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Move Over, Sondheim and Lee, This Octogenarian Is Just Beginning

Ralph E. Shaffer: If Harper Lee's first novel can be published in her eighties, why can't my first musical be produced as well? She's not likely to write another one, but I've already finished my second musical play.

Stephen Sondheim and I both turned 85 this year. We both write musicals but there is a difference. He's winding down his efforts at composing original works for Broadway. I just finished creating my first complete production.

Move Over Sondheim

Mine, of course, won't reach Broadway. With luck it will be performed by drama students at Cal Poly Pomona this fall in a stage reading, not a full performance, with piano accompaniment instead of a pit orchestra.

I didn't expect Broadway, or even off-Broadway. But this production is about as far off off-Broadway as it gets. The kids, however, will give it a Broadway performance.

I'm old enough to remember Edwin Lester's Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and attended a few of their performances fifty or sixty years ago. I had forgotten, however, that the LACLO folded about three decades back. Aware that Lester had given several Broadway productions their initial showing—notably "Song of Norway" and "Kismet"—I had hoped that they'd consider another original work.

If Harper Lee's first novel can be published in her eighties, why can't my first musical be produced as well? She's not likely to write another one, but I've already finished my second musical play.

If Harper Lee's first novel can be published in her eighties, why can't my first musical be produced as well? She's not likely to write another one, but I've already finished my second musical play.

I must confess that I undertook the writing of a potential Broadway musical a long time ago. Sondheim wrote his first one at age 15 or 16 in 1946. I was 13, in 1943. when I began writing that early one. It was just after "Oklahoma" appeared on Broadway. No one had written one about the California gold rush. so I attempted it. I only got through the opening song. "Hangtown" was never finished. Maybe I'll resurrect it when this first one has been produced.

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Sondheim had a lot of help, from guys like Hammerstein and Bernstein. All I got was discouragement. So my efforts at musical composition gave way to other interests related to making a living and for 70 years. with the exception of writing a lot of parodies of pop tunes, my writing was confined to history books or article and to hundreds of op-eds for the daily press.

But a couple of years ago I got the urge to pick it up again as Sondheim was dropping out. Perhaps unconsciously I was from the beginning thinking of a LACLO production because my initial creation was in part based on a musical, "Kismet," that had been premiered in L A by Lester.

What if, I thought, Wright and Forrest, creators of "Kismet," had chosen instead to adapt Borodin's music to a story by Damon Runyon. They didn't, but i did. I took the themes they extracted from Borodin for "Kismet" and re-wrote the lyrics to fit my original story in Runyon style, a tale about a crap game in a New York City sewer.

Before you say that "Guys and Dolls" already did that, keep in mind that there was very little dice throwing in the sewer in that musical. Mine, on the other hand, takes place almost entirely there. Critics will no doubt say it smells like that, too. But that's before they've seen or heard "Borodin Meets Runyon."

For those who pan it because the music isn't original, keep in mind that Forrest and Wright made a career of using unoriginal music, and they did it rather successfully.

The naysayers should wait for my second one,"Sweet Deceit," that will come out when I'm 86. It not only has an original story line but original music as well, stuff that would have been hit parade candidates back in 1950 but probably sound dated to a younger audience. Never mind, the elderly will like it if they can still hear.

So Sondheim and Lee, move over. There's a new kid on the block, and he's just started at 85.

Ralph E. Shaffer