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Unleashing O’Casey: Julian Barry, Lenny Bruce & American tragedy


“Lenny believed he could get justice in the courts. Jean Seberg believed that if America lived up to what it said it really stood for, things would turn out O.K. She went too far with it. She thought she was Joan of Arc, but she didn’t have an army.”

The essence of tragedy is the inherent knowledge and participation of the tragic figure himself or herself from beginning to end, and their inability to save themselves from their own destruction. That’s Oedipus, that’s King Lear and that’s Lenny. Julian Barry is drawn to tragedy because he’s the engineer who knows how to build that kind of very complicated structure, that bridge, if you will. It was tragedy again, in the person of Jean Seberg, that led him onto his greatest learning experience, his greatest failure, and in the end, all the future adventures, experiments and triumphs he experienced on stage.

Christopher Adler initiated the idea, writing a libretto for an opera on Seberg’s life that was passed onto Marvin Hamlisch for the music. Hamlisch decided on a musical and called in Julian Barry to write the book. Hamlisch said ‘Let’s get the guy who did Amadeus to direct.’ They didn’t know his name. It was Sir Peter Hall, who among other things, was the director of the National Theatre in London. Tragedy needs a crack on the cue ball that puts all the other balls on the table in exactly the right place. Hamlisch had seen that skill in Lenny, and he went to the right guy. Barry got the core of it from the beginning. I asked him what the similarities were between Jean Seberg and Lenny Bruce: “The parallel is this: They both believed the system was ultimately good. In Lenny’s case he believed he could get justice in the courts. In Jean’s case, she believed that if America lived up to what it said it really stood for, things would turn out O.K. She never stopped believing if you told the truth, things would work out O.K. She went too far with it. She thought she was Joan of Arc, but she didn’t have an army. Know the truth and the truth shall set you free, not know the truth and the truth shall make you dead.”

Barry saw from the beginning that Jean Seberg was the perfect tragic subject. An American tragedy. She was a seventeen year old beauty from a small town in Iowa who won a talent contest that put her in the starring role of a major film about the life of the patron saint of France, a saint killed by her own courage and vision.

Says Barry “It should have been subtitled ‘In Over Her Head.’ Jean was in over her head in Saint Joan where she learned how to act in front of the camera in 1957. She was in over her head when she did Breathless [À bout de souffle] for [Jean-Luc] Godard in 1959 and was taken up by the French intelligentsia. She was in over her head when she married Romain Gary, one of France’s most important writers. She was in over her head when she was radicalized by the Black Panthers and took on J. Edgar Hoover and the US establishment. I mean way over her head. She couldn’t stop. Just like Lenny Bruce!”

“So you couldn’t stop either?” I asked.

“Yeah Ben, but for me it didn’t end in tragedy. I was doing what I wanted to do. Everything went wrong from the beginning, but it was like a beautiful war. You know the way it is in war. The people who go through it, never forget the experience.”

Barry thrust Hoover and Romain Gary and Goddard and Jean Seberg and the Black Panthers and Otto Preminger and Seberg’s dead baby into the mix of what was really an opera on the scale of Aida and no one knew quite what to think of it.

It was 1983 in Maggie Thatcher’s London. Miners being thrown out of the mines! Government was the enemy! Ronald Reagan had come to the UK. It was take back time in the wild Ayn Rand-orama of the glorious corporate 80’s! The thought of it still thrills Barry:

“Marvin Hamlisch wrote the music. He was the star. He’d just come off Chorus Line, a smash Broadway musical! That’s what got it made, but Marvin and I were mismatched from the beginning. There was this amazing story on Jean Seberg’s life. From the beginning this girl, who should never have been an actress, gets cast with one of the cruelest directors who ever lived, in the fucking role of Saint Joan. She wins a contest from Otto Preminger, the director. Otto the terrible. He tortures her. In take after take he reduces her to tears. She’s barely more than a child, but she takes it. She keeps going. She bounces back. She’s filled with American spunkola. That’s the way it begins. It’s perfect for opera. So visual and powerful. So emotional! Everything the writer needs is there. You don’t have to invent anything! There’s a fire on the set and Jean as Joan is actually burned at the stake. The extras are horrified, but the camera continues to roll. That kind of thing, Ben…” he stops. He has to take a breath. He’s back there behind the curtain at the National with Peter Hall. Sir Peter!

Jean required music from a major composer, not tunes. You needed Mahler.”

He mentions a photo of himself and Hamlisch, where they are glaring at each other. They knew from the beginning they had different visions for the work, but Jean Seberg fascinated Julian Barry and as he built up his tragedy, the British press began to question. Why was The National, grand old lady of London, doing a work about an American actress with an American songwriter, an American librettist and an American playwright? Why was The National being used as a tryout house for Broadway?

Sir Peter Hall, who hated Thatcher and everything she stood for, was dying to answer that one: “Jean is like a movie script,” he told Omnibus in November of 1983. “The joy of it for me has been like editing a movie, with the ability to re-shoot each sequence. You’d take a little bit and say, ‘well that worked.’ What didn’t work you’d change, and then a bit before and a bit after. If it had been a play, it would have been more cumbersome. A musical allows you to tell stories terribly quickly. This thing is constructed like a movie script.”

But what Sir Peter loved about Jean was what it said. It was about politics in the real world and it took a crack at the biggest bully on the block, the US, with its two most cancerous hypocrises: the bathos of Hollywood and the ongoing murders of the FBI and the CIA.

Big themes deserve sturm und drang and no one who worked on Jean will ever forget what happened:

On the first day of rehearsal, the actor cast as Jean fell down and broke her leg. “It’s the National,” said Barry, recalling it all again with measured breaths. “That’s a company. There’s no outside casting. We had to go with who we had. There was no one actress who could play young Jean and Jean when she was down and out. So I used two women. We had this very young girl named Kelly Hunter we cast for the young Jean. She was perfect. Then we cast Elizabeth Council for the older Jean and I rewrote the parts while we were in rehearsal.” There he was again, the magical rewrite man.

That delighted Sir Peter Hall. Hall hates boring and loves challenging. So does Julian Barry and he was perfect for the task. He’d been doing rewrites and out of town fix-it’s all his life. Hall and Barry bonded. They went through combat together and survived.

What didn’t change, however was the music. Marvin Hamlisch is no Cole Porter, or more to the point, no Sondheim. His music was locked in. And that wasn’t the only problem. There was that British/American thing. To Thatcher’s pal, Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover was a hero and the Black Panthers, who Reagan knew well when he was governor of California, the Black Panthers weren’t exactly Amos ‘n Andy! Sir Peter rose to the occasion:

“This is THE NATIONAL THEATRE! We’re here in London, we’re very successful and people are interested in what we’re doing, but there’s a stupid kind of snobbery that says If you’re a subsidized theatre, you’d better do unsuccessful plays or plays that nobody wants to see! If you do things that are strongly successful, they should be done in a commercial theatre. I don’t support that view. I don’t know any other theatre that could have done this particular work the way we’ve done it. It’s a tribute to The National that three Broadway talents have come here and really shaken us with their energy. If the musical goes to Brodway, it will earn The National a very great deal of money and so it should be. And if it doesn’t, I’m still proud of what we did here!”

Jean got mixed reviews. Most critics seemed surprised with what they saw. They were expecting a bomb, and it was much better than they had expected. They begrudged it praise.

It still amuses Julian Barry that a musical about a woman who took on J. Edgar Hoover and defended the Black Panthers, could have found life on the London stage in the age of Reagan and Thatcher.

People were drawn to it. Ian McKellen kept coming back every night to watch it.

The timing was wrong. Jean failed to go onto Broadway, but Julian Barry had fallen in love. He was in love with the London stage and it’s sense of challenge. Sir Peter Hall became a close and trusted friend. He later directed three more of Julian Barry’s works: the London premiere of Lenny, the opera Born Again based on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and Matters of the Officers, a play on the last days of Hitler.

Barry laughed again about Ian. McKellen, who was so fascinated by the opera Jean. Years later, when he met Barry at a Hollywood party and Julian introduced himself, McKellen could only exclaim the amusement: “TWO JEANS! NO, NO, NO.”

I asked the status of Jean today. Could it be redone with new music?

“I don’t believe it can. It was performed too many times in a first class theatre. The rights have merged. When you do a musical or something based on another work that you’ve optioned, and it’s been done a certain number of times; with a musical the book merges with the music. Nobody can be independent of the other. Someone asked Marvin Hamlisch the same question recently and he said “What would I do with Julian?” It’s a serious American play going on with a musical score. Christopher and Marvin had their work and Peter and I had ours. The two never met.”

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2009.