17 May 2009

'Everybody Comes To Rick’s'

I was up at the performing arts library at Lincoln Center recently and since I had only a few tasks I needed to get into there, I took the time to do something I’d wanted to do for a while: I read the typescript of the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. In case you don't recognize it, that's the basis for the screenplay of Casablanca. Generally, I was just curious about it, but I also wanted to see if it was playable (and how much was changed for the film). Surprisingly, it's not bad for its kind. It's only slightly different from the movie and it could be played, though it'll never become a major play like, say, Incident at Vichy or Watch on the Rhine, two other World War II plays of the same vintage. (Everybody Comes to Rick’s, combined with elements of the film, was produced as Rick's Bar Casablanca in London in 1991. There was also a staging under the title They All Come to Rick’s at the Casino Theatre in Newport, Rhode Island, 12-17 August 1946.)

I wonder, if someone wanted to stage it again, if you could still get the rights. (I also assume that there aren't many copies of the typescript around. The NYPL copy is a mimeograph, so multiple copies were produced, and the University of Southern California in L.A. has one in its film archives. The studio that made the movie, Warner Brothers, must have had one on file, since it owns the rights to the play, but I doubt it's still there. I imagine, though, there's some way to get NYPL to make a copy if you had the rights to produce it.) When Burnett and Alison sold the rights to Warners for the film, they lost all control over the script as well—there was a 1983 lawsuit that determined the two playwrights no longer had any claim on the script, the characters, or the story; they’d sold everything in 1941, and they signed a “formidable” contract stipulating that the authors “give, grant, bargain, sell, assign, transfer and set over” to Warners all rights “of every kind and character whatsoever, whether or not now known, recognized or contemplated, for all purposes whatsoever.” (This sounds disconcertingly familiar: Eric Overmyer wrote a terrific play called In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, a phrase taken from the standard authors’ publication contract.) When David Kelsey, an actor, director, and playwright who died in 1996 at 63, decided to stage Everybody Comes to Rick’s he had to apply to Warners and had a hard time persuading the studio to give permission for a production in London.

According to Herb Greer, an American writer, dramatist, and critic who saw the London show, Warners suppressed the play for decades, keeping the script locked away in a file. They presumably didn’t want the play staged because they thought it might somehow compete with or diminish the movie. Kelsey, who had loved the movie since he was a boy, began trying to find a copy back in 1974 and happened to meet Burnett at the Players on Gramercy Park in New York City. Burnett had a script squirreled away (he had actually planned to write a sequel, but when the courts declared he no longer owned the original characters, it died for fear of a lawsuit from Warners) and Kelsey’s agent, George Weiser, grabbed it. Then Kelsey began his assault on Warner Brothers. The studio was “obstructive” in the beginning but, after what Kelsey called "a jigsaw of negotiations,” eventually agreed to allow a production in London. Rick's Bar Casablanca, directed by David Gilmore, finally opened at the Whitehall Theatre on 10 April 1991 and ran until 11 May.

Burnett, a stage-struck English teacher at Central Commercial High School, a Manhattan vocational school, was on summer vacation with his wife, Frances, in 1938. He’d inherited 10 G’s from an uncle that year and he used part of it to finance the trip. Frances Burnett’s stepfather lived in Antwerp and she had been growing increasing anxious about him and other family still in Europe as reports of Hitler’s rise reached the U.S. At the request of Mrs. Burnett’s Belgian family, she and her husband delayed their trip to southern France to help some Jewish relatives in Austria, annexed by the Third Reich in the Anschluss the previous March, smuggle money out of Nazi-dominated Europe, and they traveled to Vienna. (Jews could leave Nazi-controlled Europe in those days as long as they took no money or valuable property with them.) Burnett was horrified by what he witnessed there and he met “a new breed of people”: refugees who were about to become “stateless people,” unwelcome in their homelands and unable to escape Europe easily. While in Vienna, too, Burnett learned about the “refugee trail,” a circuitous and perilous route from Nazi-controlled Europe across the Alps into France (not yet occupied by Germany in 1938) to Marseille and across the Mediterranean to Morocco then back to Lisbon, the capital of neutral Portugal and the center of espionage and intrigue in World War II Europe. From there, the displaced people hoped to escape to safety in the United States. The stress of what he saw in Vienna even made Burnett physically ill.

Later, fulfilling their vacation plans, the Burnetts went to Juan-les-Pins, a small town on the French Riviera. (Southern France, like French North Africa, would be part of unoccupied France, known as Vichy France. After the fall of France in 1940, it was nominally free but was administered by a German-controlled puppet government.) They visited a nightclub, not coincidentally called La Belle Aurore, where they heard a black piano player entertaining a clientele of Germans, French, and refugees with jazz songs. “You know, this would make a really terrific setting for a play!” Burnett commented to his wife.

When Burnett got back to New York, he told his long-time friend Joan Alison, who would be his collaborator, “No one can remain neutral, God damn it, Joan. No one can remain neutral.” He was determined to write a play about the Nazi threat in Europe based on what he’d seen that summer but his first impulse was to write a spy-thriller, to be called One in a Million, as the appropriate vehicle.

Burnett had met Alison, who had a local radio talk show before she turned to writing plays with Burnett, a few years earlier during the summer. Burnett, unlike many other middle-class New Yorkers in the pre-war years, was able to afford a car, due principally to his steady job as a teacher and, later, that bequest from his uncle. During his summers off, he drove out to Long Island where he joined the Atlantic Beach Club and he spent most days relaxing in the sun and going over in his head the play he hoped would bring him Broadway success. He made friends with another sun-worshipper named Joan Alison, an attractive divorcee with three children, almost a decade older than he. Alison, whose real name was Joan Appleton, was wealthy by Burnett’s standards and more worldly—Burnett’s model, she said, for Lois Meredith in the play, the character that becomes Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. Burnett told Alison about the play he was writing, An Apple for the Teacher, based on his experiences at Central Commercial High, and she expressed enthusiasm. Alison socialized with a more glamorous and sophisticated crowd than did Burnett, and one of her friends was Broadway producer Delos Chappell. Alison offered to ask Chappell to read Burnett’s script and, at the least, give him some professional advice and comments. Burnett agreed, and to his surprise, Chappell optioned the play for Broadway. The producer felt the play needed some additional work, and he put Alison and Burnett together with an associate to help them prepare the script for a Broadway staging, but the collaboration didn’t work in the end and Chappell dropped the option on Apple. (Apple did make it to Broadway years later, in a revised version entitled Hickory Stick. It ran from 8 to 13 May 1944, Burnett’s only Broadway production. He had a successful career writing, producing, and directing radio plays, including one in 1952 for Marlene Dietrich called Café Istanbul, a clone of Casablanca.) Burnett wasn’t discouraged, however, as he had found in Alison an active supporter who had given him his first hint of Broadway success. They went on to work together on other scripts. The first one of significance was the play Burnett based on his experiences in Europe the summer of 1938.

When One in a Million was completed, Burnett and Alison shopped it around Broadway. No less a personage than Otto Preminger, known for his work in Hollywood but a successful Broadway director and producer as well, read the script and optioned it in June 1941. Once again, fate snatched away Alison and Burnett’s chance at theatrical fame, this time largely due to politics. Preminger, despite his history of playing Nazis on film, was a vehement opponent of Hitler and fascism, but the times were not ready for his kind of activism. The United States was officially neutral and there was a strong voice in congress and society that believed the U.S. should leave European problems to Europe and stay out of the fight altogether. These conservatives pressured the arts to steer clear of projects, films and plays, that took sides or assumed an assertive anti-Nazi stance. Preminger fell under this pressure from Washington and in August abandoned One in a Million, which was never produced. Still undiscouraged, however, Burnett and Alison switched tacks and tried again. Everybody Comes to Rick’s was born almost two years after Burnett’s fateful trip to Europe.

By the time the two playwrights settled into Alison’s Manhattan apartment, Burnett had already written the play, but he asked Alison to help him revise it. (The Letters of Transit had been Alison’s invention.) They completed the script in six weeks during the summer of 1940. Burnett’s experience in Vienna inspired him to write a play about Rick Blaine, a hard-bitten bar owner helping the idealistic leader of the anti-Nazi underground, and the nightclub in France became Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, Morocco, an actual stop on the “refugee trail” from Nazi-occupied Europe; La Belle Aurore itself lent its name to the café in Paris where Rick meets Sam and Lois/Ilsa. (By this time, France had fallen to the Germans so Burnett moved the action from the Riviera to northern Africa. Burnett, who had never actually been to Casablanca—the only person connected with the film who had ever visited the city where the story was set was Dooley Wilson—reportedly originally planned to set the play in Lisbon. Then we’d have had a movie called Lisbon. Not the same panache, somehow.)

Everybody Comes to Rick’s is something of a phantom play in many ways. I mean, obviously it exists since a) I’ve read it and b) Kelsey did produce it, but it has left a very small footprint over its nearly 70 years. (Critics of the film frequently referred to its source as a Broadway flop, to which Burnett strenuously objected since the play had never run on Broadway or, until 1991, on any stage other than the five-day run in Newport in 1946.) After Burnett (1911-97) and Alison (1902-92) completed the play in 1940, they tried to find a stage producer for it. Producing partners Carly Wharton and Martin Gabel optioned the script in May 1941 but they were worried because neither writer had any professional credits that would help sell the play to Broadway audiences. The producers thought that if they could enlist a known writer to put his name on the play, it would assure success in the theater; Alison and Burnett agreed and some of the playwrights consulted were Ben Hecht and Robert Sherwood. All the well-known pros had the same response: the script didn’t need revising. Wharton, however, was also uncomfortable that Lois would sleep with Rick to get the Letters of Transit. Burnett and Alison rejected a rewrite and the potential producers backed out. No one else was interested. Now, Ilsa also seems pretty clearly to have spent the night with Rick in the movie, but Warner Brothers (despite the Hays Code, which was in force then) was a little looser than Wharton, it seems. (The scene in the movie was carefully manipulated—no bed is visible, for instance, and it ends in a dissolve, at the suggestion of the Breen Office, instead of a fade-out—to make what happened in Rick’s apartment ambiguous, leaving the truth up to each viewer to decide.)

(There may also have been a political/patriotic aspect to the rejection. In the final scene of the play, after Victor Laszlo and Lois get away safely, just as their counterparts do in Casablanca, Rick is arrested by Strasser and presumably sent to a prison camp. Ending the play with a Gestapo victory, even a partial one, may not have sat well with Broadway producers at a time when the country was close to entering the war on the Allies’ side. Anti-Nazi feeling in the entertainment business on both coasts, despite official neutrality, was strong. Before Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into the war, the Breen Office, the overseers of the Hollywood Production Code, walked a precarious line of official neutrality and objected to any insult to another nation’s regime or people, even the Nazis and Fascists, but both Hollywood and Broadway were liberally oriented and also heavily populated by Jews—with not a few escaped anti-Nazi Germans and refugees from occupied lands and endangered peoples. The Warners, for instance, were among the staunchest anti-Nazi activists and under that studio’s guidance, Everybody Comes to Rick’s not only retained its anti-German stance, but the political leaning was enhanced and developed significantly for Casablanca. It was in part for this reason, for example, that Rick shoots Strasser at the end of the movie and Renault and Rick walk off arm in arm to fight the Nazis elsewhere in Africa. By the time the movie was made, of course, the Germans were our enemies and even the Breen Office didn’t have to maintain the fiction of neutrality or evenhandedness. Burnett and Alison’s original ambiguous ending, leaving Rick to an uncertain fate in the hands of the Gestapo, would not have been accepted by movie audiences. Possibly Wharton and Gabel felt this, too, even as early as May 1941.)

So, failing to find a stage producer for their script, they turned to the movies. In a week, the writers’ agent, Anne Watkins, sold the play to Warner Brothers for the munificent sum of 20 grand, a record amount in December 1941. (Dashiell Hammett only got $8K from the same studio for The Maltese Falcon, another immensely successful Bogie flick.) After that, however, and aside from screen credit, Burnett and Alison were effectively cut out of the record of Casablanca, receiving no recognition when the Oscars—even the one for Best Writing—were handed out in 1943, and never being further acknowledged until Burnett sued in 1983 to regain ownership of his characters and plot. (An unsuccessful TV series, starring that great actor David Soul, AKA: “Hutch,” as Rick, had just shut down after airing only three episodes. This was the second attempt to serialize the story for TV; the first had failed in 1955.) New York courts ruled in favor of Warner Brothers but Burnett and Alison had fortuitously copyrighted the play in 1941 (and renewed the copyright in 1969), so the rights were about to revert to them anyway. They threatened to withhold their signatures on a new agreement with Warners, so they each did get another 100 grand out of the studio in 1997. They also wrested the right to produce the original play, which, until the 1991 London staging, had also sunk into obscurity (except as the answer to a Hollywood trivia question). So obscure had Burnett and Alison’s play become that in an interview in 1974, Bergman actually said: “Casablanca based on a play? No I don't think so . . . for we didn't know how the movie would end." In 1973, Howard Koch, one of the three main screenwriters, had said in New York magazine that Everybody Comes to Rick's had provided him and his collaborators, Julius and Philip Epstein (the only twins to have ever won Academy Awards), with nothing more than some character names and an exotic locale. (Incensed, Burnett unsuccessfully sued Koch for $6½ million over the remark. In 1991, the year of the London staging, Koch, who died in 1995, acknowledged in the L.A. Times that Burnett had been “to some extent, justified.") As a gag in 1982, the year Bergman died, the movie script of Casablanca was sent to over two hundred agents under the title Everybody Comes to Rick's. Thirty-eight rejected it as an unworthy film project; only thirty-three recognized it as the screenplay of the famous movie.

In truth, as I indicated, Everbody Comes to Rick’s contains all the major elements of the plot and characters that showed up in Casablanca. Alison estimated that the screenwriters used almost 70% of the play script (72 of the script’s original 97 pages). Some of the character’s names were changed, but Burnett even included “As Time Goes By,” a favorite of his as a Cornell senior, as the iconic song Sam plays for Lois/Ilsa because it reminds her of Rick and Paris. (The song is from a 1931 stage musical, Everybody’s Welcome, based on the 1930 stage comedy Up Pops the Devil.) Even the plot device—the vital plot device—of the Letters of Transit was Burnett and Alison’s creation: there was actually no such thing; Alison made it up! The screenwriters opened up the script to include scenes outside Rick’s café, and they wrote all the wonderful lines that Burnett and Alison hadn’t thought up. The oft-quoted lines ("I'm shocked, shocked . . . . ," "Round up the usual suspects," "The Germans wore gray, you wore blue," “Here's looking at you, kid,” "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"—and oh, so many more) are all missing from the playscript, making it a little prosaic by comparison. (Casablanca may be the most quoted—and, in one famous case, misquoted—movie ever produced in Hollywood. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I can’t think of another film with as many famous lines which are so often spouted in public discourse. Even that famous misquote, the line no one ever says in the screenplay, “Play it again, Sam,” has gotten its own provenance, having become the title of a Woody Allen play and movie!) Epstein, Epstein, and Koch also cut some dialogue from Everybody Comes to Rick’s, primarily to accommodate the Hays Code. This mostly affected the character of Lois/Ilsa who was not only not married to Laszlo in the play, but had also been living with a married businessman when she and Rick were together in Paris. (The screenwriters turned Naughty Lois into Virtuous Ilsa who thought her husband, Victor, was dead when she hooked up with Rick in Paris. This barely passed Hays Code muster, but slipped by.) The character of Rinaldo/Renault, who originally was very clear about trading exit visas to young women in return for sex, was another problem for the Breen Office. Several of Claude Rains’s lines were cut or changed for the film. And the actors also contributed immensely to the success of the movie, which Warner Brothers didn’t expect to be anything spectacular when it was first released. Both Bogart and Bergman wanted to get out of making it and Henreid was unhappy about playing a second banana. (Conrad Veidt, a staunch anti-Nazi who fled Germany because his wife was Jewish, had by this time gotten used to being cast as a Nazi or other villainous German character.) Casablanca was a World War II potboiler, one of dozens churned out by the studios during the war years made mostly to employ the stable of stars the studios had under contract; it was even rushed into release early to take advantage of the actual Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942.

The first obvious variations have to do with character names: Sam (Dooley Wilson) for instance, is also called "the Rabbit" (because he’s known for his rendition of “Run Rabbit Run,” an audience-participation novelty song popular in World War II); Ilsa Lund (Bergman) is called Lois Meredith in the play; Louis Renault (Claude Rains) is Luis Rinaldo; Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) is Senor Carlos Martinez. (The character Peter Lorre plays also has a Spanish first name—Guillermo—and is called “Senor”—the playscript doesn’t use the tilde—like the Greenstreet role. With Rinaldo/Renault, that makes three of the major roles with Spanish or half-Spanish names, two of them with Italian last names. Rinaldo is still French in the play, and Ugarte’s and Martinez/Ferrari’s nationalities are ambiguous just as they are in the film, but I don’t know why the Spanish and Italian influence was so common. The only connection I could think of is inadequate: French Morocco was right next door to Spanish Morocco. Where the Italian in the playscript came in, I have no idea, though when the movie was filmed, a deliberate decision was made to make Ugarte and Ferrari Italian since Italy was now an enemy country and no insult to friendly or neutral nationalities could be inferred.) Surprisingly, though, the characters are otherwise pretty much the way they ended up in the movie—except, of course, for the important contributions of the actors. I could easily hear Bogie saying Rick's lines, Rains doing Rinaldo, and Paul Henreid and Veidt doing Laszlo and Strasser (he’s only a captain in the play; he’s a major in the film); even Bergman could have been Lois, though the play made her an American. The Ugarte character, despite his description at the beginning of the script, is exactly like the one Peter Lorre played in the movie. (The Martinez/Ferrari role was considerably expanded for the film to entice Greenstreet.)

The major plot differences with the movie are that the Germans want money from Victor Laszlo and he and Lois Meredith aren’t married in the play. The Germans claim Laszlo'd made $7 million from the anti-Nazi writings he'd published in Europe before he fled, and they claim it as their due. In the play, if Laszlo turns the money over to the Third Reich, he gets to leave Casablanca; in the film, he must rat out the other resistance leaders in his network and Strasser makes it very clear that Laszlo and Ilsa will never leave the city. This makes the play much more banal and lowers the stakes considerably compared to the movie. The other major difference is that the play all takes place inside Rick's café: there are no scenes in the street, at the airport, or in Paris (the flashback doesn't even exist in the play; there are few details of the backstory).

The four main characters—Rick, Rinaldo/Renault, Lois/Ilsa, and Laszlo—are the most altered from the play to the movie. Rick, a married man in the play who had cheated on his wife, a lawyer with a self-pitying streak, becomes . . . well, he becomes Bogie, the cynical, tough, secretive loner. The film role had been tailor-made for Bogart. The immoral womanizer Rinaldo becomes the teasing, sophisticated, slightly sarcastic Renault. Victor Laszlo, the least changed of the four, was bolstered mostly by plot enhancements, particularly the omission of the monetary motive for the Gestapo hunt for him and the insertion of the demand, which he refuses, that he reveal the names of his resistance colleagues. But he is more cynical in the play: he sends Lois to Rick, for instance, knowing she will sleep with him for the Letters of Transit. The Lois of the play, as I’ve noted already, was the most changed: she got a new nationality (mostly to accommodate Bergman’s Swedish accent, but turning her into a European had been discussed even before anyone knew Bergman would get the role) and a new personality. Lois is a tramp with no sense of loyalty, much less duty; Ilsa is as noble in her way as Laszlo, though she’s ready to sacrifice herself not for a cause in the end, but for love. Overall, the subtle differences in the characters in the play with their counterparts in the film, especially their backgrounds and their styles of speech, make the play’s characters coarser and less noble than the film’s. I don’t doubt that some of this is due to the acting (and directing of Michael Curtiz) as well as the screenwriting, especially since so much of the script was unfinished while the movie was being shot and scenes were written or, often, improvised on the set as the cameras were rolling. Although many of these changes were engineered to please the Breen Office and others to accommodate the actors playing the roles, they served to create enduring—and endearing—characters who are much stronger and more memorable than the ones Burnett and Alison created. Nonetheless, the higher tone of the movie versus the play suggests that Hollywood’s jingoism, in this case put to good ends, improved on the original for a change.

As for writing quality and playability, Everybody Comes to Rick’s doesn’t measure up to Casablanca. (Critic James Agee wrote in The Nation that the movie was a clear improvement over “one of the world’s worst plays,” an opinion Agee formed without having ever seen the play or its script—as, of course, no one had. I’ve read that Rick’s Bar Casablanca, the play that was staged in London, was enhanced with elements of the film, and the London reviews seem to bear this out. If so, I can’t say if the revised script is more substantial that the original Everybody Comes to Rick’s; it may be heftier.) Although Burnett and Alison’s original writing was more than acceptable of itself, the characters, as noted, are coarser, and less nuanced, and the dialogue flatter and less layered than that which Koch and the Epstein twins composed for the movie. If, by some chance, someone had never seen Casablanca and read the script of Everybody Comes to Rick’s, she might consider it an interesting period piece. (Several of the London reviews bear this out.) Finding an audience full of naïve spectators like that would be unlikely, though, and I suspect most viewers would feel the absence of the film’s enhancements. (Michael Billington, the Guardian reviewer, admitted that he hadn’t ever seen the film so he saw the play without the shadow of Casablanca hanging around him.) Rick’s lack of nobility, Ilsa’s missing virtue, Rinaldo’s lechery, and the omission of Laszlo’s lofty motivation all lessen the power of the play. It is here, too, that the stamps placed on the roles by Bogart, Bergman, Henreid, Rains, Veidt, and even Greenstreet and Lorre—and all those wonderful character actors the studios had on call in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s—is unavoidably evident. I said I could hear the film’s stars doing the roles Burnett and Alison wrote, and I could. But that only means that any actor would be competing with their ghosts from the stage, too. (Benedict Nightingale said virtually the same thing in his review in the London Times.) And whatever Michael Curtiz gave them in terms of direction and whatever Koch and the twins invented for them to say, those actors helped create those characters indelibly—and that would also be missing in any production of Everybody Comes to Rick’s. (David Soul is no great actor by any measure, but I remember that series and a great part of why it failed was not the acting of the lead, but the inability of the TV production even to approximate the movie’s overall power. No one could have accomplished that.)

No doubt the movie’s ultimate dynamic was a complete accident, given the way Warner Brothers planned and produced it. (By the way, the persistent rumor that the studio had originally considered Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan, and George Raft for the roles of Rick, Lois/Ilsa, and Renault, is false. One story is that Warners put out the release announcing that in order to pique interest in the casting and promote its stable of actors; another version is that the publicist for those three actors put out the announcement to get his clients’ names in the trade papers. Either way, Bogie was the only actor considered for Rick, Bergman was the first choice for Ilsa and the only hold-up was that she was under contract to another producer, and though Raft campaigned for a role in the film, he was never seriously considered.) Too much of the final movie was made on the fly in order to get it ready for release and to accommodate the actors’ next scheduled projects for the final accomplishment to have been planned. Nevertheless, it was certainly a happy accident, and recreating that magic again would be, and already has been, impossible. None of that’s in the play, and any director would be starting at a deficit because of the results of the movie magic. And that's not even dealing with the lesser quality of the play’s writing as compared to the text of the screenplay. Now that's certainly a bass-ackwards situation, ain't it?

By the way, that 1991 London staging, Rick’s Bar Casablanca, was billed as an unproduced play (that is, a world première). Assuming the reviews are accurate—and since Billington has nothing with which to confuse the play, I assume they are—what Kelsey put on the stage of the Whitehall Theatre wasn’t exactly Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Burnett himself revised the script, reducing the original three acts to two, and it did have some elements taken from the movie: Nightingale mentioned some movie lines that aren’t in the script I read and many reviewers described some plot details that are drawn from the screenplay. Lois, for instance, is not only married to Laszlo when they get to Casablanca, but she was married to him when she and Rick were in Paris. In addition, Lois believed Laszlo was dead when she and Rick meet in Paris; in Everybody Comes to Rick’s, this whole back story doesn’t exist: Lois was involved with another man when she and Rick were in Paris. (Rick, of course, had the same name in both scripts, and the female lead on the London stage was named Lois as in the playtext, but the police captain was called Louis Renault in London and Strasser was promoted to major as in the film. Martinez, like Lois, retained the name from the stage play.) Other details that weren’t in Burnett and Alison’s original text but which appeared on the London stage include Rick’s history as a freedom-fighting activist who supported the Ethiopians against Mussolini and fought against Franco in Spain.

Most of the London reviews were cool; no one found the play a smash. Most of the reviewers saw the same drawbacks in production that I sensed in the typescript: the loss of the stronger dialogue contributed by Koch and the Epsteins, the after-images of the Hollywood cast, the coarser, more artificial life of the stage play compared to the smoother, more flowing film world. What struck me, reading the reviews of Rick’s Bar Casablanca, was that where the reviewers found merit in the stage play, it was derived from elements absconded from screenplay. (Oddly, I did not get the impression that any of the reviewers knew that what they were praising had been added to Burnett and Alison’s script. Not one writer mentioned this, and since the text of Everybody Comes to Rick’s isn’t published—there is a synopsis in Frank Miller’s Casablanca: As Time Goes By: 50th Anniversary Commemorative—I suspect none of the reviewers knew the differences between the original playtext and the screenplay and assumed, probably, that what they were hearing was all the work of Burnett and Alison. In a turn-about, Kelsey didn’t give any credit for the stage production to the screenwriters.) In other words, Kelsey obviously saw that the original text wouldn’t succeed on stage so he used the enhancements that helped make the film and retrofitted the stage version to approximate the movie. It sounds to me as if he succeeded to an extent—none of the reviewers hated the play and a few pronounced it a small success. In its original form, I doubt it would have done as well.

The script that was presented in Newport in 1946, though it was billed as the world première as well, may have been different from Burnett and Alison’s original version, too. One announcement called it an adaptation by the director, Hudson Fausett, and the agreement with Warner Brothers apparently gave producer Sara Stamm, who ran the Casino Theatre, permission to make any changes she wanted as long as she turned them over to the studio, whose property they would become. (In fact, that agreement forbad Stamm from using the names of the original playwrights in her publicity for the production.) And though some references to the Rhode Island production, which was reported to be a pre-Broadway try-out, say it used the title of the movie, Casablanca, it actually seems to have been billed as They All Come to Rick’s. (It’s a sort of ironic joke, given the obscurity in which the playscript and its creators languished in contrast to the glory that has been heaped on the movie, but many people don’t seem to be able to get the title straight. Kelsey expressly changed it for his production, of course, but I don’t know where the title used in Newport came from and other listings call the play Everybody Goes to Rick’s. I even found a recording of a 1992 interview Burnett did at Cornell—he was a 1931 alum—which is listed as Why “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”: The 50th Anniversary of “Casablanca.” Even they got it wrong! One of the difficulties that comes from this fact is that searching for information on the play, whether on line, in databases, or in printed materials, requires looking up all the permutations of the title. I can assure you that the evidence of my own two eyes affirms that the play Burnett and Alison submitted to Wharton and Gabel and then Warner Brothers, the typescript that’s on reposit in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection up at Lincoln Center, is entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Trust me.)

14 comments:

  1. I've just discovered that "Casablanca" was produced as a musical in, of all places, Beijing. It opened on 8 April 2005 and played at the Great Hall of the People until 12 April to launch the Third Beijing International Drama Festival. The musical play, featuring tap dancing and the song "As Time Goes By," was staged by producer/director/choreographer John Clifford and starred Romanian actress Simona Noja as Ilsa and Italian Giuseppe Picone as Rick. The production was developed by the China Arts and Entertainment Group and Time Warner, and was intended to go on a world tour, including the U.S.

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  2. INTERESTING.... on how big timers take advantage of the true talented

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  3. I looked up the script and read it once too, and for nearly the same reason as you. My question was whether it might work as a commercial-theater production. My conclusion was that it's very much like the film, as you say, but that too many of the prized lines were missing for it to really go over well.

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  4. John: You may have noted that there was a production of a script that included some material from the film. It was a London production and wasn't very successful critically, and the producer's deceased so it may be hard to get the script now, but I imagine that with some effort, you could get a look at it. Getting the rights, however, might be difficult; I believe they are still controlled by Warner Bros. to some extent.

    There's also that musical version of the film that débuted in Beijing.

    ~Rick

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  5. Can anyone help me track down a reading copy, please?

    Russ

    russfyles@msn.com

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  6. Russ--

    Since the play was never published, the only copies are in typescript. I imagine there are several around in archives, like the UCLA library, but the only one I know about is the one I read in the N.Y. Public Library for the Performing Arts. They won't be circulating copies, so you'll have to go to the library or get another library to borrow it for you and read it there. That's the only help I can offer, I'm afraid.

    ~Rick

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  7. Rick,

    I am a high school junior (read - a theatre hopeful) and one of my projects for school is to adjust Casablanca to be performed on a stage. I do have the script but it would be very helpful to have the play as well. The problem is, I am from a very small country in Europe. Is there ANY way to get the script by the means of Internet?

    Thanks,
    Pia

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    1. Pia--

      By 'Casablanca,' I assume you mean 'Everybody Comes to Rick's,' the original script from 1941, not the one that was produced in London in 1991. As I said above in a response to Russ's similar inquiry, as far as I know, there are only archival copies of the typescript in libraries such as the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Since the play was never published, I doubt there's an on-line copy anywhere on the 'Net, either. (I don't know if the London text of the play was published, either, but I doubt it.) Warner Bros. still owns the rights, and until they release the script, it will only be available to read in an archival collection. Whether there's one somewhere in Europe, I have no idea--though it would surprise me if there were.

      Some libraries will lend archival manuscripts to other research libraries, so you can inquire about that possibility, but this is a case in which I doubt any collection that owns the script will part with it.

      By the way, this seems like a strange project to me since the play has been performed on the stage. Not even counting the 1946 Rhode Island staging, that 1991 London version was a major West End production, and in addition, there's the musical adaptation that débuted in Beijing. (Both of the latter, neither of which were especialy successful, inserted material from the film into the performance scripts.)

      If you mean the filmscript, I know nothing at all about that. I don't think it's been published, either, but I'm not certain. You'd have to work from a video of the movie, I guess.

      ~Rick

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  8. For what it's worth, if you make a written request to the USC WB archive, stating that you want a copy for research purposes only, they'll send you a quote for the copying costs. Send payment and you'll get a photocopy. At least, you could do that a while back; I think I got mine close to ten years ago, and it cost around $40 or so.

    It's a lot easier to find now, though, because someone at Drexel University has posted a pdf of the play (and a lot of other scripts) online. Not too hard to find by googling.

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    1. That's interesting. Thanks for the information. WB still controls the rights, however, so be careful if any of you is considering staging the play.

      ~Rick

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    1. You're more than welcome, Ms. Callas (really?). I really enjoyed writing this post--the subject is fascinating, the movie's one of my all-time faves, and the original play's title . . . well, it speaks for itself.

      ~Rick

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  10. Does anyone out there know of a repository of other works by Murray Burnett? Cornell does not hold his archival papers. Thanks. Karl bluecar91@hotmail.com

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    1. Sorry, Karl, I don't. Let's see if anyone else does. Readers?

      ~Rick

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