A Veteran Returns to the Ring

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

To playwright-librettist Joe Masteroff, life is more than a cabaret, ol' chum. Yet his best-known book, about the lost souls of the Kit Kat Klub, has served him in a perfectly marvelous, if unanticipated, way.

"The original production of 'Cabaret' was a big success, much to our surprise," recalls the writer, who won a Tony for his efforts. "In 1966, doing a production about abortions and Nazis--a production which ended unhappily for every character in the cast--people forget how revolutionary that was."

Revolutionary or not, there's no denying that Masteroff's book--as well as his earlier "She Loves Me"--has had staying power. "I've had 10 opening nights just on 'Cabaret' and 'She Loves Me,' in the West End of London and New York: 'Cabaret' has been done three times in each place, and 'She Loves Me' twice," says Masteroff over dinner in a restaurant near the Old Globe Theatre, where his latest work, "Paramour," premiered Saturday night. The new musical, created with composer Howard Marren and directed by Joseph Hardy, is based on the play "The Waltz of the Toreadors" by often-whimsical French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-87).

"Who would ever have dreamt that this fashion for reviving shows would happen?" he says. "It didn't exist at the time that these shows were written. But I guess as there were fewer and fewer Broadway musicals, the need for revivals got greater."

Either that, or "Cabaret" and "She Loves Me" just have that certain elemental something that can withstand the changing tastes of generations of theatergoers.

And that, while no secret, is an ingredient that's as basic as it can be elusive. "The most important thing when you're doing a musical is having a good idea," Masteroff says. "The day you sit down to write 'Act 1, Scene 1,' the show is a good show or a bad show, depending on what your idea is."

In the case of "Paramour," Masteroff has liked Anouilh's idea--about the farcical entanglements of a philandering general, his invalid wife, his virginal love and others--since the 1950s, when "The Waltz of the Toreadors" was first produced.

Years, then decades passed, during which Masteroff tried and failed to acquire the rights to adapt the piece. But eventually, when the rights finally became available in the 1980s, Masteroff jumped at the opportunity.

Then he was able to turn his attention to the piece's artistic challenges, which were considerable. "My big question was whether musical audiences could adjust to the changes of style," Masteroff says. "This is a play that goes from Feydeau to Strindberg without taking a breath. I've always loved that. But I didn't know if audiences would."

What it had going for it, Masteroff figured, was an inherent musicality. "I loved the fact that in the play the wife is an opera singer, and the general had sort of forced her to give up her career when she married him," he says. "But as her revenge, she only sings to him, she never speaks."

That plot point made the translation from text to book and lyrics comparatively organic. "You can make anything into a musical, truth is," says Masteroff, who also wrote the lyrics. "But if it's an intrinsically musical idea, it works a lot better.

"A show that takes place in a carnival or a theater or somewhere with a musical background is a lot easier to do than a show that takes place in a shooting gallery," he says. "People can sing about anything, obviously, but somehow if the ambience is such that they should be singing, it makes it easier.

"One reason that so many musicals are costume musicals is that audiences are more willing to accept the singing in costume musicals. There are some very successful contemporary musicals, but they're very much the exception. Most musicals are of another period."

Another way of looking at it is that Masteroff went with, rather than against, the grain of the work he set out to adapt. "He preserved Anouilh's wit and style and infused it with his own sense of humor," says composer Marren, who has known Masteroff for 16 years and also wrote the 1986 musical "Georgia Avenue" with him. "And it's a page-turner; you're dying to know what's going to happen next. He's always a step ahead of you."

Nor does it hurt that Masteroff works quickly and provides what every composer wants: settable lyrics. "We added a title song last week and he did it in about an hour one morning," Marren says. "I put it on the piano and it just happened. It's that way with everything he gives me. They suggest tunes by themselves."

Masteroff, now a surprisingly young 78, may be so adept at what he does because he's loved music and the theater for as long as he can remember. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he grew up with parents who were fans of plays and opera and attended both regularly.

"In those days, the Metropolitan Opera went to Philadelphia every Tuesday night," he recalls. "And there was always music in the house, opera records."

Masteroff attended Temple University, where he studied journalism, in part because it seemed one of the few practical ways for a writer to make a living. "I've always known, from childhood, that I wanted to be a writer, and in the theater," he says. "I'm one of those lucky people who always knew exactly what he wanted to do."

Following graduation, he spent two years working as an assistant editor at a magazine for movie theater owners. "I was a real movie nut," he says. "I would see a movie maybe five to 10 times. And without knowing it, I was learning my trade."

Then there was what Masteroff jokingly calls "a little disruption," meaning World War II. Drafted, he spent four years in the Army, during which time he was stationed in London and Paris.

After his military stint and a brief period living in Miami, Masteroff made his way, inevitably, to New York, where he studied playwriting at the American Theatre Wing.

His breakthrough came in 1958 with a play called "The Warm Peninsula," which Julie Harris took on tour and brought to New York. Suddenly, Masteroff was a made man. "I went from a $35 apartment to a $235 apartment," he says.

After that, things got easier. "So much of success in life is based on being in the right place at the right time," Masteroff says. "[Lyricist] Sheldon Harnick and [composer] Jerry Bock were doing a musical, and Sheldon had seen 'The Warm Peninsula' and thought whoever wrote that would be a good guy to write the book for the new musical."

The result, "She Loves Me," was based on the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film "The Shop Around the Corner" and told the story of two clerks who conduct an epistolary romance, only to discover each other working side by side in the same store. The piece opened in 1963, produced by, among others, a man named Hal Prince. While the reviews were good, the show was not considered a success.

But the silver lining was the Prince connection, which led to "Cabaret." About a year after "She Loves Me," Prince approached Masteroff about writing the book for a piece based on "I Am a Camera," Christopher Isherwood's tale of Weimar Berlin. The project began with another composer but wound up in the hands of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.

While a hit in its original version, the musical has changed over the years. "Sometimes people say to me now, 'How come the leading man wasn't gay (or at least bisexual) the way he is now?' " says Masteroff.

"Well, when we did 'Cabaret' in 1966, we figured there had to be a love story in those days, so [Cliff] became completely straight," he says. "Then, when we did the revival, we realized that Cliff and Sally couldn't just be a routine love story. We finally did what we should have done from the beginning--we made Cliff more bisexual. Of course, the movie had led the way to that too."

More recently, the current Roundabout Theatre Co. revival on Broadway has cast the show in an even more confrontational light, which Masteroff applauds. "It's very exciting, a whole new approach, and a much tougher approach," he says. "In a sense, it's what I had always envisioned."

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"PARAMOUR," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Dates: Plays Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 31. Prices: $23-$39. Phone: (619) 239-2255.

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