TimeLine Theatre tackles rarely staged musicalization of O’Casey masterpiece
While most Broadway musicals these days are based on movies or “jukebox” scores, many plays also have served as inspiration.
“My Fair Lady,” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” remains the most stellar example of musicalization, but “Cabaret” (from John Van Druten’s “I Am a Camera”), “Hello, Dolly!” (from Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”) and “Spring Awakening” (based on Frank Wedekind’s play of the same name, but in German) all are rooted in dramatic works, and have made impressive transitions.
And then there is “Juno.” No, not the 2007 film about a pregnant girl, but the relatively unknown show with a score by composer-lyricist Marc Blitzstein (whose 1937 pro-union musical, “The Cradle Will Rock,” directed by Orson Welles, was famously shut down by the Works Progress Administration), and with a book by Joseph Stein (who would go on to pen the book for “Fiddler on the Roof”).
“Juno” is based on “Juno and the Paycock,” Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s 1924 masterpiece. Set in the working-class tenements of Dublin during the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s, its title character, Juno Boyle, is the hardworking matriarch who tries to hold together her disintegrating family in the face of war, betrayal, and the drinking of her feckless husband, “Captain” Jack Boyle.
“Juno,” which debuted on Broadway in 1959 and starred Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas, closed after just 16 performances. And several subsequent revisions and revivals, including a 2008 semi-staged concert version presented as part of City Center’s Encores! series in New York, failed to make the case for another try on Broadway. But now comes the show’s Chicago debut courtesy of TimeLine Theatre, the company that did such a knockout job in 2006 with “Fiorello!,” another rarely revived (if initially far more successful) musical. The production reunites director Nick Bowling and Doug Peck (who is sharing the duties with Elizabeth Doran). Doran will play piano and conduct a five-piece band (on violin, mandolin, Irish flute, clarinets and French horn) throughout the show’s run.
“Doug and I, along with PJ Powers [artistic director of TimeLine], have been considering this show for five years, and we really believe in it,” said Bowling. “But the challenge has been how to pull together all the various orchestrations and versions of the script (by everyone from Richard Maltby Jr. to David Ives) and make it work in a way it hasn’t worked before.”
“The original O’Casey play is amazing,” Bowling said. “And my sense of what happened with the 1959 musical production is that it was too romanticized, and on top of that, neither of the leads could sing, so they basically spoke the lyrics over the melodies. We have fantastic singers — Marya Grandy and Ron Rains — and when you hear them sing you understand why the play cried out to be musicalized. The score — and I’ve been a fan of Blitzstein since discovering ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ in college — is beautiful. He was younger when he wrote ‘Cradle,’ and was trying to be avant-garde. In ‘Juno,’ you can hear more of the Rodgers and Hammerstein influence, with some powerful anthems, as well as that heartbreaking song, ‘I Wish It So,’ sung by the Boyles’ daughter, Mary.”
Bowling (who most recently directed the blistering revival of “The Normal Heart” for TimeLine) also consulted with Irish literature experts because he wanted to put a little more balance into the leading characters.
“Juno is the hero, but perhaps not quite the goddess her name suggests, while Jack is a drunk, but he’s also a charmer,” said the director. “And having grown up in that Catholic world I know why they’ve stayed together; splitting was just not an option.”
For Peck (who credits Doran with doing almost half the orchestrations), the important thing was to “restore the balance in the orchestrations, so that audiences could really hear Blitzstein’s melodies.”
“Blitzstein has long been a personal hero of mine,” said Peck, the workaholic who also is music directing the new “Days Like Today (coming up in May at Writers’ Theatre), and is serving as vocal coach to the two boys alternating as the young Michael Jackson in the touring company of “Motown the Musical” now in previews here. “It was 20 years ago that I first heard ‘I Wish It So’ on [the Grammy Award-winning soprano] Dawn Upshaw’s album of the same name. I immediately sought out the original Broadway cast recording. And in a way I’ve been wanting to do ‘Juno’ ever since.”