- A Talk with Charles Strouse
- By Richard Seff
Charles Strouse is not a household name, but it should be. In another culture it would be. The composer of Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy, Applause, and the megahit Annie as well as almost two dozen other Broadway musicals of varying success should be known to all. But alas, he joins John Kander (who’s finally becoming a recognizable name mostly due to the death of his longtime collaborator Fred Ebb, which brought much media attention), Tom Jones, Jerry Bock, Maury Yeston, Marvin Hamlisch and even Jerry Herman (who’s written several mega-hits) and critics’ and media’s darling Stephen Sondheim as a name nine out of ten adults will not recognize.
Well, I surely recognize him, and I’ll bet you do too, so I was delighted he was gracious enough to give me an hour of his time two weeks ago to talk about his half a century of composing for the stage. He’s put it all down in his new memoir, “Put On A Happy Face”, which I’ve read, and found entertaining, accurate, probing and informative. It’s a very good read.
I taped the interview, so I’ll present it to you, with the occasional insertion of a comment or thought of mine. It took place on July 14th in Strouse’s gracious and spacious apartment on 57th Street, minutes away from the theatre district on Broadway that has been his home since the early l960s. Strouse has written with many collaborators, but his most frequent partner has been Lee Adams, so I started there.
Richard Seff: How did you meet Lee Adams?
Charles Strouse: We met at a Christmas party given by a mutual friend, who had gone to Ohio State with Lee, where Lee wrote musicals. That was over 50 years ago!
RS: That early on, were you both interested in writing musical theatre?
CS: No! Lee was, but though I enjoyed musicals, I was still studying classical music. But this was like saying, “Oh, there’s an opening in Obama’s cabinet you hadn’t thought about that, but this was even bigger, at least to me.”
RS: So, did you do what other young teams did, start writing songs for musicals on spec?
CS: Oh, spec was beyond us. We just started writing songs. But I’d started writing even earlier. I wrote pop songs with Fred Ebb for a year, so I didn’t have to adjust to collaboration.
RS: Well, Bye Bye Birdie was your first show. How did the producer (Ed Padula) know of you, and why did he pick you and Lee to do the score?
CS: I was playing pit piano on Saratoga (a big musical starring Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence) and Ed was the stage manager. I still remember (RS: I should think he would!) Ed leaning over the rail into the deep pit, and saying “Buddy, (a name I’d carried all my life, hated, and finally was able to lose by retraining everyone to call me ‘Charles’) , do you compose music?” I said “Yes!”, so we had lunch, got along well, he told me the basic story line of what was then called Let’s Go Steady and which became Bye Bye Birdie. I hated both titles, but I liked the story, felt I could compose to its needs, and Lee and I jumped right in.
RS: But Padula didn’t know your work!
CS: He’d seen Shoestring Revue off Broadway, to which Lee and I had contributed some material, and he liked it. That was material that we’d developed at Green Mansions (RS: a sort of summer camp for musical theatre writers, in the Catskills, where they wrote a musical a week, and saw it staged immediately, the best practical training a young writer could get).
— One had to remember that Ed Padula had no producing credits either, so the bigger name teams would not likely have been eager to join him on something as nebulous as a partial script, a hope and a prayer, for that’s all he had to offer when he took on Adams and Strouse.
RS: Though you and Lee Adams proved to be a marvelous team, you’ve worked with half a dozen other lyricists. How is it you didn’t write exclusively with him in the tradition of Kander and Ebb, Jones and Schmidt, and even Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein?
CS: Lee is less driven than I. He likes to travel, and read. He doesn’t have the need, as I do, to keep at it – all the time. I mean, if I were to stop composing, what would I do? I’d be wandering around in a bathrobe and slippers.
— And on second thought, I realized that the likes of Richard Rodgers (once his collaborators had died on him) worked with many lyricists too, and Burton Lane, Jule Styne, Albert Hague, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Marvin Hamlisch and others had changed partners many times too. But still, I wondered how all that partner changing felt.
RS: Well, as you wrote with Martin Charnin (Annie), Alan Lerner (Dance A Little Closer), Stephen Schwartz (Rags), David Rogers (Flowers for Algernon), Richard Maltby (Nick & Nora) and others, was it a big adjustment for you each time you started with a new collaborator? Who was the most difficult partner?
CS: The only difficult partner was not a lyricist. He was Arthur Laurents, who did the book and directed Nick & Nora. He hated me!
Oops. I thought I’d better stay away from there.
RS: But Alan Lerner, brilliant as he was, was known as trouble to some of his composers. They found him lazy and irresponsible.
CS: It depended on how you took Alan. I loved him., and the fact that he broke appointments, that he told little untruths, didn’t bother me at all. His work was so fine it made it all ok with me. All I remember of Alan are tuna fish sandwiches we shared at the Russian Tea Room.
Leonard Bernstein (he wrote 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with Lerner) said to me; “How can you stand it??? I had to rent a canoe to go out to Alan’s yacht to get him to finish a lyric! Can you see me paddling across the Gulf of Trieste? You must have the patience of Job!” I did find Alan slow but responsible, and I loved him. I enjoyed all of my partners. It was sort of like having several morally right affairs, because Lee Adams didn’t mind, so I enjoyed them all. I met Fred Tobias at a poker game, we liked each other, one night when our game was cancelled, one of us suggested we write a song on the unexpected evening off. We did, it was called “Born Too Late” and it was the first big hit I ever had. It took us 10-20 minutes to write.
RS: Have you ever had to write a lyric on your own?
CS: Oh, not only ‘had to’, I chose to. That was on Mayor (the Ed Koch story, based on his own memoir), for which the lyrics got terrific notices.
RS: How do you manage to keep one of your unproduced works alive? You’ve said you still have high hopes that Marty (based on the Paddy Chayefsky film) will have a second chance (it was done once, regionally).
CS: Well, two things keep it alive. A good group of people saw it in Boston, where it had fine notices and did big business. Also the performance of John C. Reilly in the title role is so magnificent that, as his star rises, he becomes a name that may help. We’ve already been offered a production and a Broadway theatre, but Mark Brokaw (the director) and I have had some disagreement over the size of the show, we are working that out. We have a tentative offer to see the show again in a Theatre Under the Stars (I can’t say which until the offer is firm) but there we’d have to go without Mr. Reilly because he and I want to keep the show intimate.
— I’d been thinking that it was unusual that he’d never had an agent, that he’d entrusted all his properties to a family trust administered by his oldest son Ben, who engages people to seek and follow through on leads for possible productions. Odd, but interesting, as that’s the role agents are supposed to play. It’s almost like Dad makes a product, and son markets it. What’s odd is that Dad writes scores to Broadway musicals, enough of them hits to make the Strouse oeuvre a very valuable one. Strouse went on:
CS: No agent ever really asked me to be a client, except a lady called Ginger (Jane) Chodorov at William Morris and when I read the contract that agency offered, which bound me to ten percent up to and beyond the grave, I decided to manage my properties on my own.
— When I explained that Jerry Herman, for example, had been represented by William Morris through his entire career, that John Kander and Fred Ebb had been my clients through my entire agency career and their works were still represented by ICM, the agency that took over when I left the field, Charles felt that as they were single men, their needs were different. Charles seemed to think that if you were a family man, and there was a lot of money that might be earned long into the future, long after his own departure, it was better to have the family involved in the control and disposition of performing rights to his many properties. I would think that handling at least a dozen musicals would be difficult for someone not functioning 24/7 in that business, but I expect all the major shows are represented in the stock, amateur and foreign fields by one of the licensing agencies (like Samuel French or Music Theatre International, etc.) so Ben Strouse would only be in charge of new first class productions, like the one hoped for on Marty as well as that for Minsky’s, a work that’s been ‘in progress’ for years. As Charles is now celebrating his 80th year, I asked:
RS: What of the future?
CS: I’m working on a number of new shows. I’m doing one with Susan Birkenhead and Bob Martin called Minsky’s which will open at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles [Jan 21 – Mar 1] produced by Bob Boyett, to be directed by Casey Nicolaw. There are two others that I can’t yet crack, but I love to work.
RS; Let’s talk about Applause. I was around that show a lot early on, as I represented Ron Field (who directed and choreographed it).
CS: I loved Ron Field. He was smart as hell. But he had a wicked tongue.
RS: I hated watching him slide down hill in his later years, because he was so desperate to emulate Michael Bennett, who had been his disciple. The choices Ron made were very much his own and he took himself into areas in which he wasn’t comfortable (on Sherry and King of Hearts for example).
CS: The business is full of people climbing all over other people. Ron had a very down opinion of himself; he had outer bravado, but great inner insecurity.
CS: I did one at the Paley Center and they’ve asked me to do another. I’m going to Detroit next week. I’d like it to get to libraries and colleges. But my publisher (Union Square Press) sent someone to my appearances at Barnes and Noble, someone who never introduced himself to me, so I’ve never met my publisher! I still don’t know who he is.
RS: Have you been reading other books on your time in the theatre? There’s been so much written and now with your own book, you’ve created a fine addition to the history of the “golden age” where you’ve spent most of your career.
CS: No, I don’t seem to care about that. I certainly didn’t think anyone would be interested in my story. It was a fantasy when I wrote it, but when it was accepted for publication, I thought “well, there should be 100,000 people across the country who might be curious.”
RS: That’s a lot! But those who read it will enjoy it and it will be on library shelves.
CS: No, I figured at least 100,000 from the millions who bought the albums for Annie and Applause and Birdie and Golden Boy would all be potential buyers.
RS: Well, I hope you’re right. But don’t worry about that. The point is your story is now between covers, and available to all.
— As I was about to conclude our talk, I looked around the room and studied the dozen posters, photos, playbills hung among the memorabilia of a long career. The flops were not hidden – there they were – all his ‘children’ were treated equally – and I commented on Bring Back Birdie, which played four performances in l981, in the same theatre in which the original Birdie had triumphed.
CS: Oh, that was such a sad one. I thought it was wonderful. But everyone was fighting. Joe Layton was fighting with everyone, Mike Stewart was fighting. Chita missed Dick Van Dyke, even though she never said a word against his replacement, Donald O’Connor.
— We moved on to The Visit, the Kander and Ebb musical that recently starred Rivera at the Signature in your D.C. area. I was hoping it would find a producer to move it to New York.
CS: I don’t know who the audience is for musicals any more.
RS: Well, you mustn’t concern yourself with that. You should write what catches your interest, and better still, your passion.
CS: It’s true. No one believed in the original Birdie, except the group of us who were putting it on. It was almost impossible to finance, and that was in the days when a musical cost so much less to mount than today.
— It fascinated me that Charles Strouse knew so little about how that show did in fact finally get on. He’d thought it was solely a man named Slade Brown who came in and financed it entirely. I told him of my own personal knowledge of little groups of investors (I knew, because I had formed one of my own). He didn’t know that a client of mine, Alvin Colt, had turned down the offer to design the costumes, preferring instead to do those for Christine, a musical on the same schedule, one that starred (very briefly) Maureen O’Hara. He thought that the dozens of auditions he and Adams had played for potential investors had raised no money at all, whereas half the capital came from them, raised in nickels and dimes.
He didn’t seem to be aware that The Visit had been at the Signature, or that it had had an earlier production in Chicago at the Goodman, or that Chita Rivera had starred in both versions. Clearly this is a dedicated composer, who survives, and thrives, on writing music, one who does not read the theatre columns, has no idea of the business side of his business. He is one shoemaker who sticks to his last, and continues to do so most productively at 80. In his quiet and unassuming way he has made a major contribution over the years to musical theatre in America, and I recommend you read his “Put On A Happy Face” to learn more about his remarkable career.
To let you know just how productive he’s been, and how success has mingled with failure without in any way diminishing his passion for work, here is a complete list of the musicals to which he’s contributed, mostly of course as composer, but in some specified cases as lyricist and even as bookwriter.
All American, Annie 2, Annie Warbucks, Annie, Applause, Bojangles, Bring Back Birdie, A Broadway Musical, By Strouse, Bye Bye Birdie, Charlie and Algernon, Dance a Little Closer, Golden Boy, I and Albert, It’s a Bird..It’s a Plane..It’s Superman, Marty, Nick and Nora, Rags, Shoestring Revue.
In addition, he wrote music and lyrics for
Real Men, Mayor and book, music and lyrics for Lyle the Crocodile, Nightingale, Six and You Never Know.
And more. The following musicals were written, but so far have not been produced: An American Tragedy, Charlotte’s Web, Palm Beach, Santa Claus Meets Sherlock Holmes, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Minsky’s (a reconceived rewrite of its source).
- DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Interviews with and about Chita Rivera, Love and Love Alone
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff