14 April 2010

'Camino Real,' The Musical

In 1997, when I was doing a great deal of research on Tennessee Williams’s connected plays Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, I learned a fact that surprised me. As part of the research, I looked into the 1976 Broadway production of Eccentricities, which had started at a regional repertory company in Buffalo, the Studio Arena Theatre. I wrote to the SAT and asked them to send me all their papers on the production, which included, along with local reviews and press coverage, the company’s press releases.

As most theaters are, SAT was very generous with its records and the theater copied its entire file on the show and sent me a packet of documents that was invaluable in my work. (I was writing the chapter on the two plays for Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, ed. Philip C. Kolin [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998].) The production of Eccentricities which went to Broadway in November 1976 opened in Buffalo in October that year. Previously, it had been a summer stock tour and SAT announced its appearance on their stage in August. But among the papers the theater sent me were three clippings and a news release from July which didn’t look like they were about Eccentricities at all. In fact, they were about another Tennessee Williams play altogether, Camino Real, the playwright’s Absurdist script from the early 1950s. At first, I just thought the papers had slipped into the collection on Eccentricities by mistake—until I looked at them more closely. That’s when I learned the surprising little fact—which not only was news to me, a theater generalist and no authority on Williams, but, I found out later, was news to some of the real experts on the playwright I got to know from working on projects like this one.

The newspapers articles and Studio Arena press release were the announcement of a project to turn Camino Real into a musical with the cooperation of Tennessee Williams himself. The project foundered, and the reason the papers were part of the packet concerning Eccentricities SAT sent me was that Eccentricities had been brought in to take the spot in the Studio Arena schedule that Camino Real, the musical, had been expected to occupy; the Camino papers were part of the Eccentricities file (or, perhaps more accurately, the Eccentricities production took over the Camino file). Despite that little factoid, the existence of the Camino Real project was not pertinent to my work on the two other Williams plays, so I put the papers aside and didn’t really look at them until I’d finished the TW Guide chapter in ‘98. As Camino Real wasn’t part of my assignment, I didn’t do any research on the abortive production, but I glanced through the reference works I had used for my work on S&S and Eccentricities and I found that there was no mention anywhere, including the CR chapter in the new TW Guide, of this plan to set the play to music. (Since that time, Philip Kolin also published The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia, and its Camino entry doesn’t mention the musical version, either.) I haven’t gone looking far and wide to see if there’s any record of this effort, which was, after all, reported in the press, including the New York Times. Like the world première of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (see my report on ROT, 20 March 2010), Williams’s failed collaboration to create a new version of his 24-year-old play has passed under everybody’s radar. Had it succeeded, however, it would have been only the second full-length play of Williams’s that had been set to music in his lifetime (the opera of Summer and Smoke composed by Lee Hoiby in 1971 was the first) and the only one on which Tennessee Williams himself would have collaborated. (André Previn’s 1995 opera of Streetcar débuted 12 years after Williams’s death.) In any case, there’s not very much information available on the short-lived project, so here’s what I learned.

First, a little background for the source material. Williams first wrote a non-realistic play about Kilroy, the all-American boy, as a one-act in 1946 called Ten Blocks on the Camino Real. The short experimental play, part dream part carnival, was published in American Blues in 1948 and Elia Kazan, who’d already directed the stage version of Streetcar (1947) which had won Williams a Pulitzer and provided him with his second great Broadway success (after The Glass Menagerie in 1945), directed a scene from the one-act at the Actors Studio. Kazan encouraged Williams, whom he’d known since 1938 when the young playwright had submitted a series of one-acts to the Group Theatre where Kazan had been a member, to expand the play into a full-length treatment. Comprising now 16 “blocks” (as the scenes were called), Camino Real was born in 1952 and staged on Broadway the next year. Kazan directed it. It met with cool reception from both critics and audiences, neither of whom understood what Williams was up to. (The great Absurdist play, which had its own receptivity difficulties, Waiting for Godot, didn’t come along in the U.S. for another three years. Non-realistic, experimental plays like CR and Godot weren’t even yet a presence Off-Broadway as early as 1953, whose major success at this point in theater history was another Tennessee Williams play, one that had previously failed on Broadway: Summer and Smoke. Its 1952 revival at Circle in the Square downtown made OB an important venue for serious theater, but S&S is hardly an avant-garde play.)

Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, which has been compared to the work of Beckett and Ionesco, is a fantasy—sometimes Existential, sometimes Surreal, sometimes Absurdist, sometimes Symbolist, sometimes Expressionistic—about romantics who find it hard to survive in a world devoid of human feeling and taken over by cynical self-interest and political oppression. William Hawkins, reviewer for the old New York World-Telegram, described the plot as having “no limits of time or space. The set is a walled community, from which the characters ceaselessly try to escape, without success. Only Don Quixote, who calls himself ‘an unashamed victim of romantic folly,’ has access to the outside, and finally Kilroy goes with him. Kilroy is a central figure, an ex-boxer, always the patsy, the fall guy, who asks so little and always gets short-changed, but he never quits hoping . . . . The other principal story is a romance between the aging, hunting Camille, and the fading Casanova, who yearns now only for tenderness and faithfulness . . . . The play has subdued sequences of tenderness and pathos. It also has scenes of cataclysmic violence. The near escape of Kilroy, the battle to ride the escape plane are hair-raising, as is the wild fiestas crown the ‘tired old peacock,’ Casanova.”

The original play premièred at the Martin Beck Theatre on 19 March 1953 and ran only 60 performances (until 9 May). Designed by Lemuel Ayers, the cast included Eli Wallach as the boxer, Kilroy, and included Martin Balsam, Barbara Baxley, Michael V. Gazzo, Hurd Hatfield, Salem Ludwig, Nehemiah Persoff, Henry Silva, Frank Silvera, and Jo Van Fleet. It was met with bad reviews almost across the board, starting with Walter Kerr’s New York Herald Tribune notice, which averred Camino Real was “the worst play yet written by the best playwright of his generation” and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, who called the play “a strange and disturbing dream” and “a kind of cosmic fantasy.” A few reviewers demurred, but Camino Real accumulated a history of critical negativity that stretched beyond 1976. An Off-Broadway production staged by Jose Quintero at Circle in the Square (the same director and theater that had done the Summer and Smoke to immense success in ’52) played in 1960, receiving further negative reviews; British and Continental productions met with similar receptions. Martin Sheen appeared on NET Playhouse (PBS’s predecessor) in the one-act version in 1966 and Al Pacino starred in a Lincoln Center revival in 1970. Little by little, however, the play began to see a reevaluation of its dramatic worth and impact as audiences, especially in the United States, became more used to such experimental stage fare. Actors and directors seemed to gravitate to the script, but in 1976, Camino Real was still regarded with confusion and apathy by both critics and audiences.

On 22 July 1976, the Studio Arena Theatre announced that its 100th production would be the new musical based on Williams’s Camino Real. It was to première on 1 October, the opening of SAT’s 1976-77 season, the theater’s twelfth. The title of the new play had not been decided at the time of the first announcement; however, it later acquired a “working title” of El Camino (which is what I’ll call the musical to keep it differentiated from the non-musical script). The book for El Camino was to be by Tennessee Williams himself in collaboration with Larry Arrick, who was at the time the Artistic Director of the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and who’d previously adapted the Broadway script for Unlikely Heroes: 3 Philip Roth Stories (1971). Arrick was to direct the cast of 20 as well; he’d directed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and at Yale Rep previously. The musical’s lyrics were to be by Williams and Barbara Damashek (Quilters, 1984), who’d also have composed the music and overseen the musical direction. (Damashek, who’d known Arrick at Yale and was music director at the O’Neill under him, researched and edited the music selections for his Unlikely Heroes, which Arrick had also directed.) Though both Williams’s potential partners, particularly Arrick, would accumulate several credits in TV and regional theater, in 1976, neither the writer-director nor the composer-lyricist had what I’d call a substantial record of accomplishment and success in the theater. The producers of El Camino, which was characterized as a future Broadway transfer “sometime later this year at a theatre still to be announced,” were to have been Charles Bowden and Isobel Robins, co-producers of David Storey’s The Changing Room (1973) on Broadway. (Bowden had also previously produced many other Broadway shows, including three Williams premières: Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton, 1955—part of All in One; The Night of the Iguana, 1961; and Slapstick Tragedy, 1966—The Gnädiges Fräulein and The Mutilated. He’d also produced a national tour of Streetcar.) Williams was expected to be in residence in Buffalo during the development of El Camino and to oversee the production.

I don’t know how far along the work on the adaptation had gotten before the collaboration collapsed. One report stated that Williams had already rewritten some of Camino Real “to some extent” by the time SAT made the announcement. There are at least two versions of the script, one labeled "An Untitled Musical" and dated “May 1976” and another called "El Camino," but without a date, on reposit among the Charles Bowden papers at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Other papers in that file are casting notes and even some design notes, so some consideration of these aspects of the planned production were already underway when the work was abandoned. The reasons for the dissolution of the collaboration aren’t clear and when Eccentricities was announced in August for the 100th-production slot in the SAT schedule, only “creative differences” was cited as the cause. Williams was apparently displeased at some aspect of how El Camino was developing, but I have no idea what that might have meant, even if it was true. (I imagine that Tennessee Williams wouldn’t have been an easy collaborator. He might just have stalked out.) The Bowden collection at HRC lists correspondence, but specifies only “director correspondence” and “Correspondence re Larry Arrick and Barbara Damashek arbitration” (whatever that means). One other file is called “Production materials, clippings, correspondence”; if there’s any communication with Williams among the producer’s papers, it’s not specified—which I think it would be—but somewhere among those papers in Austin might be the explanation of what happened to El Camino.

As far as I can tell, the HRC archive is the only one to hold any papers acknowledged to concern El Camino, though papers elsewhere might contain documents if someone wanted to do a collection-by-collection, file-by-file search. But Williams’s own papers are scattered in disparate archives all across the country, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Austin, Texas, and from Newark, Delaware, to Sewanee, Tennessee—just to name a few. Williams-related documents in the collections of his correspondents, collaborators, and friends could come to hundreds of locations. (Just here in New York City, I myself have searched in four archives—two universities and two NYPL divisions—in easily a score of separate holdings for various Tennessee Williams documents, plus a few incidental folders in repositories around the city.) The Studio Arena Theatre, unhappily, is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy status now, and I doubt there’d be anyone around with access to records, if any remain from 36 years ago. Charles Bowden, the co-producer, died in 1996. That leaves only lyricist Barbara Damashek, book-writer Larry Arrick and Isobel Robins, Bowden’s partner, from the original creative and production team still around to tell the tale.

Coincidentally, the New York Times announced late last year that Williams and Kazan would be the main characters in a new play from 17 April to 8 May. The Really Big Once is set during the years from 1948 to 1953 when the playwright and the director worked on Camino Real. Based on letters, notebooks, and research, The Really Big Once is being produced (and created) by the Target Margin Theatre in association with Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Incubator at St. Mark’s.


  1. Having just caught this post long after you wrote it, I must make one correction. Barbara Damashek is alive and well:

    1. Ooops! (I don't know now where I got that bit of erroneous information.)

      It's a little late, but thanks for the correction. My heartfelt apologies to Ms. Damashek.