The Creation of H2$

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“The fact is that comedy is actually too serious to be taken seriously. It may be that comedy touches such deep emotions that people feel better if they can just dismiss it as trivial. Just take a big belly laugh. I have watched people laughing, and for a moment they look–and are–absolutely helpless. Vulnerability. You can be assaulted while you are laughing.”

– Abe Burrows

Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser’s first collaboration with Guys and Dolls was resoundingly successful, but it was not until their producers, Feurer and Martin, proposed the idea of adapting Shepherd Mead’s book into a stage musical that the two worked together again. Burrows first read the satirical guidebook when it appeared in paperback in 1956. His agent suggested a musical adaptation, but Burrows initially rejected the idea: “I enjoyed the book, but who the hell would want to see a show about Big Business? Besides, even though the book was funny, there was no plot, no story to build on.” Instead, two writers—Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert—wrote a straight play based on the book. Finally, with a broad storyline and a basic comic structure off of which to work, Burrows agreed to tackle the project.

Abe Burrows, Frank Loesser and the production team in rehearsals.

Abe Burrows, Frank Loesser and the production team in rehearsals.

Convincing his friend and colleague Frank Loesser to collaborate, however, proved a challenge: not only did the source material lack a clear storyline, but the partners’ philosophies seemed in complete opposition with each other. Loesser was accustomed to a romantic, wistful style of music, in contrast with Burrows’ more humorous background—together, however, they struck a balance that proved invaluable to the production.  Burrows was excited about the comedic possibilities in Finch’s journey up the corporate ladder, but Loesser refused to collaborate unless the character was given a love story. Loesser insisted not only because he was adept at writing such subject matter, but also to establish a sympathetic side to J. Pierpont Finch’s character.

Although the romance prompted the creation of one of the musical’s most memorable characters, Rosemary, who does not appear in the book, the story’s satirical style is what set it apart from other Tony and Pulitzer contenders that year. Both Loesser and Burrows had experience in the business world—Loesser with his music company, and Burrows in his early years as an accountant and Wall Street runner—and by extension, had a well of experience to tap into. The result, while satirical, was less bitter and cynical than it was mocking. As Burrows later described it:

“I hadn’t written the show out of hatred. If you really hate something, you can’t satirize it…I’ve always had that qualified love for Big Business. I enjoyed the excitement of my days on Wall Street, I liked my involvement with the big radio and television networks and big companies. But I did see a lot of funny things happen in those corporate giants.”

The writing process took off after Loesser and Burrows created “Coffee Break,” not part of Mead’s original book. It established the comedic style for the rest of the production, or as Burrows put it: ”It was a helluvva a number and suddenly we saw daylight.” The unique structure and subject matter lent itself to an unconventional style and aesthetic, as well. Choreographer Bob Fosse, for example, recognized the kinetic possibilities for original choreography in a set of jerky, angular moves that parodied buttoned-down, uptight office attitudes. Set designer Robert Randolph’s created two-dimensional, line-drawn, flat-colored sets, their exaggerated cartoon qualities according with the show’s satirical style. The most iconic part of the original staging, however, was Robert Morse’s performance as Finch. Burrows knew Morse from earlier projects, and the performer was cast before a script was even finalized. The character was very much written with its performer in mind, as was Rudy Vallee, who originated the role of J.B Biggley.

The production was supposed to open in the spring of 1961, but because the script was still a work-in-progress, it was postponed until the fall. When rehearsals began, the final two scenes were nonexistent. Burrows and Loesser had no idea how to resolve the story after Finch’s treasure hunt goes awry. They were ultimately inspired by the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of that year, America’s abortive attempt to invade Cuba, and President Kennedy’s subsequent public statement in which he, as his country’s figurehead, accepted all blame. “Here’s a mighty nation caught in a jam and everybody except the President is blaming everybody else. And everybody else is blaming everybody who’s blaming everybody else,” Burrows said. The final two scenes mirror this national blame game, particularly Biggley’s heartfelt speech in which he asserts that “anything that happened is not my fault.” Audiences immediately recognized and responded to the allusion to Kennedy’s speech, and the play ended as unrealistically as it began.

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