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

Although all the original principal actors remained with the show in smaller parts, Aldredge and Close were the only two who retained their starring roles. "The recasting hurt it," says Barry Primus, whose impersonation of Jack Kerouac was taken over by future I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas star Larry Hagman, in his Broadway debut. "We had developed a chemistry from working together all season in St. Louis; now we're in a bigger space with new people and new sets. The revised show didn't have time to jell."

Then there was the matter of Goddard Lieberson. Lantz persuaded Lieberson, the head of Columbia Records, to become one of the principal financial backers of the Broadway venture. In turn, Lieberson demanded excisions that eroded The Nervous Set's irreverence.

"Goddard would say, '"Pitch for Pot" has to go,'" Flicker remembers. "He felt that if the score included a song promoting marijuana, he'd never get radio play for any of the other songs. So I'd take it out. Then Robbie would say, 'You have to cut this anti-Catholic line because it will offend [New York Herald Tribune theater critic] Walter Kerr.' And I'd take it out."

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

Why was Flicker so submissive?

"I didn't realize it at the time, but I was clearly out of my depth," he says. "In St. Louis I knew that nobody knew anything, so I did whatever I wanted. But now I'm in a place where I'd never been before. I figured these two titans knew what they were talking about. I really fucked it up. I should have insisted on doing my St. Louis production. Instead, with the sight of Broadway my integrity went right out the window. I didn't know I was throwing it away, but I was."

The drugs surely played a part, as well.

"That was a time in America when the doctor would say, 'You're running out of energy? Here, take one of these a day,'" says Flicker. "I was taking Dexamil twelve-hour spansules. They enabled me to work twenty-hour days. I was lighting five packs of cigarettes and sixteen cigars a day. There was never a moment when smoke wasn't pouring out of my face. The Nervous Set came at the end of our St. Louis theater season, so I was already exhausted. By the time I got to New York, I was really nutso. It's not an excuse, it's just a fact. I collapsed during the New York rehearsals with nicotine poisoning. After the show closed and I went to my parents' home in New Jersey to rest, I realized that not only was I kicking nicotine, I was kicking speed. So that whole period of New York rehearsals is bizarre in my mind."

Flicker is perfectly clear when it comes to one thing, however. "In St. Louis, 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most' was the best song in the show. But it had already been written and recorded prior to The Nervous Set. It was the only song in the show for which Tommy didn't own the publishing rights, and Robbie refused to pay the publisher. And true to the fool I had become, I let him drop it from the Broadway production.

"Had that happened a few years later, when I understood what was important to me in my work, I would have said, 'Either that song is in the show or I'm out.' Or I would have said, 'No, I'm not changing any of the cast from St. Louis.' Or I would have said, 'No, we're not replacing the suicide with a happy ending.' Instead I destroyed The Nervous Set. The consequences of those decisions have followed me all the rest of my career, even now."

Two months after its world premiere in St. Louis, The Nervous Set opened at Henry Miller's Theater on May 12, 1959, with its revamped script and cast. Flicker hosted a post-performance party at the Lobster Restaurant on West 45th Street. The first review, by the eminent Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, hailed Broadway's newest entry as "the freshest satire on current manners New York has seen all season."

But the cast was so busy toasting Atkinson's prescience, they didn't bother to notice that he was only praising Act One. To Atkinson, the second half could not "hold a candle to the impudence of the first act."

Unknowingly, the reviewer had homed in on the ill-advised wholesale changes.

As review after review arrived, it became depressingly clear that most other critics didn't share Atkinson's enthusiasm even for Act One. The Nervous Set closed after only 23 performances. Columbia Records went ahead and released the original cast album, but even then Lieberson did not record Del Close's song, "Rejection," which Atkinson had singled out as "an exuberant hymn to mental illness."

"We couldn't believe how sophisticated people were in St. Louis," Fran Landesman says today. "And we thought, 'Wait'll they see The Nervous Set in New York!' It turned out that the New Yorkers were much squarer than the people of St. Louis."

Maybe; maybe not. "The New York production was neither fish nor fowl," says the Landesmans' old friend Jerry Berger. "In St. Louis, a small show on a small stage was great fun, but in New York it looked like a small show on a big stage. Even the jazz quartet was not quite as charming as it was in St. Louis." In fact, the notion of onstage musicians (a guitarist had been added to the original trio for the New York production) was much admired by Richard Rodgers, who became one of the show's champions. In his next musical, No Strings, he too put the orchestra onstage.

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