Tales From the Yorkside
Author: Jim Morgan and Charles Wright
Program Notes for a Time for Singing
A Time for Singing, the 1966 musical with score by John Morris and libretto and lyrics by Morris and Gerald Freedman, is based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley. In that novel, Llewellyn (1906-1983) gives a vivid account of life in a remote Welsh village more than a century ago, focusing on an intelligent boy’s development against a backdrop of labor strife, religious fundamentalism, and poverty. In 1975, more than 35 years after the book’s publication, novelist/critic John Braine (one of England’s so-called “angry young men”) described How Green Is My Valley as “still alive – that is, it is still real – because Mr. Llewellyn has the rare and precious gift of vitality.”
Four decades after Braine’s admiring assessment, a 2014 reader is likely to be struck by the timelessness of Llewellyn’s portrayal of industry depleting the earth’s resources and the timeliness of his implicit plea that we protect and restore the environment. “Our valley was going black, and the slag heap had grown so much it was half-way along to our house,” writes Llewellyn early in the novel. “Young I was and small I was, but young or small I knew it was wrong, and I said so to my father.”
After How Green Is My Valley became a success, Llewellyn – whose full name is Richard David Vivian Llewellyn Lloyd — claimed that he was a native of Wales. In that pre-internet era, this biographical detail was unchallenged; but, after his death, researchers discovered that Llewellyn was born and raised in Hendon, a northerly suburb within Greater London, near Golders Green.
Llewellyn began How Green Was My Valley while stationed in India with the British Army. The book became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic (it won the National Book Award in fiction for 1940). The motion-picture version, directed by John Ford and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, was released in 1941. In the film, Donald Crisp plays Gwilym Morgan; Roddy McDowall is Huw, the youngest of six sons; Maureen O’Hara is ingénue Angharad Morgan; and Walter Pidgeon is pastor Gruffydd (whose surname became Griffith in the musical). How Green Was My Valley received five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (winning over Citizen Kane), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Crisp), Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. Subsequently, the BBC produced television serials based on the novel in 1960 and in 1975.
In a recent interview, Gerald Freedman described the genesis of A Time for Singing: “We wrote the whole show on spec. We didn’t even have an agreement with Richard Llewellyn – and he had turned down others before. We were crazy to do all this without a contract! Our agent talked back and forth with his, and one day – out of the blue – we got a phone call. Mr. Llewelllyn was flying from South America … and had a layover of a few hours at Kennedy. He took a taxi to John’s apartment and we sang the show for him. He sat quietly and attentively. When we finished, he burst into tears and said, ‘Boys, the show is yours!’”
Early in his career, before A Time for Singing, Freedman worked closely with Jerome Robbins. After assisting Robbins on West Side Story and Gypsy, he directed 18 Broadway productions, became integral to the history of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, and served as artistic director of the Great Lakes Theatre Festival and Dean of the School of Drama at North Carolina School of the Arts. Freedman remembers working with Morris on A Time for Singing with particular fondness. He describes his collaborator as “passionately Welsh-American” and credits him with the idea of setting Llewellyn’s novel to music. According to Freedman, Morris “was in love” with both the novel and the John Ford film. “He’d written a few of the songs and played them for me. He was a wonderful musician and pianist. I encouraged him to write more and we started working on it together. He worked best when we were in the same room, and we wrote most of it – music, book, and lyrics – side by side. We were both busy doing other things, so it took us almost a decade to get it on.”
“John and his wife Fran had a summer home at Pemaquid Point, Maine,” says Freedman. “There was a schoolhouse down the road with an old upright piano. Much of the show was written there. John worked best when there was a deadline. I really had to stay on top of him. I was persistent.” Reflecting on Morris’s talent and the scores he has composed for films such as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Elephant Man, Freedman remarks, “He should have become a great Broadway composer, but Mel Brooks and Hollywood called and the rest is history.”
On Broadway, A Time for Singing was directed by Freedman and produced by Alexander H. Cohen. It opened on May 21, 1966 at the Broadway Theatre with a cast that featured Welsh entertainer Tessie O’Shea (1913-1995) in the second of four Broadway engagements (her first was The Girl Who Came to Supper, a 1963 musical revisited by Musicals in Mufti in 1999). O’Shea played the Morgan family’s matriarch; Englishman Laurence Naismith was the patriarch. Ivor Emmanuel, also from Wales, played clergyman Griffith; and English actress Shani Wallis was Angharad. George Hearn, in his first Broadway appearance, played Ianto Morgan. Scenic design was by Ming Cho Lee, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, and lighting by Jean Rosenthal. Donald McKayle was the choreographer but, while the show was trying out in Boston, Cohen engaged Gower Champion to rework the musical numbers.
In the New York Times, Stanley Kauffmann wrote admiringly of the innovative way that A Time for Singing opened: “No overture – just male Welsh voices joining in song far behind a scrim. Mr. Griffith … steps forward to induct us into the play, and there is a good short scene deep in the coal pits – with work song and some fierce brief dancing ….” More recently critic Ken Mandelbaum has characterized A Time for Singing as a precursor of the sung-through musical dramas, such as Les Misérables and Grand Hotel, which began appearing in the 1980s. The “score was richer and more serious than that of most shows of the period,” Mandelbaum writes, “and although there was dialogue, the show had far more music than was typical.” In Mandelbaum’s words, A Time for Singing wove “song, dance and dialogue together” in the kind of “nonstop staging” that would mark the ambitious musicals that dominated the West End and Broadway 20 years later.
Since A Time for Singing played only 51 performances on Broadway, it did not become widely known. When the score was released on compact disc about a year ago, Frank Skillern, a member of the York Theater Advisory Board, recommended it to Producing Artistic Director James Morgan and suggested the show for Musicals in Mufti. Jim came to feel strongly that A Time for Singing is precisely the kind of overlooked theatrical gem that the series ought to be examining. To quote Huw Morgan, the nostalgic narrator of How Green Was My Valley: “ … there is no fence or hedge around Time that has gone. You can go back and have what you like if you remember it well enough.” Thanks to Musicals in Mufti, we can go back, remember, and reclaim what otherwise might be lost.