Peter Stone ( ) and the book of the American musical

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1 Peter Stone ( ) and the book of the American musical Brian Dawson The Power of Music : the 34 th National Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia, in conjunction with the 2 nd International Conference on Music and Emotion Perth, Western Australia 1 December 2011

2 Introduction When in 1989 Peter Stone wrote of the musical book as the lumber and nails and blueprint of a musical (Stone ), he trumpeted the significance of this neglected element in the construction of the American musical theatre; and he did so with the succinctness of a skilled writer, the commonsense pragmatism of a long-standing and specialist practitioner, and the persuasive force of a political creature. It is these qualities, together with his achievements as a writer of books for the musical theatre in the second half of the twentieth-century, which make Peter Stone a key figure in the history and development of the American musical stage. If we are to comprehend the importance of Stone we must firstly have an understanding of the musical book or book of a musical of which he is such a firm advocate. The musical book The text books tell us that the book is the script exclusive of the lyrics, (Kennedy 2003) and the spoken dialogue of a musical comedy or musical play (Hartnoll 1996). From this we might reasonably assume that it is merely the play of a musical. But such definitions do nothing to inform us of the function and the form of the book indeed, they reinforce the long-held privileging of the score (the music and the lyrics) which has dominated both the practice of and the scholarship surrounding musical theatre: consider the

3 following examples where the composers and/or lyricists surely are more celebrated than the generally unknown book-writers: West Side Story (1957) Bernstein and Sondheim, with book-writer Arthur Laurents excluded The Sound of Music (1959) a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, overlooking the central contribution of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse; The Phantom of the Opera (1986) asserting the dominance of composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber, his collaborators always credited and handsomely paid but largely ignored, Charles Hart (lyrics) and Richard Stilgoe (co-writer with Lloyd Webber on the book, and additional lyrics). But the book is much, much more than just the dialogue or the jokes, or so Stone would have us believe. He has written that it is a good deal different from a straight play. Its not just a play with songs stuck into it (Stone ). For Stone, the musical book is, in a word, construction (ibid), and my thesis is largely given to exploring how this expanded concept of a book as an organizing structure tells us something of the intersection of music and theatre in the American musical theatre. But this mini-presentation is not the place for an elaboration on my thesis. Rather, in the seven-minutes allotted to me, I hope to establish the credentials of Peter Stone in order to lend credibility to his claims.

4 Peter Stone Peter Stone was one of few writers able to maintain a living by writing books for the American musical theatre. Born in Los Angeles in 1930, the son of movie producer John Stone and screenwriter Hilda Hess, his early success in television and film led to Emmy and Oscar Awards in the 60s, before Broadway gained his full attention. With the Tony Award success in 1969 of the musical 1776 he became the first writer to hold all three prestigious awards. (see Fig. 1) Fig 1, the Awards conferred on Peter Stone. He continued to be successful on Broadway, gaining two more Tony Awards for Woman of the Year in 1981 and Titanic in In total, he contributed musical books for more than 11 shows, including adaptations of Annie Get Your Gun and Finian s Rainbow for more modern times as well as the uncredited writing for Grand Hotel in a role referred to as book-doctoring. (see Fig. 2) Since his death from pulmonary fibrosis in 2003 at the age of 73 his influence has continued with two unfinished projects brought to fruition; Curtains!, a show he had been working on with the legendary team of Kander and Ebb, opened on Broadway in 2007, completed and reshaped by Rupert

5 Holmes; and in 2011 his uncompleted Death Takes a Holiday, music composed by Maury Yeston, opened off-broadway with Stone credited as coauthor of the book along with Thomas Meehan. In addition to these achievements as a writer, Stone held for fourteen years the important position of President to the Dramatists Guild of America, serving in that role from 1985 to 1999 Fig 2, Selected works of Peter Stone; photograph of Stone with leading lady of Charade, Audrey Hepburn. Much of this biographical information has long been available through brief articles, but to unearth further details required access to source documents, in this case the personal papers, the private archives, of the man himself. Archival Research The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center at the Lincoln Center is preeminent amongst American cultural institutions interested in the documentation of that nation s theatrical

6 culture, especially Broadway. In May of 2011 it launched the second-largest of its theatrical collections, the Peter Stone Papers. Contained in 209 boxes measuring linear metres, the collection is out-ranked only by the vast private archives of legendary, and still active, Broadway producer and director Hal Prince. The collection had been donated by Stone s widow, Mary, back in 2007, and the story of its public release is a lengthy one and one in which I can say I played a small role. Nevertheless, the papers were finally processed and a catalogue record released to public view on Wednesday 27 April 2011 (see Fig. 3), and two days later I became the first scholar to handle them in the Katharine Cornell-Guthrie McClintic Special Collections Reading Room. As I worked through the files and folders there emerged the qualities of Stone I mentioned earlier of a skilled writer, a specialist practitioner, and a political creature. Fig. 3 In April 2011, the New York Public Library released its catalogue and finding aid to the Peter Stone Papers. Writer That Stone should become a skilled writer can be traced, initially, to his blood line: his father, John Stone ( ), was a man of some influence in Hollywood, firstly as a screenwriter in the 1920s and then as a producer at

7 20 th Century Fox in the 30s and 40s; and his mother, Hilda Stone ( , later Hilda Marton) wrote several screenplays. These facts, however, are widely known; it was the deeper circumstances of Stone s family life which were more influential in turning him from merely the first of two offspring of Hollywood parents to becoming a substantial figure in American theatre. Firstly, Stone s father actively discouraged him from a career as a writer. Through this struggle, Stone found something of his writer s voice that was to come through in his career. Consider the native talent of a young man not yet established as a writer, corresponding with his father, a sceptical veteran of Hollywood. While this example shows, on the surface, the single-minded tenacity of a young man determined to find his own way in life, it also prefigures some of the rhetoric he would assign to the characters in his first Tony Award-winning musical 1776: And when that day comes when you can respect me even though you cannot share my opinions and values, when you can believe that I respect you even though I do not, for the moment, share every one of your opinions and values, when you can understand that TWO opinions and TWO sets of values can BOTH be valid in respect to TWO individual personalities, on that day all difficulties between us will be over and done with. (Stone 1958) Consider too an excerpt from Stone s stepfather, the Hungarian-born literary agent who Stone visited in Paris annually for much of his early adult years.

8 This shows the kind of connections Stone had access to as well as the support and the nurture extended to him: I would take you into the agency and make you the sole heir of all Marton enterprises at the drop of a hat. But - look Pal, you have to do more to prove to yourself and me, that, as a writer you are a wash-out. I don't buy that yet. (Marton 1956) It is no surprise that we can consider Peter Stone to be a skilled writer: both by temperament and by circumstance he was provided with considerable resources which he was to put together in a long career as a specialist practitioner. Practitioner Stone s career as a writer of musical books was well recognized by his peers (he shares first prize with three other writers for the most number of Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical, see Fig. 4). As a specialist practitioner, what emerges from the archives is the craftsmanship evident in the drafts for the various works. Stone was meticulous in keeping working versions with their revisions and penciled annotations. Arguably the best example of the value of a book writers craft can be found in Titanic, Stone s 1997 and last Tony Award winning musical (not to be confused with James Cameron s movie blockbuster which opened in cinemas more than six months after the curtain rose on the Stone-Yeston show).

9 In his essay to the published libretto Stone describes the collaborative approach he employed with composer Maury Yeston, careful to explain scenes were carefully constructed to stitch together the story and the music. He also explains how much of this construction was later unpicked in the production phases of the show, much of it at the director s insistence. In analysing the published libretto I was struck by the difference between its very flat construction in comparison to the masterly plotting in 1776 with its intricate use of events, obstacles, complications and reversals to generate suspense in a story where the outcome (the signing of the Declaration of Independence) is an inevitable historical fact. Titanic, on the other hand, while sharing an outcome which is also inevitable and historical, was much more linear in its plotting sequence with the consequence that the amount of suspense generated was significantly lower. When working through the various drafts of Titanic it became obvious that Stone, the experience practitioner, had indeed capitulated to the needs of his director-collaborator, and in doing so had rent the delicate fabric of his preferred book, leaving both the scenes and the music exposed. In essence, what had been removed was an entire layer of sub-story: the story of the Royal investigation which followed the sinking of the great liner, intercut within the conventional historical narrative of the ship s journey into devastation. The great loss of these edits, it seemed to me, was the tension and suspense that came with the juxtaposition of the two stories. For example, the final version contains a simple ballad in praise of Marconi s telegraph, and the telegraph operator aboard the Titanic expresses how the invention brought him in contact with a broader world as he sings And the night was alive with a thousand voices fighting to be heard ; this same lyric

10 reprised in a Royal Investigation scene takes on another quality as Bride, the telegraph operator, tells the story of how his SOS went unnoticed by the nearby Californian which could have picked up all of the remaining survivors in the water if it hadn t sent its own telegraph operator to bed at midnight: And the night was alive with a thousand voices fighting to be heard. But the scene was removed and the gravity lost. Despite this the drafts show the deft skill through which he was able to swiftly accommodate directorial requests through simple edits even if this is an example of the specialist practitioner failing to bring to bear his influence; even a highly political animal like Stone had to make compromises and concessions for the sake of the work. Fig 4. Selected list of multiple Tony Award winners for Best Book of a Musical. Political creature Stone and his wife were well connected socially and professionally with some of the highest ranking officials in American political life. The archives contain regular invitations between the years 1977 and 1993 to attend receptions at the White House from no-less than four American Presidents: Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

11 This personal note from Teddy Kennedy to Stone demonstrates the high regard that the Boston politician held for the East-side Manhattan man of the theatre: It is wonderful having special friends like you stand with me in the important campaign and I am ever grateful. You are a wonderful and valued friend. (Kennedy, 1958) Mary Stone indicated that the friendship between the Stones and the Clintons extended beyond the professional into the personal. Even so, Stone was frequently engaged to write, and sometimes mount, benefit concerts in support of a political candidate, notably the 1992 event Broadway for Bill Clinton. Stone penned a memorable opener for host, Alec Baldwin: Good evening, I'm Alec Baldwin. Normally I'm appearing a couple of blocks north at the Barrymore Theatre in "A Streetcar Named Desire" where eight times a week I have to rape Jessica Lange so I can really use a night off. (Stone 1992) Stone s influence extended into matters directly affecting his profession when for fourteen years he helmed the Dramatists Guild of America, petitioning for improved rights and stronger legal contracts for authors and playwrights as well as mentoring rising writers such as African-American playwright and director George C. Wolfe. This extended network of connections at a range of levels demonstrates the potential influence Stone was able to effect and complemented his other characteristics as skilled writer and long-time specialist practitioner.

12 Conclusion The recently released archives of Peter Stone in the New York Public Library signal an opportunity for scholars to explore the work of a specialist book writer working in the field of the American musical theatre. It is my pleasure and my privilege to be one of the earliest to undertake this task, and from it I hope to develop an expanded understanding of the form and function of the book of the American musical theatre, leading to a more complete comprehension and conception of this multi-modal form of human expression. Bibliography Hartnoll, Phyllis and Peter Found (eds) The Concise Oxford companion to the theatre. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. Kennedy, Dennis (ed.) The Oxford encyclopedia of theatre & Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kennedy, Edward M Note to Peter Stone, 28 September [manuscript] Peter Stone Papers. T-Mss /192/1. New York: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. Marton, George Letter to Peter Stone, 24 January [manuscript] Peter Stone Papers. T-Mss /175/5. New York: Billy Rose Theatre

13 Division, The New York Public Library. Stone, Peter Letter to John Stone, 14 January [manuscript] Peter Stone papers. T-Mss /176/5. New York: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library Program dated 22 June [manuscript] Peter Stone papers. T- Mss /192/2. New York: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library The Musical Comedy Book. The Dramatist Peter Stone papers. New York: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.