Librettist John Weidman has been a well-oiled and practiced wordsmith for some of the best musical talents in the business, starting with Sondheim (doesn’t it always?), Maltby & Shire, Lindsay & Crouse, and Susan Stroman, with whom he created the Tony nominated Big and the Tony winning Contact. But none of those shows required what Weidman calls “extra therapy.”
I Can Get It for You Wholesale, now at Classic Stage Company through December 17, is different. It’s based on a 1937 novel by his dad, Jerome Weidman, which Jerome and Harold Rome with transformed into a musical in 1962, giving a 19-year-old Barbra Streisand her Broadway debut.
Its return to the stage six decades later features both new music and script changes. “The idea of collaborating with your late father demands a deep breath,” Weidman tells Observer. “What made it comfortable for me is we didn’t approach it as a show that needed fixing. We saw it as a kind of challenging but midcentury musical that should have some kind of redemptive happy ending.”
“Initially, the show got an easy pass from critics, but the book it’s based on was a different animal—a raw, unfiltered portrait of an anti-hero operating inside NYC’s Garment District.”
The show is set in 1937, the hero in question is Harry Bogen, and he is anti indeed—his dark side doesn’t show in Act I, but, by the end of Act II, he’s cheated on his girl, lied to his mother, embezzled company funds to court a showgirl, and sent an innocent flunky up the river for his own sins. He is last seen standing contritely outside his own community.
“At the end of the novel, Harry does not pay for what he’s done, which is one of the things that made the novel such an event in 1937,” Weidman says. “People weren’t accustomed to that kind of ending.”
Not only does Harry survive it all in the novel, he lived on to become a major character in Jerome Weidman’s next book, What’s In it for Me? (which, not so incidentally, happens to be the title of one of the songs in I Can Get It for You Wholesale—if not its proud and thundering anthem).
The 1962 show is remembered as a flop, although it racked up 300 performances at the Shubert—and it only did that because it unleashed on the waiting world Barbra Streisand, in her Tony-nominated breakthrough role of Miss Marmelstein, Harry Bogen’s zany, scattered secretary, underpaid and underloved. The Journal-American critic, John McClain, said she resembled “an amiable ant-eater,” doubtlessly a term of endearment—and a chorus of critics continued in the same vein. In addition to stardom, she won the leading man, Elliott Gould (they were married from 1963-1971).
In this current edition, Harry Bogen is played by Santino Fontana, a 2019 Tony winner for the lead role in Tootsie, and the Miss Marmelstein slavishly trying to please her boss is the redheaded Julia Lester, a Tony nominated Little Red Riding Hood from the recent Into the Woods. Other worthies aboard: Tony nominated Judy Kuhn as Harry’s mother (a role originated by Lillian Roth), Eddie Cooper, Greg Hildreth, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Adam Chanler-Berat, Adam Grupper, and Joy Woods.
Before rewriting a word of his dad’s show, Weidman huddled with the show’s director, Tripp Cullman, about what to do with this inherited material. Out of those talks came the idea of adding Harry as a first-person narrator, as well as the reworking of the ending.
“The other person who got added to the conversation early on—and who had a huge impact on the show—was David Chase, the musical director,” says Weidman. “At the end of the original script, there’s no music at the end of the piece. There’s no finale.” But Chase created a mash-up arrangement reprising two songs, “Family Way” and “A Gift Today” (with its refrain of “What money makes, money takes away”). “I think it’s brilliant,” says Weidman.
There are also three songs that were cut from the show in 1962, found in the Harold Rome archives at Yale and now restored. “We felt we could use them really successfully to create an important scene,” says Weidman, who’s looking for the new Wholesale to lead to more interest in Rome’s work. “I would hope one of the things that could happen as a consequence of this particular production is that people could really rediscover what I consider a really remarkable score. Harold Rome feels to me like one of those guys who had a really significant career.”
Weidman has been writing librettos for three decades, and he yet has never studied music formally. “That’s ‘earn-while-you-learn’ time,” he glibly proffers as an explanation. “I have gone to theater my whole life—and musicals all the time.” But after attending Harvard—and writing for the Hasty Pudding shows there—he headed to Yale Law School, not Broadway. “I found myself, a second-year student in law school, liking law school but realizing I didn’t want to be a lawyer and I didn’t want to leave law school. So, I sat down in the Yale Law School library and wrote a straight play, which quickly became a musical about Commodore Perry’s expedition to open Japan. Except for the Hasty Puddings that I wrote in college, that was the first thing I ever wrote for the theater.
“I got that play to Hal Prince,” he continues, “and the next thing I knew I was collaborating with Steve Sondheim on a Broadway musical.” That was Pacific Overtures in 1976, and he Sondheim worked together on two other historically themed shows as well, Assassins and Road Show. “I’ve had a series of extraordinary happy accidents that really launched my career. I realized I like it. I like working in musical theater—and, obviously, collaborating with people like Steve. We developed a really comfortable working relationship very, very early on. He was a great collaborator. There was never any sense of his stature as compared to who he was working with. It was really just an open exchange of ideas and exploring any kinds of possibilities and ‘let’s try this.’ I felt hugely lucky to have forged that artistic partnership.”