Audiences at City Center Encores! are on their feet all over again for Grand Hotel, the 1989 Tony Award-winning musical that returns in a captivating new production from director-choreographer Josh Rhodes. Performances continue through March 25. Get tickets here.
But the musical that also had audiences spellbound in 1989 was a completely different show out of town. The story of Grand Hotel’s creation is the stuff of theatre lore, and the musical is one of the last big shows to undergo a Cinderella story in Boston.
Originally titled At the Grand, the once Broadway-bound musical premiered in 1958 featuring a score by Kismet and Timbuktu! songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest, and book writer Luther Davis. The stage musical was a significant departure from Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel—resetting the action to 1950s Rome, and rethinking several main characters in order to tailor them to the talents of the leading cast. Ultimately, At the Grand never checked in to Broadway. Despite solid box office business in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the production unraveled en-route to New York and the show was shelved for 30 years.
Wright, Forrest, and Davis returned to their work on At the Grand in the late 1980s with Tony-winning director-choreographer Tommy Tune at the helm of what was now called Grand Hotel. After a series of exploratory workshops, the creative team headed to Boston in late August 1989 for a three week out-of-town try-out at the Colonial Theatre.
Like so many shows before them, the cast and creators of Grand Hotel suddenly found themselves at the center of a show in trouble out of town.
Unlike the current track that most of today’s shows follow, which build in several months between their out of town premiere and Broadway to allow for rewrites and workshops, Grand Hotel was on a collision course with Broadway.
The $4.75 million production (upwards of $9 million today adjusting for inflation) was set to open in Boston mid-September, with New York previews scheduled to begin less than a month later at the Martin Beck Theatre.
The story of Grand Hotel’s overnight transformation in Boston is the kind of tale theatre people live to tell and love to hear. Yeston, who is the only living writer from the illustrious team, gives a rare first-hand account of the show’s evolution out of town—and pays tribute to the artists with whom he collaborated.
Yeston also takes a moment to share the tragic and moving story behind Grand Hotel’s original Broadway cast recording, and pay tribute to the late David Carroll—the two-time Tony Award nominee who created the role of the Baron.
Grand Hotel is one of the last musicals to participate in this kind of mythic tale of a show in trouble up in Boston that gets turned around overnight; it dusted itself off and opens as a hit on Broadway a few weeks later. It’s really an extraordinary story.
Maury Yeston: This was definitely a case where sometimes shows need work out of town. This was a musical that originally been written by Wright and Forrest the 1950s and they had moved the setting from Germany to Italy. [Titled At the Grand, the Broadway-bound production was scuttled out of town.]
Years later, Tommy Tune envisioned it as an all-dance show from beginning to end. Very continuous. And the score didn't really fit without mold. But up with it they went to Boston. I think Tommy felt he was going to direct the hell out of it, and he certainly did, but it wasn't working well, and he called me on August 29. They were going to open on Broadway in November. He said, “Yeston, I have a room for you at the Ritz Carlton Hotel with a piano. Come save the show.” This was something we were used to because he brought me and Peter Stone up to Boston earlier in the 1980s when he and Twiggy were up there with My One and Only. So we knew the drill.
I had actually seen an earlier run-through of the show in Manhattan. It was hard to understand what was going on. I didn't understand a word of it, but I didn't want to say anything because you don't know until you get it up onstage and see what somebody has in mind.
One of the problems was there were at least five “character” songs, and none of them defined the character that remotely seemed to fit with that story. It was missing all kinds of parts. There was no opening number. Nobody knew what was going on.
What made Grand Hotel thrilling was the original novel by Vicki Baum, who wrote it in 1929. She wrote a novel about seven people in the same place at the same time. And it was a disastrous place because Germany had lost the war ten years earlier, and their economy was awful. Everybody was suffering outside the hotel, and the top one percent of the one percent were living the high life on the inside while they were also going broke. Sound familiar?
Grand Hotel was the first Towering Inferno. It was the first Airplane. It was the first group of unrelated characters joined together by a common disaster, and it just rapt the world. And that notion still does. And so that became a play in 1929, and then it became this Oscar-winning movie with Greta Garbo, and then Wright and Forrest musicalized it in the 1950s.
What were things like when you got to Boston?
They returned to the production with the songs they had written in the 1950s, and it was a real challenge for them. In addition, Tommy had taken out all possibility of applause endings, and it was continuous. I said, “Nobody knows what's going on here. We don't know what the premise is. None of the character songs are telling you what their problem is, or what's going on. But I don't understand, ‘Why don't you have applause?’” And Tommy said he’d seen an opera that was continuous and there was no applause, and I said, “I don't think this is like that. Look at the wall. How do you know where painting stops on the wall begins? And he said, ‘The frame.’ And I said, ‘Well that's what the applause is.’‘’
So, then I have to go meet Wright and Forrest. They were adorable. They were both in their mid-80s, and they were really frustrated about things not working. And I said to them, “I'm just here to give you some advice. The director has a great concept–all singing all dancing all night. But you can find another director who is going to do the very literal scene-oriented, physical reality-oriented show you’ve written, or you can make a few adjustments and sign on to this concept, which I think is pretty great.” And they both said, “We would never do anything to put actors out of work. We never have in all of our careers, so you jump in the boat with us. We're going to need all the help we can get. Let’s get together and fix the show.”
And so that night I went back to the room with the piano at the Ritz-Carlton, and I wrote the opening. And I also wrote seven applause endings, including “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” which originally had a fade out. Instead, I made a big build-up section at the end with two counter melodies, and that ended up being the moment where Michael Jeter famously jumped over the bar and stopped the show every night.
You’ve said previously that the number went in and was orchestrated almost immediately, correct?
That opening, exactly as it is today, was played on just a piano at [Boston’s] Colonial Theatre the next night. I got lucky. It was completely orchestrated the next day. That’s how fast things can happen if you’re lucky enough to hit the nail on the head.
I began the opening by simply describing the Ritz-Carlton. I'd been a little boy when my parents first took me there, and I remember the thick plush carpeting, and the big overstuffed easy chairs in the lobby and beautiful chandeliers. And so I wrote:
Velvet stairs, easy chairs
perfumed air gently blowing.
Chandeliers, light appears
burning bright, crystal glowing…
And then I needed to inform the audience that tonight wouldn’t be just one story, it would be many stories overlapping:
People come, people go
wave of life overflowing
Come! Begin! In old Berlin,
you're in the Grand Hotel.
Then Peter Stone did something that was absolutely extraordinary. He reasoned as soon as he saw the show that there was no suspense. There was nothing at stake. So, there was an existing scene with six telephone booths and each of the main characters is on the phone desperately talking to somebody about what their problem is. And Peter said he was just going to take one new phrase that he wrote and threaded to all of those phone conversations. And the phrase he put in was, “Time’s running out!” And that did it. That just kicked us off.
Your work on the score is really seamless. The entire score sounds cut from one cloth. How did you approach this musically?
Something that I felt was very important was to preserve as much of Wright and Forrest’s score as I could. One of their favorite songs was “Table with a View,” but it's an incomplete song. The situation is that a man has come to the Grand Hotel because he's dying, and he’s decided that he's going to have a great experience before he dies, while he still can.
The original song describes what he sees, and it’s a beautiful song, but it has nothing to do with his story. So I wrote a song called “At the Grand Hotel,” where he sings:
From the hospital
to the town of Berlin
I have taken the train here to begin
My new life.
Tho’ quite soon that must end.
Then he celebrates in the middle of the song, and I thought, “Their song is so beautiful, why don’t I put their song in the middle of my song?” And he sets up this “I want to” moment, and then their song happens.
I did the same thing with “I Want to Go to Hollywood.”
Until we came to Boston, there was nothing in that show that told the audience that right outside that hotel was desperation. People were starving in the street. The money was worth nothing. So I opened up Vicki Baum’s book and I realized I might be able to do the same thing in that song. She describes Flaemmchen’s flat in Friedrich Strasse, and the noisy neighbor, how she didn’t have pennies for the heat. So, I set it as “I want to go to Hollywood so I can get far away from…” And then there’s this whole other music that I was able to put into it for the “Friedrich Strasse” section. So when she comes out of that and returns to, “I want to go to Hollywood,” you can hear the desperation of why she wants to go. And then you realize the song—It's not about “I want to go to Hollywood,” the song is “I want to get away from Friedrich Strasse.” You learn by doing. And each of those songs became something that was so unique to the play that we were putting on that stage.
My mentor Lehman Engel always said, “You do your best work, and you do the most important work on a show when you have everything in front of you. You have the lights. You have the set. You have the costumes, the characters… everything.” And so you're able to see what you need clearly.
And that's why very often we hear great stories about fabulous fixes being done up in Boston.
In listening to the cast album recently, I was reminded that the performances are so rich and nuanced, and that’s likely due to the fact that the album took almost two years to get made.
There’s a tremendous amount of depth on the cast album, and a tremendous amount of heart. The one great regret of course is that David Carroll didn’t survive to record the album. He was just an amazing, miraculous performer.
I wanted to ask you about that. All we have is the live bonus track of David singing “Love Can’t Happen” with Wally Harper on piano.
Unfortunately, it took so long to get the cast album made. We were afraid that David would not live for the two weeks we were going to have to wait to do the album. We thought we would bring him in two weeks early. We figured we would record him on a piano, and then two weeks later record the orchestra to that track, and then we’ll have it. And so we were there recording, and David went to the booth to do the sound check, and he said, “I’m just going to go to the bathroom, and then we'll start.” And he went to the bathroom and he died. It was so rough and devastating.
How do you move forward after something as devastating as that?
Two weeks later, when we did the cast album, everyone was mindful that we were doing an album in honor of and mindful of David, and to preserve in every other way what David had done and what he had meant to us. David was part of that. Everybody had done their work playing off David, like you do. And I think that’s in there. And I think we also took the pain we had gone through in Boston, and all of that was invested into the characters and the human generosity of performance and something that matters to us a great deal.
Even with all of the human suffering that’s in Grand Hotel, it’s such an affirmative piece. I think that's why it's lasted since 1929, and it probably will never stop because that's in the DNA of it.