• Oct : 9 : 2013 - The Lyceum Theater is the oldest on Broadway (opened in 1903).
  • Sep : 20 : 2013 - The Tony Award-winning play with the shortest title was Da (1978).
  • Sep : 15 : 2013 - In 1912 New York City theaters became desegregated.
  • Sep : 10 : 2013 - Most New York City Broadway theaters omit the row “I” in their seating to avoid confusion with the number one.
  • Sep : 6 : 2013 - The Actors’ Equity contract was signed on September 6, 1991 after an actors strike right before curtain call lasted almost a month.

IF IT ONLY EVEN RUNS A MINUTE: SOON

by Jennifer Ashley Tepper

By Jennifer Ashley Tepper

A Broadway musical starring Richard Gere, Barry Bostwick, Nell Carter and Peter Allen?

Broadway’s first “rock opera”?

And it closed after three performances?!

In December of 1970, a new musical called Soon started previews at the Ritz Theatre on 48th Street.

Soon was about Kelly (Bostwick, then 25-years-old) and Annie (Marta Heflin), sweet young musicians with dreams, who have nothing but a sleeping bag and an acoustic guitar between them. They take on the big, bad City, and make a bunch of new friends (Richard Gere! Peter Allen! Joe Butler of The Lovin’ Spoonful!) who also dream of making great music.

The youthful, idealistic musicians break into the record industry, and wind up giving up their folk protest music to write bubble gum pop. Selling out doesn’t sit well with these guys; when their new music makes them very successful, they find themselves surrounded by drugs, money and groupies (named Faith, Hope and Charity- but with sluttier outfits than the same characters in Anything Goes). In the end, the gang gives up their success and goes back to their roots.

Soon started previews the first week of December in 1970, and was set to open on December 16. Instead, the show shut down after previews to go back into rehearsal and re-work their troubled production. (Can you name 3 times in Broadway history that this has happened?) On December 28, Soon started two more weeks of previews. They officially opened on January 12. They closed on January 13.

What happened?

Soon was a completely new kind of show. Like many shows that followed Hair and fell in its shadow (including, but not limited to Dude and Via Galactica), Soon had a sort-of narrative, but the story also had portions that seemed to exist in a dramatic limbo.

The lyrics were sometimes very literal(“Look what’s happened to my veins/ Look what’s happened to my brains”), sometimes very not- literal (“When I went to school they spoke of molecules/ But now they’re in your eyes with atoms in between”) and sometimes not-safe-for-matinees-with-Grandma (“Bob Dylan/ I’m willing to lay cross your bed/ Cause I heard from an English Bird/ That you like good…”).

Critic Willie Hamilton, baffled, shared: “There is little or no talking! They use music as a segue between scenes, thoughts, dialogue and whatever.”

Crazy.

In Women’s Wear Daily, Martin Gottfried said, “The book is a disaster.” In the Daily News, Douglas Watt said, “Soon sets the youth movement back just under two hours.” In the Times, Clive Barnes compared the show’s youthful exuberance to that of the old Donald O’Connor movie musicals. But, he said, “One of the difficulties is that the show is a commercial musical about the horrors of musical commercialism. A strong satiric approach might have helped here.”

Indeed, the show was written in absolute earnest, by writers Scott Fagan, Joe Kookoolis, and Robert Greenwald. Scott and Joe had themselves moved to New York City, and Soon was the musical they’d written about their own experience in “The Record Industry”.

In Scott’s words:

“We were absolute, true believers in music and in its purpose and ability to communicate, comfort, enlighten and inspire and to change the world that we lived in. It “blew our minds” to realize that the human expression that we so believed in, was ultimately coming under the control of business men who would use and abuse the power of music and the people that made it, to further their own agenda, which was after and above all “to make money at any and all costs”.

Joe and I thought that communicating this realization was important and would have a positive impact on the Music Business and society at large and that is why we wrote Soon.”

Here were young people ready to take Broadway by storm.

Besides for the idealistic writers, of course, the cast was filled with ambitious stars-to-be. Barry Bostwick was moments away from launching his career with Grease and “The Rocky Picture Horror Show”. Richard Gere was only 21 years old, and this was his Broadway debut. The great future-Tony-Award-winner Nell Carter also made her Broadway debut. Peter Allen, married to Liza Minnelli while Soon was running, would release his first solo album later that year. (Peter had actually replaced writer Scott Fagan in the role of Henry during the mid-previews re-vamp.)

Pamela Pentony replaced Boni Enten in the role of “Rita The Groupie” when Enten was hospitalized during rehearsals with an intestinal infection. Congratulations, Miss Enten.

Louis St. Louis made his Broadway debut as the Musical Director of Soon. He also did the vocal arrangements and played piano in the show. Louis went on to musically direct and/or arrange Grease, Over Here!, Raggedy Ann, Roza, and Smokey Joe’s Café, as well as write Truckload and “Grease 2”. (He also wrote the song “Sandy” for John Travolta in “Grease”. And he is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Click here to check out Louis sharing songs and stories from his closed-during-Broadway-previews musical Truckload!)

Louis also provided the vocal arrangements and led the orchestra. In the Playbill for Soon, he was credited with “Pit-Shit”.

Robert Greenwald, the Director who had left during the shaky preview period (replaced by Gerald Freedman) had previously worked as a General Management assistant on David Merrick shows like Hello Dolly and I Do! I Do!, so he was used to theatrical upheaval. He did alright for himself, going on to direct the musical Me And Bessie, which ran for almost 500 performances on Broadway.

David Edward Byrd, known for creating the poster art for Godspell and Follies, also created the artwork for Soon. In his own words:

“The clients had the [preliminary] poster I sent them printed. Except for the [initial] $100 check, I never heard from them again. [Soon] had a stellar cast of then-unknowns. It closed after 3 performances. No one I have ever talked to remembers it at all.”

All tickets to Soon on Broadway were $5 or $7.

A right-on-the-nose song called “Marketing Marketing” went, “Marketing marketing/ Merry go round/ We’ve got to come up with a saleable sound/ Profits are down/ Profits are down.”

The number that ended Act One tended to terrify patrons, as the cast screamed, “This house is on fire! This house is gonna burn down!” (They meant this metaphorically, of course.)

And then there were parts of the show that soared, rocked, and declared their anti-establishment messages about art with intensity and passion: “Imitate loving/ Imitate living/ Imitation nation/ Shake the people, wake them up/ The whole world is in your hands!”

A big second act number found the cast singing a list of their frustrations with society: “Desolation/ Suffocation/ Degradation/ Manipulation/ Assassination”! A backwards “La Vie Boheme”, more than two decades before Rent.

Soon reclaimed the Ritz Theatre as a legit house for Broadway. The Ritz had opened in 1921 with a production of Mary Stuart. (Not the same play as the one revived at the Broadhurst in 2009, but a play on the same topic by a different playwright; Like a Wild Party, but for The Queen of Scotland.) From 1943 to 1965, it was used as a radio and TV station. From 1965 to 1969, it languished, empty and in danger of being demolished. In 1969 it was purchased by private buyers, and in 1971, it was turned back into a Broadway house with Soon. In 1973, it was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Theater, and played childrens shows for awhile. For awhile, it was used to store posters. The roof began leaking, and the theater fell into disrepair. And then they tore it down and put up a parking lot. (Kidding. But don’t pretend you weren’t picturing Follies.)

In 1981, Jujamcyn bought the theater, and before long, it was boasting attractions like Late Nite Comic (4 performances), A Month of Sundays (4 performances), and Chu Chem (The First Chinese-Jewish Musical!). In 1990, it  was christened The Walter Kerr and given a beautiful renovation. Before long, the theater was playing home to The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer Prize), Angels in America (Pulitzer Prize), and Christine Ebersole’s performance in Grey Gardens (Pulitzer Pr… okay, fine).

The theater on 48th Street with the most gorgeous marquee on Broadway had gone from “trash” to “class”.

In his New York Times review of Soon, Clive Barnes had said: “The cast was uniformly good, and if the show makes it, surely this will be the main reason. Everyone had zest, and honestly projected pop voices. They also all had distinctive personalities.”

“Something’s gonna happen! Soon!” one character says to another hopefully, in the middle of the first act of the show.

And it would. Exciting things would happen for much of the gang. Not in this musical.

Not yet. But Soon.

In the finale, Barry Bostwick, Peter Allen, Nell Carter, Richard Gere and the cast sang:

“It won’t be long, it won’t be long
The world is full of waiting graces
Hate and hype and warring races
The world is full of love and laughter
Nights before and mornings after
The world is full of good!
And bad. And bad.

Things we could have
Things we’ve had
Who knows if the right outweighs the wrong
It won’t be long, it won’t be long
It won’t be long, it won’t be long.”

 

Jennifer Ashley Tepper is the co-creator of the concert series, If It Only Even Runs A Minute. Follow along at @jenashtep and @runsaminute

18 Responses so far.

  1. Ellen Burns says:

    What a fantastic story!! I see so much theater, both in NYC and DC, and nothing fascinates me more than thinking about why a show works or doesn’t…and sometimes the answer is different within the same show, right?? :) …Oh, and I seriously covet that poster…

    I also find it interesting to understand why a show that worked Off Broadway, doesn’t translate if it moves over; e.g. “Lysistrata Jones” (which I saw on Broadway and loved)?? And I saw and LOVED “Once” in its Off Broadway run and am so excited to see how it transitions…

    • BwaySpotted says:

      I think there are a few elements at play when a show does well off Broadway and not on Broadway. The first, I would say, is the quality and caliber of a show. When a production is staged off-Broadway, it’s generally on a smaller stage, smaller audience and much lower expectations. When something comes to the Great White Way we (and I do say we as the Broadway community as a whole) expect all the trappings. I’ll admit that I want something to be as perfect and polished as possible ON Broadway, but I find that I’m much more forgiving off Broadway.

      There are more reasons, but I gotta run. More later.

      • Ellen Burns says:

        You’re so right about expectations being lower off Broadway. It’s true for local theater as well. There was an original musical launched at Ford’s Theatre in DC this season called “Liberty Smith,” that I found really successful (and my very Broadway-savvy 13 yr old niece just loved it), and I would love for it to have wider exposure; but I’m guessing my expectations would have been very different if I had paid over $100 for a ticket and was sitting in a Broadway theater…

  2. BwaySpotted says:

    What does it say about me that I recognized that theatre as the Walter Kerr theatre even with the other sign on it? Love this article, as always.

  3. Scott Fagan says:

    Dear Jennifer,
    Thank you for your interest in and attention to SOON. You have written an interesting piece about a most interesting time and set of experiances.

    SOON was written to illuminate and bring about change in a destructive and exploitive music industry representing a destructive, exploitive and dishonest Vietnam wartime political establishment.

    The stunning irony of SOON was that the very practices that it was protesting (the cheating and manipulation of musicians, dumbing down of content,, promotion of vacuous bubblegum, disregard for creators and society at large) occurred in the production and presentation of SOON its self.

    We (the writers and director) were fired and barred from the theater for refusing to “lighten up” and turn it into “entertainment”
    FYI Richard Gere was my understudy and Barry Bostwick was my replacement, I was playing Kelly not Henry. We had a number of others in the cast that deserve mention. Vickie Sue Robinson, Leata Galloway, Marion Ramsey,Dennis Belline, Pendelton Brown, the Great Tony Middleton and Singer Williams. Joe and Robert and I had carefully auditioned and assembeled a cast of genuine true believers..and of course, we were true belivers our selves.

    After SOON, Joe and I were Personas Non Grata in the music business from that point forward. Robert Greenwald and I reprised our version of SOON at the Pilgramage Theater in LA, where it had a successful run in October/November of 1972. In those days not a single label would record SOON. Consequently, there was no studio recording,however we have recently dramatically cleaned up the sound of the “live in theater” LA recordings and will do something with them.

    Interestingly a young high school impressario in Johnstown PA. is currently rehersing a concert version of SOON to be produced and recorded this Spring/Summer, and a book about SOON is in the works.

    There are SOON reviews that I prefer to those that you mentioned

    Here’s what Martin Brookspan had to say: “The tide of Rock musicals reaches it’s high water mark in SOON… an inventive, imaginative, brilliantly realized creation.”
    • Emory Lewis said: “SOON is a hallelujah blessing, glorious music easily the best score of the season… I loved every rocking minute.”
    • And John Schubeck: “Staggering shots of meaning. Dynamite in so many ways.”

    “SOON was our attempt to “bring to light” the absurdity and cruelty of the music business, and its destructive effects on artists and society”.

    Sagittarius Productions and Bruce Stark thought that by fireing us and bringing in Gerald Freedman, Barry Bostwick and Martin Duberman they could somehow make the absurdity and cruelty of the music business, and its destructive effects on artists and society “entertaining”..

    SOON deserves a better hearing than that, Joe never wrote another note and died a few years later. I am still trying my best to get through to you.

    Thanks again for your interest and attention to SOON Jennifer, it is much appreciated.
    Scott Fagan

    • Stacey Belline says:

      Ahhhh…There it is. Denny Belline WAS mentioned. I did not see it before. Scott…I am the daughter in law of Denny (RIP) And have a fabulous photo of the cast (only Denny Belline, Richard Gere, Barry Bostwick, & Joe Butler)

  4. Scott Fagan says:

    Dear Jennifer,
    Considering that SOON was originally concived and written as one piece of Music, Perhaps you would consider allowing SOON to be a part of your concert series. If you will send me an email address, I will send you the live LA Recordings of SOON.
    That would be most wonderful.
    Thanks again!
    Scott Fagan

    • jenashtep says:

      Hey Scott,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I am fascinated by SOON, and I was so thrilled to learn more about it.

      We would absolutely love to feature SOON in the Runs A Minute concert series in the future- and I would love to hear any recordings or see any photos you might be able to share.

      You can email me at jennifertepper@gmail.com

      Thank YOU!

      -Jen

      • BwaySpotted says:

        THIS WHOLE THREAD IS AMAZING. I’m obsessed with you, Jen Tepper.

      • Stacey Belline says:

        No one had mentioned Dennis (Denny Belline) who was in Soon as well. I have photos. He is in that photo (newspaper clipping?) you put up. He is my father -in-law. He is of Denny Belline and the Rich Kids, Denny Belline and the Dwellers, he played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, of Man, etc.

  5. Scott Fagan says:

    That is wonderful Jennifer,I will send you a recent recording of “SOON” (The Theme) and CD’s of the Live LA Recordings of the show. You are a real and genuine Broadway Angel.
    Thank you!
    Scott

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