Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: Rex
A guest post by Sherman Yellen.
After “The Rothschilds” I left the theater and worked as a screenwriter where I practiced the difficult art of feeding and educating my own family of young sons, and it was a few years before Sheldon and Richard Rodgers called me to provide the libretto for “Rex”—their proposed musical about Henry VIII. I had won some Emmy Awards for writing the pilot and first three episodes of “The Adams Chronicles” for PBS, and I suppose that polished my credentials as a man who could put a human face on history. Anyone who is versed in theater history knows of “Rex” as a notable flop. But Sheldon and I are made of sterner stuff than the New York Times critics whom we have outlasted and we have spent some time and energy on recreating that show for a new audience. For some, like Sheldon and myself, our musicals like our lives are works in progress.
Why “Rex” now? I know this will sound immodest coming from its librettist, one of its creators, but it is, I believe, the last great Richard Rodgers musical; a forgotten and demeaned treasure that has had little opportunity to be performed since its demise after a short run on Broadway. In a just world it should take its proper place as part of the Rodgers canon, and I hold out hopes that with the work that Sheldon and I have done on revising it, “Rex” will have a new life for future generations of musical lovers.
Starting with the basics, the score of “Rex” is filled with musical treasures; “Away From You” (which Andrew Lloyd Webber called one of the greatest of Rodgers ballads), “No Song More Pleasing,” and “As Once I Loved You,” to name but a few. These are gorgeous Rodgers melodies, married to the witty, always incisive lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, songs that tell a great story of a man driven by love, rage, and a need for an heir that could keep his England from falling apart into civil wars after his death.
The story of our musical is that of Henry VIII’s desperate search for a male heir, and his relationship with his various wives and children. I chose to cover only the wives who bore him his three children. It is a story often told in film and TV but one worth retelling as a musical, indeed, Henry was something of a composer-musician himself. Sadly, during the preparation of “Rex” an ailing Richard Rodgers suffered one of the many serious illnesses that had plagued his later life. When we first met he was a far different man than the one who began writing the score and who later came to every rehearsal and performance. He was vigorous, witty, and enthusiastic at the start. Now, restricted to esophageal speech as a result of recent throat cancer surgery, Rodgers spoke through a hole in his throat with some difficulty. This formerly handsome, athletic man walked hesitantly and was attended by a nurse throughout the rehearsals. He had also suffered from a stroke which created problems with certain aspects of composing—problems he soon overcame. Sheldon, concerned about pleasing the legendary Rodgers discovered that Rodgers, for all his past glory, was equally nervous about his music being accepted by Sheldon. But soon their collaboration clicked, and it was a joy to hear the results of their work together. But for all his physical troubles Rodgers never lost his dignity or his humor.
The leading role of Henry VIII was cast with the notable British actor Nicol Williamson. Difficulties with Mr. Williamson in rehearsal and on the road made work on the show with the famously temperamental actor quite challenging for its creators. I will never forget the day when Rodgers, seated beside me during a rehearsal looked in disgust as Williamson threw his expensive gold plated crown across the stage, smashing it in yet another tantrum, and Rodgers growled into my ear, “He’s every quarter inch a king.”
I still recall that night before the New York opening when I sat alone at the bar at Sardis and a reporter from the Daily News came over to me and asked “Sherman, what’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing here drinking a martini on the eve of Yom Kippur?” In my exhausted, smart-assed manner I replied that after a month on the road with Nicol Williamson one no longer believed in God. This injudicious remark was printed in the following morning’s paper—the morning before our opening night. Williamson read it and refused to perform at the opening without my apology before the full cast, and taking Richard Rodgers advice I managed to squeeze by with a mea culpa for my indiscretion, but not for my statement.
When “Rex” opened on Broadway after much torment on the road, there were splendid moments, many of them provided by a superb performance by Penny Fuller who played both Anne and the young Elizabeth, and a gloomy but appropriate musical debut as Princess Mary by the talented young Glenn Close who had been rejected for the leading role of Anne and Elizabeth because Rodgers who admired her acting, found her singing voice wanting. A wonderful Tom Aldredge played the fool Will Somers. Only one reviewer saw through the show’s problems to its virtues; the notable theatre critic George Oppenheimer who described it as “magnificent” in a world that had just discovered the more seductive modern pleasures of “A Chorus Line.” We were beaten with cudgels by the Times, and it took years to heal from those wounds. I recovered before “Rex” did—and, as I noted, it went down in theater history as a failure. But that was not the end of “Rex” for Sheldon Harnick or for me.
When Jim Morgan, the artistic director of the York Theatre asked us—the sole survivors of the show—to look at “Rex” again for their Musicals in Mufti series, (their modestly staged book-in-hand staged readings of past musicals) we took it on as a challenge, a labor of love, claiming that we would not do “Rex” as it was but “Rex” as we had always intended it to be, a story of real people not mummers in a pageant. Jay Binder was the skillful director of a cast that was headed by Melissa Errico in the dual role of Ann/Elizabeth and Patrick Page as Henry. It was our chance to cut through the heavy burdensome production with its crimson velvet drapery that dwarfed its characters rather than provided them with an environment to express what was most human or inhuman in them. We wanted to take the Madam Tussaud’s waxworks characters of the original production and bring them back to a new life. Now we could focus our efforts on restoring what had been lost on its catastrophic trip to Broadway, its human drama and its glorious Rodgers/Harnick songs.
A judicious rearrangement of the score, the elimination of some clunky pseudo Elizabethan choreography, tossing aside a production number for the young Prince Edward that seemed to amuse the characters onstage more than the audience, and a careful reshaping of the book would eventually create a piece that was tighter, more coherent, a story of love gone wrong between a youthful, lovesick and charming Henry and an ambitious, cunning but sympathetic Anne. All this culminating in the Second Act struggle between an aging Henry and his young daughter Elizabeth, the child of Anne’s—so like her father—whom he had declared his bastard after executing her allegedly adulterous mother after she had failed to provide him with a son and heir. We see a Henry, unable to remove the dynastic blinders that would show him an Elizabeth who was the natural heir to his throne, the very king he longed for: the one who could bring in a golden age for the England he loved. Thus Henry struggles until the end to avoid what is obvious to others, and yet deep within himself he knows the truth. Ours was truly a feminist musical, if one could look past Henry’s misogyny, or perhaps look deep inside it.
In revising the musical for the York I saw where I had failed to bind the disparate parts of Acts I and 2 together, and I found the remedy for that in a series of Elizabethan style poems that were performed by Will Somers, Henry’s fool played at the York by the marvelous B.D. Wong, providing critical moments of transition in the musical. The fool’s part was expanded and deepened, allowing Henry to express his inner thoughts to one he trusted above all, the one who dared to tell him the truth. And the bare stage of the York released these splendid actors to be the play, its characters, its scenery, its time in human history. Suddenly, it all came together, and in a future production it received great reviews in the Toronto press. It now awaits the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to place it in the Rodgers canon where it rightfully belongs. And when they do so they will provide the world with a new Richard Rodgers musical, one that honors the 20th century’s iconic musical composer.
Best of all our work on “Rex” would allow us to restore one of the greatest of Rodgers late life songs, “The Pears of Anjou.” This song was particularly important to us. It revealed Henry VIII’s passion for life, even as he confronts death. While dying, Henry expresses his desire to live for yet another season to see and taste the exquisite pears of Anjou. In this song Henry questions his own life and its values, as death forces Henry to confront all his present pain, his past sins and his great pleasures, prodded by his faithful fool to face the reality of his life. It was a very personal statement from Richard Rodgers who was himself looking death in the eye and bravely trying to out-stare it. For Dick, writing the score to a new musical was the reason to stay alive, and the chance to express his remarkable melodic talents, the one gift that had not been taken from him by age and illness. “Rex,” was his “Pears of Anjou.” Amazingly, he wrote two other musicals after ours, but “Rex” was his final great statement as an artist.
You may have surmised that Dick was my friend, and despite the theater lore that views him as a cold, musical machine, I found him to be a great and good man, a proud man at the end of his life, beset by existential doubts, as Henry was, as we all are. At that time of Sheldon and I were still young men, and we could not fully understand what he was enduring. With Sheldon and I now older than Richard Rodgers was at the time of “Rex,” we understand all too well the need for work as a key to living well beyond your shelf-life. Alas, that penultimate song about “The Pears of Anjou” had been cut from the musical before it ever opened on Broadway—exiled by its performer and director, robbing the show of its greatest dramatic and musical moment in order to quicken the pace towards the end. That splendid song is now restored, correcting a tragic error, and it was included in the York performance and for the Toronto stage.
Years later while preparing the revitalized “Rex” for the York reading I added fresh material for Henry’s fool, material that gingerly guides the audience into the world of the Tudors and carries them through those palace corridors with humor and style. Sheldon rearranged the score, pruning and adding where necessary, giving the score a dramatic shape that it lacked when it opened. Without the pressures of that ill-starred original production it was a joy to work together on the piece, to restore it and to revise it, and make it accessible for a new audience. At the end of our labors, Sheldon sent me a note that spoke of his delight in finally vindicating this musical for us and mainly for Richard Rodgers.
The very absence of a set in the York staged reading proved to be a great virtue. Suddenly, “Rex” looked like a play set in the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare, and that inspired us with the idea of how it could best be done in any future production—with an austere simplicity, depending solely on the power of its actors and its material—eschewing the tendency to recreate the world of Henry with a gilded splendor that only buried the characters in royal party costumes. The later performances of actors who played their roles with humor and humanity; actors who were not doing star turns but giving the text and the songs the best possible reading enhanced the musical further.
After forty odd years I still cherish my memories of working with Rodgers, and the grace with which he faced a “failure” as much as the joy with which he celebrated his success after completing a song. A day after the Times critic blasted us Rodgers called me and asked if we could always be friends. This is a rarity in theater where people walk away from friendships formed during the show—particularly a failed show that brings with it public humiliation. It was an honor for me and for my wife to consider Richard and Dorothy Rodgers our friends for life. I have gone on to write several musicals some as librettist, others as a lyricist, but for all the joys that came with those shows, and there were many, “Rex” remains the one that is indelibly printed on my psyche. “Rex” is no failure for me. It remains for all its travails and disappointments one of my life’s exhilarating experiences in theater. And,for me, a splendid success.
Sherman Yellen is the author of the recently published memoir, Cousin Bella: The Whore of Minsk, and the soon to be published “Spotless”—his memoir of his New York boyhood in the 1930s and 1940s. He is also the author of “December Fools and Other Plays”—a collection of plays with an introduction by Sheldon Harnick.
A note on the text
All of the archival images at the link below are made available through the kind permission of the rights holders [Sherman Yellen and Sheldon Harnick] for research use only. You may not repost or otherwise publish the images below without permission from the rights holders.
December 23, 1975 typescript of the libretto from the Billy Rose Theatre Division [Classmark RM 7830]