Publicity photo, 2019 TWS Revival (Richard Green)

The Tell-All of the little known Off-Broadway adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic

After presenting a staged-reading in 2018, The Western Stage has obtained the rights to fully produce Ira Bilowit’s musical adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” a work which has not been seen onstage since its brief run off-Broadway in 1958 and one which held the Nobel Laureate’s earnest approval throughout its creation. Despite having an all-star cast, an untimely newspaper strike forced the show to close before it gained recognition. The National Steinbeck Center recently acquired the original script and score after Bilowit’s death, and has graciously made these materials available for The Western Stage to finally bring the work back to life after 61 years. What’s more, opening weekend will culminate in an exclusive panel discussion, featuring a collection of the big names responsible for making the 2019 revival a reality.

Of Mice & Men

The Novel

Steinbeck wrote “Of Mice and Men” in the style of a novella (longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel). This particular novella is unique because he wrote it with the intention of it being presented on the stage as a kind of ''play-novelette.'' Steinbeck drew on his experiences being brought up in the “Salad Bowl of America.” He spent time as a farm laborer in his teens during the 1910’s, where he was able to make observations on the migrant labor camps. The title of the novella was inspired by Robert Burns' 1785 poem, ''To a Mouse,'' which describes a mouse trying in vain to protect his home from a plow (The best laid schemes of mice and men/Often go awry). Steinbeck saw a parallel between the struggle of the mouse and the struggles of farm workers desperate to achieve some measure of material prosperity, but ultimately failing due to circumstances beyond their control. Like many of Steinbeck’s works, “Of Mice and Men” is a cutting portrait of the migrant worker’s struggles as both heroic and tragic. Steinbeck set “Of Mice and Men” in Soledad; a word meaning “lonely place” in Spanish as an appropriate setting for a story where loneliness is a dominant factor in several of the characters’ lives.

Of Mice & Men

Migrant Workers, 1937

To the Stage

The first stage production was written by Steinbeck, produced by Sam H. Harris, and directed by George S. Kaufman. It opened on November 23, 1937 at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway (while the novel was still on best-seller lists) and would run for 207 performances. The play, which predates the Tony Awards and the Drama Desk Awards, earned the 1938 New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play. However, Steinbeck never attended one performance of the Broadway production. The reason, as Steinbeck told director Kaufman, was that the play as it existed in his own mind was “perfect” and that anything presented on stage would only be a disappointment.

Steinbeck

The Musical

Decades later, an arts journalist and lifelong New Yorker named Ira Bilowit had been carving out quite a reputation for himself, becoming renowned for his passionate dedication to the theatre. Bilowit’s lengthy career in arts journalism encompassed work as a theatre critic, feature writer, and editor. Over a half-century, he interviewed many of the leading performing arts practitioners in almost every media from Sir Derek Jacobi to Milton Berle. He published interviews and roundtable discussions with personalities including Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, David Mamet, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Estelle Parsons, Hal Prince, Uta Hagen, and Rex Harrison.  Bilowit became inspired after attending an Evening of Steinbeck as part of a Poets & Poetry Series in New York City along with his then wife, Alice Spivak. Two actors presented the last scene from “Of Mice and Men” and it brought him to tears. He was reminded that Steinbeck’s classic was one of his favorite books. He had also recently seen a production of “The Threepenny Opera” and felt that there was a strong corollary between Steinbeck’s writings and the genre of folk opera. However, one major obstacle stood in Bilowit’s way: it was well known that Steinbeck had previously sworn off giving permission for theatrical rights to any of his works again, after the fallout from “Pipe Dream,” the Rogers and Hammerstein musical based on Steinbeck’s melancholy novel, “Sweet Thursday,” which was ever after considered an onstage failure. 

Of Mice & Men

TWS’ 2018 Read/Sing Through (Richard Green)

With Steinbeck’s blessing, Bilowit bought the rights for a six-month window to adapt and write lyrics for “Of Mice and Men” along with a composer. The creative team was in constant communication with Steinbeck during the adaptation process. Steinbeck wrote letters full of suggestions, while at the same time telling them that he didn’t want to interfere with their work. Even more remarkable for Bilowit and his team was that Steinbeck had previously sworn off giving permission for theatrical rights to any of his works again, after the fallout from “Pipe Dream,” the Rogers and Hammerstein musical based on Steinbeck’s melancholy novel, “Sweet Thursday,” which was considered an onstage failure. So when Bilowit and his team were invited to John Steinbeck’s New York townhouse to present the music to him, they watched in awe as Steinbeck closed his eyes, listening, and during one of the songs, “Candy’s Lament,” he wept.

The musical premiered at the venerable Provincetown Playhouse in 1958, as part of the then-new Off-Broadway movement. The production boasted an all-star cast, featuring Art Lund, Joanne Sullivan, and Leo Penn (father of actor Sean Penn, who coincidentally is a recipient of the John Steinbeck Award). The New York Times called it “a work of substance and power.” The day after the musical opened, a newspaper strike hit New York, and all the city’s newspapers were closed. A few reviews managed to seep through the cracks, but it wasn’t enough to gain recognition and build an audience. The musical closed after just six weeks and was never seen onstage again.

Resurgence

In 2002, Anthony Newfield, a prominent New York actor and director, performed a one-man show called “Steinbeck and the Land,” to celebrate the Steinbeck Centennial that year. While discussing the piece with his acting coach, Alice Spivak, she revealed that her ex-husband did a musical version of “Of Mice and Men.” Her ex-husband was none other than Ira Bilowit. Alice was present at Steinbeck’s townhouse when they performed the music to him for the first time. And she was at the Provincetown Playhouse the night Steinbeck attended the show. Alice introduced Anthony to Ira and over a Chinese dinner, Ira told Anthony how the musical came about. After meeting Ira and reading his script, Anthony decided it was important to mount a reading, and in 2007 the musical was heard for the first time since 1958 at the York Theatre Company in New York.

In 2016, Ira Bilowit passed at the age of 90. He had expressed to Newfield during their friendship that he wanted his play materials to reside at The National Steinbeck Center (NSC), so Newfield helped facilitate the acquisition which was authorized by former Executive Director of NSC, Susan Shillinglaw. The collection is a treasure trove of original scripts, hand-written scores, photos, publicity clippings, and correspondences between Ira and John. They also possess a full audio recording of one of the final performances of the 1958 production. When the creators learned from their financial backers that the show was soon to close, they illegally set up a microphone offstage to preserve the show for posterity. Susan Shillinglaw notified The Western Stage about the newly attained materials, and Jon Selover sought permission from both the Bilowit Estate and Steinbeck Estate to do a staged reading of their own, with hopes that the reading would lead to a full-scale production as part of their repertory season.

The read/sing through took place in May 2018, directed by Jon Patrick Selover with music directed by Don Dally. The event was free for the general public and performed to a full house, including Newfield, Shillinglaw, and Waverly Kaffaga, Steinbeck’s step-daughter and Executor of the Steinbeck Estate. Waverly so appreciated TWS’ treatment of the musical, that she arranged for permission to be granted to TWS to produce a revival production as part of their 2019 season. This will be the first fully produced version of Bilowit’s musical since 1958.

The Western Stage’s opening weekend of “Of Mice and Men” a Musical Drama will culminate in an exclusive one-time-only discussion panel with world famous Steinbeck experts, including Anthony Newfield (New York Actor/Director and personal friend of Ira Bilowit, credited with bringing the archived materials to the National Steinbeck Center), Alice Spivak (Ira Bilowit’s wife during the creation of the musical), Susan Shillinglaw (world-renowned Steinbeck Scholar, and San Jose State University Professor), Jon Patrick Selover (TWS Artistic Director and Director of TWS’ “Of Mice and Men” reading and revival), and Waverly Kaffaga (Executor of the Steinbeck Estate). The panel will discuss Steinbeck’s process in writing the novel, the creation of the musical, the musical’s evolution from 1958 Off-Broadway premier to 2018 reading, and the 2019 revival production. This event is exclusively for ticket holders attending the Sunday matinee on August 25, 2019, and will take place directly following the performance. This is in addition to the regularly scheduled ReActions for “Of Mice and Men” on September 8th, open to the general public. You may purchase your tickets to attend this special event by contacting the Box Office: 831-755-6816 or westernstage@hartnell.edu. 

Of Mice  & Men

Publicity photo, TWS 2019 Revival, taken on the Salinas River (Richard Green)

PERFORMANCES

August 24 – September 14, 2019. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. Mainstage at the Hartnell College Center for Performing Arts, 411 Central Ave. Salinas, CA 93901. Tickets at www.westernstage.com/tickets or call the Box Office: (831)-755-6816 (Wed – Sat, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m.)

The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Western Stage.