James Jones War Novel Becomes a Musical

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brayson & Rice From Here To Eternity: Singers and Orchestra conducted by David White, Shaftesbury Theatre, London 22.10.2013. (JPr)

Cast Principals:
[table]Robert Lonsdale (Robert E Lee Prewitt),

Darius Campbell (Milt Warden),
Ryan Sampson (Angelo Maggio),
Karen Holmes (Rebecca Thornhill),
Siubhan Harrison (Lorene),
Martin Marquez (Dana Holmes),
Brian Doherty (‘Fatso’ Judson),
David Stoller (Ike Galovitch)[/table]
Book, Bill Oakes
Lyrics, Tim Rice
Music, Stuart Brayson
Set and Costume Designs, Soutra Gilmour
Choreographer,Javier de Frutos
Lighting, Bruno Poet
Direction, Tamara Harvey


If the glorious failure of the cancelled American TV series Smash told us anything in its two season run about how to put on new Broadway musicals it is that they must be workshopped, tried-out, dramaturged and rewritten until they are worth letting loose on an audience having to pay a fortune these days to see them. Recently ‘Viva Forever’ – showcasing the music of the Spice Girls – was not the finished article when it was given its ‘first night’ – though I enjoyed it more than some – and it flaws were obvious. Once again from Here To Eternity is not completely ready and if I and other critics can see that. Why cannot the creative team have spotted what was wrong a long time ago and put it right?

Don’t get me wrong. Even though the first act is dire I never lost interest in the story -which I did not know before sitting down in the Shaftesbury Theatre – and although many might have felt their evening would have been better spent by leaving at the interval they would be very wrong. Why? Because the second half seems an entirely different musical;  everything starts to click into place and work to reach an emotional crescendo before the curtain falls.

Most will know that From Here to Eternity was the first novel in 1951 by the American author James Jones and was loosely based on his experiences in the pre-World War II Hawaiian Division’s 27th Infantry and the unit in which he served, Company E (‘The Boxing Company’). The wonderful title is a quote from Rudyard Kipling ‘Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree, Damned from here to Eternity, God ha’ mercy on such as we, Baa! Yah! Bah!’ Set in the summer and autumn of 1941 at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, prior to the Japanese bombing, the story follows several members of G Company and revolves around Captain Dana ‘Dynamite’ Holmes and First Sergeant Milt Warden, who begins an affair with Holmes’ wife Karen and the problems of former bugler Private Robert E Lee Prewitt – an infantryman from Kentucky and self-described ‘thirty-year man’ (a career soldier) – with his superiors. Because he blinded a fellow soldier while boxing, the stubborn Prewitt refuses to box for his company’s outfit and then resists the ‘Treatment’ – a daily hazing ritual in which the non-commissioned officers of his company run him into the ground in order to break him. Prewitt is also in turmoil because he has fallen in love with Lorene, a prostitute who longs for respectability. And then there is Maggio, who hates the Army and its regimentation and this will eventually lead to his downfall at the hands of the sadistic Sergeant Judson. A couple of years after the award-winning book’s publication came the multiple-Oscar winning film, directed by Fred Zimmerman, which boasted a stellar cast of Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Deborah Kerr. It is most memorable for the scene (that created quite a stir in it day) when Lancaster, playing Milt, rolls about in the surf on the seashore with Deborah Kerr as Karen.

In the wake of the Depression, military service was the only option for many young men in America. Men who were poor, poorly educated, or poor of spirit had few choices in the early twentieth-century. Before reaching the bookshelves James Jones’ novel was heavily censored to present a more tasteful image of life in the military but now is available in an unexpurgated form. I have never read the book or seen the film (apart from odd scenes) but I suspect this new musical version is based on both of these other incarnations. Producer Lee Menzies comments in the lavish printed programme how ‘I like to think of it as a grown-up musical. You’ve got to entertain, of course, because not to entertain the public is a crime, but we’re hoping our audience will find something that’s dramatic and theatrical as against these shows where the tunes come out as if they’ve been hung on a washing line.’ What musicals can he be thinking of?? So back into the story comes a lot of swearing and Honolulu’s Waikiki gay bar where straight American soldiers down to the last dime in their pockets ‘roll some queers’ (earn some extra cash) in return for sexual favours.

The problem with the first half is that it would work better as a straight play as Stuart Brayson’s – at this point – unmemorable score is virtually irrelevant to the unfolding narrative. Nevertheless in the programme orchestrator David White explains ‘I think the tremendous challenge was to remain true to Stuart’s own compositional voice whilst nodding heavily in the direction of style and period, without it sounding like pastiche. It’s not simply that we are writing a 1940s song or a blues number. We also want it to feel it’s written in 2013 and not 1941.’ Unfortunately despite its contemporary anti-bullying and anti-prejudice messages it is a period piece and since the story has not been updated to Iraq or Afghanistan it needs music that is redolent of the 1940s. Here it does not get anything like it until ‘Ain’t Where I Want To Be Blues’ for Prewitt and Warden at the start of Act II. Brayson may cite in his defense the early ‘G Company Blues’ – that was the first song he apparently wrote – but it isn’t strong enough and anyway all the military calisthenics they are doing while singing is quite distracting; that is the basis of much of Javier de Frutos’s boot camp choreography because you probably cannot show US soldiers mincing around – well not until they get to that gay bar of course.

Tamara Harvey’s production is strong on testosterone-fuelled camaraderie and conflict and the projection of postcards of an idealised Hawaii and crashing waves on the back of Soutra Gilmour’s distressed period set is equally quite effective and atmospheric. Harvey’s direction is not all it could be because at one point Ike Galovitch (played by David Stoller with impenetrable Yugoslavian accent) appears to urinate on the floor to make Prewitt mop it up but then everyone steps all through it. I also worried about why there appeared to be no African-Americans serving on Hawaii or any Hawaiians in the nightspots frequented by the soldiers?

My major concern is with Tim Rice’s lyrics, even though there are some good things like how the female escorts in the New Congress Club strut their stuff in their underwear – Chicago-like – singing ‘You got the money/We got the ass/Between the two of us we got potential’ and this is reprised with pronouns reversed, in the gay bar. He is returning to the West End after an absence of more than a decade but elsewhere it seems the end of every other line must rhyme and this becomes tediously predictable, amongst many, there is prime/time, whore/door, are/star, down/town(!), heart/apart, muster/Custer and the ‘I made my own choice/I found my own voice’ of Prewitt’s anthem ‘Fight The Fight’. The burgeoning romances between Milt and Karen and Prewitt and Lorene are very sketchily handled and they get no big tunes in Act I. Quite risibly Warden wanders into Mrs Holmes’s living room with papers for her husband before using the chat-up line ‘I wanna go to bed with you’ – that I thought was restricted to first meetings at the weekend in a Billericay, Essex, night club – cheesy it might be, but she had her dress off within seconds! For their illicit romance Milt and Karen had a certain chemistry here but no erotic spark and Act I ends with them not splashing about in the waves but standing with a quick flash of her bare bottom.

In the shorter second half this new musical gains strength and focus and the ultimate tragedy that befalls Prewitt is revealed. For anyone seeing this – and new to the story as I was – I will not elaborate on what happens except that it is not a barrel of laughs. The only person in authority who continues to treats Prewitt humanely is Warden, who must maintain a façade of official non-concern in Prewitt’s ‘treatment’ but admires him as a soldier. His only friend – and protector when their visit to the gay bar is raided by the military police – is the happy-go-lucky ‘Wop’ Angelo Maggio. He suffers brutally at the hands of Sergeant Judson who is later sorted out by Prewitt. There is much more to it this this and it will only be the most hard-hearted member of the audience who is not wiping a tear from their eye at the denouement when many of the story’s threads are resolved following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour – brilliantly staged by Tamara Harvey and a real coup de théâtre. It all ends with an uplifting patriotic ‘man the barricades’-type Finale (‘The Boys Of ’41’) musically ripped straight from Les Misérables.

 The individual performances are fine even if the accents seem to owe much to viewings of DVDs of Sergeant Bilko or Top Cat. Darius Campbell belies his Pop Idol origins with a cultured performance as the stoic Milt Warden – he talked like Gregory Peck and sang like Robert Preston. Robert Lonsdale was good too in the Montgomery Clift role of the put-upon Prewitt although he has something of a fragile singing voice. The star of the show for me the splendid Ryan Sampson as the too-clever-for-his-own-good Maggio whilst Rebecca Thornhill and Siubhan Harrison were very believable as the love interests Karen and Lorene: generally the show is cast from strength and there is no weak link

There is so much for children on in the West End perhaps it is time for something more ‘grown up’ dealing with adult themes that are as important today as they were in 1941. I was expecting a twenty-first century South Pacific: in its present form this From Here To Eternity cannot be compared with that yet – though if its first half had matched the (vain?)glorious second half it might have got close.

Jim Pritchard

For more about From Here To Eternity at the Shaftesbury Theatre visit http://www.fromheretoeternitythemusical.com/.