Broadway Blip: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Probably the Bob Merrill musical that was most eagerly anticipated and ultimately the biggest letdown was Breakfast at Tiffany's. Based on the popular Truman Capote novel and the hit Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film of the same name, it was an idea that was arguably doomed from start. Beloved films do not necessarily translate easily to stage, and the incandescent and indelible performance of Audrey Hepburn as the troubled Holly Golightly was hard one to erase from people’s minds and no actress could be expected to recreate in that shadow. Television and film actress Mary Tyler Moore was the unfortunate heir to this role. A talented actress in her own right who would go on to create her own brand of luminescence on the TV shows The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she certainly had the chops and that something extra to shine, if it had not been for her predecessor’s iconic turn in the role.
What may have been the chief detractor where Breakfast at Tiffany’s was concerned was in how the character of Holly Golightly was depicted. The book of the musical was initially adapted from both the film and the Truman Capote novella by Abe Burrows. His efforts were cast aside during the show’s tryouts and playwright Edward Albee was brought in to start fresh. Albee had some ideas that, on paper, were seemingly clever. He imagined Holly as a character as seen through the eyes of the writer Jeff, her personality evolving and changing according to what her wrote. In the end, this made Holly look like a caricature rather than the living, breathing person that she was meant to me.
The musical was originally titled Holly Golightly, but the name changed when it arrived a New York’s Majestic Theatre where it began previews on December 12, 1966. Despite a creative team that included choreographer Michael Kidd (with assistance by Tony Mordente) and direction by Joseph Anthony, the creators just couldn’t solve the riddle of what would make Breakfast at Tiffany’s a workable musical. Producer David Merrick shut the production down four days later.
Would Breakfast at Tiffany's have made a good musical to begin with? It’s hard to say. Merrill seemed to think so, drawn as he was to compelling, mentally unbalanced characters central to the plot of a story. The challenge with Breakfast at Tiffany's and the Truman Capote novel on which it is based is that the story is told from the point of view of the homosexual writer Paul (a stand-in for Capote) who observes and assesses Holly as a study, from a distance, only becoming drawn into her world because of his need to save the fascinating (but ultimately unsalvageable) creature. What works best about the story is that we never really know Holly, we only get bits and pieces and make our judgments from the crumbs Paul shares with us. A musical doesn’t work like this. A musical is a lot of internal monologue and character revelation, something that would distract from the mystique of Miss Golightly if this title character were going to sing. Merrill seemed to understand this, keeping Holly at a distance in her songs, but it unfortunately left us out of her world and rendered the musical ineffective.