Steinbeck Studies 15.2 (2004) 107-116
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"Stupid Sons of Fishes"
Shared Values in John Steinbeck and the Musical Stage
It was at a conference venue some years ago that I had the temerity to disagree publicly with another scholar and in his presence. I refer to John Steinbeck's distinguished and genial biographer, Jackson J. Benson. My point of demurral concerned Benson's characterization of the Broadway musical comedy, as it was generally called before the era of Stephen Sondheim, as being sentimental and overtly rosy in its view of the human condition. With some years of record reviewing behind me by then, and a longtime interest in the Broadway musical before that, I tried to make the point that the most successful musicals combined sentiment with often darker and more serious concerns, a balance both Benson and I would recognize, curiously enough, in the work of John Steinbeck, against whom the same charges were so often laid.
With this peaceable encounter in mind, then, I decided to explore the points in common that Steinbeck's writings evince alongside the celebrated musicals of the '40s, '50s, and early '60s—the period after Steinbeck moved to the East and wrote the books many have most frequently attacked in just the terms already mentioned. After making his move, Steinbeck made friendships among celebrated figures of the Broadway stage, just as he had earlier socialized with Hollywood types. I refer specifically to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and also to Frank Loesser, whose finest works coincide in time frame with John Steinbeck's adaptation to New York. Just as these composers and librettists have had their creations [End Page 107] see frequent revivals in recent years, John Steinbeck's writings have not gone out of print. Might the reason lie in those shared values, and would that be a terrible thing?
Those values, not usual for the times, involve a belief in the redemptive worth of the individual in a democratic society, a trust in ordinariness, and an acceptance of homely truths undistorted by reckless ambition or perverted by naked self-interest; they require a social accommodation with a spiritual dimension eschewing cynicism, on the one hand, and sentimentality on the other. They also involve achieving a balance of an existence unafraid of having mediocrity and anonymity as neighbors.
Steinbeck met Frank Loesser, Benson reports, in 1939, when Steinbeck was beginning an affair with Gwen/Gwyn Conger, which would turn into his truncated second marriage (Benson 405); like Gwen, Loesser's first wife, Lynn, was a singer, and through her the writer was introduced to her husband, Frank, not yet famous as a Broadway composer. At the end of Steinbeck's marriage to Gwyn a decade later, history repeated itself when future third wife, Elaine Scott, began introducing Steinbeck to her New York friends, among them Rodgers and Hammerstein (655). By some sort of fortunate timing, Steinbeck was just finishing the play he eventually called Burning Bright, which Rodgers acquired the rights to in his function as producer (657). And shortly before, he had been to an all-star party given in Ethel Barrymore's honor where he again saw Loesser, with whom he had never been out of touch (656). On reflection, it seems unsurprising that these representative American artists should have drifted into one another's company as the tensions of wartime were replaced by the perils of peace and the temptations of excess.
Six years before, Rodgers and Hammerstein had supposedly revolutionized the Broadway musical by staging a show with a music-integrated plot and integral dance numbers, Oklahoma! The distinction is dubious, as Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had done something of the sort in the 1940s Pal Joey, and many would take the title back a generation to Jerome Kern's Show Boat. More to the point is the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein had, half a dozen years before meeting Steinbeck, brought before wartime audiences a musical that celebrated America's soon-to-be forty-sixth state (as of the time...