Remembering the Musicals of Neil Simon
This weekend we received some incredibly sad new in the theatre community: the death of one of America’s most prolific and beloved playwrights, Neil Simon. Simon mixed humor with humanity, honesty with insanity, and always connected with the individual in each of us. Many of his plays remain well-regarded in theatre circles the world over. Titles such as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Chapter Two, The Star-Spangled Girl, Plaza Suite, The Gingerbread Lady, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Sunshine Boys, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and Rumorscontinue to be as poignant and funny as they were when they were first written. Simon won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1991 play Lost in Yonkers.
Though often celebrated first as a playwright, Simon was also an adept collaborator when writing books for Broadway musicals. Over the years, he was responsible for the librettos behind a handful of musicals, meeting varying degrees of success for his efforts. Here is a stroll down memory lane, taking a look at the musicals for which Simon provided the book.
Little Me (1962)
Arguably the funniest of Simon’s books for musicals was his first effort, the 1962 musical Little Me. Paired with Cy Coleman (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics), Simon took the Patrick Dennis novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television/Belle Poitrine and fashioned an episodic story with a clever convention: many of the men that Ms. Poitrine would encounter in her escapades would be played by one actor. For the original production, this performer would be Sid Caesar, with who Simon had worked with on the television variety program Your Show Of Shows.
Sweet Charity (1966)
Neil Simon’s second pairing with Cy Coleman (this time with lyricist Dorothy Fields) was a longer running, critical success than Little Me. For Sweet Charity, he was tasked with adapting the screenplay for the Frederico Fellini film The Nights of Cabiria for the musical stage. The musical was, again, episodic, following the story of Charity Hope Valentine, a dance hall hostess in search of romance, finding heartache at every turn. Though it was the musical’s score, Bob Fosse’s choreography, and the star turn of Gwen Verdon that took center stage, Simon found enough hope and charm in the title character’s predicaments to string together a coherent musical that both brimming with humor and just a touch heartbreaking.
Promises, Promises (1968)
The longest running of the Neil Simon musicals (1,281 performances) was adapted from the Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond screenplay for the Oscar-winning film The Apartment. Promises, Promises is the story of Chuck Baxter, a junior executive for a large, New York insurance company. Unable to gain any respect or upward mobility at work, he loans his apartment to his superiors where they can have secret trysts away from their wives. His hope is to achieve some career advancement in exchange for these favors, but it essentially leaves him wandering the streets at night without success. The most cynical of all of Simon’s books for musicals, Promises, Promises was given a lively score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in their only Broadway musical to date. The musical is particularly well-remembered for its Tony-winning performance by Jerry Orbach and the kinetic choreography of Michael Bennett and Bob Avian.
They’re Playing Our Song (1979)
For 1,082 performances, They’re Playing Our Song wowed Broadway audiences. Loosely based on the relationship between songwriters Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, Neil Simon crafted a funny, compact little two-character musical with commentary offered by a six-person, singing Greek chorus of sorts. Adding to the musical’s depth and honesty was the score written by, you guessed it, Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch. The musical starred Robert Klein and Lucy Arnaz as Vernon Gersch and Sonia Walsk, respectively, veiled substitutes for Hamlisch and Bayer Sager. Due to its small size, They’re Playing Our Song was an oft-performed property in summer stock and regional theatres in the 1980s.
The Goodbye Girl (1993)
Adapting his own 1977 screenplay for The Goodbye Girlinto a Broadway musical proved to be a challenge for Simon, though he did find some wonderful new moments to tell the story of a down-on-her-romantic-luck dancer Paula who must agree to live with an eccentric and egocentric actor in order to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. Where The Goodbye Girl sparkled on screen, it fizzled onstage, losing the claustrophobia-inducing feeling of closed-quarters emotional combat that worked so well between Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss onscreen. Simon collaborated with composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist David Zippel who provided an agreeable and occasionally effective score. Bernadette Peters and Martin Short played the sparring pair who eventually fall in love. Despite several Tony nominations, The Goodbye Girl didn’t win any and ran a lackluster 188 performances. It was Simon’s last attempt at writing a Broadway musical.