Turning a Classic Hollywood Film about Alcoholism into an Off-Broadway Musical
Playwright Craig Lucas (CFA’73) on creating a new version of Days of Wine and Roses
Playwright and screenwriter Craig Lucas has earned a reputation over the past four decades for his ability to skillfully adapt books and films for the stage. He was nominated for a Tony Award for best book of a musical in 2005 for The Light in the Piazza, based on the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, and again in 2015 for An American in Paris, based on the popular 1951 film of the same name. He also adapted Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief for the big screen, 2002’s The Secret Lives of Dentists.
“I usually like to adapt things that are broken or flawed,” says Lucas (CFA’73). “When something is broken—even if it’s beloved—if it’s flawed enough, it’s easier to adapt because you can see, oh, we can make that better.” In the case of Piazza, he felt the novella could be enhanced by the addition of music.
But for his latest project—a musical version of the 1962 Blake Edwards film Days of Wine and Roses, written by JP Miller and based on a teleplay by Miller for Playhouse 90 in 1958—Lucas says it’s hard to improve upon Miller’s original scripts, about a young couple’s harrowing descent into alcoholism.
He was instead drawn to the project, now in its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company off-Broadway, because of the chance to work again with his collaborator on Piazza, Tony-winning composer-lyricist Adam Guettel.
“No one in my experience who’s writing songs for the American theater has quite his deep understanding of what drives characters to sing or how music functions in the theater. It’s almost something that exists in him on the cellular level,” Lucas says. “He’s writing chromatic music [where] there is rarely a key signature, and he’s moving within key signatures from bar to bar. That’s someone who’s playing three-way chess: every move has an impact on the game beneath it and the game beneath that.”
Days of Wine and Roses was among the first television and feature films to tackle addiction, a taboo subject at the time. Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it’s the story of a young Korean War veteran and advertising executive, Joe Clay, who meets a secretary, Kirsten Arnesen, and introduces her to social drinking. Before long, the couple, now married and the parents of a daughter, are alcoholics, their lives dangerously out of control. The 1962 film earned Oscar nominations for Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.
The new musical stars Tony-winner Kelli O’Hara (who starred in Piazza) and Tony-nominee Brian D’Arcy James as the couple besotted with the bottle. It’s won critical raves. The New York Times calls it a “jazzy, aching musical.” The Wrap writes, “Musical theater lightning strikes twice with Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s long-awaited follow-up to The Light in the Piazza.”
Guettel invited Lucas to join the project about 2014. He had started work on the show with another writer, who subsequently left. By the time Lucas arrived, Guettel says, “a few songs were on their way to being written,” but not much more. He and Lucas went off to an artist’s retreat and spent a lot of time talking about the narrative and what they were hoping to achieve in the musical. Lucas not only had the scripts for the original teleplay and the 1962 film to work from, but also a version that JP Miller had adapted for the stage.
“We found things that were valuable in each one,” Lucas says. “It’s a very deft set of scripts Miller wrote.” Guettel is famous for working slowly, hence the show’s long gestation. The production had to work around O’Hara’s busy schedule, as well. It was O’Hara who initially urged Guettel to adapt the film into a musical.
In revisiting Days of Wine and Roses, Lucas and Guettel could explore the impact of addiction on a family more deeply than the film or teleplay could. “I think tastes from the late 1950s, early ’60s created certain confines,” Lucas says. “I don’t think people wanted to watch children endangered by alcoholic parents at that time—I don’t think that’s something the audience would have tolerated. But now it’s possible to dramatize for audiences what it means for a child to grow up in a loving home in which there is untreated addiction.”
Lucas says that one of the great rewards of working on the musical is being able to take something from 60 years ago and “show what’s just outside of frame in the movie.” In earlier iterations of the play, he notes, there’s a long stretch in the third act where Kirsten has left her husband and young daughter and is living with her father, but the narrative skips over things. “We don’t really know what’s happening,” Lucas says. “Is there any communication between the child and the mother?”
He and Guettel wanted to show what that relationship would have looked like, so they created a new scene for the musical, where Kirsten goes to a toy store to buy a gift to bring her daughter, who she hasn’t seen for some time. The scene, he says, allows playgoers to contemplate what it might mean for a young child to have “a falling-down-drunk pair of parents.”
Lucas credits the show’s cast, led by O’Hara, D’Arcy James, Byron Jennings, and David Jennings, and director Michael Greif, for much of the show’s success. The musical’s run has been extended twice and there are rumors of a transfer to Broadway.
“It’s an extraordinary group of artists who are capable of negotiating the terrain between speech and singing, where you don’t notice there’s a difference,” Lucas says. “This is the most perfectly directed musical I’ve ever seen in my life. There is no moment in which you are uncertain about what human truth is being unfolded, revealed, and dramatized.”
The playwright bristles at the suggestion that a drama about a booze-addled couple might not be the likeliest material for a musical. He points to works like Porgy and Bess (domestic abuse, drug addiction), West Side Story (murder), Sweeney Todd (cannibalism), and Hamilton (several brutal murders) as proof that even the darkest material can be grist for a successful musical.
Next up for Lucas: adapting his own work for the stage. South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., has commissioned a new musical based on his 1990 drama Prelude to a Kiss, and he’s writing the book for the show. Currently in workshop, the musical is set to debut next spring.
Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Days of Wine and Roses runs through July 16 at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th St., New York, N.Y. Purchase tickets here. View a trailer for the show here.