Pipe Dream

One of John Steinbeck’s least memorable novels was Sweet Thursday which Viking published in 1954. Essentially, it is a follow-up to Cannery Row with the same setting and same characters, but it has little of the mastery of its predecessor.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wanted to make it into a Broadway musical titled Pipe Dream, which they did. Viking published the complete text and lyrics to the play in 1956. It includes scene sketches by Jo Mielzner. Cast members are shown on the front and rear endpapers. There are two states of the book which the Goldstone & Payne bibliography of Steinbeck cites as A33j. One has green endpapers in the front and pink in the rear. The other has pink endpapers in the front with green in the rear. No priority has been established.

At first Steinbeck thought the play was a good show with a fine score and book and “wonderful direction and cast.” The producers had tried to be revolutionary by hiring a dramatic director for a musical and by employing an opera star, Helen Traubel, to play the part of the madam.

Front of book

Front of book

However, the early optimism soon began to fade. Steinbeck sensed that the play was in trouble by the time of try-outs in New Haven and Boston. He was less afraid of complete failure than “half-assed success which…would be worse than failure.” That nightmare became reality.

The problem was that Rodgers and Hammerstein failed to take a tougher, more realistic approach than their usual fare of what might be called “family musicals.” Steinbeck wrote to Elia Kazan that the Rodgers and Hammerstein “seem to be attracted to my kind of writing” but that “they are temperamentally incapable of doing it.”

There were other problems. Rodgers had serious health issues and casting Traubel was a mistake. The musical score was not memorable.

In his biography of Steinbeck, Jackson J. Benson wrote, “They had really missed the point of the novel, the undercutting of romance and fantasy by reality, and stubbornly insisted on making the ready room of the whorehouse a family room and turning an ambiguous love affair into a conventional prince-meets-and-falls-in-love-with-a-pauperess situation.”

The experience “stung him so deeply hat he never made a serious attempt to write for the theatre again.”

You know how your children can be masters at cruelty? When his sons really wanted to goad their father, they would play music from Pipe Dream and then look for his painful, soured expression and reaction.

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