September 1, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Picnic is William Inge’s beautiful slice-of-life drama which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. Two years later, it was made into a hit film starring William Holden and Kim Novak and it’s had numerous productions the world over ever since. It’s been revived on Broadway twice (most recently in 2013), with its status over the years morphing from contemporary to a period piece. But the sexual repression of the 1950s is still a subject that draws directors and actors to plays of this ilk (like much of Tennessee Williams) and in the case of Picnic, it is aided immeasurably by Inge’s ability to write characters from which subtext can be endlessly explored. Its plot is an old one: a drifter arrives in a sleepy southern town and manages to awaken nearly everyone’s sexuality.
Ralph Meeker and Sandra Church in William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Picnic.
Its original Broadway production, directed by Josh Logan, featured a cast with actors perfectly suited to their roles (they do say that ninety percent of a director’s job is casting, and Logan was something of a master at it). The play starred Ralph Meeker, Janice Rule, Eileen Heckart, Arthur O’Connell, Betty Field and two young actors on their way up: Kim Stanley and Paul Newman (in his Broadway debut).
The shared backyards in Picnic (that’s Paul Newman in the white suit). Set by Jo Mielziner.
For those who might not know her, Kim Stanley was widely hailed in the ten year post-Picnic period as one of the most electrifying stage actress of her day. As for Paul Newman, though he did three more Broadway plays over the next decade, he then became virtually lost to Hollywood (much to cinema lovers’ happiness). But in a never-say-die manner, he returned to Broadway at the age of seventy-seven with a revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in 2002.
As for Picnic, it was someone’s idea in 1965 to make a musical out of it. Well, why not? Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker had just been successfully transformed into Hello, Dolly! The same thing could work for Picnic, right? And it was probably no accident that David Merrick produced them both. But the team he put together (along with co-producer Leland Hayward) did not come close to duplicating the success of Picnic (and certainly not Hello, Dolly!). Not by a long shot.
Retitled Hot September (one would suppose in order to add some sizzle), it’s probable that Inge passed on the idea of rewriting his play into a libretto, so the task fell to Paul Osborn, a playwright who at the time had recently written screenplay adaptations of the novels East of Eden (John Steinbeck) and Sayonara (James A. Michener). The score was by Kenneth Jacobson and Rhoda Roberts, pop song writers who had never written for the theatre. Josh Logan, who had not only staged the original play, but directed the film version as well, re-upped to see this musical to fruition (which probably explains what Leland Hayward was doing co-producing, as they were longtime friends since attending Princeton together in the 1920s).
The Playbill for Boston’s Shubert Theatre, September, 1965.
Opening out of town in Boston, the reviews for Hot September all agreed that the show was terrible:
“Picnic was honest, sound and deeply moving,” wrote Elliot Norton in the Boston Post. “Hot September is slick, fast and synthetic.”
“A deadening parade of mere showmanship, nearly everything about Inge’s play is contained, but now it is romantic cliche blared up full and loud.” — Kevin Kelly — Boston Globe
“It needs to be clarified whether it’s Picnic with music or Hot September with a tinge of Inge.” — Variety.
After these reviews, the decision was made to not bring it to the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) where it had been booked for an October opening. It closed in Boston, the end of the road. Among its cast was the noted character actor Eddie Bracken, who took on the supporting role of Howard Bevans that had earned Arthur O’Connell an Oscar nomination for the film of Picnic. An actress with the interesting surname of Lovelady Powell played Rosemary, the role created on stage by Eileen Heckart, and later done on film by Rosalind Russell. The two leads were cast with virtual unknowns Sean Garrison and Sheila Sullivan (who replaced Kathryn Hays, picture below).
Sean Garrison and Kathryn Hays (who replaced Sheila Sullivan) in Hot September (1965).
Though Kenneth Jacobson and Rhoda Roberts saw their one shot at Broadway end ignominiously, they did get a moment’s worth of glory. How many unknown composers can boast that Frank Sinatra (in his prime) found one of their songs record-worthy? “Golden Moment” wound up on an album Sinatra culled mainly from favorite theatre songs he had previously recorded. Calling it “My Kind of Broadway,” (if Hot September can be considered “Broadway,” since it never made it there), you can listen to it here, if you care to.
And that wasn’t the only song from their score that Jacobson and Roberts got some airplay out of. They actually recycled a song and used it for their next musical (the title song, no less). The show flopped, but the great Marilyn Maye (still going strong at age ninety-two in the cabaret world) had a recording that I heard a lot on the radio (yes, the radio!) back in the early 70s.
Although Hot September died aborning, Picnic continues to be done regionally and its most recent Broadway revival in 2013, boasted Sebastian Stan (of Marvel universe fame — he plays Bucky Barnes/Winter Solider) as Hal Carter. One wonders if it comes down to the actor playing this role and having to take off his shirt that guarantees future productions, though rest assured, when the next revival comes along, it will be cast with the hunk du jour.
Sebastian Stan in the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Picnic (2013).
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.