It Doesn’t Have a Name Yet by
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Photo credit: Royal Oak Tribune. Despite the caption, that’s actually Bud Kaufman on the left and Phil Rightler on the right, with Eric Cowley identified correctly in the middle.

It all started because we’d had too much fun in high school drama club. In the spring of my senior year we put on Bye Bye Birdie, and we had such a good time, and bonded so closely, that we didn’t want to give it up when we went off to college.

We wore multiple hats because we had to, but we also thought we could do anything and no one was there to tell us we couldn’t.

So the following summer we formed a summer stock company, the Royal Oak Hardluck Players, and put on Oklahoma! in a local church auditorium. We rented scripts, scores, and costumes and recruited our high school drama coach, Miss Levi, to direct. Patti choreographed it and I was the pianist, just like for Birdie. The production was successful and we donated $125 to the church’s orphanage fund.

So let’s do it again! But what to perform? We didn’t want to do another classic—who needs another production of Carousel?—and more recent musicals were either too expensive or too hard for a pickup teenage group to produce.

Someone suggested a musical revue. That was the ticket! We could never pull off West Side Story, but wouldn’t it be cool to stage “Gee, Officer Krupke?” We would never produce Fiddler on the Roof, but Pat could don a beard and ringlets and daven his way through “If I Were a Rich Man,” as he had done to our delight at parties. We wouldn’t do Oliver, but Patty, who had played Laurey in Oklahoma!, could sing “As Long As He Needs Me.” Funny Girl was out of reach, but Carol could sing her heart out on “People.” We would never do Zorba, but Betsy could settle an argument about the meaning of life by singing “Life is what you do when you’re waiting to die,” and the villagers could celebrate with a Greek dance that took Patti weeks to teach them. (“Life Is” had extra resonance for us, because in the past year we had lost our friend Keith, just before starting college, to a freak swimming accident. We dedicated the show to him and donated half the proceeds to a scholarship in his name.)

But how to weave the songs together? With our favorite passages from our favorite books, we decided. We would “borrow” the book just as we “borrowed” the music. We quoted from Alice in Wonderland and The Velveteen Rabbit, all the way to Cat’s Cradle and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

We all wore multiple hats, partly because we had to, but also because we thought we could do anything and no one was there to tell us we couldn’t. Patti not only choreographed the show, but also co-directed it with Phil. Neither had directed a play before. I arranged the music and played piano—ably assisted by a guitarist and drummer—but I also conceived and compiled the script, and wrote some allegedly humorous connective dialogue that I would now describe as “sophomoric.” (Hey, I had just finished my second year in college. If you can’t be sophomoric when you’re a sophomore, when can you be?) And I wrote two original songs: an upbeat two-step number called “Join Us Now” that Bud sang to open the show, and a delicate close-harmony duet about war and injustice called “Contrasts” (sung by Claire and Kathy) that fit nicely into the second act. They remain my only two attempts at songwriting, and I swelled with pride when our high school chorus teacher complimented me on them after the show.

I also wrote a song parody to the tune of “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie. Instead of “Hi, Nancy!” “Hi, Ursula!” our characters mimed lighting a joint and sang, “I’m high, Nancy,” “I’m high, Wilbur!” Instead of the refrain “Going steady!” we sang, “We’re unsteady!” I have to confess that, at the time, I had never been high in my life, but the parody was just too rich to ignore.

I was working that summer as a mail carrier, but the show kept me busy when I returned home from my route around 3:30 each day, working on the script, arranging the songs, mimeographing the lyrics. In the evenings we’d rehearse wherever we could. My parents’ basement had a piano so we often ended up there.

As we compiled and rehearsed the show, cast members kept asking, “What’s it called?” We hadn’t yet finished the script, so we’d answer, “It doesn’t have a name yet.” We gave that answer so often, it became the title.

The show was in two acts. The first was a lark, containing most of the songs I’ve already mentioned. In the second, we got more philosophical—and more political—with a loose but actual storyline. Several members of the cast are listening to the draft lottery broadcast, and Mark pulls a low draft number. The group brainstorms ways to avoid it—two of them sing Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag”—but they all know he is likely to be called up and shipped off to Vietnam. The answer, Mark concludes, is not to evade the draft but to stop the war.

At that point the show turns into a peace rally. Bud reads a long passage from Catch-22 about the futility of war, and Mark and Patti sing Peter, Paul, & Mary’s “The Great Mandala,” which echoes the same themes. The cast takes to the auditorium waving signs and chanting slogans.

But someone heaves a brick through a store window. A police whistle sounds. Cops arrive and chase the protesters. And just as Eric—returning as Officer Krupke for his revenge—is poised to bring down his billy club on Bud’s head—

The lights black out. The stage goes silent. It seems interminable—until Bud emerges from behind the curtain and sings Spanky & Our Gang’s “Give a Damn.” Devastating.

The cast files back in, and for the finale we return to Broadway: “If We Only Have Love” from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

If we only have love
Then tomorrow will dawn,
And the days of our years
Will rise on that morn.

It’s an anthem to hope and change and community, and above all to love, which, we sing, will melt all the guns and grow the desert green. It’s our anthem, the generation that embraced the Beatles’ exhortations that “Love is all you need” and “Give peace a chance.”

We start in unison, split into two parts, and finally into rich four-part harmony that I had laboriously cribbed from the cast album. As we sing, we change positions, so that by the time we sing the last verse—

Then with nothing at all
But the little we are,
We’ll have conquered all time,
All space, the sun, and the stars!

—we have formed a peace sign on and in front of the stage.

Thunderous applause. We know how to milk an ending.

Idealistic? Definitely. Naïve? Probably. But years later I wrote in a college reunion report that all we are left with, when it comes down to it, are love and art. That summer, we had both.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.


Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Wow, wow, wow John, what a great story! I love everything about this show that you created. Draft Dodger Rag, The Great Mandala, Officer Krupke…some of my absolute favorite songs. It sounds like it was amazing. Do you still have the script? Maybe we could put together a performance of it at the reunion. They’re looking for talent since Nick Wyman cancelled.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Although the show was well suited for its time and place, I don’t think it would be appropriate to repeat it now. That said, if the reunion committee wants to schedule a performance night, like at our 25th, it could be great fun to perform one or two of those old songs. Hey, let’s put on a show!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    As I recall, I was still at camp when rehearsals began and sort of parachuted in at the end to sing that great song from Zorba. I loved being part of it. I was jealous that I couldn’t be part of the group the previous summer, but was still at camp, so couldn’t be there for all the rehearsals. With this format, by the time I got home, I could learn my song and the last song (ah…that last number) and still be part of your wonderful show. I loved singing “life is what you do while you’re waiting to die, life is how the time goes by”. So dramatic! And we were a tight-knit group. I was also the first winner of the Keith Cannell Scholarship for someone going on to major in theatre, so life came full-circle for me at graduation the next June.

  3. This is great, John. I especially related to the determination to keep the deep friendships of childhood and youth after college priorities scattered you all. And such a great example of how necessity becomes the mother of invention. Loved that passage that introduced us to the making of your musical review. Great!

  4. rosie says:

    Did make me smile many times. I was amazed at the upbeat point of view and the attitude, that of course you can do something if you decide to follow through. Very different school atmosphere than I remember.

  5. daiseaday says:

    John, I participated in this show. I often wondered if there were any documents to prove it occurred, as it seemed like maybe it happened only in my imagination. I was only in the chorus, but was so enthralled to be a part of it. Phil, Bud, Patti, and you were my icons. I’m sure I never spoke a word in your presence. I was so intimidated by everyone’s talent. Reading your article reminds me so much of a Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney musical. Let’s put on a show!

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, daiseaday! It really did seem like an old-time Garland & Rooney musical, and a bit surreal, looking back. Did we really do that? But we did. Thanks for your participation, I’m sure it was terrific. It’s great to hear from you.

  6. Oh WOW what a fabulous retrospective of those years! I can see it in my mind’s eye from your descriptions and because you so eloquently capture the feelings of a recent post HS graduate/early idealistic college student in those years, and I can relate. Thank you John for a beautifully rendered bit of artistic expression in that era that would have captured my soul had I been there to see it.

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