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After a Long Struggle, Algren Is Set to Music : Will Holt’s Adaptation of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ Opens Thursday

Will Holt has been waiting for his “Walk on the Wild Side” for a very long time.

It was 30 years ago that Studs Terkel introduced the young musician/composer to novelist Nelson Algren. “I told him, ‘I really love your book, and I think it’d be a terrific musical,’ ” Holt recalled. “He looked at me very oddly and said: ‘A musical with a legless man and a guy who goes blind?’ I said, ‘It’s a different kind of musical.’ ”

Holt will see that dream realized Thursday, when his adaptation of Algren’s 1955 novel opens at the Back Alley Theatre in Van Nuys.

It hasn’t been an easy trek. Not many people believed that Algren’s Depression-era story was the stuff of musicals: An illiterate Texas youth is seduced by big-city lights and “a walk on the wild side” with the seamier fringes of society at a New Orleans brothel, then is blinded in a bar brawl.

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“The world was just not ready for it in ’58,” Holt shrugged. “One producer wanted to do it but said ‘Don’t blind the kid--or only make him blind in one eye.’ People kept saying, ‘Can’t you make it happier ?’ But that’s not what this work is. It is what it is. If you try to change it, make it pretty, it’s not going to work. Fortunately, Bob Dylan came along, the (Rolling) Stones--and this whole kind of outlaw mentality. The world changed from Doris Day to Barbra Streisand.”

He smiled. “I’ve always loved (traditional) musical theater. But I also love musicals like ‘Threepenny Opera'--which also had a group of people who weren’t nice guys--and ‘Gypsy,’ ‘West Side Story.’ It’s an attitude, I think. Nelson was writing about the underbelly of society, the outlaw fringe. People like Jack Kerouac and (Charles) Bukowski carried on his tradition. But Nelson was the first and the best. I love his use of language.”

In spite of that admiration, the two were soon at creative odds and the project was abandoned. “He was much more literal--as people were in those days--about having a real set and explaining everything,” Holt said diplomatically.

“I just think the imagination can do so much, allows you so much freedom. It’s that whole influence of Story Theater, Second City--a lack of spectacle, which, I guess, is the Yankee in me: waste nothing, use every little thing. So that one set becomes another, everything moves, becomes something else. It’s fun to watch, fun to participate in. It’s the complete antithesis of ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ where everything is done for you.”

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After seeing “Walk’s” first previews last week, Holt, 59, was gratified that audiences made the visual and psychological leaps smoothly. Nor was anyone thrown by the risque subject matter.

What Holt hadn’t counted on, however, was an audience unfamiliar with Algren. “I can’t believe people wouldn’t know him,” he said in amazement. “I mean, to me he’s a major writer--like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. It’s so weird that he could be forgotten like that.” (Although the two men never did get back together on the script, Holt stresses that Algren’s voice, “his quality of dialogue and directness” are very present in the script.)

Actually, it was Algren’s 1982 death--and the encouragement of Holt’s second wife and “my best groupie” Dion--that prompted the composer (“Me and Bessie,” “Over Here,” “The Me Nobody Knows,” “Taking My Turn”) to begin resurrecting “Walk.” A well-received run at New York’s Musical Theater Workshop was even more encouraging. (It was staged by longtime collaborator Patricia Birch--who also co-directed here.)

“It’s set in the Depression; it’s about thieves, whores and pimps,” Holt said. “I always found a lot of Nelson’s stuff very funny. But people are often intimidated about laughing and enjoying (dark material); they seem to need permission to laugh. In New York, we had an audience that was mostly black, mostly poor--attendants in a mental ward. Well, they got the humor, the desperation of the situation. And they didn’t feel sorry for it, they weren’t offended by it.”

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But why make a musical of the story?

“It sang to me,” Holt said simply. “When you’ve got two people, a legless man and a whore, and they’re desperately in love--but at the same time have to hurt each other, how are you going to do that in realistic dialogue? It’s something that cries out for a song or aria. And music elevates it to a larger-than-life level. Plus the fact that it gives you subtext. In the lyric, the man says, ‘I don’t love you, I don’t love you.’ But the music is saying, ‘I’m in pain, I’m in agony. I can’t stand what’s happening. I love you.’ ”

Maine-born, and the product of a musical family, Holt began piano lessons at 4, got hooked on folk music at 14 and was soon writing and performing his own material. A 1950 trip to Europe was particularly influential: “It’s a totally different culture--cynical, but never giving up. Survival is the key. You know, everything I’ve done in the theater has been about survival: how you take the blows and get back up. It’s an American (quality)--but infused, I think, with a European sensibility.”

After a three-year stint in the Air Force, Holt settled in St. Louis, where he shared the bill in local nightspots with Phyllis Diller, Streisand and the Smothers Brothers. Life changed when his song “Lemon Tree” (which had been sung by the Kingston Trio “but only did OK”) was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. “When I saw my first (royalty) check, I said, ‘Oh. I guess this means I don’t have to keep doing four shows a night.’ ”

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It wasn’t all uphill from there. With the successes (“A Kurt Weill Cabaret”) came the flops (“Come Summer”), the latter so painful that Holt didn’t write music again for 15 years. “I took to my bed,” he said of the experience. “When I finally got out, I said, ‘I’m never going to allow this to happen again.’

“Now I find myself saying, ‘I’ll invest.’ It’s like the boy in the play. The woman says to him, ‘They blinded you,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, but they couldn’t kill me.’ That’s Algren speaking--but it’s me, too. I’m going to survive.”


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