Nine and a half years ago, tucked away in the tiny Connelly Theater at the further reaches of the Lower East Side, The Prospect Theatre Company premiered a dazzling new musical – full of wit, intelligence, cleverly written theatre songs and dynamic staging – suggested by F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s semi-autobiographical debut novel This Side of Paradise.
The Pursuit of Persephone had its flaws, but they were flaws of ambition overshadowed by the evening’s exceptional display of musical theatre craft and freshness; a story set in the years just before this country’s entry into The Great War that stayed true to its era but showed a contemporary understanding of the unique storytelling qualities of the American musical.
Peter Mills (book, music and lyrics) and Cara Reichel (book and direction) have been responsible for high points in several theatre seasons since then (Iron Curtain, The Rockae) but Persephone, and the promise of what it could be, remains their zenith.
Retooled and renamed The Underclassman, their smart and fizzy charmer has reached Times Square’s Duke on 42nd Street in a limited Off-Broadway run that, sadly, ends the day this review is posted. Slightly less daring, but smoother in delivery, The Underclassman has its minor second act quibbles but is still vastly above all but a handful of musicals that have had major New York productions since, well, The Pursuit of Persephone.
Less of a romance than a musical comedy of manners, the narrative begins with Fitzgerald’s sophomore year at Princeton, where his interest in studies takes a back seat to his interest in writing a musical for the college’s all-male traveling theatre troupe, The Triangle Club.
For the sake of artistic inspiration, he takes up the challenge of meeting Ginevra King, considered by Ivy Leaguers to be one of the country’s four most desirable debutantes. (A title she plays for all it’s worth.) Being a relatively poor artist with no financial prospects beyond what talent and luck can provide, he sees himself as the lowly Hades pursuing the goddess Persephone. (Which winds up being the subject of the musical he writes.)
Because of distance and social standards, Scott and Ginevra have spent, as one character points out, less than 24 total hours with each other before becoming a serious item. Their relationship is sustained through regular correspondence but, as explained in one of the many clever musical scenes, letter writing in their social circle is not exactly an expression of honest emotions, but more of a courtship game with its own rules and strategies.
When we see the two together, they are surely falling in love with something; perhaps the youthful urge to feel something as poetic and romantic as described in the literature they read. But while Ginevra is drawn to the rebellious act of taking up with a poor scribe, she’s also wary of giving up her accustomed lifestyle.
Since real life provides the well-known ending, it’s not giving anything away to reveal that all F. Scott Fitzgerald gains from the affair is what he sought out in the first place, artistic inspiration. Who knew at the time that her artistic inspiration would motivate him to write an era-defining novel?
Though Mills’ score contains hat tips to the styles of upcoming composer/lyricists of the day, like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and a muscular rag of Scot Joplin’s ilk, the character-driven words and music stress immediacy over nostalgia. He saves the pastiche for the Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach salutes performed by The Triangle Club.
Surprising, but oh-so-right rhymes populate his lyrics, but they contain the kind of cleverness that’s appropriate for the people he’s writing for. So when Ginevra rhymes her own name with “clev’ra,” or when Scott improvises a love song where the melody is dictated by the notes mentioned in the lyric (“Improvising in the key of A flat / Thinking how it’s gonna be / When the two of us are sharing a flat / Residents of NYC.”), it’s the characters who are showing off, not the wordsmith.
The multiple musical gems are enhanced by Reichel and choreographer Christine O’Grady’s smart and imaginative staging, highlighted early in Ginevra’s “To Beat The Band,” where she twirls through a dance card full of potential suitors while singing of her carefree lifestyle and a drag can-can by the Triangle boys that’s danced for skill instead of laughs.
Matt Dengler makes for a gutsy, empathetic Scott with a charmingly impish humor. Jessica Grové, repeating the role she played at the Connelly, mixes sophomoric worldliness with giddy girlishness and sings and dances up a storm as Ginevra.
Another Connelly vet, Piper Goodeve, is terrifically wry as Scott’s high school sweetheart who is now Ginevra’s best friend, especially when matched with the droll Billy Hepfinger as Edmund Wilson, Scott’s pal who later becomes the noted literary critic. Fine work is also done by Marrick Smith, who nicely underplays his affection for Scott as poet John Peale Bishop.
The Underclassman is set in an era when people would go to Broadway to enjoy the musical theatre offerings the best emerging artists had to offer. This is no longer the case, as season after season Off-Broadway’s musicals show superior craft, talent and inventiveness. The Underclassman is among the best in all three categories.
Ginevra King isn’t a name that rings too many bells, but she has a fascinating place in literary history. From 1915-1917, King was romantically involved with the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would go on to immortalize her most notably as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.
The theater artists Peter Mills and Cara Reichel explore this relationship in their musical The Underclassman, which is currently running as a production of Prospect Theater Company, an organization they cofounded in 1998, at The Duke on 42nd Street. The pair sat down with TheaterMania to discuss why they value new musicals and how Mills will make his next project, The Honeymooners, sing.
The Underclassman explores F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time at Princeton University and his pursuit of Ginevra King, the wealthy debutante. What inspired you to write about them?
Cara Reichel: In terms of our personal story, we went to Princeton together. We were both in the Princeton Triangle Club…a [campus musical-comedy theater troupe] that Fitzgerald wrote and performed for when he was in school in 1915. You get inundated with that mythology. That, fused with This Side of Paradise, which we both loved.
Peter Mills: I don’t know if we had the idea to musicalize this show until the Ginevra King part of the story came into place around 2004 when her family donated all of her letters to Princeton.
Cara: She burned all of Fitzgerald’s letters at his request, and she asked him to destroy hers. He destroyed the actual letters, but had someone type them up. So when he died, there was this portfolio of her letters that his daughter returned to her family, and that was donated to the library. You can see so much of their relationship. That was the catalyst; us having gone to Princeton, loving This Side of Paradise, having the personal experience of the collegiate theatricals that Fitzgerald also did, and the new information about this woman who was an early inspiration for him.
How much primary-source research did you have the opportunity to use?
Peter: I had gone down to Princeton library and looked at a lot of these things. They had Genevra’s diary, which chronicled the affair. And I looked at his scores from those Princeton Triangle Club shows, to get a sense of what the music was like.
Cara: We did a lot of research. There is so much digital information online. You can go on the Princeton website and see the manuscripts of This Side of Paradise.
Peter: The scores that he wrote are all scanned and online.
Tell me a bit about the musical style. Do you use quote any of Fitzgerald’s actual work?
Cara: We don’t use any of Fitzgerald’s actual [Triangle Club] writing.
Peter: There are a whole bunch of great things from which I felt I could reasonably draw [given the time period]. Ragtime had already been established and was very much a sound in the air. Operetta was a big part of the musical-theater scene at the time. But there’s also the early proto-Jazz Age sound in there, too. Early Irving Berlin stuff is right from their time period. We have a song in the show that’s a homage to the counterpoint that he does.
One of Prospect Theater Company’s most admirable qualities is how you give relatively unknown musical-theater writers the opportunity to have their shows produced. Was that always a goal?
Cara: That’s a big part of how the company became what it was. It started with a group of us who went to college together, and we just wanted to keep making theater. We realized we developed a skill set and a network of artists who were into new musicals. It just sort of came to the point where that was what the New York theater community needed; at that time, there wasn’t even the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It’s really essential that emerging writers have the opportunity to see their work produced before a paying audience. Readings are great at a certain point, but you learn different things when you see your show. I hope that we can continue, because as we grow institutionally, it becomes harder and harder to do full productions because it costs more and more.
Peter, you’ve got a big moment in your career coming up, with your musical version of The Honeymooners getting ready for a run at Goodspeed Musicals next spring. How intimidating is it to adapt one of the most beloved properties for the stage?
Peter: It’s a bit daunting. When we came to the piece, there was a finished script, and there were song moments that had been carved out for us. You have to write “To the moon, Alice,” “King of the Castle,” “Baby, You’re the Greatest,” all these iconic things.
You had to write a song based on the signature catchphrase, “To the moon, Alice”?
Peter: That was actually something they felt strongly that they wanted to address in a song. The first thing people will say if they’re inclined to be snarky is oh lovely, a song about a guy who threatens to beat his wife. They wanted to diffuse that, the idea that Alice knows perfectly well he would never lay a finger on her.
How crazy is it to go back and forth between two shows?
Peter: I had a fantastic fall where I was shuttling between the Honeymooners workshop and this. I wish I could have this all year round.
Cara: Because of all the shows we’ve done with Prospect, Pete has gotten really good at writing and rewriting on the fly. That is a real skill when you’re working on a Broadway project. One of the great things about Prospect is having the chance to write a lot.
Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, Art Carney as Ed Norton, Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden, and Joyce Randolph as Trixie in a scene from The Honeymooners.Bang! Zoom! The HoneymoonersWill Make Their World Premiere in 2015 at Goodspeed Opera House