Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: Tenderloin
A guest post by Philip Lambert, author of To Broadway! To Life! The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick
When composer Jerry Bock (1928–2010) and lyricist Sheldon Harnick (b. 1924) began writing songs for their third Broadway musical, Tenderloin, in the spring of 1960, their work schedule was happily disrupted by a torrent of accolades for the show they had just finished. Their previous project, Fiorello!, based on the early career of New York’s beloved mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, had opened just a few months earlier to widespread acclaim, and during that same spring was awarded the Tony for Best Musical (shared with The Sound of Music) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. So the Tenderloin project was conceived to carry the Fiorello! Karma as far as it would go, keeping together the same creative team, including librettist Jerome Weidman, director George Abbott, and producers Harold Prince and Bobby Griffith. And history reveals that Fiorello! certainly did portend Broadway success for Bock and Harnick, in their next show after Tenderloin, the charming operetta-ish love story She Loves Me of 1963, and in their career-defining, multi-award-winning, record-setting masterpiece of the following year, Fiddler on the Roof.
But Tenderloin failed to capture the Fiorello! magic, and it stands today as one of the partnership’s biggest disappointments. The show opened at the 46th Street (now the Richard Rodgers) Theater in October 1960 to mixed reviews and closed the following spring after only 271 performances. It has received respectful attention in performances off-Broadway and in City Center’s Encores! series, but has never been revived on Broadway. What exactly went wrong?
These libretto drafts from the library’s archives help tell the story. Co-librettists Weidman and Abbott began work in the fall of 1959, adapting the plot from the current novel of the same name by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The story centers on the so-called “Tenderloin” district of Manhattan—roughly 24th to 42nd Streets between Fifth and Seventh Avenues—and its reputation for corruption and debauchery during the 1890s. (The name came from a corrupt police captain who was being moved into this precinct from a neighborhood with modest payoffs and told a reporter for the Sun, “I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for a long time, and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin.”) Thus did the creative team retain their focus on New York City history, while swinging the pendulum far in the other direction from the political idealism of Fiorello! In the world of Broadway, its portrait of the city recalled a musical from ten years earlier, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950), and a subsequent series of shows with New York themes, including two Brooklyn musicals with music by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields—A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951) and By the Beautiful Sea (1953)—and two of Leonard Bernstein’s greatest works—Wonderful Town (1953) and West Side Story (1957).
Adams’s novel, based on actual events, is centered around Tommy Howatt, a young, ambitious newspaper reporter who is simultaneously pursuing insider information about police activities and the affections of Laurie Crosby, a beautiful socialite. To appear worthy of Laurie’s attention, Tommy joins a church choir and becomes a confidant of its pastor, Reverend Brockholst Farr. Reverend Farr gains fame as an outspoken advocate against sin and vice, and for a while Tommy plays the double agent, feeding information back and forth between the forces of morality, represented by Reverend Farr, and the soiled underbelly, embodied in the corrupt policemen and the houses of prostitution.
In the libretto drafts, however, we can see the writers shifting the story’s focus away from the young lovers (now named Tommy and Laura) and onto the crusading Reverend (renamed Brock). By December 1959, they had obtained a commitment from the acclaimed Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans to play the role. Although Evans had a solid reputation in the classical repertoire, he had only played in one previous musical, Ball at the Savoy, in London in 1933. In Weidman and Abbott’s libretto, the first act is dominated by the Reverend’s initial efforts to shut down the brothels, and the second act by his appearance at an official inquiry into sin and corruption. The young reporter and his sweetheart remain main characters, but their relationship is secondary, and in the end, they go their separate ways.
Therein lay the show’s difficulties. Bock and Harnick wrote some fetching numbers for the lesser characters and denizens of the Tenderloin establishments, such as “Little Old New York,” a tribute to the city’s permissiveness led by two of the working girls, and infectious, character-defining songs for the young lovers, including “Tommy, Tommy” and “My Miss Mary.” But the musical profile of the reformers was staid and solemn, in tunes such as “Bless This Land” and “The Army of the Just.” The story asks the audience to side with the crusading Reverend and his flock, but our sympathies uncontrollably gravitate to the characters onstage who seem to be having all the fun.
Critics recognized the problem immediately. Reviewing opening night, Whitney Bolton of the Morning Telegraph wrote, “When it concerns itself with dedicated, happy baggages and trulls, [Tenderloin] is a walloping and vivid and excitingly funny show, but when it turns to admire the sleek impregnables of virtue, it is duller than dishwater.” In the words of Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune, “Maurice Evans has an extremely unsympathetic part. . . . He plays a crusading minister who wants to eliminate the production numbers.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the show’s creators have agreed. Harnick remembers trying to equalize the musical appeal of the characters, but “As much as we tried to make the minister human and a fun-loving man, it never quite worked.” Hal Prince feels that the Reverend “turned out to be not such an ideal character for a musical.” Prince imagines a reconceptualization centered on Tommy as a “parable of contemporary morality, the young leading man utterly amoral, triumphing, a forerunner of J. Pierpont Finch in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” In other words, more like the novel.
Bock and Harnick learned their lesson. Up through this experience, they had simply followed the leads of the book writer(s) for decisions on story structure and song placement. But after the disappointment of Tenderloin, they resolved to take a more active role in the development of the libretto, to become more integral to the entire creative process. And now is a good time to celebrate the spectacular results of that new approach, as Fiddler on the Roof celebrates its fiftieth birthday with its fifth Broadway revival, scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.
A note on the texts:
All of the archival images below are made available through the kind permission of the rights holders [Sheldon Harnick and the estates of Jerry Bock, Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, and Samuel Hopkins Adams] for research use only. You may not repost or otherwise publish the images below without permission from the rights holders. If you are interested in staging a production of Tenderloin, please contact Music Theatre International.
Lyric drafts from the papers of Jerry Bock [Classmark: JPB 02-10]
First draft (November 11, 1959) [Classmark: RM 2999]
January 1, 1960 Draft [Classmark: RM 143]
Jerry Bock's copy of a January 1960 draft [Classmark: JPB 02-10]
T.J. Halligan's (Purdy) opening night copy [Classmark: RM 2065]