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Jolson Sings, and the McCarthys Listen
This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 3, 1999. All rights reserved.
Jolson Sings Again! was the headline hawked by the
newsboys along Hollywood Boulevard back in the 1950s. "Jolson
Sings Again," they repeated over and over again, holding up the
bold headline that was destined to change lives and careers.
"It’s not a musical and it’s not about Al Jolson," says playwright
Arthur Laurents, talking by phone about his new play, "Jolson
Sings Again." The title, however, is meant to remind us of Jolson’s
film portrayer, the actor Larry Parks. Parks, who appeared in two
different popular film versions of the "The Al Jolson Story"
in the 1950s, found himself singing a different kind of tune when
called upon as the first witness to testify before Senator Joseph
McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Among the theater professionals subsequently black-listed by Hollywood
was Laurents, who from a distance of more than 40 years has written
a play about that bleak period. Opening night is Wednesday, March
3, at George Street Playhouse for the play that runs through March
"Parks thought by testifying to the committee it would save his
career. He begged the committee in public not to name names, and that
turned the public off," says Laurents, who, unlike Parks, is a
luckier survivor of the mid-century witch-hunt that short-circuited,
if not ruined, careers.
Who would have thought that the Bill and Monica scandal,
the lurid and sensation-filled investigation and subsequent impeachment
trial, would revive interest in one of the blackest chapters in American
history? Suddenly the term "sexual McCarthyism" was being
everywhere brandished, quickly becoming part of the lexicon of the
’90s. For those too young to remember and those who were there, the
name Senator Joseph McCarthy was suddenly and chillingly resurrected.
Many believe that Kenneth Starr’s relentless pursuit of witnesses
and the release of details regarding Clinton’s sexual misconduct bear
an unsettling resemblance to McCarthy’s HUAC tactics. Now there comes
a new fear from those who saw the independent counsel’s investigation
as a parallel and a mirror of the infamous HUAC hearings. The 1950s
probe of communists in Hollywood that caused career havoc and irreparable
personal despair that is at the heart of Laurent’s new play.
Laurents actually wrote "Jolson Sings Again" in 1992. However,
it was not until 1995 that the play was given "a cheap" (according
to its author) pre-Broadway tryout at the Seattle Rep. "It was
an unfortunate production. Only a month before rehearsals were to
begin, the producers suddenly pulled out. And so did the stars,"
says Laurents, who still smarts at the memory of the experience. The
play did go on, he says, but with some hasty miscasting of three of
its four roles.
Laurents says he is still astonished by how difficult and how long
the process is of getting a play produced. He says he is pleased with
the way things are going for this greatly revised new version, opening
at the George Street Playhouse under the direction of David Saint.
The physical production itself is notable. In addition to boasting
award-winning designers Howell Binkley (lights), Jim Youmans (setting),
David Van Tieghem (composer/sound), the costumes are by Tony and Oscar-winning
designer Theoni V. Aldredge. The designer’s career is being celebrated
in a five-decade retrospective of costume sketches on exhibit in the
Saint never saw the Seattle production of "Jolson Sings Again,"
but became acquainted with the playwright while directing "My
Good Name" at the Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor, in the summer
of 1998. Those who saw "My Good Name" workshopped at Seattle
Rep, and its Bay Street production, were impressed with Saint’s work.
"What a great re-write you did on that play," they told Laurents.
But, says Laurents, "I hadn’t touched it. Yet it was a totally
different play. He gave the play what it needed," he says.
"Now I sit though rehearsals of `Jolson Sings Again’ and I am
also amazed. David’s direction and the cast are responsible for the
enormous difference. It’s so different and so much more of what I
wanted. I’ve also changed my attitude somewhat about that era,"
he says, leading me to wonder how things that Laurents used to see
as black and white are now shaded with gray.
Although "Jolson Sings Again" has been extensively re-written,
Laurents says he thinks "re-writing and cutting is part of the
job." Yet when other people do your re-writing and cutting it
"They cut stuff out of my screenplay [based on his novel] for
`The Way We Were’ (1973), which had a portion devoted to the McCarthy
era. I hadn’t said all I wanted to say. In `Jolson Sings Again,’ the
people betray each other on many different levels and it damages lives.
And that was the larger point that I wanted to bring out more in the
Although Laurents says he was never a member of the Communist Party,
he was blacklisted because of his association with a lot of left-wing
causes. "They took my passport away and it took me three months
to get it back," he recalls. Laurents spent an extended period
in Paris. I was curious to know if Laurents had ever written under
a pseudonym during that time. "No," he says, laughing, "but
I had one — Jack Ash — just in case."
In 1955 Laurents returned to Hollywood after the "witch hunt"
was over. Of course the agents were compelled to ask Laurents to write
a statement stating that he was "not now, nor have ever been,
a member, etc." They told him that it didn’t matter what he was
swearing to. So Laurents finished the statement with "a member
of the shoe-shine boys union." He said, "As long as they had
your name on a piece of paper, they took it. I’m sure no one ever
Few playwriting careers have risen to distinction as frequently as
that of Laurents, who has received honors and awards from the National
Institute of Arts and Letters, Writers Guild of America, the Tonys,
Golden Globe, Drama Desk, and National Board of Review.
Brooklyn born and raised, Laurents is now 81 years old.
He earned his BA from Cornell ("a crap degree," he says).
Laurents continues to be an advocate of social and political issues
about which he feels passionately. Only last May, he and long-time
friend and collaborator Stephen Sondheim rose up and spoke in support
of a controversial New York theater district zoning plan that would
permit theaters to sell air rights.
Beginning with "Home of the Brave" (1945), a powerful play
(and film) about racial prejudice in the armed forces, Laurents was
in the vanguard in dramatizing with sensitivity and skill such controversial
topics as homosexuality (Hitchcock’s 1949 film "Rope"), mental
illness (the 1948 film, "The Snake Pit"), and women’s and
civil rights reform (the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Hallelujah
Baby"). When I asked Laurents why he was not given screenplay
credit for "The Snake Pit," he answered "I got screwed.
It’s a typical Hollywood story that I’ve included in my memoirs."
Even if Laurents’ distinguished books for the landmark musicals "Gypsy"
(1959) and "West Side Story" (1960) had not placed him among
the giants of American theatrical literature, his tenderly romantic
plays "The Time of the Cuckoo" (the film was called "Summertime"),
and "Invitation to a March" (1960), and the musical "Anyone
Can Whistle," would endear him to theater lovers.
After more than a half century of writing on a wide variety of subjects
for both stage and screen, Laurents continues to be haunted by the
effects that McCarthyism had on private lives. He is equally troubled
by the sexual McCarthyism that he observes in the current Bill and
Monica scandal. Laurents is outspoken about Linda Tripp and her remark
"I am you."
"Is she kidding?" Laurents retorts with a note of disgust
in his voice. But Laurents sees Tripp as following in a long line
of infamous whistleblowers, and in particular the testimony of director
Elia Kazan before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Kazan was prominent among those who denounced friends and colleagues
to the HUAC in 1952. Ironically — and coincidentally — Kazan
is scheduled to receive an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement during the time
"Jolson Sings Again" is onstage at George Street. Hundreds
of organized protesters, including blacklisted screenwriters who are,
like Laurents, now in their 80s, have been asking Oscar night attendees
to express their disapproval of Kazan’s conduct by sitting on their
hands and withholding applause. A letter-writing campaign is also
under way asking the Academy to rescind the award.
"Kazan has already won Oscars for his films. Why give him a special
award?" says Laurents. "I think giving him that award is an
insult to all the people who were damaged." Although Laurents
says there are references to Kazan in "Jolson Sings Again,"
the informant in his play differs greatly.
"The character in my play needs no justification for informing,
and explains why." Laurents says all four characters in the play
are amalgams of many people he knew and experiences he went through
himself. "It’s very personal. But the politics is really just
a springboard. It is really a play about personal betrayal."
Looking back, Laurents will admit that he is not entirely innocent.
"I did two shows with my friend choreographer Jerome Robbins,
and he was not entirely clean. Finally the friendship wasn’t what
it had been. I also believe informing does something to the informer."
Conceding that "Jolson Sings Again" may indeed be cathartic
for him, Laurents says that its theme is motivated by strong feelings.
"I like to write about passionate things," says Laurents.
Just as he had in his novel and screenplay, "The Way We Were,"
Laurents has found passion and a catharsis in revisiting one of his
and America’s darkest times.
In "Jolson Sings Again," Robert Petkoff plays a young idealistic
writer who travels to Hollywood where he has been commissioned to
write his first screenplay. At the same time, Larry Park’s testimony
before the House Un-American Activities Committee is sending shock
waves through the Hollywood community. Here, a small group of friends
that includes a famous director, played by Armand Schultz, and a Jewish
married couple, played by Betsy Aidem and Jonathan Hadary, have received
subpoenas. They agonize when they see how their idealistic values
will be compromised and their dreams for their future irrevocably
Besides his home in New York City, Laurents has shared a Hamptons
beach home he built with the money he made from "The Time of the
Cuckoo," with the same man for 40 years. "We stay young by
skiing every winter," he explains. Dare I say "break a leg"
to the outspoken octogenarian activist who may feel it entirely in
character to pass out promotional flyers in front of the George Street
Playhouse on opening night, hawking the headline, "Jolson Sings
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the show that
runs through Sunday, March 28. $36. Wednesday, March 3, 7 p.m.
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