in.

“While in Boston,” says Elkins, “we were trying to decide something. In the original, Sam’s character was a violinist. Then he became a surgeon. All unbelievable on any level, of course. I remember one meeting in Sammy’s dressing room where he had just taken off his makeup and his shirt and trousers, and we were arguing about what he should be in the story. He said, looking in (p.165) the mirror, ‘Tell me, what’s my problem?’ Of course, it occurred to us to tell him that he was black and the girl was white; that was sort of a bigger problem than his being Italian, as the character was in the original play. Everybody got it, including Sam, as soon as he realized what he’d said. After the laughter subsided, we concentrated on the interracial relationship.”

While Gibson went to work reshaping act 2, Penn put act 1 on its feet. The first thing he did was assemble the company and assure everyone that nobody would be fired. Two personnel changes did ensue, however. One was Louis Gossett Jr., who took over the role of Frank, Joe’s brother, when the original actor asked to be released to take a movie. The other was choreographer Donald McKayle, whose concept of the boxing milieu irritated Penn from the moment the play began. “The first scene was a bunch of fighters in the gym, shadowboxing,” says the director, “and, at the end of it, one of the fighters goes very gay and says, ‘Oh, a mouse!’ and runs away. Jesus!”

Rather than replace McKayle, however, Penn and Elkins asked Herb Ross to step in. Ross, who would later direct such films as Funny Lady, The Turning Point, and The Goodbye Girl, was beginning to distinguish himself in dance apart from his more famous wife, ballet dancer Nora Kaye. Ross was impressed by the theatrical sleight of hand that Gibson and Penn were attempting and committed himself wholeheartedly (for “a lot of money,” Elkins adds). Ross and Penn restaged the opening, keeping it in the gym with the fighters working out but adding the rhythm of skipping ropes, punching bags, and shifting feet. “It was a gangbuster opening,” Penn says. “It just rocked! They put percussion under it, and it drove the show. When we had that in, the show flew off the deck.”

It went like that throughout the tryout period on the road. In Detroit, Penn had no choice but to hold the first act rehearsal in front of that night’s paying audience. “We knew that it was not going to match the second act,” says Penn, recalling that he and Gibson watched the patrons file out of the theater baffled at what they had just watched. “It was a mess. It was an utterly schizophrenic experience for the audience because there would (p.166) be a heavy-duty scene and then finale! The second act was so lightweight. But they had seen Sammy.”

The grueling process was worse on the star. “Sammy was very graceful,” remembers Gibson, “but there was a strange event that happened. We were working Sammy like crazy and his voice was giving way. A singing star who can’t sing was a terrible situation. And yet he would go away on a weekend and play a couple of dates in Vegas, things like that. He was incapable of resting. He would go up to Harlem with his wife, May Britt,3 who was the whitest woman I ever saw, and he would be booed by black comrades. And then he would get threats on the road for kissing a white girl in the show.”

“Detroit was in the middle of race riots,” Davis reported in his autobiography. “The onstage kiss between Paula Wayne and me outraged some people and Hilly got threats. ‘We’re gonna cut off that whore’s tits. And the nigger’s balls.’ Paula had to be given a bodyguard. I already had one.”4 “This was, by the way,” notes Elkins, “the first time that a black man had kissed a white woman on Broadway. We had armed guards in the balcony. They shot our windows out at the Majestic Theatre.”

A dozen years earlier, Penn had worked with Davis on the Colgate Comedy Hour when the then twenty-six year old was with the fabled Will Mastin Trio. Since that time the versatile performer had become an actor, a solo, and a Jew. The two men respected each other, and Davis was keeping to the unforgiving rehearsal/performance schedule. Until he just disappeared three days and three nights before opening on Broadway. “Sammy knew he was going to come back, but we didn’t,” says Gibson. “Then word came: Sammy was reappearing. He was gonna come at a certain time. I waited in the alley of the theater until the cab arrived, and I walked Sammy in because I thought he was walking into enemy territory. It turned out, as he said, ‘If you’re not gonna give me two days off or three days off, I’ll take it, that’s all.’”

Elkins tried tracking down the entertainer using his insider’s connections, to no avail. Meanwhile, audiences expecting to see Davis queued for refunds upon learning that his understudy, Lamont Washington, would appear.

(p.167) Nobody dared chastise Davis. Nobody, that is, except Margaret Gibson, who had, by virtue of her credentials, become the company’s de facto shrink. “Margaret Gibson, who’s a psychoanalyst, had gotten very close to him and felt that they were very tight,” recalls Peggy Penn, who earned her own PhD in 2008. “But she wrote him a letter telling him, ‘You are a Judas goat.’ That’s what she felt.” “It was a ridiculous letter,” Arthur Penn adds. “It did no good. I was pissed at her and I remained pissed at her for the rest of her life.”

As director, Penn had to ride herd over the changes and the disoriented but grateful talents implementing them. Recalls Elkins, “If it was a general note that was not going to create a problem, he’d sit there with the cast and talk to all of them and say to Sam, ‘In the third act, in that scene where you come in from the left, move to the right; you’re blocking something.’ If it was an inherently personal situation that involved the actor’s relationship to the material, and discussing it in front of the company would not solve the problem, but would, perhaps, exacerbate it, he would put his hand around your shoulder and walk outside or downstage or upstage with the actor and give him the clue to uncovering that scene.”

When Golden Boy opened at New York’s Majestic Theatre on October 20, 1964, after twenty-five previews, it ran 568 performances on a $750,000 investment. It earned four 1965 Tony nominations: Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Sammy Davis Jr.), Best Producer of a Musical (Hillard Elkins), and, ironically, Best Choreography (Donald McKayle). Although a hoped-for London production never came to fruition—Sammy desperately wanted to play the London Palladium—it was a personal triumph for Sammy and entered Broadway legend as a play that should have collapsed but was saved by the concerted efforts of all involved. And it achieved its other goal of throwing off royalties to the Odets children.

Five years later Gibson was again at work. He had been asked by Philip Langner5 of the Theatre Guild to construct a play about Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. When quizzed, as he inevitably and tiresomely was, why a strapping Irish Catholic (p.168) felt qualified to write about the diminutive Jewish dynamo, Gibson would repeat, “It was written by a Christian who carries in his consciousness two thousand years of history in which the crucified figure is that of the Jews.”

Meir’s and Israel’s stories are inseparable. Born Golda Mabovich in Kiev in 1898, in 1906 she followed her father, Moshe, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he had gone ahead of the family in 1903. After schooling in the United States she met and, in 1917, married Morris Myerson, a sign painter. In 1921 the couple emigrated to what was then Palestine. Returning to the States in 1934 without Morris but with their two children, she became involved with political groups pushing for the formation of a Jewish homeland and trying to get world powers, including the Roosevelt administration, to rescue international Jewry during the Holocaust, to no avail. Following the war and the May 12, 1948, birth of the state of Israel, she rose through a succession of posts—truncating her name from Myerson to Meir—until she was elected prime minister in 1969. She served until 1974 and died, at the age of eighty, in 1978. Morris had predeceased her in 1951. Gibson began writing his play in 1976.

Months of interviews with Meir’s family, friends, admirers, and enemies (there were lots of each), plus several trips to Israel, left Gibson pretty much where he started—adrift—albeit with research. He knew from the start that the focus of Golda would be Mrs. Meir’s leadership and triumph in the 1967 Six Days’ War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. But when he started to write, he realized that his challenge was not content but form. “I made a fatal error in the beginning by thinking, ‘This is a big, historical theme and we should have a big production with visuals and movies in the background, and all that,’” he admits, “and I wrote this into the play.”

After Gibson read his work to Golda (he never called her anything else), she told him, “The only thing you have to take out is Remiz.” Gibson had discovered that David Remiz, an Israeli labor leader, was Mrs. Meir’s lover.6 “I figured it out,” the playwright insists. “Nobody had told me. I told her I figured it out from who was where, when, and how she solved a problem (p.169) by going back to the kibbutz and then going back to Jerusalem, and leaving Jerusalem and working for the party, and that meant a breach with her husband, and that was the end of the marriage. I started to explain this to her, and she said, ‘I didn’t ask you how you found out; you just have to take it out.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘I don’t want my grandchildren to know.’

“What I wanted to get at was what goes on in these people who run governments? I said to Golda, ‘What does it feel like when you tell soldiers to go into such a raid?’ She said, ‘It’s the worst thing I’ve ever had to do, but I always ask the generals, “How many fatalities, how many soldiers might we lose on this?” because I always try to get an estimate. But then I figure, if I can’t do it, get out, and get somebody who can.’ In Golda, the moment is captured dramatically as Golda says, “In heaven I’ll—maybe—forgive them for killing our boys. One thing I’ll never forgive is making us kill theirs.”

What was not captured in the play—because Gibson didn’t know about it until later—was Dimona. Dimona, in the Negev Desert, is the place where everybody in the world except Israel says Israel developed its nuclear weapons.

Gibson asked Penn to bring this kinetic, multimedia vision to life. Santo Loquasto designed a complex set that incorporated rear projection, light cues, images, and sounds, and then took it on the tryout road. “And God thought it was terrible,” Gibson jokes, “because He burned the set down in Boston.” The electronic and mechanical set caught fire at the Wilbur Theatre, and the show was moved across Tremont Street to the Shubert Theatre, where it played on a bare stage while the set was rebuilt in New York. It was then that producer Philip Langner drew Penn’s attention to his observation that the audience paid more attention to the play when they weren’t distracted by the pyrotechnics. No one listened—or noticed—and Golda opened at New York’s Morosco Theatre on November 2, 1977. It was there that Golda herself attended a performance and, in Gibson’s words, “was horrified,” not only with the produced play but with the performance of its star, Anne Bancroft.

“Annie had gone over there and spent a couple of weeks (p.170) with my wife traveling around with Golda before the show was done,” Gibson reports. “The idea was that Annie would soak up some of Golda’s stuff and be able to use it. Annie and Golda fell in love with each other; these politicians love actors, and vice versa, I suppose. But when she came to see the show, I went backstage, and there were Annie and Golda in Annie’s dressing room, nobody else around, and they were sitting in silence. The only dialogue I remember between them was that Annie was taking off her nose and Golda said something to the effect of, ‘I wish I could.’

“Then there was a meeting the next day in Golda’s hotel room where she said, basically, ‘If I had seemed to the public the way you [Annie] do, I never could have been elected prime minister.’ What Golda objected to was what she felt was a caricature performance by Annie. What I objected to was that the whole production had no reality to me.” The grumbling took its toll on Bancroft, who started missing performances. Rather than accommodate her, Langner closed the whole production after ninety-three performances.7

“I hated the whole experience,” Penn fumes. “I was dealing with ignorance. What we should have done was close it before it was born. Bill Gibson had given Golda Meir the right of censorship, and she, on seeing it, very deftly removed all the drama, saying, ‘Israelis don’t behave like that.’”

It might be unfair to call Monday After the Miracle a sequel, but William Gibson knew that The Miracle Worker was only the first half of the extraordinary story of Anne Sullivan. His problem was that, for a generation, everybody had been referring to his 1959 drama as “the play about Helen Keller.” Monday picks up ten years after the action in The Miracle Worker. Helen is in her twenties and is studying for a degree at Radcliffe while Anne, now thirty-seven, is still her teacher. Tension grows between them, however, when twenty-five-year-old John Albert Macy applies for the job of editing Helen’s autobiography, and an unusual love triangle develops—one involving not sex but devotion. Anne wants John, but first demands that he win (p.171) Helen’s approval. Helen feels threatened by her teacher’s romance because she fears that if it flourishes, she will be sent back to her parents’ home in Tuscumbia. The solution is not a resolution; the three wind up living together as man, wife, and burden. Anne wants a child by John, but John finds himself drawn to Helen. In the end, there is no room for John in Annie-Helen world, and he leaves (interestingly, his second wife was a deaf-mute).

The piece is fraught with challenges. Unlike The Miracle Worker, there was no emotional catharsis that brought audiences to tears. Instead, Helen has become a young woman very much aware of her growing stature in the public eye, and Annie has become increasingly resentful that the student, not the teacher, is being venerated.

The project began after business manager Raymond Katz had packaged a television remake of The Miracle Worker starring Patty Duke in the Anne Bancroft role and Melissa Gilbert in Duke’s breakthrough role. After an abortive production at the Actors Studio with Ellen Burstyn and John Heard, Katz, Penn, and Gibson recast it with Jane Alexander and Karen Allen. They workshopped it at Spoleto in Charleston, South Carolina, and again at the Kennedy Center, and then came into New York. Poor reviews followed by soft ticket sales led Katz to close the show. Penn was not happy. “Ray Katz never produced a play in his life,” says the director. “He was a business manager. We opened in New York and got a bad review from Frank Rich, which we really didn’t deserve, I promise you, and Ray said, ‘We’re not gonna lose any money on this, I’ll close the thing.’ It was like that—” he snaps his fingers “—and it broke our hearts.”

“My experience in life is that no dream turns out to be what it seems to promise,” Gibson says. “Monday After the Miracle is an exemplification of that, I suppose. It was the last time Arthur and I worked together.” That was 1982.

Margaret Brenman Gibson died on May 10, 2004. The cancer took her slowly, and Bill nursed her through the ordeal in the sunroom of their Stockbridge cottage as Peggy, Arthur, and a stream of her psychoanalytic colleagues paid visits. As for the grief, he says, “You get on top of it. I’ve been writing, in this (p.172) recent period, about Margaret’s death. I’m writing and crying my eyes out all at the same time. But if I write about it, then I’m in charge of it, and if I don’t write about it and I’m just subject to the passions and the emotions, then they are in charge of me. That’s a big difference, and as much as one can be in control of one’s life, art, for the artist, is what makes him be in control. Dylan Thomas said something like, ‘I was found when I was lost and I was lost when I was found.’ I think the reason Dylan Thomas drank himself to death is that he had lost his genius, he had lost his muse. That muse keeps you above the disasters which otherwise would sink you. So, yes, writing about it certainly helps.”

The partnership with Arthur Penn—as neighbors, as friends, and as part of show business lore—ended on November 25, 2008, when Gibson died.

“I never felt that I was very remote from anything Arthur felt or said,” Gibson had held. “He and I were close and we knew we were close, and that was how we worked together in the theater. He’d say, ‘You know that moment when Jerry says—’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, but—’ and we’d have these unfinished sentences, but the thoughts would be completely communicated. I never worked with a director like that otherwise. It was always a pleasure to me when Arthur and I worked together. Arthur has been half of my professional life!”

Notes:

(1.) Sammy Davis Jr., Jane Boyar, and Burt Boyar, Sammy: An Autobiography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).

(2.) William Gibson, Golden Boy: A Memento (New York: Atheneum, 1965).

(3.) From 1960 to 1968, Davis was married to May Britt (Maybritt Wilkins). He was also married to Loray White from 1958 to 1959, and subsequently to Altovese Gore from 1970 to his death in 1990.

(4.) Davis, Boyar, and Boyar, Sammy.

(5.) Philip Langner, Marilyn Langner, and Armina Marshall produced Golda under the aegis of the Theatre Guild, which was founded in 1919 by Lawrence and Marilyn Langner and Marshall.

(6.) There is also speculation that Meir was involved with a Palestinian banker named Albert Pharaon.

(7.) Undaunted, Gibson returned to Jerusalem, where he reworked his play into a one-woman show called Golda’s Balcony. It ran 493 performances, from October 15, 2003, to January 2, 2005, at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Tovah Feldshuh won wide acclaim for her performance as, subsequently, did Valerie Harper, and the play remains a touring favorite. It was directed by Scott Schwartz.