The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography:
Observations About The Artist's Broadway Show
by Iván Santiago-Mercado
Generated on Feb 5, 2016
I. Scope And Contents
This page focuses on Peg
, the autobiographical musical that Peggy Lee brought to Broadway in 1983, when she was 63 years old. Peg
's development is discussed from its gestation and rehearsal period through its enactment and subsequent reception. Stress has been placed on the opinions and comments made by those who built the show (i.e., the creative talent, the producers, Lee herself) and those who attended it (i.e., critics, fans, general audiences). Please bear in mind that this is primarily a discussion page, which take for granted a basic degree of acquaintance with the subject matter. For basic facts such as personnel names, song titles, and current availability of Peg
's music, consult this discography's theatrical
page, under the dating December 14-17, 1983.
On a personal note, I would like to point out two of the motivations behind the preparation of this overview. One motivation has been my dissatisfaction with the quality of the accounts currently (2013) in print. Generally, Lee's biographers have tended to take for granted the full accuracy of the remarks made by production participants who have spoken to them. In doing so, such biographical accounts have failed to consider or even acknowledge the unavailability of other important viewpoints -- including, in some instances, Lee's own perspective. As for my second motivation (actually an offshoot of the first), I have wanted to supply in this text all the information about Peg
that is currently available to me, so that future writings on the topic can benefit from a more varied, encompassing picture.
I am also hoping that these paragraphs will inspire some of Peg
's participants to contact me with rebuttals, corrections or additional commentaries, all of which I will gladly incorporate to the text, as needed. (Any requests for anonymity will of course be respected.)
II. In The Beginning (1978-1980)
Peggy Lee took her earliest steps toward the creation of the Broadway show Peg
in 1980; she finally saw it premiere in the last month of 1983. Peg
can thus be estimated to have been a four-year project, although various other estimates are also valid. In fact, Peggy Lee herself made different calculations. The star took into account the years 1978 and 1979, when she was writing much of the autobiographical material that would later be reshaped into the show's libretto. (During those two earlier years, no musical or play is known to have been consciously in gestation, however. Instead, an autobiographical book seems to have been the end result toward which Lee's efforts were being directed.)
From a more strict frame of mind, the summer of 1980 can be pinpointed as the starting date for the development of Peggy Lee's Broadway show. During that summer, Lee met the show's composer-to-be (Paul Horner). Also during that summer, they began to make a concerted effort to create songs for theatrical performance.
They met in Michigan in June 1980, while working together for a production of Side By Side By Sondheim
in which Peggy Lee played a lead role and Paul Horner was one of the two pianists. The lyricist and the composer separately told the same story about the origin of their collaboration. On one occasion, Lee had heard Horner play a melody that she loved, and she had queried him about it. The melody was Horner's own, and his playing of it might have not been altogether casual; he was hoping to earn Lee's attention. Once Lee asked Horner whether he minded if she wrote lyrics for his melody, their partnership began.
Neither Horner nor Lee ever specified how their partnership evolved from co-writing one song to putting together a score for a Broadway show -- not, at least, in print. General comments made by the lyricist could be construed as indication that the notion of doing an autobiographical Broadway show had been in the back of her mind for a while. In one of her interviews, she mentioned that a main motivation to participate in the above-mentioned 1980 Detroit edition of Side By Side By Sondheim
had been "to get the feel of the legitimate theater" -- a comment that could imply that, by 1980, she had already set her sights on Broadway. "Paul Horner's dream and mine was to write a Broadway show, and that was how the idea for Peg
was born," she added in her autobiography. (Bear also in mind Lee's aborted Broadway projects, dating back to the 1960s, and listed in this discography's theatrical
Peggy Lee's earliest public comments about her autobiographical projects (the show, the book) date from 1980, too. The very first reference of which I have knowledge comes from an article published by the San Diego Union
on October 19, 1980. "I’m still writing songs," she told that newspaper's journalist Vernon Scott. "Right now I’m involved in writing a Broadway musical based on highlights of my own life. I’m writing the lyrics and Paul Horner is writing the music." About one year later (December 31, 1981), Leonard Feather quoted her on the same subject matter: "I’m writing my autobiography. That’s going to take me a while, because I’ve lived a lot. I’m doing it myself for the moment, in longhand, then having my secretary type it up so I can look it over and edit. Along with the autobiography, more or less as part of the same plan, I’ve begun to write a musical play based on my life. We have 18 songs; I wrote the lyrics, and the music is by a fellow from England, Paul Horner. Although the songs are tied in with my life story, they can all be sung independently of the show."
Soon thereafter, the plan to write an autobiographical book seems to have been abandoned or postponed, while the theatrical project clearly became a priority in Lee's life. "At one time," she would share with music critic Larry Kart in February 1983, "I started to put it all down in a book, but I stopped because it became so dark and violent." In yet another interview, Lee chucklingly added: "It began to be so long and tedious and grim, [i]t occurred to me to take bits out of it and do a musical instead" (Associated Press, August 1983). "[S]omehow, maybe because it's a musical, the show seems to be doing itself," she also told Kart in February 1983.
III. Meet The Producers (1981-1982)
According to Peggy Lee's own words from her autobiography, "it was between engagements that we [i.e., Lee and Paul Horner] wrote thirty songs for the score, and when it was finished, we began having backers' dinners at my house, served by Le Restaurant. At first we were just more or less auditioning the songs for people and were pleased with their reception." These dinners, prepared by the staff of Bruce Vanderhoff's Beverly Hills restaurant, seem to date back to 1981 and 1982.
The very first backers were Irv and Marge Cowan, owners of the Diplomat Hotel in South Florida. The hotel had been founded in the 1950s by Marge's father, who had trouble keeping it afloat. Her husband Irv began managing it in 1960. The husband-and-wife team came up with a simple but well-advertised policy that contributed substantially to the hotel's ensuing success and prestige. In December 1961, the pair started to hire only big-name stars (and, in later years, artists known for their music-charting hits), and to have such big names perform in exciting or at least intriguing double bills -- e.g., Vic Damone and Sophie Tucker for the inaugural bill, or most famously, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Liza Minnelli in 1987. Wealthy fashionistas living at large, Marge and Irv Cowan also became known for pampering the stars who entertained at their hotel.
The Cowans had a friendly rapport with Lee, whose first engagement at the Diplomat (February 1963) had been deemed a "sensational" "tour-de-force" in the press. While she had continued to perform at the hotel's Café Crystal on an annual basis, their friendship had gone beyond the casual realm. Marge Cowan would even serve as matron of honor when Peggy Lee re-married for the fourth time (1964). According to one article, Lee also "feted [the Cowans] at her Beverly Hills home" in 1966, at which time "the guest list included Judy Garland and Rock Hudson." (Yet another pertinent event, a birthday party thrown by Lee for Irv Cowan, will be mentioned below.) In the 1982 luncheon that officially announced the production of Peg
, Irv would tell the press that he and his wife "had long encouraged Peggy to interpret her life through lyrics."
Probably, the Florida-based couple first heard (of) Lee's songs for Peg
in February 1981, when the singer appeared at the Diplomat in a double bill with Tony Bennett. At some unspecified time well after that engagement, Marge Cowan and Peggy Lee had given Irv Cowan a birthday party at Lee's Hollywood home. According to pianist Peter Horner (who shared his recollections with Peter Richmond, for Richmond's biography of Peggy Lee), the party's attendees included heiress Doris Duke and artists such as Peter Allen, Eydie Gorme, Steve Lawrence, and Marilyn McCoo. As Richmond tells it, Horner "was playing some background music when Peggy's friend television producer Frank Ralston asked to hear some of the tunes that Peggy and he were working up for the show." In her autobiography, Peggy Lee seems to be referring to the same party but remembers the Cowans as the ones who asked her to sing the score, and Elizabeth Taylor as one of those present. (It is possible that Lee was misremembering and/or conflating two different parties, one of them being Cowan's birthday bash and the other a backers' dinner held at a later time, for which Taylor was indeed present.) Wrote Lee: "I'll always remember how Danny Thomas jumped up and said, I'll give $250,000!
It snowballed from there."
The response was indeed highly enthusiastic, and the Cowans told Lee then -- or, perhaps, reiterated -- that they wanted to help produce the play. To my knowledge, Peg
would be the Cowans' first and only venture into the theatre under the rubric of producers
. (They are known to have been involved in other Broadway productions, but not in the same capacity.) According to biographer Richmond, Paul Horner received a $2,000 cash advance at the time, as his writing partnership with Lee was continuing at full steam.
The next individual to enroll as an investor and producer was Zev Bufman (whose name is nowadays more frequently spelled as Zev Buff
man). This Miami-based impresario is best known for his erstwhile ownership of the Miami Heat basketball team, for his executive role in the building of various outdoor performing arts centers, and for his sizable -- albeit only sporadically successful -- resume as a Broadway producer. He became involved with Peg
after he was invited by the Cowans to another of Lee's dinners at her home. This particular dinner seems to have taken place in late June or early July 1982. (So can be inferred from Bufman's early September 1982 press statement that it had been eight weeks since he had heard the songs for the first time.) Either during this dinner or, more likely, a subsequent one, Bufman brought with him both playwright William Luce and Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Bufman was in a theatrical partnership at the time. (Extensive detail about the partnership can be found in a section below, dedicated to Bufman's career as a producer.) This dinner's atmosphere became uncomfortable when, according to two of the attendees, a temperamental Lee showed no hesitation in voicing her displeasure at various distractions that were taking place while she was performing. Although the gathering did not go altogether well, Bufman still came on board, actually becoming the show's main producer.
In early September 1982, Bufman set up a luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the express purpose of officially announcing the project to the press. Irv Cowan, Paul Horner and Peggy Lee were also present. According to the Associated Press, "Zev Bufman and Irv Cowan will produce the show with book and lyrics by Peggy Lee and music by Paul Horner ... Knowing the singer's shyness about making non-singing appearances, some of the media wondered if she would show up. Oh, she'll be here
, assured Bufman, the Israeli-born, Florida-based impresario. Everyone told me Peggy would be difficult to deal with. In fact, she has been an absolute dream
... Miss Lee did appear, a striking figure completely in a black, flowing chiffon pajama suit and broad-brimmed hat that covered her blond hair. She seemed serene amid all the attention, and her sometimes ample figure appeared trimmer than in the recent past ... Miss Lee took the microphone and remarked, This is one of the happiest days of my life
... Then she performed three of the songs, with Horner playing piano. The room was silent as she sang about a player piano she had known as a child, about how she learned to sing the blues, about her love for Dave Barbour. The voice was sultry and insinuating as ever, but songs seemed to emerge from deep within her." Given such glowingly positive press coverage, the luncheon had clearly achieved its goal.
Georgia Frontiere was another financial backer who received a Peg
producer credit. Frontiere was best known for her ownership of the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, which she had inherited after the 1979 passing of Carroll Rosenbloom, her fifth husband. The St. Louis-born daughter of a female bandleader, she had a show business background, too. As a youngster, Georgia (née Violet Frances Irwin) had been part of a traveling singing group, and had also spent time in Italy, where she had been trained in opera singing. During her late teens, after having moved to California, Miss Violet Irwin formed a vocal duo with her mother, performing locally. Next, while in her twenties, Miss Irwin went on to host a local TV show and to perform solo as a nightclub singer in Miami, where she probably became acquainted with the Cowans. During her later years, the seven-times-married grand dame would put her wealth to good use, becoming known as a philanthropist whose worthy targets for financial contributions ranged from the fields of medicine and education to the worlds of sports and theatre.
The 1983 Playbill
brochure for Peg
states that Georgia Frontiere had "originally heard Peg
two years ago at Peggy Lee's home in California." If this statement is accurate, then Frontiere might have become part of the producing team long before Bufman did -- i.e., in the same year as the Cowans. Or, if not part of the team, she would have at least been aware of the project at a fairly early period, and she would have waited a long time before officially joining in. Press articles from the 1981 and 1982 years make no mention whatsoever of Mrs. Frontiere. Such an omission could
indeed be taken to suggest that she joined the producing team only after the Cowans and Bufman did. But her early acquaintance with the project is entirely possible; it should be noted that Lee and Frontiere happened to reside in the same Bel Air residential street. Therefore, since they were neighbors, they could have indeed made contact as such an early time; Frontiere might have attended one or more of the aforementioned backers' parties.
Be that as it may, Lee declares in her autobiography that the Cowans and Bufman were the ones who brought Frontiere to the project, and that she came in along with her seventh husband, Dominic Frontiere. A composer of TV music and a (jazz-oriented) accordionist by trade, Mr. Frontiere had also served as the head of the Paramount music department for a few years during the decade of the 1970s. The passing reference to him in Lee's autobiography could be taken to mean that both he and his wife enrolled on the production of Peg
. Such does not seem to have been the case, however. Mr. Frontiere receives no production credit in the musical's Playbill
, nor is he mentioned anywhere else in connection with Peg
, except as the arranger of one of the show's compositions. The Playbill
does state that Georgia Frontiere was the president of a company which was "developing scripts for theatre and films" -- probably a brand new project for her at the time, perhaps involving output from her husband. Hence the gentleman's involvement in Lee's show seems to have been marginal. (Charged with having scalped tickets for the 1980 Super Bowl, Mr. Frontiere went to prison in 1986, and was divorced by his wife after he was freed from jail.)
According to the most detailed reports at hand, the total amount of capital invested in Peg
was estimated at 2.5 million dollars. More casual reports refer to 3 millions, or "close to 3 millions." To my knowledge, there are no public records as to how much of that capital was contributed by the aforementioned producers, nor about any other financial backers who might have joined the venture.
IV. The Production Backdrop (Zev Bufman And The Elizabeth Taylor Theater Group)
Well known in the theatre and sports arenas, Zev Bufman has been described as an adventurous impresario with a penchant for big projects and big stars. His credits include the building and management of various amphitheaters (at least four, each with a holding capacity of over 20,000 people, most of them constructed in partnership with the Blockbuster video company), the co-founding of South Florida's basketball team The Miami Heat (for which he remained a general partner until he sold his share in 1996), the short-term ownership of about 10 theaters, one of them being the Coconut Grove Playhouse (from ca. 1962 to 1971), and the co-production of over 40 Broadway shows, including the 2009 revival of Blithe Spirit
, which earned its star (the then-83-years-old Angela Lansbury) her fifth Tony award.
As tends to be the norm in the theater, only a handful of Bufman's productions have proven successful. Prior to his enrollment in the Peg
project, the businessman's most renowned venture as a theatrical producer had been Andrew Lloyd Webber's first Broadway run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
. When he became involved, that show had already had a lengthy (decades-long) production history, but all of it had been off-Broadway. With Bufman's recruitment as producer, the show opened on January 27, 1982 and stayed put for 747 performances, finishing its first Broadway run on September 4, 1983.
In addition to such a major success, Bufman produced about 30 shows between 1958 and 1983, including the 1969 failure Buck White
, for which he courted controversy by hiring Muhammad Ali as its star. The hiring had taken place only three years after the sports star had been arrested and stripped of his heavyweight boxing champion title. (The stripping was allegedly executed as punishment for Ali's religiously based refusal to be drafted into the army and, to a lesser extent, for tax evasion charges that would later result in a conviction.) After 5 performances (December 2 - December 9, 1969), the show closed with a $200,000 loss. "I was starstruck;" Bufman acknowledged during an interview published in 1983, "I bought the superman image. I thought people would buy tickets." One year earlier, a more successful pairing of producer and star had been Jimmy Shine
, which featured Dustin Hoffman shortly after he had had his breakout role in Mike Nichols' film The Graduate
. The Hoffman show opened on December 8, 1968 and ran for 161 performances.
In the 1970s, Bufman continued to get together with well-known artists for theatrical productions such as Mary C. Brown And The Hollywood Sign
, featuring singer-songwriter, fiction author, librettist and recording artist Dory Previn. Thanks to the two critically acclaimed solo albums that she had released in 1971, the erstwhile wife of pianist André Previn was riding a wave of success at this point in time. In fact, the musical that Bufman and Dory Previn produced was based on the songs that she had recorded for an album bearing the same title, released in November of that same year. The production went through a few previews in Los Angeles (just 3 according to some reports, 16 according to other reports), whose poor attendance led to the project's cancellation. (Yet other accounts claim that 6 actual performances were given.) In later decades, the lighting designer of this show (Jim Moody) would overtly call it a "colossal failure," adding that it "cost Zev Buffman his career as a producer, and several other people." (The last quote seems to be an overstatement, but the general point about the show's failure stands. For additional comments made by Moody, consult this
During the early 1980s, Bufman continued to court theatrical partnerships with well-known artists: Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee. The partnership with Taylor is said to have begun thanks to a chance encounter: the pair "happened" to be seating next to one another at the opening of a 1980 Brigadoon
revival that Bufman had produced. According to a People
magazine article written by Andrea Chambers, Bufman took advantage of such an "unexpected" opportunity to pose a question to the Hollywood actress ("Why don't you do a Broadway play sometime?"), to which she gave a pointed reply ("Why don't you ask me?"). In a different version of the same story, a New York Magazine
account claimed that a friend of Bufman had invited Taylor without his knowledge, and that, after meeting in typical screwball-comedy style, Bufman directly asked Taylor, “how about doing a Broadway show with me?,” to which she supposedly replied, “I’d love to.”
The outcome of Bufman and Taylor's conversation was her much publicized theatrical debut in a revival of Lillian Hellman's classic 1939 play The Little Foxes
. In late February 1981, after having successfully premiered in Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse (owned by Bufman, who considered it the best of the eight theaters that were under his possession at the time), Taylor and the ensemble moved to New York, where they played at the Martin Beck Theater from May to September. Washington, New Orleans, and Los Angeles took up the rest of their year. The production was capped with a tour to London. Therein, the ensemble performed at the Victoria Palace Theater from March till the summer of 1982. Unofficial reports claimed that the production had earned 12 millions in 50 weeks. (A total of $1.2 million was said to have been invested in this revival -- $600,000 by Bufman himself.) The Little Foxes
would eventually earn Tony nominations for both the star and the show.
Bufman and Taylor cemented their professional relationship with a partnership venture called the Elizabeth Theatre Group. The venture was expected to produce one show starring Miss Taylor each season, and also shows starring other artists. As a start, a deal involving three shows was struck. Two of those three shows actually went into production. The third never did -- a fact that would have an effect on the fate of Peg
The first show offered by the Elizabeth Theatre Group was Noel Coward's 1930 comedy of manners Private Lives
, co-starring Taylor and one of her former husbands, Hollywood star Richard Burton. By choosing this particular play, the Group was clearly banking on the suggestive, tabloid-inviting parallels between the divorced stars and the play's main characters. The latter is a quarreling couple who gets a divorce and who each remarry other people, only to subsequently get back together, thereby starting the process of quarreling and mutual abuse all over again. Buoyed by the attention-grabbing news of a reunion between the Hollywood stars, Private Lives
had good sales in Boston, where it premiered in April 1983. It also had good advance sales at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where the play's New York run started in May.
Advance sales notwithstanding, the Boston and New York critics' reception of the show was abysmal. Reviewers took to task the production, the original director (fired after the Boston run), the male lead and, most glaringly, the female lead. Boston's Kevin Kelley, one of the earliest and harshest critics, described Taylor as "a perfectly terrible ... Minnie Mouse .... [a] caricature of Coward’s heroine, inside a caricature of an actress, inside a caricature of Elizabeth Taylor ... a hefty housewife in a Community Theater farce." The New York Times
' Frank Rich was not much kinder: "From the start, the production never even pretends to be anything other than a calculated business venture ... Miss Taylor lists about, her hands fluttering idly, like a windup doll in need of a new mainspring." Since this Noel Coward play had always been described as dependent on excellent acting to succeed, the critical reaction to Taylor was particularly problematic. With reviews such as those, it is not surprising that the play was no longer selling out after a few weeks, or that Bufman and company decided to close its New York run on July 17, four weeks earlier than the originally scheduled August 14 date. Burton and Taylor's Private Lives
still toured to other cities and attracted the interest of audiences -- thanks mostly to the allure of its celebrity pedigree -- but it never fully recovered from its negative reviews.
Despite the critical panning of Taylor's latest vehicle, Bufman remained keen on developing partnerships with more stars. During an interview published on May 23, 1983, the producer told People
magazine that he had already made overtures to Sophia Loren, Gregory Peck and Burt Reynolds, and that he was "long[ing] for a few words with Marcello Mastroianni." Meanwhile, the producer was keeping himself busy. He produced a revival of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge
that ran from February to June 1983. The impresario also told People
that he was juggling the (pre-)production of four additional works: Peg
, The Corn Is Green
(Bufman and Taylor's second finished production, discussed in the paragraph immediately below), Inherit the Wind
(another prospective project with Taylor), and Smile
(a Marvin Hamlisch musical that ended up having to wait to open until 1986, by which time Bufman does not seem to have been involved any longer). As some of the next paragraphs will explain in more detail, The Corn Is Green
did proceed, but Inherit the Wind
and another prospective Taylor vehicle, Sweet Bird Of Youth
, did not.
Given the number of Bufman productions that were ongoing or in development during 1983, the entrepreneur might have spread himself too thin, both occupationally and financially. Money was spent not only on the productions but also on the stars that were being courted. "You want to please these people;" he explained to the press in 1985, "limos, aides, redecorated dressing rooms, flowers and champagne go without saying. It pays off in the end." In particular, the wealthy businessman had been sparing no expenses on business partner Elizabeth Taylor: three gold-and-diamond bracelets in advance of the opening of Private Lives
and a $135,000 Rolls-Royce when she pointed out that she would be earning less money during the production's UK tour, due to the lower ticket prices across the pond.
Bufman and Taylor's 1983 production of Emlyn Williams' The Corn Is Green
starred Academy-award-nominated actress Cicely Tyson, who at the time had recently married jazz legend Miles Davis. The play opened in August 1983 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, thereby preceding Peg
. Once again, the reviews were heavily negative, describing the production as too "broad" and "lacking in naturalism." Critics referred to the star as a usually accomplished actress who for this production was nonetheless coming off as dramatically "strained" and "constrained within her chosen style of speech." Worse yet, the character that she had created was deemed so "falsely patronizing as to be transparent" in some scenes. As for the director and the majority of the show's other actors, they fared no better with the critics or the general public. After opening in August 22 (following its 21 previews), the play closed less than a month later, in September 18. According to a report that I have not been able to confirm, Tyson herself quit the show, giving as her reason the "poor quality of the production." (The Corn Is Green
had marked Mrs. Tyson's comeback to the theater after 13 years of absence. Although her acting career continued unabated in television and film, she did not return to Broadway until the year 2013.)
For the Elizabeth Taylor Theater Group, the double failure of The Corn Is Green
and Private Lives
meant the end of the road. Never getting off the ground were Sweet Bird of Youth
and Inherit The Wind
. (One of those two plays was the one expected to feature Taylor in the female lead; as to which of the two it was, reports vary.) Not surprisingly, the Taylor-Bufman partnership was terminated in November 1983, evincing what was reported as "a small net loss." In an interview conducted by The Sun Sentinel
two years later, the usually accommodating and affable Bufman placed on Taylor the bulk of the responsibility for this failure: "The Little Foxes
was a hit that shouldn't have been. Elizabeth was getting stronger in the part, but she wasn't that good. As for Private Lives
, I never thought it was good; I thought it was an event, a vehicle to give an audience a good time." The Sun Sentinel
reporter had the following to add:[Beginning of quote]
Richard Burton had promised Bufman that he would stay sober during the run of Private Lives
, and he did. In fact, Bufman remembers, Burton held the play together, and generally performed far beyond the call of duty, in spite of health that was rapidly deteriorating from years of alcoholism. No, the problem wasn't Burton; the problem was Bufman's business partner. "Elizabeth was drinking and she was on pills. It hadn't been a problem on Little Foxes
because the reviews had been good. And she was married to John Warner then, and leading a better, healthier life. But after we opened in Boston and got terrible reviews, both Elizabeth and Burton were terrified of New York .... The show was like being in a constant state of siege. We were all held hostage; none of us ever knew if we would survive past 8:30. Elizabeth missed performances. By the last miserable four weeks, Richard would just show up, walk through it and go home." In an effort to prop up his sagging enterprise, Bufman accompanied Taylor everywhere, and was spoken of in the gossip columns as a prospective husband/current lover. For Bufman, married over 20 years, it was a doubly unpleasant situation. "It was the most difficult year of my wife's life, and the grace with which she dealt with all the hints and allegations only made me love her more. She played it just right." [End of quote]
It was amidst this chaotic background that Bufman's production of Peg
opened for previews, just a month after the Taylor-Bufman partnership had been dissolved. In her autobiography, Peggy Lee describes the state of affairs thus: "Private Lives
with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had closed early at the Lunt-Fontanne. They planned to play for eight months, but played for six because Burton had to go back to England. That left Zev with thirteen to fourteen months to go on the two-year lease, and that's where and when we came in. I was told that I had to play at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre." If Lee's claim is correct, it is possible that the premature closing of Private Lives
affected the schedule (among other matters) of not only Peg
but also The Corn Is Green
. A press notice published in The New York Times
on October 20, 1983, supplies more details about the situation, and suggests that Lee's claim was essentially correct:[Beginning of quote]
The Elizabeth Theater Group, the venture formed by Elizabeth Taylor and Zev Bufman to produce dramatic classics at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, is in virtual collapse. Miss Taylor and Mr. Bufman are unable to fill the third and final slot of their three-play subscription series in December with Inherit the Wind
, as announced. According to Mr. Bufman, they could not cast the play. Moreover, the producers were unable to come up with another classic as a replacement. As a result, Mr. Bufman is going to bring the new musical Peg
, which he was already planning to present independently on Broadway this season, into the Lunt-Fontanne, offering it as the third play of the subscription. ''If the subscribers don't want Peg
, we will refund their money,'' Mr. Bufman said. [End of quote]
In other words, the Peggy Lee production served as a sacrificial lamb, offered to an audience who had probably enrolled in The Elizabeth Theater Group subscription plan for the privilege of seeing the movie star (not the music artist) onstage.
V. Main Creative Talent: The Early Wave (Late 1982 - Early 1983)
Back in March 1983, as the rehearsals for Peg
were being scheduled, two of the three key creative names attached to the autobiographical musical were Dania Krupska and Robert Kalfin. Slated to be the musical's choreographer, Dania Krupska boasted credits that included 1956 and 1961 Tony nominations for The Most Happy Fella
and The Happiest Girl In The World
. Robert Kalfin, founder of the Chelsea Theater Center, was to be the play's director.
The third key name was the aforementioned William Luce, brought in by Zev Bufman to co-write the show's libretto with Lee. Luce was best-known then for his 1976 one-woman play The Belle Of Amherst
, in which Julie Harris had portrayed not only poet Emily Dickinson but also a bevy of secondary characters from Dickinson's life. Harris had remained onstage for the entire duration of the play, and her effort had been rewarded with the fifth of her Tony awards. Luce's subsequent, similarly patterned plays included Brontë
(1982; about novelist Charlotte Brontë, and starring Julie Harris again ), Zelda
(1984; about novelist Zelda Fitzgerald, who was F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife), and Lillian
(1986; about playwright Lillian Hellman). The hiring of Luce would thus seem to suggest someone's desire, at that point in time, to mold Peg
into a poetic, dramatic one-woman-show. However, Luce might have not been particularly keen on the potential constraints that the musical aspects of this assignment would put on his prospective script, or on the possibility that the assignment was meant for an all-around musical rather than a one-woman show. "I thought it strange to have a score before there was even a book," he would tell biographer Peter Richmond more than two decades later. (I should clarify that Luce did write libretti for musical works, too, especially in his later years. Those -- which included an opera -- were usually scored by composer Henry Mollicone. Furthermore, he was a music major who had worked as a piano accompanist to various singers and who considered himself a singer, too. Still, the one-person play is the genre for which he became best known.)
All three of these key players (Luce, Krupska, Kalfin) were gone by the time that Peg
went into rehearsals. Kalfin was replaced by Obie-winning actor-turned-director Bobby Drivas. (Peg
was Drivas' last directorial work; he would pass away three years later.) Krupska was not replaced at all. The full dropping of the choreographer position might point to a change in direction. By the time that Krupska was let go, the concept of having a musical with dancers and choreography might have already been abandoned.
The departure of Bill Luce is particularly intriguing, and the reason for it remains unknown. If allowed to speculate, we could imagine strong differences of opinion about the direction of the script. Presumably, Luce would have favored a poetic and literary approach, with stress on the bleaker aspects of the artist's life. Concerned about audience's reactions, Lee might have wished for a lighter, more humorous vein. (I stress that the points made in this paragraph are entirely speculative. In the sources that I have consulted, there are no specifics about the writing relationship between Luce and Lee. Nonetheless, if the quotes and anecdotes that the playwright gave to biographer Peter Richmond are any indication, Luce was not fond of Lee at all.)
The final credits for the play make no mention of Kalfin, Krupska, or Luce. (Exception: a New York Magazine
ad incorrectly credited the show's finalized book not only to Lee but also to Luce.) However, Lee takes space in her autobiography to acknowledge their involvement in the early stages of the production: "It took a long time to get to the point of the Playbill
lineup. For a year, we worked with such people as Bill Luce, the playwright (The Belle Of Amherst
, which starred Julie Harris), Danya Krupska, choreographer, director Bob Kalfin. As happens sometimes, they were all changed, and finally we worked with Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity
) and Bobby Drivas." Coleman was given the credit of "creative consultant," which would seem to suggest that he offered his expertise in a variety of matters, including songwriting, the book or libretto, and any sections of the show still needing any semblance of a choreography. Coleman can thus be said to have served as a substitute of sorts for both Luce and Krupska.
VI. Rehearsals (May - October 1983) And Previews (December 1983)
According to one report published in early 1983, the prospective date for the premiere of Peg
was November 1, 1983 "at a theatre to be announced." It thus seems that a venue had not been definitely chosen in March 1983, when the report in question was published. The same report stated that "[a] national search is being launched immediately to find Peg, age 4 to 10, and Peg the young woman. Three Pegs are written into the musical, with Lee set to carry much of the vehicle with her role as narrator-observer. New York and Los Angeles will be the focal points for auditions by director Robert Kalfin."
Early rehearsal and workshops were scheduled to begin on May 6, 1983 and to continue into the month of June. For the June dates (June 8 to June 26), only individuals with an invitation were permitted to attend. Pre-Broadway rehearsals, featuring the full projected cast of 22 actors, were expected to start on October the 1st, and afterwards, the previews were tentatively scheduled to begin on October the 15th.
Early rehearsals indeed took place in New York City at the Minskoff Theater, located at 1515 Broadway or One Astor Plaza. (Nowadays, this theater is best known for the successful 1994 American theatrical premiere of Sunset Boulevard
and for the very popular The Lion King
, which has been running since 2006.) Besides Peggy Lee and Cy Coleman, pianist Mike Renzi and drummer Grady Tate are known to have been present at these rehearsals. It is not clear if bassist Jay Leonhart and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli were already on board. While referring to one particular days of rehearsal, Renzi tells biographer Richmond that there was no bassist -- not, at least, on that particular occasion.
As for the workshops, they were held at the studios of famous Broadway director, choreographer and dancer Michael Bennett. (The studios were located on 890 Broadway, NYC but are no longer in existence. In 1985, Bennett sold his share of the building to a cooperative that included the building's two other tenants, the American Ballet Theater and the Eliot Feld Ballet). These workshops were scheduled to take place for three weeks, and required the participation of the entire cast -- Lee, the background singers, the musicians.
According to most reports, previews started on Thursday, December 1, 1983, with the last one taking place on the 13th. Naturally, re-adjustments were expected to be made during this pre-opening period. These previews might have proven taxing for those involved; tellingly, one of the participating musicians recalls them as lasting even longer than they did. Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli told biographer Peter Richmond that "[w]e did about three weeks of previews, and every day, Peg and Cy would change things." Lee acknowledged in her autobiography that, during this intense period of rehearsals and previews, "somehow we had lost the simplicity we had going in LA ... actually, by now, you could hardly recognize it as the same show."
VII. Publicity And Finances (Or Lack Thereof)
From Peggy Lee's perspective, the publicity for the show was very poorly handled. Referring to the period that preceded the opening of Peg
, she made the following comment: "I repeatedly asked when we would open, so I could get some theater groups going. I asked ... our press agent when I could start promoting the show with disc jockeys. He had no answer. [By then] The Corn Is Green
[the show that preceded Peg
at the Lunt-Fontanne] was closed, and we were in the theatre for rehearsals. I didn't see any marquee going up on the theatre (and it never did!)." Lee also pointed out in her autobiography that "[o]n November 20, 1983, in the Sunday New York Times
, there was a full page ad listing the wrong
telephone number (586-5555). If you called it you didn't even get an answer. The phone number should have been 575-9200. Theatre Guide
, a free listing in the Sunday Times
, did not run a listing on the same day our big ad ran! ... The posters were never distributed ... So there was really no proper advertisement." The number that Lee singles out as being wrong was also the one printed in the December 1983 issues of New York Magazine
. In the recollection of one of the patrons who attended the show and who is a fan of Lee, "the advertising and promotion was nearly nonexistent." Other patrons-fans have made similar comments about insufficient advertisement.
The above-quoted statements and recollections would thus seem to suggest that the publicity branch for the show was either disorganized or mediocre. Another alternative -- not necessarily precluding charges of disorganization or mediocrity -- is that the publicity branch might have simply been told to not bother making the advertisement a priority. That third alternative would of course imply that the parties who hired the publicity branch had low expectations for the show, or that the capital left for the show had become too small to allow for further expenses.
On the matter of finances, Lee would later mention that the show had closed because the producers "didn't see enough advance sales." Worth remembering as a possible factor for both the lack of advance sales and the unsatisfactory advertisement is the aforementioned termination of Elizabeth Taylor's and Zev Bufman's partnership, which had led to the rushed, unplanned replacement of a Taylor play with the Lee musical. The Cowans were having their own financial problems as well. Due to a succession of arson fires, their hotel had had to close for the winter, a situation which translated into a business loss of $30 million, and an investment of $20 million in renovations. (A 2002 Sun Sentinel
article states that "[t]he Diplomat's skid started in the '80s. Mounting debt, arson, shutdowns, management and ownership changes all conspired to usher the fabled property, and everything it symbolized, toward oblivion." Unable to pay nearly 200 creditors, Irv Cowan ceded partial ownership of the hotel to a consortium of labor unions in 1987, fulling selling it in 1991 to an insurance company that was among the unionized co-owners.)
VIII. The Opening: Venue And TimingPeg
opened on Wednesday, December 14, 1983. From Monday through Saturday, the show played at 8:00 p.m., and seats were within the $30-$40 range. Those ticket prices were on par with most of the other shows that were playing at the time. As with most of those other shows, slightly cheaper matinee performances of Peg
($22.50-$32.50) were also scheduled. In Peg
's case, there were programmed for 2:00 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
In early 1983, various press releases had indicated that Peg
would be opening in November of that year. Instead, the show opened during the second week of December. Faced with an opening during the last month of the year, Peggy Lee would have probably preferred to open in 1984, after the holidays. She would later remark about the unsuitability of opening a show at a time when the weather was bleak and cold, and "when people [were] concentrating on Christmas shopping and holiday parties."
The artist had a point. During the holidays, theater-going audiences are likelier to want, more than anything else, light amusement and warm entertainment. Indeed, a lot of the shows playing at the time were tried-and-true, crowd-pleasing musicals: La Cage Aux Folles
, A Chorus Line
, On Your Toes
, and 42nd Street
. Other strong attractions were the Tony winner Torch Song Trilogy
, the erotic/nudist Oh! Calcutta!
, and Mamet's American Buffalo
, starring Al Pacino. With additional offerings featuring the likes of Rex Harrison (Shaw's Heartbreak House
), Anthony Quinn (Zorba
), Jessica Tandy (Williams' The Glass Menagerie
), and even Italian singer Sergio Franchi in the Tony-winning musical remake of Fellini's 8 1/2
(ambitiously titled Nine
), the field was crowded.
Peggy Lee also objected to the venue of choice. "One night," she reminisced in her autobiography, "[producer] Zev Bufman took me to see Cicely Tyson in The Corn Is Green
[at the Lunt-Fontanne]. I didn't know at the time that I would be asked to perform in that big theatre ... I was told I had to play at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre." In a 1988 interview, Lee made similar comments: "One thing was, I did not request I sing in that theater. In fact, I said I’d rather not. Turns out [producer Zev Bufman] had a three-year lease. When I saw Cicely Tyson there, I couldn’t believe how dreary that theater could seem. I thought it was a question of lighting, we could fix it." Indeed, this 1,415 seat theatre boasts a large stage which has proven particularly suitable for mass-aimed, lavish and visually eye-catching spectaculars (Titanic: The Musical
, The Sound Of Music
, Beauty And The Beast
, The Little Mermaid
, the revival of The Wiz
, Peter Pan
, The Addams Family
Conversely, the Lunt-Fontanne rates as a less-than-optimal choice for a one-woman show, or for any production aiming at intimacy. Granted, a large stage can be successfully filled by a larger-than-life or over-the-top personality, or by reliance on broad comedy, slapstick, and spectacle. Peg
did not fall under any of those categories, however. And, for better or for worse, neither did Lee.
While the choice of venue and the opening date seem to have rendered the artist somewhat uneasy, Lee's reaction to the ensuing news of the show's closing was one of devastation. In her own recollection, the artist was barely given any advance notice. "Tomorrow is your last show," she remembers being told by producer Irv Cowan on December 16, 1983. "That was so shocking, it didn't even get through to me," Lee would later remark, adding that "we determined to be brave and hoped for a miracle. I called Greg Bautzer to see if he could help me get some more money, if that was the problem. Greg was my lawyer, and a man with financial connections, and we were by now, old, old friends. He said he would get right back to me. But then, when I called the Waldorf, the Cowans had already left for Florida. They weren't going to be there for the closing performance! Who would put up further backing under such circumstances."
In their own defense, Cowan and the other producers could perhaps argue that handling Lee was difficult, and that informing any star about the closing of her show is no easy task. By this point in time, the 64-year-old Lee was exhibiting signs of frailty on occasion, and she had begun to make periodic allusions to a growing number of illnesses. Hence the producers of Peg
might have been concerned about how she would react to bad news. (Lee's detractors are prone to paint the Lee of later years as a hypochondriac and/or as someone who cleverly resorted to mentioning her health problems as a means to have her demands satisfied. On the matter of Lee's strategic recourse to such allusions, they might have a point. Nevertheless, the health facts per se are not open to speculation: a diabetic whose bouts with pneumonia significantly affected her lungs, Lee had to put up with a fair amount of ill health. As will be told in more detail below, she would also undergo heart surgery less than two years after the closing of Peg
IX. Staging And Costumes
Despite the considerable amount of capital allegedly invested in the show, the staging of Peg
turned out to be, by all accounts, woefully unimpressive. It is said to have consisted of just two upholstered chairs, one on the right of the stage, the other on the left, both reserved for Lee to sit, as she is said to have done for parts of the show's duration. Potted plants had been placed near each chair. The set's walls were painted in Lee's favorite color, peach. During part of the show, a large image of the Peggy Lee Rose was projected on the stage's backdrop along with the show's title, Peg
. (The rose had been officially named in Lee's honor just one year before the opening of the show.) Critics' and theatergoers' descriptions of the staging ranged from "rather bland" and "spare" to "drab" and "unappealing," with the very few positive remarks bestowed on the projection of the Peggy Lee Rose only.
Peggy Lee remained onstage for the entire duration of the show, and so did her rhythm section (Jay Leonhart, Bucky Pizzarelli, Mike Renzi, Grady Tate), who positioned themselves in the back. The rhythm section was thus visible to the audience. The 26-piece orchestra, under the direction of Larry Fallon, was also on the back of the stage. Although reports from a few audience members indicate that the orchestra was not visible, press photos place some doubt on their recollection. The photos give a partial but reasonably clear view of the orchestra. (Maybe the orchestra was wrapped in very dim lighting?) The background singers sat next to the orchestra.
Lee's attire of choice was a white and silver gown topped with a bejeweled cap. Gown and cap might have aimed at giving the star an angelical or a regal appearance. One critic (Frank Rich) remarked that Lee looked like "a priestess" in a "flowing white gown" with a "halo of glitter." This critic's remark was not meant to be complimentary. Rich felt that Lee's attire lent support to his (mis)interpretation of the show as a deification of the artist. Another critic (John Simon) deemed the gown "flatteringly sculptured" and called its silhouette "vaguely Egyptian." As in the previous case, this critic's description of the gown was at the service of an extended analogy. Lee's looks, gestures, demeanor and limited onstage movement reminded Simon of a mummified creature - or, at best, "a singing mortician." Although I do not share these two critics' harsh opinions of Peg
, I do consider Lee's costume an infelicitous choice. To my eyes, it gives an impression of remoteness. It contrasts with the narrative's inherent earthiness -- with its tales of farm life and earthly heartache. Then again, the gown might have found success with audience members who perceived its design and color as angelical or bird-like. For such audience members, the gown might have conveyed the libretto's inspirational, uplifting message, especially during the opening number ("Soul"). Against the rest of the show, however, a simpler and earthlier attire would have served Lee better.
Anecdotal reports about the number of gowns worn by Lee are conflicting. Some accounts refer to one gown only, whereas others refer to two but fail to provide a description of the second gown. According to comments that she made to the press during the period of rehearsal and previews, Lee's original plan was to wear two gowns: "I come after intermission in another beautiful gown. I've been fitting gowns for weeks now." It is possible that the change to a second gown was tried during the previews and abandoned subsequently, after it was deemed inconvenient for one reason or another. Alternatively, the star might have truly worn two gowns, despite my lack of evidence on the matter. (Comments from any reader with a clear recollection of a second gown would be appreciated.)
X. Casting And Other Creative Decisions
Judging from descriptions found in press reports published between 1980 and mid-1983, the original version of Peg
bore little resemblance to the show that premiered in late 1983.
An article dating from September 6, 1982 exemplifies the early characterizations of the musical: "[n]o mere and then I sang
concert, it will be fully staged with a cast of 22 and a multimillion dollar budget." At the time, Peggy Lee was envisioning the project as a Broadway-style musical, with not only singing aplenty but also large amounts of dancing and acting in its mix. According to fans who queried Lee on the matter, the plan was to have the actors and dancers enact her life's story on the stage, and to have the star make periodic appearances throughout the musical, chiefly to sing. More specifically, Lee was going to remain in a balcony or platform somewhere above the stage, from which she would be performing some of the songs. Only for the final bows would she actually set foot onstage. In essence, this early (ca. 1982) version of Peg
positioned Lee as an observant of her own life, and required the vocalist to express herself mainly in song form -- not through spoken narration.
Other interviews and press reports suggest that, during the pre-production period, Peggy Lee's intention to appear in the play oscillated. "I didn’t intend to be in it at all, originally," she would tell the Associated Press in 1983, "I was writing it for someone else to do." And yet, back in October 1980, the press had quoted her as having said, "I hope to star in it myself." Most likely, she considered both possibilities (i.e., to star or not to star) at different stages of the writing process.
By September of 1982, there had been a clear change of plans. That month, the press was told that Peggy Lee would be appearing onstage during the last part of the autobiographical show, portraying herself as an adult, while two different actresses would be standing for Lee during the sequences that concerned her childhood and early adulthood. Professional actors would be cast to play other key roles, such as those of Dave Barbour and Benny Goodman. This plan seemed to still be in effect in the middle months of 1983, when the hiring of musicians and backup singers was taking place.
The prospect of casting famous actors to play the show's main characters must have been alluring to Lee. As late as July 1983, the artist was telling reporter Maurice Zolotow that she wished to have Dustin Hoffman in the role of Dave Barbour. Asked by Zolotow about the role of her stepmother, Lee answered that "Maureen Stapleton would be a possibility ... She is such a good actress. Or Colleen Dewhurst could do it." In making such suggestions, Lee might or might have not been dreaming. It is worth noting that producer Zev Bufman had successfully worked with Dustin Hoffman on a Broadway production in 1968, right after the Hollywood actor had achieved stardom with The Graduate
. Similarly, Stapleton had played against Elizabeth Taylor in Bufman's 1981 production of The Little Foxes
. Therefore, Lee's casting wishes were by no means random, but based on awareness of which actors had had ties with her show's main producer.
Shortly after Peggy Lee had made the above-quoted comments, cold reality (and/or producer intervention) must have put a definitive end to any such high expectations: no actors were cast in the show. An article and interview published on December 1, 1983 described the state of affairs as follows: "[o]riginally, the show was to have a cast of 22 characters -- including two Pegs. No more. Says Peggy Lee: Now we're down to just moi -- backed up by a 30-piece orchestra
As for the libretto's dialogue, all characters' lines ended up being handled by Lee, by her musicians and by the show's backup singers. Peggy Lee naturally voiced the parts that belonged to the adult Lee. In voiceover, one of the show's female backup singers uttered the lines of Norma the child. Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was tasked with enacting the speaking voice of Dave Barbour, while drummer-vocalist Grady Tate stood for a singing Barbour through a duet performed along with Lee. Tate and bassist Jay Leonhart recited some passages from the libretto, too. Other speaking roles were fulfilled -- once again as voiceovers -- by the backup singers. (The show counted with six backup singers, all of them identified in this discography's Theatre
page, as well as two swings, Ellen McLain and D. Michael Heath.)
XI. The Blame Game
In stark contrast with the promises made in the September 6, 1982 article quoted at the start of the previous section, the production that premiered on December 14, 1983 offered an almost bare stage, a virtually inexistent cast of actors, and no visible signs of lavishness. (Arguably, the gown worn by Lee was the one display of lavishness on the stage. Very
arguably. The extant photos show a gown that does not strike the eye as particularly opulent. In any case, opulent or not, the costumes did not deliver on promises that Lee had made earlier in 1983, when she had told the press that she had been "fitting gowns for weeks now" and that there was going to be "plenty of dazzle.") Granted that any large project is bound to go through alterations during its developmental process, the modifications made on Peg
are drastic enough to perplex. There is a huge gap between the original conception -- with its anticipation of a large cast, choreographed numbers, et cetera -- and the actual execution of the show.
Normally, the most logical explanation for alterations such as those under discussion would be a financial setback. Unfortunately, lack of financial data prevents our exploration of such a possible explanation: very little is publicly known about the management of the budget's show. (Go to this page's Publicity And Finances
section, however, for some tangential yet thought-provoking factoids.)
Whereas factual specifics such as the budget's allocation are unavailable, opinions on why the show underwent some of its most notable alterations are easy to come by. The primary participants have certainly shared their respective takes on the matter. Most of them seem to place the blame on other participants, assuming no responsibility of their own.
In the recollection of Lee and a few other individuals, the main factor that led to the show's alterations was the direct input of the producers. They allegedly insisted that Lee had to fully star in Peg
, which presumably meant that she was expected to be onstage not just for the occasional song but for the duration -- just as she would have been in one of her regular concerts. Lee might have also heard similar feedback from other parties, such as friends and fellow performers.
The recollection of one of the show's producers differs from those offered in the previous paragraphs. Irv Cowan told biographer Peter Richmond that Lee "always wanted to play herself. We thought, to make it more realistic, there should be two or three Peggy Lees." Furthermore, the producer honestly and bluntly told the biographer that, as far as his opinion of the show was concerned, "[t]he thing didn't have any real meat. Or the things people are interested in." In Richmond's biography, composer Paul Horner also recalls another pertinent comment from Cowan, to the effect that Lee's claims of poor health played a significant factor in his interactions with the singer. "You are afraid to tell what you think," Cowan allegedly told Horner, "because you're afraid she'll have a heart attack." (Given the less-than-optimal manner in which singer and producer ended their working collaboration, the possibility that Cowan is overstating some of his points should not be discarded. Conversely, there is no reason to invalidate his opinions and recollections. He is by no means the only man who has claimed that the older Lee tended to resort to her failing health as a weapon, in order to have her wishes prevail. "I think she used illness as a protection," Horner re-affirmed.)
As for the other producers of the show, Zev Bufman, Marge Cowan and Georgia Frontiere are not quoted in Richmond's biography, which was published in 2006. It thus seems that, if they were contacted, they did not or could not grant interviews. Frontiere would pass away in 2008, Mrs. Cowan in 2009.
Composer Paul Horner and playwright William Luce are, on the other hand, amply quoted in Richmond's biography. Luce's experiences with Lee appear to have been largely negative. Richmond spends some of his book's paragraphs recounting those experiences, yet seems to have no room for commentary about the shape and direction of Luce's libretto. A missed opportunity on the biographer's part: to my knowledge, Luce has yet to publicly discuss his prospective (aborted) conception of the show.
As for Horner, he portrays a rocky composer-lyricist relationship. Presumably paraphrasing the composer's account of events, Peter Richmond explains that the relationship had "beg[u]n to frost over" after "Peggy [had] told Horner that she wanted the songs to go through her own music company." While acquiescing, the pianist had written back with the caveat that "no decisions c[ould] be made unless [they] made them jointly." Horner is said to have interpreted the ensuing cooling of the relationship as a likely sign of jealousy on Lee's part, due to -- in Richmond's wording -- "the attention that his songs were getting." Some time afterwards, once Cy Coleman had been brought in, Horner felt largely shunned from the theatrical project, and he was told by producer Irv Cowan that Lee had "tried to have [Horner's] name taken off the show." (Although Cowan understandably found the attempt "ludicrous," he directly said to Richmond that "[i]n the end, you have to wonder how much of the music was a true collaboration with [Horner], and how much was her overpowering him. She was a forceful woman when it came to music.")
The composer also made a few remarks about the changes undergone by the score. Originally, the score was slated to consist exclusively of songs that he and Lee had co-written. Says Horner: "Peg's instinct was to have the thing be original. But friends -- and backers -- were recommending that she frontload it with her hits. It's what people want and expect from Peggy Lee ... " Furthermore, the composer lamented the replacement of some of the songs that he and Lee had originally co-written with song written at a later time. (The "replacement" songs in question are also credited to Horner and Lee. My sources do not clarify if the pair got together for the creation of those later songs or if, instead, Lee wrote lyrics to some of the melodies that Horner had composed during the earlier days of their collaboration.)
Seemingly endorsing Horner's (and Luce's?) viewpoint without questioning it at all, Richmond himself adds that "[b]y 1983 ... Coleman had helped persuade Peggy to turn the production into a much more conventional one-woman show ... the story was morphing from a dramatic play into a straight bio ... Upon his arrival, the show began to change shape, from a cast of characters playing in a linear narrative to a one-woman show ... While Horner's songs were increasingly sacrificed for Coleman's Broadway orchestrations, the narrative of Lee's life was never honed."
Hence Cy Coleman is made primarily responsible for most of the alterations that the show underwent -- and is Lee, though to a lesser extent. While such might have very well been the case, readers of Richmond's book should leave some room for doubt. (The biographer has an inclination to place full trust on those who graciously spoke to him, not to say anything of a tendency to overpraise -- or promote -- their achievements. All too often, Richmond fails to consider that such sources, human at last, might also carry their own biases.) Meanwhile, pianist Mike Renzi -- who was brought to the show by Coleman -- places a greater measure of responsibility on Lee. He recalls how, during rehearsals, she stubbornly adhered to courses of action with which Coleman vehemently disagreed, to the point that he temporarily walked out of the rehearsals.
While the show's star and its creative director must definitely be held largely responsible for both the failures and successes of the show, it should simultaneously be noticed that we have no access to their opinions and their output on many specific matters. We are thus left with an incomplete picture of the events that transpired (and the decisions that were made) during the development of the production.
XII. Tone And LibrettoPeg
's inability to become a critical success was partially a consequence of its book or libretto, whose tone is said to have made both reviewers and general audiences uneasy. The book's tone was actually conversational and engaging -- except for its opening segment, in which a more poetic delivery was attempted. But the libretto's raw material (i.e., Lee's life) was too heavy, dealing as it did with parental death, orphanhood, physical abuse, alcoholism, divorce, and other serious issues. Of course, the sadness inherent to such autobiographical events was not lost on Lee, and neither was the distressing effect that the events could have on listeners. Back in 1981, when she had been asked if she was writing an autobiography, her response had been telling: "I've been asked this so many times, and my answer is always the same. I'd write the thing if I could express the difficult times in a humorous way. But every time I try, it keeps coming out too sad -- like a soap opera." In 1983, as the premiere of the show was fast approaching, the singer reiterated the point made in 1981, taking advantage of this second time to explain how the theatrical version would help dilute the sadness behind some of the events: "I tried to do it as a book," but it came out too Scandinavian, full of despair and gloom. Doing it with songs made it more positive, and that’s the whole idea."
's libretto tried to dissipate the heaviness of Lee's life story by taking an approach that was sometimes inspirational and other times lighthearted, humorous, or even tongue-in-cheek. Audiences seem to have reacted with ambivalence. On the one hand, audiences appear to have remained generally interested and entertained throughout -- as evinced by the enthusiastic applause and the hearty bouts of laughter that permeate the surviving tapes. On the other hand, word of mouth suggests that audiences left the theater with an overall feeling of sadness or discomfort -- a cumulative effect of the narrative's woes. According to the show's pianist, Mike Renzi, "everyone warned her, by the way, about the show. It was a very good show, but it got ridiculous, all that stuff about the beatings, and the depression. You can allude to it, but she was trying to make it funny. It was not."
Most of the show's other musicians also shared their opinions of the libretto with biographer Peter Richmond. "I think the thing wrong with the show," declared guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, "was it was all about herself, you know. She came out smelling like a rose in that show. If she had put a little grease in there, something raunchy, to match Dave [Barbour]'s woes, you know, I think she should have done that." Bassist Jay Leonhart was just uncomfortable with his secondary duty as voiceover actor: "I hated what I had to say. And they never had me recite my lines in front of people until the dress rehearsal." On the matter of the libretto, the bassist expressed his opinion that Lee "didn't spend enough time on the fine-tuning. A show like this is almost a vanity project, it's gotta be perfect, and in the end, she didn't have the energy for the rewriting it needed."
For their part, critics were justifiably bothered by the inspirational tenor of the story, which they saw as Lee's attempt to glorify or even "canonize" herself. Most likely, Lee failed to anticipate this particular criticism. As someone who was heavily imbued in inspirational material during these years of her lifetime, the singer probably thought that her autobiographical narrative exemplified our human capacity to overcome adversity and learn from it. The critics thought differently.
The fact that over 95% of the libretto was uttered by Peggy Lee herself did not help matters. A particularly unwise course of action can be found at the very outset of the narrative, when Lee briefly uses the third person to talk about her birth, and she does so in verse. By using poetry, Lee and any other parties responsible for the libretto were probably trying to devise an aurally pleasant narrative; they were also resorting to literary convention. (Furthermore, Lee had long favored the inclusion of poetry in her musical performances.) Problematically for an autobiographical piece, this convention is used all too often to signal a lofty, elevated, even epic topic. Although the words themselves carried no ostentation in Peg
's case, the poetic setup created an initial impression of grandiosity from which some listeners might have not been able (or willing) to recuperate. The segment would have probably made a better impression on the critics if Lee had not been the person who voiced it; she might have been better off leaving the stage during those opening lines, and coming back afterwards.
XIII. Adverse Criticism
Most of the criticism of the show centered on its libretto. Variety
described it as "maudlin, myopic ... awkwardly written, mawkish autobiographical material that veers close to self-glorification" and "omits introspective insights." Similarly, The New York Times
' Frank Rich felt that, in an attempt at presenting herself as a spiritual icon, the star had created an uncomfortably self-centered libretto. While acknowledging that there was some entertainment in the show, he expressed special dislike for the solemnity with which Lee had recited the story of her life. "Many of the anecdotes sound as if they were long ago homogenized by press agents for mass dissemination through talk shows," Rich added. New York Magazine
's John Simon found very little to like in the entire show, its book included. He classified the libretto as mostly "grating doggerel" and "dog-eared prose," and opined that, "once past childhood," the autobiographical narrative "laundered [Lee's life] for publication." Lee's singing struck him as no better than acceptable. The show's songs were not to his liking, neither. As for the star's demeanor and appearance, he found her generally lifeless, or rather, "embalmed." More pointedly, Simon (famous for his critical acumen and infamous for his unflattering physical descriptions of stage actors) compared Lee to "a bleached sarcophagus placed upright on the stage and jerked about by a puppeteer who is himself close to mummification." Variety
countered with constructive criticism and a more balanced perspective: "A simpler, more modest approach would have been more winning ... [The] writing, which omits introspective insights, ironically distances her from the audience ... It's not that the singer is an unattractive or cold personality ... But Peg
is a Broadway show at Broadway prices, and its unsatisfying narrative presentation will probably limit its longevity."
XIV. Favorable Criticism
Critics were unanimous in their praise of the show's musical aspects. Even the harsh critics, such as the aforementioned Frank Rich, lavished plenty of praise on Peg
's musical accompaniment, calling the rhythm section first-rate, the orchestra hard-driving, and the orchestrations "above usual Broadway standards." The even harsher John Simon praised the "dashing and dazzling ... orchestrations by a dozen, mostly top-notch orchestrators, performed by Larry Fallon's able direction." Variety
also gave high marks to the musicians, but singled out the vocalist for extended praise: "When Peggy Lee is singing, Peg
is an entertaining show ... Lee's voice remains one of the glories of popular music. It's a distinctive instrument capable of delightful tonal variations, and her subtle phrasing and expressive lyric interpretations are unimpaired. Backed by an outstanding onstage orchestra, the star delivers tasty versions of some 26 songs, including the obligatory hits, along with a handful of pleasant new songs co-written with composer Paul Horner. Musically the show is virtually flawless ..." The campiest of the reviewers, columnist Arthur Bell from The Village Voice
, gave an assessment that, while typically snippy, probably managed to pique his readers' interest: "As a theater piece, Peg
is strange, whimsical, fey, cuckoo, but never boring."