Of Musicals

The actors rehearse Western Stage’s Of Mice and Men musical. The original 1958 cast, realizing their show was going to close soon, made a bootleg recording of their production.

The annual Steinbeck Festival returns this weekend, focused on “The Women of Steinbeck’s World,” and lined with events like seminar talks at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, tours of Ed Ricketts’ Lab on Cannery Row, and a beer and taco festival in Salinas.

But a rare component is a collaboration between The Western Stage and the Steinbeck Center: a staged sung-through reading of the musical adaptation of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

The musical was created by New York arts journalist Ira Bilowit with Steinbeck’s blessing (and suggestions). It debuted off-Broadway in 1958 and closed after just six weeks, after being deprived of publicity due to a newspaper strike. The musical wouldn’t be publicly heard or seen again until 2007, when it got a reading at York Theatre Company. Then it went dark for a decade longer.

When Bilowit died in 2016, archives of notes, drawings and photos of the production went to the National Steinbeck Center, and Western Stage got permission from the Steinbeck estate to do the staged reading of the work.

Nine local actors sitting on stools will portray the various characters; Don Dally and George Peterson will perform the music live. Director Jon Selover, who says studying the archive of material has been like archaeology, is adding mics, sound cues, light cues, and sparse costuming (like, hats). There will be no set or backdrop, and not much blocking. Other than that…

“We’re doing all of it,” Selover says. “We’re singing all the music from the original. The music tries to be folksy. The guys sing [about] bucking barley, getting duded up for Saturday night. George and Lenny have a song about a nice house. Lenny sings a song about ketchup. Candy’s got a couple of pretty emotional songs [that] made John [Steinbeck] cry.”

The musical diverged from the book by giving Curly’s petulant and unnamed wife more voice in three arias and a more explicit motivation behind her actions.

This is a one-night show, and a lot can ride on its reception. Selover says that Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, Waverly, will be in attendance and he’s hoping she will like it enough to give them permission for a full production – for the first time in 60 years – at Western Stage, four blocks from the house Steinbeck grew up in.

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