Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mercy Mild

Read at Story Salon, 20 December
The Al Herschfeld cartoon of "My Favorite Year" as it appeared in The New York Times the week before the show opened in 1992.

Between 1988 and 1992 I worked with two incredibly talented people developing a stage musical version of the movie My Favorite Year. The two people are Lynn Ahrens, lyrics, and Stephen Flahrety, music, best known for Ragtime. Working with them remains the best creative experience I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve had a couple of good ones. Lincoln Center refurbished the Vivian Beaumont Theatre for us, poured in a ton of money. We opened on December 10, 1992 and we were critically keel-hauled.

I’m prejudiced, but I’m telling you we didn’t deserve the bad reviews which to this day I have not read, because critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done because they see it every night, but they still can’t do it themselves.

It was the worst reception anything I’d ever written received and it was the worst dismissal of me, personally, as a writer I’d ever experienced.

The day after we opened it was a rainy, cold, ugly day in New York and I walked from where I was living at the time on Fourth Street pretty much all the way up to Lincoln Center on Sixty-fifth. I couldn’t talk to anybody, not my family, not my friends, nobody. I went to the movies. I went to a theater across from Lincoln Center to see Federico Fellini’s Intervista. As I was buying my ticket they told me the movie would be shown, but that I should know that because of the rain the auditorium was slightly flooded. It seemed completely appropriate for me to sit with a handful of strangers on a cold December morning, my boots in three inches of standing rain water, watching a Fellini movie.

After the movie I went across to the Vivian Beaumont where I ran into the director of the play who was on his way to the airport. He was leaving the country.

I collected my opening night gifts, told the house manager I’d be back for the evening performance and went home.

I operated in a sort of traumatized trance for the next two weeks, finally breaking down in a hotel room in Syracuse, New York on Christmas morning. I was there to spend the holidays with my first set of in-laws. Ten o’clock Christmas morning and I turn on the television in the hotel room and somebody’s running my favorite Preston Sturges movie, Unfaithfully Yours. I love Sturges, I love this movie, I aspire to this movie, but sitting there in front of the television I realized something I’d always known on an intellectual level but had never experienced on an emotional one: that this was the movie that ended Sturges’s career. This beautiful picture failed so spectacularly when it was released, was so completely misunderstood and dismissed that Sturges never made another major picture. He died in the Algonquin Hotel nine years later, working on his autobiography. And for the first time I made the connection I’d been blind to: The work I was trying to do was the sort of work that gets you thrown out of town. And I just started to cry. I wept, sitting there on the foot of the bed, I just bawled like a baby.

Mind you, the musical of My Favorite Year has survived. It has been done with some regularity by regional and amateur theatre companies for more than a decade, and Lynn and Stephen and I just spent time in New York continuing to work on a revised version of the show with an eye toward a production in 2008.

But all of that was a long way from that Syracuse Hotel room on Christmas morning.

Two nights before flying to Syracuse I’d been at the last pre-Christmas performance of my musical which everybody knew would close on January 10. The house was full, people seemed to be enjoying themselves in spite of the notices.

During the Christmas season on Broadway, the casts of the different shows rush out to the lobbies of their respective theaters after curtain calls and carol to the audience members, soliciting funds for Broadway Cares. That’s what the twenty-five members of the My Favorite Year cast did that night, still in costume.

There is a gallery at the Vivian Beaumont that overlooks the lobby. That’s where I was standing when they started to sing Christmas carols.

They sang Silver Bells and Silent Night. And then they sang my favorite, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. There's a phrase in that one that slices through me every time I hear it: “Peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.” Lyrics by Charles Wesley, music by Felix Mendelssohn.

I’d love to tell you I was uplifted in the moment, that I looked down at those people who a few minutes earlier had been telling my jokes and singing Lynn and Stephen’s songs and felt restored, washed clean of all the toxic criticism and judgment. But if I told you that, you’d know I was yanking you. If that was true, why-for the weeping in front of the Sturges movie a few days later?

One of life’s great lessons is that we don’t always get the experiences we need in the order we think we need them. We have to collect seeming random events in an emotional junk drawer and put them together later, if we’re lucky.

Now I think the weeping made me ready for what I eventually understood as the meaning of the carols in the lobby. It was a slow, painful, organic process, like recovering from major surgery. And when you do recover, you’re life is different.

As Mr. Farren has said, and I have paraphrased in order to avoid legal action, “What doesn’t kill us, hurts for a long time.”

But do not be afraid. Because I bring you tidings of great joy that will be for all people: No one ever died from a bad review. And tis better to have written Unfaithfully Yours and die in the Algonquin Hotel than never to have written Unfaithfully Yours at all.



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