Steinbeck Studies 15.2 (2004) 117-128
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Pipe Dream Memories
In 1985, I appeared in a production of Arsenic and Old Lace at the Forestburgh Playhouse in New York that starred Jayne Heller as one of the kindly, murderous old ladies. When I encountered Jayne at a reunion of actors who'd worked at Forestburgh recently, we shared stories of what we'd been working on and what jobs were in the offing. I told her about "Steinbeck and the Land," a piece I had put together to help commemorate the centennial of Steinbeck's birth and that I hoped to develop into an educational piece that I could tour to schools. Jayne listened, smiled, and said, "Oh, I really liked John Steinbeck."
"Did you know him?"
"Have you ever heard of a musical called Pipe Dream?"
"Well, I was in it."
"Tell me about your experience," I asked. But it was impossible to talk in-depth at the party and we made arrangements to get together in the near future when we could speak without interruption. Meeting several months later at her Manhattan Plaza apartment in New York, we sat down with her husband, Les, who accompanied her to many of the rehearsals and performances, and talked about the show.
With book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Jr. and music by Richard Rodgers, Pipe Dream is the musical version of John [End Page 117] Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday. It opened at the Shubert Theatre on 30 November 1955, ran for 246 performances, and had the shortest run of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Starring in the production was the Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel as Fauna, William Johnson as Doc, Judy Tyler as Suzy, Mike Kellin as Hazel, and G.D. Wallace as Mac. Directed by Harold Clurman, the production had sets and lighting by Jo Mielziner and costumes by Alvin Colt.
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According to The Best Plays of 1955-1956, The Burns Mantle Yearbook, 1956 "was a very good season.... [D]uring such a season, the play reviewer could derive real enjoyment from his playgoing; could take a certain actual pride in his job" (3). It was a period of prosperity in the country and in the theater in general. And it seemed to Kronenberger that "besides those producers offering popular work at a respectable level and those concerned with box-office at all costs, there were others who cared about the quality of what they produced; and that there were those who—at least with other people's money—were really willing to take a chance" (3). (And when in one season people bring a Tiger at the Gates, a Chalk Garden, and Waiting for Godot to Broadway they can't help creating [End Page 118] an atmosphere that must infect other producers.)
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Some of the other shows that opened during the 1955-56 season were Bus Stop with Kim Stanley and Elaine Stritch; The Lark with Julie Harris; A Hatful of Rain with Shelley Winters; The Desk Set with Shirley Booth; No Time for Sergeants with Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Roddy McDowell; The Diary of Anne Frank with Susan Strasberg; A View from the Bridge with Leo Penn, Eileen Heckart, and Van Heflin; a revival of The Skin of Our Teeth with Mary Martin, George Abbot, and Helen Hayes; Inherit the Wind with Paul Muni and Ed Begley; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, Mildred Dunnock, and Burl Ives; Damn Yankees with Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston; and My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.
The arrival of a new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on Broadway was a significant event, and critics were waiting for it, waiting to compare it to their past works including Oklahoma!,Carousel, and South Pacific. When it opened, the reviews for Pipe Dream were respectful but far from glowing.
With such great talent behind it, why wasn't Pipe Dream a success? According to Kronenberger, "Pipe Dream whitewashed what...