Remembering Dean Jones by Peter Filichia
By Peter Filichia
If he’d never done Company, few of us Broadway-centric types would have given much thought to the death of 84-year-old Dean Jones last week.
But in 1970, the actor just happened to find himself in one of the great legendary musicals of the twentieth century. Jones had the leading role of Bobby, the confirmed bachelor who was likely to remain so. What Jones didn’t remain in, however, was the musical itself. A month after Sondheim’s first official masterpiece had opened on Broadway, Jones left and Larry Kert became the new Bobby.
I was at the world premiere of Company at the Shubert Theatre in Boston on March 23, 1970, and I truly believe I saw the precise moment when Jones said to himself, “I’ve got to get out of this show.”
It happened right at the end of the evening, when he delivered his 11 o’clock number — not “Being Alive,” but its predecessor, “Happily Ever After.” During the song, in which Bobby told that older Boston Brahmin-filled audience that marriage meant living “happily ever after in hell,” I saw his eyes widen to what seemed to be twice their usual size.
He could tell from the stony silence and the looks on the faces he could see sitting in front of him that these long-time married couples in the audience disagreed with “his” view of marriage. Either that, or they didn’t want to admit or acknowledge that their own marriages had been boring failures. Whatever the case, if they’d thus far been on the fence about this maverick musical, “Happily Ever After” pushed them over the edge and into I-hate-it territory.
Seriously: I could, if you and I were today admitted onto the stage of the Shubert, take you to within a quarter-inch of where Jones was standing when his eyes unquestionably widened in horror. It made that much of an impression on me.
That Sondheim replaced the song with the more mellow “Being Alive” wasn’t enough to keep Jones in the show. The poor soul was then enduring a marriage crisis that would lead to a divorce. That never makes anyone think, as I Do! I Do! had claimed four years earlier, “You can throw away your ev’ry care and doubt, ‘cause that’s what married life is all about.”
The official explanation for Jones’ leaving Company was hepatitis, but of all the lies ever told to the press, this one was cleared up especially fast. Fewer than four years later, when Craig Zadan’s Sondheim & Co. was published, Jones and director-producer Hal Prince were both quoted as saying he didn’t like the show enough to continue.
Here’s an irony: Jones had married his first wife on Jan. 1, 1954 – precisely eighteen years to the day that Company would close in New York. But a bigger irony is that sixteen years after Company, Jones would return to Broadway in another musical, Into the Light, which played the same theater (only by now The Alvin had been rechristened The Neil Simon).
No cast album of Into the Light was ever made, so only those with in-theater bootlegs know the score. But those of us who were there at the Simon during one of those October, 1986 performances had the weird experience of hearing Jones’ voice, which we’d previously encountered hundreds if not thousands of times only on one of the greatest cast albums of all time. Now, however, we were merely hearing it in totally unfamiliar and far less pungent songs.
So why would Jones opt for a musical that was, to say the least, far inferior, as thirteen previews and six performances would indicate? The answer is that Into the Light was a musical about The Shroud of Turin — the cloth that some believe sports an imprint of Jesus Christ’s face – and Jones had by then become a fervent born-again Christian. Alas, the show wasn’t of interest to many others; Broadway wags mocked it with the title Jesus Christ Tablecloth — although Peter Stone preferred to dub it A Face in the Shroud.
To show you where Jones’ head was at the time, he’d recently started doing a one-man stage show called St. John in Exile, which concerned the final days of Jesus Christ’s last surviving apostle. (It was recorded and put on DVD, should you care to see it.)
In 2002, I was asked to moderate a press conference at The Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame. Jones, a native of Decatur in Morgan County, would be one of the three inductees.
Before we did that, however, actors from Theatre Tuscaloosa honored Jones by doing a medley from Company — first the title song, then as dynamic a rendition of “Being Alive” I’ve ever heard (from an actor named Charles Prosser) before everyone closed with “Side by Side by Side.” This was followed by film clips of Jones in Disney’s The Love Bug, a few excerpts from St. John and then Jones’ doing all of “Being Alive” in D.A. Pennebaker’s legendary documentary of the recording of Company’s original cast album.
During all this, I was seated near Jones, so I dared a surreptitious glance or two to see how he was reacting to this. His face revealed neither wistfulness nor regret – nothing at all, in fact. However, he couldn’t have retained too many bad feelings about Company, for in 1993 when a reunion concert started in Long Beach, California and then played the Vivian Beaumont, he was there both times to play Bobby. Perhaps he wasn’t as down on marriage as he had been in 1970; by then, Jones and his second wife were close to celebrating their twentieth anniversary; indeed, the union lasted more than forty-two years until his death the other day.
The time came for the Alabama press conference. As soon as I mentioned Company – even before I had the chance to ask him why he quit the show – he told me and the assembled, “I went out there in Boston and sang this song you never heard of called ‘Happily Ever After,’ and I could feel the people in the audience asking me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I was wondering back ‘Why do you hate me?’”
And I said, “I was there, and saw it in your eyes.” Needless to say, he was pretty astonished to hear that.
Jones went on to mention his divorce, but stressed that it was only one reason why he had to leave the show. “I just can’t do anything too nihilistic,” he said. He added that he’d been recently offered a revival on Broadway, but after he’d read it, he sent his regrets because he felt it was too negative.
(I’ve often wondered if the play was the 2003 Broadway revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, for which he would have been right. A play about coping day-in and day-out with a spastic child would have to make for a hellish two-plus hours no fewer than eight times a week.)
After the conference, Doug Perry, the managing director of Theatre Tuscaloosa, said to me, “When you see him on that tape finishing ‘Being Alive,’ you can see him thinking, ‘Okay! That’s it! I’m done with it! I’ll never have to do that again!’”
Yes, that could have been what was going through Dean Jones’ mind at that moment. But what I saw at the end of that “Being Alive” clip was a performer who’d hoped he’d done a good enough job for the generations who’d be hearing him do the song now and forever.
I’d once been right about what Dean Jones had been thinking in Boston, and that night in Alabama, I hoped that I was again correct.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.