The case of THE TORTURED TUNESMITHS (or Quick,Watson—the music!)

Richard Gehman April 3 1965

The case of THE TORTURED TUNESMITHS (or Quick,Watson—the music!)

Richard Gehman April 3 1965

The case of THE TORTURED TUNESMITHS (or Quick,Watson—the music!)

A PAIR OF YOUNG TORONTONIANS seem to be on the verge of eating away a little more of The Canadian National Inferiority Complex. Their names are Marian Grudeff and Ray Jessel. They are the authors of the new musical Baker Street which, after reasonably unexplosive tryouts in Toronto and Boston, arrived on Broadway a few weeks ago to find that the sophisticated playgoers of Manhattan and environs had plunked down, sight unseen, more than a million dollars to view Sherlock Holmes set to music.

A few weeks before this, one of the pair sits in a Toronto hotel suite, perfectly confident of success. He is an ovoid man, rather like an egg that has grown some black mold on top and sprouted hornrimmed glasses below it. During this interview he is at least as sanguine as Richard Rodgers, the now-legendary composer who worked with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers emanates a sublime faith in his own ability, and so does this fellow in Toronto. I have struck it big, his manner seems to say, and there is no stopping me now.

In a New York apartment, the other sits and fidgets, wondering — in her o'Wn phrase — what in the name of heaven they are doing with the show now. Her hands shake a little as she lights a cigarette. She has raccoony circles around her eyes, as though she has been worrying a good deal. She looks as though she might be helping an analyst out with his rent money. Sometimes she rises impulsively as she is talking, then slumps back into her chair, as though abandoning herself to her fate, whatever it will be.

This is the way the team struck me in mid-January.

The one in Toronto was Ray Jessel. (“No relation to George —■ none whatever,” he hastened to say, with a self-conscious laugh.)

The one in New York was Marian Grudeff, who hastened to say, “Go on — ask any question you feel like asking. I’ve been interviewed before. I don’t know whether to go up there to Canada or not. You just can’t tell them how numbers ought to be done. It’s like talking in a vacuum.”

This is the pair who wrote the music and lyrics for a squeezingtogether of several episodes from the life and times of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the celebrated ficticious creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes himself surely never met an odder pair of nonlovers. To say that Jessel and Grudeff, or Grudeff and Jessel, are dissimilar, is like saying that Chou En-lai and Chiang Kai-shek do not really have a good deal in common. G. and J. both explain, willingly and reasonably, how they got together. They perform well together when they are auditioning their songs, yet in personality, temperament, work habits, disposition and volatility, the musical creators of this new musical are as radically different as a pea and a lima bean in a pod.

It was my assignment to interview the couple while Baker Street,

Richard Gehman

produced in the United States, tried out in Boston and then given an additional tryout period in Toronto at O'Keefe Centre, was running at that latter-day landmark (surely one of the most superb theatres in the world, a theatre distinguished from most of its peers in the United States by the fact that its acoustics are marvelous and its seats comfortable and its temperature clement).

Jessel, as noted, was Rodgersianly happy, and already behaving as though this was to be only the first of many future triumphs. “Now,” he announced with the air of a man who orders his life as though from a menu, “I'm going to take a vacation.” It was as though he were saying, “That will be my reward.” The attitude was not quite smug. It was more or less what-hath-God-wrought.

Grudeff. who was in New York when the show opened in Toronto (“1 couldn't bear to go up there just then.” she told me), was less than happy. She was, although she would not come right out and use the word “furious,” furious. She was furious over the way her and her partner's songs had been treated. "Why, they didn't even do It’s So Simple right,” she said to me, getting up and pacing around the living room of her apartment, which was furnished about the way one might expect the apartment of a woman of extraordinary talent to be: the furniture either had been there when she moved in, or .she had bought it abstractedly in antique shops in Greenwich Village (a fat oaken table glaring at a skinny modern lamp in the living room ).

It's So Simple is the opening song in Baker Street, and in it, while Fritz Weaver, playing Holmes, lunges about from microscope to microscope making deductions and observations, Dr. Watson (Peter Sallis) and a visitor. Captain Gregg (Patrick Horgan). explain to the audience that it’s all so simple. It is a light. Gilbert-and-Sullivanish song, but Grudeff felt that the director and the musical director were permitting the actors to say the word “simple” in a manner that was not in keeping with the way she and Jessel had originally intended it.

“1 broke out in a cold sweat when I saw the way they did that song,” she told me later.

“1 felt they could have done it better,” Jessel said, much more mildly.

Then they turned to each other and began work on their favorite hobby, which is fighting.

“It ought to be, ‘it's so sim-pell,' ” said Marian Grudeff.

“1 think it’s all right the way they do it.” said Jessel.

She looked as though she were about to hit him with one of Holmes' microscopes.

"That scene between Grudeff and Jessel was about par for their course,” Hildy Parks, the actress and wife / continued on page 26

continued on page 26

They’re sure no one understands their work—including, at times, each other


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of (he producer of the show, later told me.

All this is a little hard to believe, because Baker Street is Grudeff and Jessel’s first show to hit what is known as The Big Time. In February it moved into New York with an advance sale of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It had Hal Prince Insurance: Hal Prince was the director. In the month of January alone, he had mailed out cheques to investors in his shows to the amount of one hundred and sixty-seven thousand dollars, for money they had put in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Fiddler On The Roof, Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and She Loves Me. That made no difference to Grudeff. She, damn it, wanted the songs done the way she and Jessel had conceived them.

Nor did it make any difference to the fledgling partners that Alexander H. Cohen, the producer, had got up the stupendous sum of six hundred and fifty thousand dollars for this production, and that they were going into New York with perhaps the most lavish sets ever seen in a New York musical (some on a turntable, some dropped from above, some slid in on a track, some wheeled forward from behind). Cohen, who until last year was the United States booker of talent for O’Keefe Centre, is what may be understatingly described as a high-roller. For the opening night of one of his Broadway shows a few years ago, he had champagne piped into a water cooler in the theatre. Another time he walked into a theatre on the afternoon of an opening and found that the chandelier was not fancy enough for his taste. He replaced it, at tremendous cost, then and there.

Cohen had spared no expense whatever for Baker Street. He also had assembled a marvelous cast. He had hired Inga Swenson, a radiantly beautiful girl with a glorious voice, to play Irene Adler, the American stage star who briefly — and. as it turns out, unsuccessfully — lures Holmes away from his deductions, dope needle and violin. Cohen also had recruited Martin Gabel, surely one of the most accomplished actors alive, to play the wicked Professor Moriarty. And he had the incredibly talented Fritz Weaver, who eventually may be known as The American Laurence Olivier, as his lead.

Cohen also had spent four years in assembling Baker Street, during which time he had heard (and rejected) the songs of any number of skilled and experienced composers in the States. Finally, he had selected Grudeff and Jessel, which in itself should have set them up, for Cohen is perhaps the most tasteful yet canny producer now setting actors to treading the boards (see Maclean’s, July 27, 1963).

Jessel basked as he anticipated triumph. Grudeff chafed.

During the Toronto run, Cohen brought in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, a songwriting team regarded

in New York as sure-shot musical surgeons, asking them to make suggestions and perhaps to contribute an additional song or two to the show. The arrangement was made with the specification that the music doctors were not to be given credit, that Jessel and Grudeff were to be the composers of record. Bock and Harnick wrote one new song, on which Grudeff and Jessel made suggestions. Jessel understood that he was being led into consultation; Grudeff took it like a hypochondriac who has just been told that her chest must be opened and her heart massaged.

Gilbert and Sullivan had their problems with each other, refusing to speak for long periods; Richard Rodgers has told me that he had his troubles with Hart; George Gershwin and his brother Ira often quarreled. Grudeff and Jessel, despite their strikingly opposite temperaments, seldom quarrel, they both assured me, but when they do — which is, in fact, frequently — one or the other gives in the next day.

“I think you were right,” Jessel will assure her.

“No, I’ve thought it over and you’re right,” she will say.

With this exchange, a sweet compromise will be effected. “You are married,” Joshua Logan once said to them when he temporarily was the director of Baker Street. The esteemed director knew that Grudeff and Jessel had no intention of becoming As One, but he was seeking a way of epitomizing their talents metaphorically. He picked up a sheaf of the songs they had written together. “And

you’ve produced all these babies,” he said.

Jessel beamed. Grudeff shuddered. Jessel was thinking how nice it would be to see and hear the songs done by actors; Grudeff was thinking that the actors would ruin them, or the director would, or somebody else would. Perhaps the audience would — by applauding.

“Sometimes we get into fights and we go away from working together with nerves shot to ribbons,” Jessel told me. “It gets nasty sometimes,” he continued.

Grudeff is the better piano player. Generally, while the team works, she sits at the piano. Each writes both music and lyrics. When they are demonstrating one of their songs, she plays and he sings, although she sometimes chimes in. Each is convinced that the two of them together can do their work better than any actors who ever lived, and that no director, orchestrator, conductor, choreographer or producer knows what they are driving at. They have sentenced themselves, as a team, to lifelong torment. Nobody ever will see it the way they do.

Yet the ironic fact is that each, in the beginning, seldom sees it the way the other does. There is a song in Baker Street called A Married Man, sung by Dr. Watson. Originally, in the show’s book, by Jerome Coopersmith, Dr. Watson had been, as he was in the Conan Doyle stories, a widower. Grudeff and Jessel changed him into a bachelor, possibly because they could not find enough words to rhyme with “widower.”

“We got the title, A Married Man,” Jessel told me. “Then Marian said, ‘You have to repeat that.’ I said, ‘We’ll give it up because there aren’t enough “man” rhymes.’ She screamed. It was a desperate lyric to write. Then we got to the point where we were saying, ‘A bachelor, a bachelor,’ and 1 knew she was right, so we changed it back to ‘A married man, a married man,’ and all of a sudden we had it.” The actor Richard Burton, who has had some experience in being a married man, recorded this song, and by February it was well on its way to becoming a best-selling single record.

“It’s been going on this way since Spring Thaw days,” said Grudeff to me — with a certain wistfulness, for during the time that the two of them served as musical directors for that annual Toronto revue, they had complete musical control and could make sure that their songs were done almost exactly as they thought them up.

This does not mean that they are unhappy with Alexander H. Cohen and his merry gnomes. Nor does his bringing in the outside pair of Broadway musical doctors mean that he became disillusioned with his discoveries. “The kids are wonderful,” Cohen told me, “and they’re going to be big, big talents. I’m going to use them for my next musical, Barnum, if I ever can get it on with a good enough book.”

Barnum was what brought the trio

— Grudeff and Jessel and Cohen — together. Between Spring Thaw chores, Grudeff and Jessel had been fooling around with some songs for a projected musical to be based on the life of the thcre’s-one-born-every-minutc man. After they had written several tunes they learned, to their intense despair, that Alexander H. Cohen had had the same idea. Then, to their intense delight, they learned that he had not yet settled on a composer for the score. A friend of theirs arranged an audition. Cohen, who had tried out any number of composers and was all but ready to give up, put them to work immediately. They were all but finished with the score when he decided that the book was not satisfactory. Fortunately for Grudeff and Jessel, he was not satisfied with the tunes that had been written for Baker Street, which he planned to produce after Barnum. He thereupon set them to work on Baker Street, thereby leading to a short account of the team’s lives in the souvenir, dollar program now on sale.

Jessel does not much like the paragraph in the program, although his feeling is not due to the fact that his name conics after Grudeff's. On the other hand, Grudeff feels it is just right. When 1 visited her, she handed a carbon of it to me and said, “Here

— this is all you need. All the facts are in here.” She is a most businesslike lady, and may some day replace Alexander H. Cohen as Broadway’s most prolific producer. She could have made the late Mike Todd's cigar crumple and grow limp, if he could have found her.

The program note says:

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“Toronto-born Marian Grudeff began her musical studies on the piano at the age of three when it was discovered she had perfect pitch. She made her debut as a concert pianist at the age of eleven and went on to recitals at Town Hall. Carnegie Hall and in Europe. She always had a keen interest in the theatre, and on her return from her studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger she served for many years as musical director of an annual satirical revue in Canada, Sprint.; Thaw. It was in this capacity that she met composer-lyricist Raymond Jessel and shortly thereafter began their collaboration which has culminated in this production . . . Jessel was born in Hereford, England, and was educated in Cardiff, Wales. He studied composition in Paris under the aegis of Arthur Honegger. In 1956 he met Miss Grudeff in Toronto and they started writing together; from 1957 to 1963 they were involved in contributing material for the Spring Tlutw revues. At the same time, Mr. Jessel was doing musical arrangements for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—TV and radio—and whenever a Welsh actor was needed he filled in. Both Miss Grudeff and Mr. Jessel are collectors of contemporary art, with the emphasis on Canadian artists ...”

A few items are left out.

Marian Grudeff was born in Toronto on April 18. 1927, daughter of a Bulgarian who had come to Canada when he was eighteen and was first a lawyer and then a judge. The judge's wife, also a Bulgarian, was the one who discovered that their little girl had absolute pitch. An automobile horn would sound outside their residence, and the mother would say, “There’s Daddy.” “No, that's not Daddy, his is D and F.” the child would say, and she was correct. She thereupon was set to the piano. She might be still at it today if it were not for her attraction to the theatre, which she believes began when she was studying hard but playing hooky by going to Judy Garland movies. In any event, she determined early on that she would have something to do with musicals eventually.

Jessel had no such intentions, he declares today. Born in Hereford, England, and taken to Cardiff by his father, who had married a Welshwoman, he studied violin, although not conscientiously, paying more attention to the piano; I "knocked out tunes and little things,” he told me. Then: "I was very serious about music . . . I wrote Bartokian pieces but I also wrote rags, pieces for sketches and so on.”

The elder Jessel developed an import-export firm, traded with Canadians, and eventually was invited here to work for an electronics company. He brought his family in. Young Raymond by then was convinced that music would be his future, and off he went to Paris to study with the famed Honegger. After a year he returned to Toronto, sought and got work in radio and television, and presently met Marian Grudeff.

There is not much more to tell about these talented young people. Miss Grudeff — all right. I'll give the “Miss” to her at last, since the program note set the style — has been

separated from her husband for two years. His name is Glen McDonald, and he is a doctor. “I tried to be a sweet doctor's wife and couldn’t make it,” she says. She has a boy of eight. Raymond Jessel never has been married, but may have some ideas about it after he has that vacation he is planning. Not to Marian Grudeff, alas, for those who may be thinking of writing a soap opera about the career of these two. They enjoy working together, but they firmly believe that the only offspring they ever will have are those set down on music paper.

The two composers-lyricists work at each other's houses. She lives at 79th Street and Riverside Drive in New York, and he is only a few blocks away on West End Avenue. This puts them within walking distance. They have no set hours for work; they go at it whenever it seems to be a good time. One day they will work one hour: another, twenty. Despite their opposite temperaments, they enjoy each other's company enormously, have great respect for each other’s ability, and seem to be approximately as happy an unmarried partnership as it is possible to conceive. Gilbert and Sullivan may be revolving in their graves.

“We’re great hams.” says Jessel, without a twitch of conscience. “We love to do the stuff we do. Although actors do it marvelously, it's not the same as when we do it.” He picks up a book on chess and stares at it ruminatively: he has been interested in chess since he was a boy, and has periods when he goes at it seriously.

"Oh. yes,” says Grudeff, “I love to do our songs with Raymond. Why. we’re really the only ones who can do them.” She says this warmly, and all at once the weary circles seem to fall away from her eyes.

The pair of them are going to Go Places, as they say on Broadway. No matter what the eventual fate of Baker Street, no matter what number of amiable fights they may have in the future, they will continue to write. That Barman of Cohen’s is already in the works, and there will be other shows after that. It is more than possible that at some date in the future some producer will be in Boston or Toronto with a show in a little trouble because its songs aren't working the way they ought to. The producer will turn to his unit manager. “Send for Grudeff and Jessel,” he'll say. ★