The World’s First Beatnik Musical
By Peter Filichia —
Tom Aldredge died on July 22. Fran Landesman met the same sad fate a day later. But The Nervous Set, the 1959 musical in which he performed and for which she wrote the lyrics, lives on through its original cast album.
The Nervous Set has been in and out of print during the last half-century, but it’s now again available for download. Considering that the show had a Broadway run of only twenty-three performances, it’s a miracle that it was ever recorded. But we’ll soon see why it was.
The musical had a book by Fran’s then-husband Jay Landesman and Theodore J. Flicker, based on the former’s unpublished novel. Jazz musician Tommy Wolf provided the music. None of them was a familiar Broadway name, and the subject matter for their show wasn’t mainstream, either: The Beat Generation. In the opening number, “Man, We’re Beat,” a “Thomas Aldredge” played Danny the poet, who came out with Fran Landesman’s lyric, “He’s got a suitcase full of pot / It really makes you wig / I hope the fuzz don’t bust the cat / Till I get straight. Ya dig?”
Needless to say, the musical took place in Greenwich Village. But The Nervous Set itself began its life 850 miles away: in St. Louis at the 300-seat Crystal Palace on March 4, 1959. It closed there on May 2 — a decent run for any small show in a big city – but it didn’t shutter for lack of customers. The Nervous Set closed because it had bigger fish to fry: ten days later, it was on Broadway.
Today, starting in a regional theater and winding up on The Great White Way happens frequently, but The Nervous Set was way ahead of the curve. Broadway in the late ‘50s still was a time when a New York producer read a script, listened to a score, raised the money himself or with a partner or two, and brought the show to Philly, Boston or Baltimo’ for a tryout with a Broadway theatre already booked. Doing a show in town in the Central Time Zone with no specific Broadway plans was just one of the ways that The Nervous Set was an anomaly.
So was the story, which centered on Brad (Richard Hayes), publisher of Nerves, a magazine dedicated to beat culture. (Jay Landesman actually ran a magazine called Neurotica.) At a party, Brad meets Jan (Tani Seitz); they trump the usual moony love-at-first-sight plot by heading right to bed. Jan isn’t as forward thinking as Brad; she’d still like marriage, but he’s like so many men who are more into their careers. (He does, however, take time out for a new woman named Sari.)
“Stop hating everything!” Jan eventually demands of Brad. “Can’t we like something? How can you like yourself?” Undoubtedly, most 1959 Broadway theatergoers who attended agreed with her; fewer still attended The Nervous Set, and even fewer might have had bought tickets if the original St. Louis ending stayed in place: Jan is so distraught that she purposely overdoses on pills and Brad is trying to revive her as the curtain falls. In New York, at least he and she headed towards marriage.
Perhaps it was a St. Louis hit because God-fearing theatergoers could feel wildly superior to the characters (“Look how they live in New York!”) while more sophisticated types could enjoy living vicariously. But doesn’t The Nervous Set sound more like an off-Broadway show?
Unfortunately, there was barely an Off-Broadway in 1959 – and what was there was revival-centered. When The Nervous Set opened, only four shows had been runaway off-Broadway hits, and they were all revivals: The Threepenny Opera from the ’30s, The Iceman Cometh from the ’40s, and The Boy Friend and The Crucible from the earlier ’50s. Leave It to Jane, a 1917 musical, was just about to open (and run more than two years).
So it was Broadway or nothing. Robbie Lantz — the super agent who would later represent Mike Nichols, Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and plenty of other mega-stars – produced. (He’d do the same for Kean two years later.) Having that St. Louis production certainly cut down on expenses; in an era where $250,000-$300,000 was the usual budget for a Broadway musical, Lantz was able to bring in The Nervous Set for a mere $50,000. And while Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records, has been called a visionary time and time again, perhaps the greatest proof of this was having Columbia invest $25,000 in the show. He wasn’t afraid that it didn’t sound anything like his last cast album — First Impressions — or that it wouldn’t sound anything like his next: Gypsy.
Lieberson was, however, afraid of a reprise. The jaunty song “Let’s Just Have Fun” returned as “Let’s Just Get High.” So you won’t find that one with the lyric “Mondays are postponed / ‘Cause everyone is stoned” on the recording.
There’s plenty else to enjoy, however. That’s clear from the first notes of the “overture.” There are drum riffs here, but they certainly don’t sound like the ones that open Flower Drum Song. Then comes “Man, We’re Beat,” followed by “New York,” which has one of those titles that purposely doesn’t tell you enough; the real title should be “We’re So Sick of Hearing Songs about New York.”
Little did we know that there’d be plenty more, with the apotheosis coming 17 years later when Kander and Ebb celebrated the city. But this “New York” listed all of the city’s atrocities, making it a precursor to Sondheim’s “Who Wants to Live in New York?” from Merrily We Roll Along.
Brad’s “Night People” steadily accelerates, but not enough to deter Jan. “What’s to Lose?” she asks, in a pleasant pop-song vein. A character named Yogi could well tell her: his “How Do You Like Your Love?” gets down to brass tacks – figuratively and literally, given that S&M, dominance and submission are among its subjects. (So is bestiality.) The song also asks, “Are you gay?” without meaning “Are you in a good mood?”
The one song that most sounds like a Broadway show tune is “Party” – to the point where it even acknowledges that ol’ Broadway tradition of a second act reprise. At the party, Jan becomes interested in Brad and sings “I’ve Got a Lot to Learn about Life.” Wolf wisely wrote it as a cha-cha, which was then a benign sound that didn’t indicate the so-called sophistication of the beats. Thus, it was a good musical choice to establish Jan’s comparative innocence.
Wolf was as musically ambitious as the best Broadway composers. He varied his song styles from czardas (“Max the Millionaire”) to country: “Travel the Road of Love” had Fran Landesman employ country music’s convention of repeating the title three times in the first a-section and three more times in the second a-section. The song was sung by Larry Hagman, who’d become very famous 19 years later for starring in a series that took place in a state and city where country music is much appreciated.
Not on the album is the show’s most famous song, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” hung up by a contract dispute with the music publisher. But the second most famous song is here: “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” dared to sing about the love that dare not say its name. Thankfully, it’s very dated now, but it’s still a terrific song, beautifully orchestrated by Wolf, too.
None of this helped The Nervous Set to reach its fourth week of performances. In 1990, at the opening of the Walter Kerr Theatre, Rocco Landesman, the president of Jujamcyn who was Jay and Fran’s nephew, said that Kerr’s single mistake as a reviewer was panning The Nervous Set, which Rocco loved as a kid. (Frankly, I’m surprised that his folks let their pre-teen son see it.)
The original cast album that was miraculously recorded on Columbia doesn’t resemble any other cast album. There’s no imposing orchestra, but a four-piece combo providing the jazz-infused music. Both the overture and the entr’acte sound more like a jam session. (And tasty jam it is.) This made The Nervous Set one of the earliest cast albums that a musical theater enthusiast could play for barbarians (definition: those who don’t appreciate musical theater) and not have them complain.
But its atypical-for-Broadway sound might have jarred 1959’s musical theater enthusiasts who obviously preferred waiting for The Sound of Music and Take Me Along to open. Still, take The Nervous Set along with you and revel in the sound of its music and lyrics.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.