- The Nervous Set
"The Nervous Set", the jazz musical born in
St. Louis’ legendary Gaslight Squareentertainment district in 1959, described the Beat Generation, the young people in post-World War II, pre-Vietnam America, swimming in disillusioned angst and apathy, angry, poetic and nihilistic. But this was not a musical about the Beats; this was a "Beat Musical", funny, biting, outrageous, despairing, and brilliantly witty. Stubbornly refusing to give the audience a boffo finale, refusing even to offer them people to care about or the satisfaction of applause, doggedly determined to offend, discomfort, even repel now and then.
But even through the haze of verbal and emotional fog, "The Nervous Set" is also truthful, a serious social document, a record of a time and place that should never be forgotten, when America had lost its way and lost track of what’s important. It is a loving evocation of the
Beat Generation, with all its warts and contradictions, all its nihilism and its earth-shattering realignment of modern literature and poetry. Everyone knows about the hippies, but how many people know where the hippies came from? The Nervous Set shines the light once again on some of America’s true giants, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg(who had been friends since 1944), John Clellon Holmes, and Jay Landesman. And interestingly, Ginsberg and his mentor William Burroughswere both from St. Louis, where "The Nervous Set" first premiered, and Beat jazz trumpeter Miles Daviswas from East St. Louis. In 1950, when "The Nervous Set" is set, Ginsberg was twenty-three and Kerouac was twenty-eight.
"The Nervous Set" opened on March 10, 1959, in a three hundred seat saloon-theatre-club called the Crystal Palace, in the heart of the
Gaslight Squareentertainment district in St. Louis. Strange as it might seem to those who weren’t there, for almost a decade in the late fifties and early sixties, Gaslight Squarewas an international mecca for Beat writers, up-and-coming comedians, and jazz musicians, like yet-to-be-stars Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Mike Nicholsand Elaine May, Alan Arkin, and so many others. Jay had discovered the Compass Players, an improv troupe, in Chicago, and had invited some of them, under the direction of Theodore Flicker, to come to the Crystal Palace as a resident company. Among the players were Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Del Close. Nichols would go on to become one of the top theatre and film directors. May would become a top playwright. Later on, the Compass Players would morph into the Second Cityimprov company in Chicago. And even later, when Second City strayed from pure improv, Del Close would leave and start the Improv Olympics, which has since become world famous. Artists from around the world descended upon St. Louis to meet and learn from each other, and at the center of this artistic storm were Jay and Fran Landesman, proprietors of the Crystal Palace, the generally acknowledged stars of Gaslight Square and, some claim, founders -- or at least early nurturers -- of the Beat culture.
An extensive background and analysis essay about the stage show is online at http://www.newlinetheatre.com/hifichapter.html cite web|last=Miller|first=Scott|title="Inside The Nervous Set"|publisher="New Line Theatre"|date=
Jary Landesman, writer and publisher of the literary magazine "Neurotica", had written a basically autobiographical novel – never published – called "The Nervous Set", loosely based on his own life in New York and his relationships with Fran, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Holmes, and others literary icons. Talking about writing the book, Landesman wrote, “My story was a very small canvas, an insider’s view of the flotsam and jetsam of the intellectual life that I was a part of. All I had in the beginning was the opening line, ‘You can’t stay married if you want to make it in New York,’ the title The Nervous Set, and a regular schedule.”
When the idea emerged to make it into a musical, everyone agreed it was a good idea – Jay wrote the script with some judicious editing and shaping by Flicker, who also directed, Fran wrote lyrics, and the house music director at the Crystal Palace,
Tommy Wolf, wrote the music. In later years, Flicker would claim he had written every word of the script with no help from Jay, and that he was cheated out of his sole authorship credit – and out of part ownership in the Crystal Palace – along with a whole catalog of other wrongs. No one has ever been able to confirm this.
"The Nervous Set" was a huge hit in St. Louis, despite its three hour, forty-five minute running time. The original cast included Don Heller, Arlene Corwin,
Tom Aldredge, Del Close, Janice Meshkoff, and Barry Primus. Aldredge and Close would continue their roles later on Broadway. Aldredge would go on to a healthy Broadway career in shows like Into the Woods, Passion, and others. And Aldredge’s wife, Theoni Aldredge, designed the original St. Louis costumes, before going on to become one of the top costumers on Broadway. The St. Louis set was designed by local artist Dave Moon. Varietyreviewed the St. Louis production: “"The Nervous Set", a locally written musical comedy, premiered at the Crystal Palace saloon-theatre to ecstatic packed house enthusiasm. The Nervous Set deals with the beat generation, sometimes tenderly, sometimes spicily, sometimes hilariously, but always entertainingly… The show has some twenty tunes, tailored to the assorted beatniks, squares, and snobs who populate the three acts.”
In the spring of 1959, producer Robert Lantz saw the show and decided to bring it to Broadway. The New York cast included Richard Hayes, Tani Seitz,
Larry Hagman, Gerald Hiken, David Sallade, Del Close, Janice Meshkoff, and Tom Aldredge. Heller, Corwin, and Primus, from St. Louis, were demoted to the chorus. The show proved too weird for Broadway, with its smartly cynical, literary, abrasively intellectual script, its existential angst, its four-piece jazz combo onstage, its lack of choreography, and its general lack of interest in any of the conventions of the Broadway musical, and it turned out to be a flop.
Perhaps had it opened ten years later, it would have run longer. But in 1959, it could only eke out twenty-three performances, essentially robbing it of a further life in regional and community theatres. Today, it may not seem as radical at it once did, but imagine a show like this opening in a season with
Once Upon a Mattress, Destry Rides Again, Gypsy, Fiorello!, and The Sound of Music. At the time, Jay said, “Some [of the audience] hated the subject, hated beatniks, and it colored their reaction. Some who liked the idea wanted us to go into a serious, psycho-socio-economic analysis of the beatnik attitude. Our idea was simply a fun show. But I don’t think the average New York paying audience is as sophisticated as the ones we had at the Crystal Palace. They didn’t seem to get half the satire.”
Critical reception to "The Nervous Set" on Broadway was decidedly mixed. Brooks Atkinson in the
New York Timeswrote, “Although the physical production is slight, the point of view is sharp in The Nervous Set, which opened at Henry Miller’s last evening. In both words and music it has a shrewd slant on contemporary attitudes. It is a cartoon on the beatniks that comes to us from St. Louis, where it happily shook the chandeliers in the Crystal Palace until a fortnight ago. Nothing on the local music stages this season has been so acid and adult as the wry portrait of Greenwich Village beatniks it offers when the show begins.” He went on, “No doubt the well-being of the nation requires a wholesome resolution to the story. But the ending cannot hold a candle to the impudence of the first act, written in the wild argot of the civilized beatnik and tightened by the ominous jazz rhythms of the music. In their opening numbers, the composer and the lyricist write with tongue in cheek. “The Stars Have Blown My Way’ is an intimidated romance. ‘Fun Life’ is a happy elegy. ‘Rejection’ is an exuberant hymn to mental sickness. ‘Night People’ is an ode to dissipation. ‘New York’ is the most caustic comment on our loose civilization since On the Town.”
The review in
Saturday Reviewbegan with, “Man, The Nervous Set really jumps.” And it ends with, “Despite its imperfections – which probably seem greater because this is an off-Broadway show in a Broadway house – every alert theatre-goer will want to dig The Nervous Set.” The New York Daily Newscalled the show “the most brilliant, sophisticated, witty and completely novel production of the past decade.” But Frank Ashton in the World-Telegram & Suncalled it “a weird experience. Something exclusively for the beat, bop, and beret brigade.” Robert Coleman in the Daily Mirrorcalled it “a nerve-wracking musical.” Whitney Bolton in the Morning Telegraphwrote, “What The Nervous Set does is to show that the Beat, for all their weird jargon and sometimes appalling manners, are only a few economic inches removed from perfectly average living. They are no mockers of suburban life, wall to wall carpeting, electric appliances and push-button motoring than is anyone else. They are only more articulate and acid… Their Beatism is as thin a tissue and as easily punctured.” Missing the point the most of all of them was Walter Kerr in the Herald-Tribune, who said, “There is nothing here that Cole Porter couldn’t have done twenty times better, while well dressed.” There’s nothing like judging a show for not being something it never intended to be. No doubt if the show’s creators had written something worthy of Porter’s frivolous, smart-set musicals, they would’ve beaten themselves to death with a book of Ginsberg poetry. "The Nervous Set" creative team would go on to write one more show, "A Walk on the Wild Side", set in a whorehouse, but even the audiences at the Crystal Palace weren’t ready for that and it closed quickly. They never wrote another musical.
Still, a Parisian producer invited the Landesmans to bring "The Nervous Set" on a tour of “
Iron Curtain” countries, but the tour never happened. Legendary composer Richard Rodgerscalled the Landesmans to congratulate them after seeing the show. Jay said, “Rodgers was extremely generous and complimentary to Fran and Tommy Wolf, the composer. He told them this show would be remembered for years for its talent, and if it didn’t do anything else, it had brought a talented team of songwriters to Broadway. He insisted on composer Leonard Bernstein coming to see it.” Rodgers offered to give Lantz a rave quote to use in newspaper ads.
Even though the darkness of the subject matter was tempered with abundant humor, it was still a very cynical, satirical kind of humor. It was inescapably something very new to musical theatre, a kind of show that would not become a part of the art form until the later 1960s and 1970s when
Stephen Sondheimand Harold Princemade the adult concept musical the norm. In addition to everything else, Tommy Wolf’s music for "The Nervous Set" was genuine, full-flavored jazz, a sound never yet heard on Broadway, and only rarely heard afterward. Unfortunately, the show’s original showstopper, the torchy “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” had already been recorded by several jazz artists and, for complicated contractual reasons, couldn’t be included in the Broadway production or be recorded on the cast album. Another song from the score, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” had some life outside the show as well, but “Spring” became a jazz standard and is still performed today. George Frazier wrote in Esquiremagazine, “Talking about style, [songwriters] Comden and Greenare delicatessen, for Christ’s sake, and as for Leonard Bernstein, you can have him tax free and gift wrapped. But if it’s style you’re looking for, then listen to the wonders that Fran Landesmanand Tommy Wolfhave wrought.” More recently, The London Observercalled Fran “the poet laureate of the borderland between urban hipness and emotional insecurity.”
The show was brought back to life in 2004 by
New Line Theatrein St. Louis. Peter Filichia wrote for TheaterMania.com, “Many times, I've traveled thousands of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to see obscure musicals, but catching "The Nervous Set" at New Line turned out to be the most valuable theatrical pilgrimage I've ever made.” Steve Callahan of KDHX-FM, said, “God bless [director Scott] Miller for letting us see this odd bit of history. And bless him for the continuing adventure that is New Line Theatre.” John Shepherd of Playback STL, wrote, “It's difficult not to get drawn into the idealism and hypocrisy of a group of young, disillusioned, brilliant show-offs. Bitterly funny irony and far-ahead-of-its-time social commentary.” Judith Newmark of the St. Louis Post Dispatchsaid, “The songs, by composer Tommy Wolf and lyricist Fran Landesman, are the engine of "The Nervous Set", driving us through the narrow streets of Greenwich Village and to a few other outposts of greater New York... Today, we're inclined to see the Beats – with their skepticism about consumerism society and their embrace of 'far-out' ideas in an era that valued conformity – as cultural heroes. But The Nervous Set reminds us of some of the less attractive aspects of Beat culture: its thoughtless sexism (men pursue ideas, women work to support them and lie down to please them), its arrant homophobia and its self-destructive addictions.”
The story of "The Nervous Set" varied greatly among the several versions of the show written and rewritten over the years. Major character songs switched back and forth between Brad and Jan. Minor characters came and went. Events in the story were shuffled and reshuffled. This chapter will focus on the show in its original version, as it was when it played in Gaslight Square; later versions diminished the artistry of this odd story. Like the novel, the musical The Nervous Set tells two parallel stories. In the central story, Brad (aka Jay Landesman) is the editor of a literary magazine called Nerves (based on Landesman’s real life magazine Neurotica), and he meets a rich girl named Jan (an amusing blend of “Jay” and “Fran”) in
Washington Square, the historic hangout for the Beats and, later, the Hippies. From the first few lines, the show tells us exactly what’s going to happen. Brad says to Jan, “Hang around here long enough, you’ll become one of us creeps.” And that’s precisely the story the show will tell – Jan will marry Brad and she will become one of the “creeps,” one of the Beats, sad, lonely, cynical, dissatisfied, disconnected. Through the character of Jan we will witness the downward spiral that so many of the Beats went through.
Partly because they come from different worlds, Brad and Jan have a very rough time of making their marriage work, particularly later as they realize they’ve become bored with the overly intellectual, self-involved world of the New York Beats, and as they realize that world is destroying their relationship. In the other, connected plotline, a overbearing bore named Yogi (based on the real life Gershon Legman, who Jay once said reminded him of Captain Queeg) comes into Brad and Jan’s lives and takes over Nerves, nearly running it into the ground – and nearly destroying Brad and Jan’s marriage – before Brad gives him the boot.
As Act One comes to a close, Brad sings the show’s anthem, “Night People,” a tribute to Jean Shepherd, writer and radio DJ, who hosted an all-night radio show in New York starting in the mid-1950s and continuing into the 1970s. Shepherd more or less invented the terms night people and day people, and he defined the two groups this way: “There's a great body of people who flower at night, who feel night is their time. Night is the time people truly become individuals, because all the familiar things are dark and done, all the restrictions on freedom are removed. Many artists work at night – it is particularly conducive to creative work. Many of us attuned to night are not artists but are embattled against the official, organized, righteous day people who are completely bound by their switchboards and their red tape… Night people like the quiet darkness; day people are terrified at suddenly becoming individuals, afraid to let the mind probe into unknown areas.” As with the rest of The Nervous Set, the Landesmans captured the zeitgeist of their times and preserved it forever in a surprisingly honest fashion.
In the original novel and in the original St. Louis version of "The Nervous Set", the story ended with Jan attempting suicide while Brad is out at a party. But the ending was eventually cheered up for Broadway. Along the way, Brad’s Beat buddies, Bummy Carwell (based on Kerouac and Holmes, with a last name that slyly refers to Kerouac’s famous automotive crisscrossing of America) and Danny (based on Ginsberg and Anatole Broyard) also have their adventures in their own interlocking orbits. "The Nervous Set" novel told the same larger story about the same group of friends as two more famous novels, John Clellon Holmes’ "Go" and Chandler Brossard’s "Who Walk in Darkness". Though a later version of the script focused more on the Beat culture itself, trying to invoke that time with lots of references and jokes much the way "
Grease" did, the script Jay and Flicker originally wrote used the Beat culture more as milieu, as atmosphere, and in a way, as antagonist. The clear focus of the story was Brad and Jan and their attempts to make a conventional marriage work in a very unconventional world.
"The Nervous Set" is largely true. Events have been telescoped, some characters are composites, but most of the people and events really happened in the early 1950s. For example, in "The Nervous Set", Bummy finds unexpected commercial success for his novel, mirroring the real world phenomenon of Kerouac’s "On the Road". And, as in the show, Kerouac had actually asked Landesman to publish his book, but Legman wouldn’t allow it. Interestingly, "On the Road" became a ubiquitous symbol not just of the Beats’ feelings of disengagement with the larger culture, but also of the profound physical changes in America brought on by the revolutionary Interstate Highway Act, which created ribbons of highways all across America, making it easier and faster than ever before to cross the country, bringing the country closer together, shrinking distances in a very real way. The poet Anatole Broyard taught at the New School, and actually tutored a millionaire poet named Hy Sobiloff. Kerouac did actually flirt with Fran.
All meterial quoted with permission from
Scott Miller's article, [http://www.newlinetheatre.com/nervoussetpage.html "Inside The Nervous Set"] , from his upcoming book "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals". [cite web|last=Miller|first=Scott|title="Inside The Nervous Set"|publisher="New Line Theatre"|date= 2005-03-10|url=http://www.newlinetheatre.com/nervoussetchapter.html|accessdate=2008-07-10]
*Ibdb title|id=2742|title=The Nervous Set
* [http://www.newlinetheatre.com/nervoussetpage.html New Line Theatre's Nervous Set webpage ]
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