A Pray by Blecht
by June Abernathy
Probably the most obscure of Sondheim's abandoned projects is an adaptation of Berthold Brecht's The Exception and the Rule which came to be known as A Pray By Blecht. Mentioned in both Zadan's "Sondheim & Co." (p115-116), and Banfield's "Sondheim's Broadway Musicals" (p46-47). I paraphrase freely from both in this description.
1968, right after Evening Primrose. Follies, then titled The Girls Upstairs, was on hold awaiting a producer after being dumped by David Merrick. Jerome Robbins was working with a one-act by Brecht called "The Measures Taken" at his American Theatre Lab. Robbins called Sondheim in to write a score for it, and SS said that he hated Brecht, all of Brecht, and particularly that play. So, Robbins asked him to look at the next play in the book, Brecht's "The Exception and the Rule." Sondheim gave it a shot, but after writing two songs ("Don't Give it a Thought", and "The Year of the...") Sondheim realized at this point that it wasn't a show that he wanted to do "It was didactic to a degree that I can't handle." He told Robbins to get Bernstein for music and lyrics.
Bernstein agreed to do music, but not lyrics, so they hired pop lyricist Jerry Lieber (Lieber and Stoller - Smokey Joe's Cafe...). The two of them reached "an impasse" a month or two later and asked Sondheim to come in and do lyrics. He reluctantly agreed, largely because "they'd brought in John Guare to do the book and he had a wild and fanciful idea that was brilliant and exciting, and I thought that I wanted to be connected with the project."
"The setting of the show," explains John Guare, "was a play within a play, taking place in a television studio. It was supposed to deal with the idea that in 1968 having 'good intentions' was not enough and that it was presumptuous and hilarious to expect that showing man's inhumanity to man would change anything in the world."
The New York Times ran a story in August of 1968 saying that the show would open at the Broadhurst in February of 1969. It also said that "the main plot deals with two rival groups of oil concessionaires racing across the desert - the motivation is generated by the impossible relationship between one of the oilmen (Zero Mostel) and his coolie."
But, after three months, "Sondheim and company became discouraged and dropped it altogether. 'We had written 8 or 9 songs,' says Sondheim,'and although I still loved Guare's notion, Brecht still bothered me a lot. I was ashamed of the whole project, it was arch and didactic in the worst way, and we really couldn't go on with it."
Banfield postulates that the experience was not a total waste of time, since, despite Sondheim's stated hatred of Brecht, his unwilling exposure to Brechtian techniques came into play with his next project, Company. Even Sondheim has said that he used the songs in Company "I'm sorry to say, in a Brechtian way as comment and counterpoint. You see, I find Brecht humorless and his points so obvious in the text itself that the songs have no surprise or wit for me. We tried to use the form, however, and improve on it." And he has returned to that kind of form again and again since then. Speculations on a Brechtian influence pop up in reviews of many of his subsequent shows - notably Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Assassins.
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