Beat Regeneration

When audiences dug the dexedrine-fueled, pot-stoked Nervous Set at the Crystal Palace back in 1959, St. Louis was like cool, man, cool

In his memoir, Landesman describes the writing process that produced The Nervous Set: "I would write a scene at the Galleries during the day, give it to Flicker at night at the Palace, and in the morning he would return a completed draft and I would start the next scene."

But others who were there credit Flicker with the lion's share of the writing. According to Berger, "Jay had the raw material and Ted put it into shape. It was Jay's novel, and Ted made it function and work on the stage."

Says cast member Aldredge: "The book credit went to Jay, but Ted wrote it."

Michael Austin
Before Gaslight Square was Gaslight Square: a postcard of the Crystal Palace's interior
Courtesy of Western Historical Manuscript Collecti
Before Gaslight Square was Gaslight Square: a postcard of the Crystal Palace's interior

The musical's final billing reads: "BOOK BY JAY LANDESMAN AND THEODORE J. FLICKER." But according to Flicker, Landesman's credit was "totally cosmetic. I have no recollection of Jay writing one word."

Speaking by phone from London, Landesman at first sticks to the description of collaborating with Flicker that he lays out in his autobiography. "That's in the book," Landesman says, referring to the account in his memoir. "We worked back and forth."

How would Landesman describe the division of responsibility?

"The division of responsibility was more or less my trip," he says, then pauses. "Ted was good at organizing it dramatically."

Fran Landesman remembers the process this way: "The characters and the plot, that was all Jay. But Ted showed him how to put it in dramatic -- you know, make it a play as opposed to a novel.

"I'll tell you one thing that Ted did," Fran adds. "He came up with great ideas for songs. I don't think Jay tended to think in song-y terms as well as Ted did."

By 1959 Fran's writing partner Tommy Wolf had moved his family to Los Angeles, so initially it made sense to showcase tunes they'd already written. But as the script evolved, Flicker encouraged the pair to write new songs that were germane to the plot. Wolf returned to St. Louis to serve as the show's arranger and music director.

After Flicker directed his season's fourth production -- Marcel Ayme's French farce Clarembard, another popular and critical success -- The Nervous Set went into rehearsals. Aldredge's wife Theoni was enlisted to design the costumes. "They wanted someone cheap," Aldredge says, "so I suggested my wife." (More than 100 Broadway shows later, today Theoni V. Aldredge is one of the theater's foremost costume designers.) Company members Aldredge and Primus were cast in the roles modeled after Beat writers Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Comic actor Del Close came down from Chicago to play a role based on Neurotica editor Gershon Legman (who later would be recognized as the world's foremost collector of dirty jokes).

By the time The Nervous Set opened on that rainy March 10, Flicker was reduced to a nervous wreck, but at least he had the satisfaction of knowing he'd conceived, produced and directed a hit.

With unexpected speed, what had seemed the greatest challenge -- transferring the musical to New York -- suddenly became the easiest. On March 25, two weeks after The Nervous Set opened, the show-business bible Variety printed a rave review penned by St. Louis stringer (and Globe-Democrat critic) Bob Goddard, heralding the audience's "ecstatic packed-house enthusiasm." Goddard's remark that The Nervous Set was "slated for a fall opening on Broadway" piqued the curiosity of producers Kermit Bloomgarden (The Music Man), Arnold Saint-Subber (Kiss Me, Kate) and the prolific David Merrick, formerly of St. Louis. But as it turned out, all three Broadway veterans were trumped by a neophyte.

Robert Lantz was an elegant Berlin-born talent agent who circulated among the upper echelon of New York society. Lantz, who'd been associated with such movies as I Want to Live! and The Barefoot Contessa, now wanted to dabble in theater. No sooner did the Variety review appear than he flew to St. Louis with a brazen scheme: Extend the current sold-out Crystal Palace run by four weeks and open on Broadway two weeks later.

It all seemed too good to be true -- and in a way it was.

"We sensed that David Merrick was interested in the show but not in our production," Flicker says. "Now here was Robbie Lantz telling us he wanted the whole package. The caveat was that there was no time to mull it over. Robbie demanded an immediate answer so that he could head off Merrick's trip to St. Louis. So I said yes."

Lantz's enthusiasm was evident -- he hired cartoonist Jules Feiffer to design the poster and fashion photographer Richard Avedon to shoot publicity stills -- but it soon became clear that he did not want the St. Louis production, at least not all of it. Forty-five minutes of the original three-hour-and-fifteen-minute running time had to be trimmed. But that was only the beginning. "One of the many things I did that helped to ruin the show in New York was to let myself be talked out of using the original leads," Flicker says. "In St. Louis the boy and the girl [Don Heller and Arlene Corwin] had really good jazz voices; in New York the new leads [Richard Hayes and Tami Seitz] didn't."

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