Jewschool.com: No More

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

This is the fourth post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and here with a post about South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught.”

Many of the best musicals had their origins in earlier theatrical works, from Oklahoma! (based on Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs) to The Fantasticks (based on Edmund Rostand’s Les Romantiques) to West Side Story (based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Today’s entry comes from the musical version of Clifford Odets’ 1937 play Golden Boy. The original told the story of an Italian-American kid in the Depression who dreams of a career as a concert violinist, seeing a career in boxing as his only way out of the lower class.

The lovers of Golden BoyFor the musical version, Odets was recruited to adapt his own play on the strength of the new lead – multimedia sensation Sammy Davis, Jr. In the musical update, the hero’s struggle was given an added dimension in the form of an interracial love affair — still illegal in many states, and mirroring Davis’s own real-life marriage to May Britt. Odets was at a low point in his career, suffering from the blacklist and nearly broke, so despite his ambivalence towards musical theater, he was happy to be working and thrilled to have Sammy Davis, Jr. signed on.

The show was fully integrated, and it featured a kiss between the lovers, which caused quite a stir during the show’s tryouts. Davis and the rest of the company reported receiving death threats for the involvement in the show, but it was ultimately successful.

This song comes about halfway through the second act, when (SPOILER ALERT!) the lovers have broken up. Soon after the show’s opening, Martin Luther King, Jr. attended the show and admired its message, citing this song as his favorite.

Golden Boy Original Cast AlbumNo More

from Golden Boy

Music by Charles Strouse

Lyrics by Lee Adams

Premiere: October 20, 1964

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Buy the CD! | Buy the MP3!

In his recent autobiography, Put on a Happy Face, Strouse recalled the difficulties involved in putting on this production and working with a star of Davis’s caliber. For instance, Davis’s contract gave him approval over every single song in the score, quite an unusual agreement for a Broadway production. Since Davis was performing a blockbuster club act in Vegas at the time, this meant lots of flying back and forth between New York and Vegas for the songwriters who had to audition new songs for the star at three in the morning following his “midnight matinees.”

Sammy’s only previous Broadway outing had been Mr. Wonderful, which was essentially Sammy’s club act placed within the slightest of stories. So being part of a collaborative process for the good of the dramatic work as a whole must have been new to him. Strouse wrote:

Lee and I didn’t write the pop-style, Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen songs that Sammy could metamorphose into jazz-sounding phrases, and Sammy wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t want to sing our versions of “black.”

Strouse explains at great length in his book that much of the tension between himself and Davis really revolved around Davis’ desire to swing the score in opposition to the composer’s desire to hear the score sung as written. Because jazz singing was still so closely associated with being black, Strouse fretted that his musical proclivities were being misinterpreted. He wrote:

Lee and I had wanted to write a musical true to the pain, hopes, and culture of African Americans. So, naturally, everyone involved in the writing was white and Jewish–except for Sammy, who was only Jewish… Race relations played out behind the scenes as well as on the stage. For example, if I was drinking a Coke, Sammy liked to take a sip from the same glass. He confided in me that it was really a test to see whether I liked black people. He never told me whether I passed.

Strouse and Davis eventually bonded when they traveled to Selma together for the famous march. But knowing now the way that Strouse perceived what was going on behind the scenes, it’s hard to imagine the moment when he and Lee Adams first presented this song to Davis, asking him to sing lines like “I ain’t your slave no more.”

If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on fostering a Jewish community that brings together all Jews, whether they look like Charles Strouse or Sammy Davis, Jr., check out Be’chol Lashon. As they put it in their vision statement,

Imagine a new global Judaism that transcends differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice, and beliefs. Discussions about “who-is-a-real-Jew” will be replaced with celebration of the rich, multi-dimensional character of the Jewish people.

That’s a vision I can certainly get behind.

Fynsworth Alley: David Shire

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

David ShireDavid Shire is composer of Starting Here, Starting Now, Closer Than Ever, Baby, and Big, as well as an Emmy and Oscar-winning film composer whose work includes Saturday Night Fever, Return To Oz and the recent television film These Old Broads. He is currently working with longtime collaborator Richard Maltby, Jr. on a new Broadway-bound show called Take Flight.

DL: Let’s start out talking about your days at Yale, and how you began working with Richard Maltby.

DS: When I went there, I knew I wanted to write shows, and so did he. He came from a prep school in one place, and I came from a prep school in another place. We were looking for collaborators to write what in those days were called Varsity Shows, to be produced by the Yale Dramat. A mutual friend introduced us in the freshman dining hall one day. He thought I was a hick from Buffalo, and I thought he was a theatre snob. We were both kind of right. We started writing together, and 40-plus years later, we still are. We wrote two shows at Yale which were produced by the Yale Dramat in rather elaborate productions. One of them was later done at Williamstown. And that’s how we met.

DL: Those shows at Yale helped launch your career and brought you some professional notice…

DS: A little bit. They didn’t really affect anything. We were trying to get further productions of the shows. Theatre people came up, and though they thought we were talented and promising, neither one of those shows went any further. Curiously enough, the people in the shows who we worked with at Yale were more valuable in terms of future work, even in films. The stage manager of one of the shows was John Badham, who I later scored a lot of TV movies for, and finally Saturday Night Fever, which was my biggest financial windfall. There were people like Dick Cavett in the show, and Austin Pendelton and Peter Hunt, who I’ve either worked with or stayed pretty close with through the years.

We pretty much had to get to New York. After we got the National Guard out of the way – the six month reserve program – we moved to New York and started writing an Off-Broadway show there which was produced about a year after we got there. That attracted professional notice. It was like a calling card, even though the show didn’t run that long. Continue reading