May 17, 1979 was Howard’s 29th birthday. He had a show at the WPA Theater and it was opening night. Opening night at the WPA wasn’t really as impressive as, say opening night at the Schubert. The WPA was on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, in a three-story office building that housed a massage parlor (we’re not talking spa hear, we’re talking – ‘you want me to massage your what?’) on the floor directly above the theater. Opening night at that WPA meant 50 people crowded into a lobby big enough for 25 sipping plastic cups of Matteus Rose and nibbling cheese from the A&P. The show that night, the first musical by Ashman and Menken, was Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. After the WPA run, it moved to the Entermedia Theater downtown for what we all thought would be a lengthy off-Broadway run. That didn’t happen. Rosewater closed in weeks. Three years later, Howard and Alan tried the same trajectory with a show called Little Shop of Horrors. That one went over pretty well.
Back to Rosewater, though. I really, really love that show. It is full of Vonnegut’s mix of sweet and sour, irony and optimism. That production featured a wonderful actor named Fred Coffin, who will always epitomize Eliot Rosewater to me (here's Fred performing Thirty Miles From the Banks of the Ohio at Howard's Memorial).
Rosewater has an almost folksy quality, occasionally washed over with cynicism, yes, but in this one, the good but crazy guy wins. It is different in so many ways from Little Shop except that both, in their own way, are absolutely true to their source.
When I think of Rosewater, it’s the compassion of Eliot and songs like “Thirty Miles From the Banks of The Ohio” that I remember. There are songs in Rosewater that evoke the side of Howard who introduced me to Bruce Springsteen (Howard: “Best new thing since Dylan”) and EmmyLou Harris singing Millworker (Howard: “You don’t know it? How can you not know it?” And a tape cassette is dropped off the next week at my apartment). Trio (Howard: “How could you have missed Trio” – and he’s over to his tape deck, putting it on so we can listen – immediately. Because this gap in my education is an urgent matter).
The guy who wrote Daughter of God and Sheridan Square, that’s the guy who loved that stuff.
Yes, Howard was funny and cynical and he gave voice to an octopus named Ursula and a talking plant named – well you know. And yes, I know, Mean Green Mother from Outer Space. And boy, did the man love a production number. But there was this other side. This soft-voiced romantic.
Howard was, in many ways, a truly sentimental man and it came out not only in his personal life but in his work. Rosewater makes me miss that part of him especially. It’s the part that wanted to put a quote from Death of a Salesman on our salesman-father’s grave. Maybe Howard would have grown out of it but readers of this blog well know that I never have. And I think maybe he wouldn’t have, either.
There are funny songs in Rosewater. And cynical ones. And there’s a big second-act operatic holy cow number (good luck to you, Santino Fantana, as you play Eliot at City Center this summer) but the show’s essence is one of sincerity and sentiment.
And now that I write that sentence, I think back on the other shows, films and songs that have a part of Howard in them – and sentimental Howard is actually always there, I guess, in songs like, Somewhere That’s Green, Big Bob’s Song and Disneyland (from Smile), Beauty and The Beast and Proud of Your Boy.
That 29-year-old young man celebrating his birthday in the lobby of the WPA in 1979 had little idea of what was ahead – the good and the bad. It’s always hard to believe, even after all these years, that he’s not with us to hear this, but I think maybe it’s time to raise a glass of Matteus Rose in a toast to youth, ambition and sentiment. Happy Birthday, Howard.