Seeing the excellent current production of JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK at the Irish Repertory Theatre reminded me of the stunning musical version of the Sean O’Casey play.
Last month was the sixtieth anniversary of its opening when it didn’t get the money reviews it needed.
Don’t let the fact that it closed in two weeks keep you from the original cast album that Goddard Lieberson miraculously made despite the sixteen-performance run.
Marc Blitzstein musicalized the comedy-drama to a book by Joseph Stein. They reduced the title to JUNO, which suggested that they thought more of the long-suffering Irish housewife and mother than her often-inebriated husband, the so-called “Captain” Jack Boyle.
She’d be played by Shirley Booth, who’d already won a Tony and Oscar for COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA (and two other Tonys to boot). He’d be portrayed by future Tony and two-time Oscar-winner Melvyn Douglas.
That Blitzstein would be drawn to a story involving “the troubles” between the Irish and the British in the early ‘20s didn’t surprise Broadway. Blitzstein was a highly political animal who’d contributed sketches to PINS AND NEEDLES, a leftist revue that was Broadway’s longest-running musical for a while; later, he provided the score for the ultimate left-wing show, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK in 1937.
Twenty-two years later came JUNO. Blitzstein opened his score with a stirring anthem where Irish survivors sing “We’re Alive” – just before one of them is shot dead. Audiences were being warned early on that this wouldn’t be another REDHEAD, the Broadway musical that had opened just before JUNO.
Give credit to Lieberson for recording the gunshot on the original cast album. He wanted to let his listeners know right away that JUNO wasn’t an ordinary musical comedy.
Both theater audiences and home listeners were probably more comfortable with “I Wish It So,” Mary Boyle’s beautiful song of longing for Mr. Right. “Someone’s bound to come,” Mary sings, “because I wish it so” – showing a naiveté that wouldn’t serve her well in the future. Noted critic Ken Mandelbaum has literally heard tens of thousands of theater songs in his lifetime, but he always lists “I Wish It So” as his all-time favorite.
(He doesn’t stop there: Mandelbaum, in his landmark book NOT SINCE CARRIE, states that “Blitzstein’s score is the greatest-ever heard in a post-war flop.”)
Booth got “Song of the Ma,” a motherly waltz, in which she rues that as her children grow, “the ma grows smaller and smaller until there’s hardly anything left at all.” Be careful what you wish for, Juno; you’ll soon be needed quite a bit.
Meanwhile, “Captain” Jack is at the pub with his cronies, all of whom do a quick drunken reel in “We Can Be Proud.” That’s followed by a tuneful strut in which Jack’s best friend Joxer leads all the others in a tribute to a “Daarlin’ Man.”
(Understand that in this culture, “darlin’” isn’t considered effeminate; it’s a perfectly respectable masculine adjective.)
Mary must fend off the attentions from her lifelong friend Jerry Devine (Loren Driscoll, a wonderful Irish tenor) who asks for “One Kind Word” from the utterly uninterested lass. Boy, does he try a guilt trip, saying, “Let it be a wedding or a wake. Take my life … wipe the floor with it.” Mary even-temperedly and correctly points out that “one kind word” is not what he’s seeking. Only marriage and children will do, and that is not what she wishes so.
Jack comes home rather soused, leading to “Old Sayin’s,” his domestic squabble with Juno. This is a fascinating piece of work because it’s really two songs in one. The “first song” is structured as an oh-so-rare A-B-C-D ditty, which starts with a complaint from Jack, where he asks, “Why can’t you be like a woman ought to be, spoiling her man?” Juno always has a smart answer for him each time he complains to which Jack always insists “You’re changin’ the subject!”
Then the “second song” takes over in which Jack cites “old sayin’s” that prove a wife should be subservient to her husband. Juno wittily responds to each of these too, although Jack feels she’s bending the rules by quoting something “That’s not a sayin’.” The playbill lists a reprise, which the album didn’t give us, most likely for lack of vinyl space requirements. At nearly fifty-six minutes, JUNO was then a generous recording.
Given that Jack claims to have an extensive nautical background, Blitzstein gives him a sea shanty called “What Is the Stars?” Here, Jack makes us doubt him, when he tells of his adventures on “the Antanarctic (sic) Ocean.” More comedy is in store with “You Poor Thing,” where Juno’s four neighbors try to one-up each other on each’s personal tragedy. Jean Stapleton, who’d be famous in a dozen years thanks to ALL IN THE FAMILY, here plays a widow who proclaims, “Once you’ve had it, you can miss it.”
Mary does fall in love with Charlie Bentham, to which she lends her lovely soprano to inform him of “My True Heart.” He’s the lawyer who shows up at the Boyles to tell them of a large and unexpected inheritance from an obscure relative.
Well, you can imagine how this hits Jack. “I’m rich! I’m rich!” he once sang, the demo shows, in a song called “From This Out” (sic), followed by “I’m a new man.” In addition, Blitzstein composed a marvelous Irish jig called “On a Day Like This” that was such a rousing first-act curtain that he incorporated some, but not all, of “From This Out” in it.
The marvelously large and lush orchestra that was standard issue in those days do great justice to the terrific dance music. Ah, characters in musicals sure know how to dance when they come into money, don’t they? (Cf. “We’ll Take a Glass Together” from GRAND HOTEL).
The second act starts out with plenty of happiness when Jack brings home a gramophone and introduces “Music in the House.” Blitzstein gives a nifty parody of those overly sentimental ballads in “It’s Not Irish” with the lyric “Just remember your duty to your mother.” Matters become more joyous in “The Liffy Waltz,” named for an Irish river.
But this show can’t stay happy for long. There’s a stirring “Hymn,” an introspective “Johnny,” in which the Boyle’s son – already an amputee from combat – faces another day of reckoning. Has a woman ever sung more beautifully about a tragedy than Mary does in “For Love”? Juno has her own tragedy in “Where?” which is meant to be more powerful than beautiful.
A show about “the troubles” certainly had troubles of its own. When a musical has three directors before a Broadway debut, what else can be expected? Tony Richardson, who’d win two Oscars for TOM JONES four years later, was the first to go. Second was Vincent J. Donehue, who’d have much better luck eight months later when staging the original production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. The third zircon of the triple crown was Jose Ferrer, who wouldn’t direct another musical on Broadway for more than twenty years, and would see it (CARMELINA) run one performance more than JUNO did.
Even Jean Stapleton wasn’t a first choice, but took over when another actress was found wanting. But none of this diminishes the magnificent score that Blitzstein wrote.