Remembering The Grand Tour
Jerry Herman is best remembered for his splashy musical comedies, including Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles. In fact, Herman often is unfairly criticized (in some circles) for his catchy, upbeat showtunes and feel-good fare. There is nothing wrong with a joyous showtune, but this generalized assessment of Herman’s work would be incorrect for two reasons. First, within his big hits, Herman wrote plenty of tender, gentle, emotionally-charged songs of subtlety like “Ribbons Down My Back”, “My Best Girl” and “Look Over There.” Second, Herman wrote just as many musicals that looked at the darker side of humanity, and though there is much joy to be found in his scores for Dear World and Mack & Mabel, there is also much sadness. The same can be said for one Herman’s most “un-Herman” musicals, the glorious, if under-appreciated, The Grand Tour.
The Grand Tour is based on S.N. Behrman’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel. In Paris, during World War II, Polish-Jewish intellectual S.L. Jacobowsky has just acquired a new car, but doesn’t know how to drive. An anti-Semitic colonel named Stjerbinsky can drive, but has no vehicle. In an effort to escape the city before the Nazis invade, the two develop an unlikely partnership to evacuate. Eventually, the Colonel’s girlfriend Marianne joins the duo and Jacobowsky eventually falls in love with her. The three travelers go on an adventure all over the countryside, taking trains and boats and whatever means of transportation will bring them to freedom. Along the way, they are regularly detained and thwarted by the Nazis, often finding their lives in jeopardy.
During its out-of-town tryout, The Grand Tour was already showing signs of trouble. Tommy Tune was brought in to serve as an uncredited “play doctor.” New songs were written and others excised, but the score was hardly where the show needed help. Episodic in structure, it had a hard time building toward its conclusion. It also took two compelling characters, starting out with a bit of an “odd couple” premise and then spun them toward a dark and uncertain conclusion. The Grand Tour was never sure if it wanted to be a comedy or drama, and although many shows have balanced both, the result here was uneven.
The Grand Tour opened on Broadway at the Palace Theatre on January 11, 1979. It featured a book by Mark Bramble (who recently passed on February 20, 2019 and had written books for 42nd Street and Barnum), with direction by Gerald Freeman and choreography by Donald Saddler. The central trio of the show featured Joel Grey as Jacobowsky, Ron Holgate (as Stjerbinsky), and Florence Lacey as Marianne. The Grand Tour lasted for just 61 performances, though Grey, Holgate, and Herman’s score were all nominated for Tony Awards.