Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
This Sunday, an estimated six million theater lovers will gather around their television sets for the live broadcast of the 67th Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards, the annual event honoring Broadway theater presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League. Child-star turned Broadway champion Neil Patrick Harris will host for his third consecutive year, no doubt delivering an opening number that will dazzle with both wit and jazz hands. I will be one of those six million, but Tony time for me is always bittersweet. As much as I enjoy the celebration of theater, the awards remind me of all the things I did not get out to see. This year, my biggest regret is Golden Boy. With eight nominations, it is the most nominated play this season, and it closed this past January. There is some consolation , however, in using the Theater Collection of the City Museum to look back at the original production and its musical adaptation.
Opening at the Belasco Theatre on November 4, 1937, Golden Boy was the fifth full-length play from Clifford Odets produced by the Group Theatre of which Odets was an integral part. The play starred Luther Adler as Joe Bonaparte, a young man gifted both as a boxer and violinist. The action revolves around Joe’s struggle between a life of fulfillment as a musician or the fame and fortune to be found in the ring. The latter dream cannot occur without grave risk to the former. Along the way, Joe falls in love with Lorna Moon (played by Frances Farmer), the girlfriend of his manager. The original production ran for 250 performances. It was directed by Harold Clurman, one of the founders of the Group Theatre, with assistance by company member Stanford Miesner. Golden Boy was the company’s biggest hit. The show made enough money to support the company’s next two seasons. In the wake of their success, several members of the Group felt the allure of Hollywood. Odets’s own experience on the golden coast of California served in part to inspire Joe Bonaparte’s struggle.The original production ran before the American Theatre Wing had conceived the notion of an award named in the memory of actress and director Antoinette Perry. In addition to Adler and Farmer, the cast included Morris Carnovsky as Joe’s father and Lee J. Cobb in a small role. Cobb would later go on to star in the original production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which won eight Tonys in 1949 at the second Antoinette Perry Awards. That production was directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan is perhaps best known for his work as a film director, but in 1937 he was an actor with the Group Theatre and part of the original Golden Boy cast. (He’s the mug leaning against the wall in the scene below.) Lee J. Cobb would return to Golden Boy, starring as Joe’s father, in the 1952 revival. Joe Bonaparte was played by John Garfield who had actually left his small part in the original run of the show to pursue a career in Hollywood. In 1937, Garfield was frustrated when the leading role Odets promised him was given instead to Luther Adler. He finally got his shot in 1952. The show ran just 50 performances. It garnered no Tony mentions, and it proved to be Garfield’s last work. He died less than two months later.
Until this season’s offering, the 1952 production was the only revival since the original production. However, in 1964 a musical adaptation starring Sammy Davis, Jr. opened at the Majestic Theatre.
The devil-may-care attitude displayed on the above souvenir program belies the true action of Golden Boy the musical. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams composed music and lyrics for the show. Odets wrote the first version of the book, but his death in 1961 led to playwright William Gibson working on the script during the show’s out of town previews. The time frame was updated to the mid-1960s, and the lead character of Joe was re-worked with Sammy Davis, Jr. in mind.
Despite his perhaps unlikely physique, Davis played a boxer pulled between the lure of easy money and finding spiritual fulfillment as an artist. The struggle was broadened to encompass the greater theme of an African-American man trying to find success in America. The romantic tension between Joe and Lorna is heightened because Joe is black and Lorna is white.
The rival of Odets’s original play opened last December at the Belasco Theatre that housed the original production. It ran just 53 performances, but with eight nominations, it is by far the most recognized play. I still regret not getting out to see it, but now I kind of wish I’d been around to see Sammy Davis, Jr. croon in the musical.