“Just imagine how awful we’d feel,” I told Betty one day, “if we got to the end of our lives and never produced our play. Especially if we really could have. We’d always regret it.”
That’s how I convinced Betty to produce Liberation. We’d update the story. Tell it as a flashback. I knew she wasn’t entirely convinced, but that was her way. She was critical, skeptical of everything. It was her strength.
Twenty years earlier we had done summer theater together. After rehearsals, we’d adjourn to Betty’s apartment to tell jokes, sing songs and laugh our way to midnight. Those summers doing our best to entertain an audience and ourselves would become our “good old days.”
We worked on a variety of projects and developed a talented circle of friends. Betty was 2 years my senior, always the stage manager and sergeant-at-arms. She kept us in line during our silliest youthful moments.
We decided it would be a great idea to write our own musical, a big production like those we had been part of in the past. Betty and I would write the book. Michael, who had overwhelmed us with a beautiful original song about our group called “Friends,” would compose the music. I had already worked on a Christmas song with Michael and thought I could write the lyrics.
Maybe in a year or two, we thought, it could become our very own summer theater production. What a terrific idea it seemed. All we needed was the right story. It didn’t take long to come up with what we thought was a good one.
It was the middle of the Women’s Liberation era and we decided to use the movement as the setting. We did not envision a drama but rather a lighter treatment, the story of a strong woman being kept from advancement because she was a woman. In our minds “Jackie” was like Mary from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not quite as outspoken as the leaders of the women’s movement, but determined to succeed.
Betty and I went to work on our outline. We needed the “who, what, where, when, how.” “Why” was easy. We wanted to do it and didn’t need a better reason. You can guess who crafted the strong-willed women in the story. Of course we used people we knew as models for some characters, but I can never reveal that information unless we win a Tony. Then we can do whatever we want.
As we wrote the story, I handed off lyrics to Michael for various songs we wanted. We weren’t sure how all the songs would fit — or even if they would fit, but we knew what we wanted to say. After seven months of working on the story, with more than half a dozen songs in hand, Betty and I dumped everything and started over. It had become a complete muddle.
Starting over, we knew what we wanted. We defined each character and his or her role in the story. We had the setting, the conflict, the resolution. No phony Hollywood love-story ending with characters living happily ever after, but nonetheless a happy ending — differently happy.
Soon we were writing scenes in order. The title tune became a collaborative effort as Betty and I tossed ideas back and forth, then threw them at Michael while he pounded out chords on Betty’s piano. A second act song was written first. A comedy song was a labor of love. The song we envisioned for the main character was Betty’s favorite. At a critical juncture in the first act, the main character declares alone on stage, “I Believe.” It took over a year to write but when it was finished, we were proud of the book and its songs. It was what we wanted.
Sadly, when it came to marketing, we fizzled. We showed the book to a few people we thought might help us, but nothing came of it.
It had been a labor of love for all of us, but for Betty, it was real labor. She was a fast typist. While I thought out the story and we talked through it, Betty typed out the drafts. This was before personal computers, so she typed and retyped copies using carbon paper (look it up!). I have no idea how many times she retyped scenes to incorporate changes. I will never in my life spend as much time typing as Betty did on Liberation.
Twenty years later, I told Betty the play would not be dated if we told it as a flashback. The main character would have again hit the glass ceiling and would be inspired to move forward by remembering what had happened twenty years before. We needed a new opening, ending and one more song.
She agreed to give it a go. We had developed relationships with people we thought might help us. Betty and I toured theaters, met with theater companies, brainstormed strategies to raise money. We wrote new material, polished old material. We went to plays and worked as ushers.
Michael had moved on and was reluctant to revisit the show, but we needed him. We not only wanted him to write a new song, but to score the show. That meant arrangements, scene change music, an overture. We worked hard on convincing him. He eventually gave in to constant nagging reminders about “the good old days.”
Betty, as always, was fueled by cigarettes and TAB cola. Again she typed all the drafts and burned up hours on the phone with me discussing the new material. When I finished crafting an original speech for the main character, in true Betty fashion, she said, “Richard, that’s a great speech. No women would ever say that, but it’s a great speech.”
“OK”, I replied, a little deflated, “What would she say?” Betty again gave voice to the main character and hero of our story. In the end we were more than pleased.
The story of the Liberation’s production by a local theater company on a large stage with an orchestra is a sad story you’ve heard before. We had no control of the final show. The company mounted a political drama with music. It wasn’t the musical comedy we’d written. On my own, I agreed with the theater company to scale back the musicians for the third weekend and cancel the fourth and final weekend. I didn’t consult my colleagues; we were losing money we didn’t have.
It had taken a couple of years from when I revived the idea to getting it produced. The work we did the second time around was just plain work.
Betty and I drifted apart after the show closed. She was terribly disappointed that my salesmanship did not put her dream on stage. She had dedicated a big part of her life to a youthful dream and it had come to nothing.
A few years ago I learned Betty had emphysema. No surprise really. She had been a long time chain smoker. Recently, I got an email from Michael. He told me Betty passed away. He had read the news in an alumni newsletter and was crushed no one had informed us.
I was stunned. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always believed I’d give Betty her show, the show we originally envisioned. I imagined I’d drag her away from her typewriter and give her the spotlight she’d never shared when we performed.
Maybe now she’s been liberated from her suffering, but it is not the Liberation she deserved.
Find the lyric to the song on Sunday Night Blog here.