Pipe Dream is the seventh musical by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; it premiered on Broadway on November 30, 1955. The work is based on John Steinbeck's short novel Sweet Thursday—Steinbeck wrote the novel, a sequel to Cannery Row, in the hope of having it adapted into a musical. Set in Monterey, California, the musical tells the story of the romance between Doc, a marine biologist, and Suzy, who in the novel is a prostitute; her profession is only alluded to in the stage work. Pipe Dream was a flop and a financial disaster for Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Broadway producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin held the rights to Sweet Thursday and wanted Frank Loesser to compose a musical based on it. When Loesser proved unavailable, Feuer and Martin succeeded in interesting Rodgers and Hammerstein in the project. As Hammerstein adapted Sweet Thursday, he and Rodgers had concerns about featuring a prostitute as female lead and setting part of the musical in a bordello. They signed operatic diva Helen Traubel to play Fauna, the house madam.
As the show progressed through tryouts, Hammerstein repeatedly revised it, obscuring Suzy's profession and the nature of Fauna's house. Pipe Dream met with poor reviews, and rapidly closed once it exhausted its advance sale. It had no national tour or London production, and has rarely been presented since. There was no film at the time; the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (which licenses their works) once hoped for a film version featuring the Muppets with Fauna played by Miss Piggy.
‘Pipe Dream’ is a tale of hard times and star-crossed love on Cannery Row. The musical is populated with longshoremen and "ladies of the evening", who weave a poignant story of the friendship and romance that blossoms among the loners and runaways searching for their dreams on the Monterey wharf. The show focuses on a marine biologist, Doc, and his relationship with a downtrodden defiant waif, Suzy.
Unless you happen to be a marine biologist, “Pipe Dream” is probably not your favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. This little-cherished 1955 show, based on John Steinbeck novels and set among the bottom feeders of Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif., had a troubled gestation — Richard Rodgers underwent surgery for cancer just as it went into rehearsals — and it played just seven months on Broadway after a cool reception from the critics.
The central romance, between a starfish-studying biologist and a drifter who resides at the local brothel without exactly earning her keep there, was not in the wholesome sweet spot for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and their ambivalence about the material may have had something to do with its ultimate failure. But as the endearing, wonderfully sung City Center Encores! production firmly proves, even second-tier Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have their undisputable charms.
Take, for instance, the gorgeous love song that closes the first act, “All at Once You Love Her,” in which that marine biologist, Doc (Will Chase), opens his heart to the show’s mildly tarnished ingénue, Suzy (Laura Osnes). With Rodgers providing a restrained but insistently beautiful melody, and Hammerstein supplying lyrics of a matching heartfelt simplicity, the song doesn’t just tug at the old heartstrings but also ties them in knots. Returning in the second act, reprised by Leslie Uggams, in marvelous voice as the local madam Fauna, it had me swooning with pleasure all over again.
Suzy settles in at Fauna’s Bear Flag Café when she blows into town without a penny to her name, meeting her future mate when she smashes a cafe window to grab some food and Doc patches up her hand. In “Sweet Thursday,” the book on which the musical is based (along with “Cannery Row”), Suzy is plainly a prostitute. But when Rodgers and Hammerstein took over the writing chores after Frank Loesser bowed out, she was transformed into a blurry mixture of salty and sweet, while Fauna and her girls coo over the Bear Flag’s annual Christmas card, singing a lilting number coyly called “The Happiest House on the Block.” (“You have changed my whore into a visiting nurse,” Steinbeck is said to have groused in a letter to Hammerstein.)
The great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are strongly focused on a central love story, but the romance between Doc and Suzy is often pushed into the wings in “Pipe Dream,” making way for an abundance of songs — make that a superabundance — for the roistering denizens of the local flophouse. Led by Doc’s best pal, Mac (Tom Wopat), they sing lustily of their affection for doing nothing in a jaunty number called “A Lopsided Bus,” and follow it up almost immediately with another rousing all-male chorus (led by Philip Hernández as, I’m afraid, Joe the Mexican). This one’s about a man’s susceptibility to a “dumb tomato” who sets her sights on him and is essentially a more sour variation on “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.”
Hammerstein’s book is a little rich in cornball humor, and the musical’s plot has a few too many tentacles. There’s a convoluted story about raffling off the flophouse to buy Doc a microscope. At one bizarre point Suzy leaves the Bear Flag to move into an abandoned boiler pipe (hence the title, I suppose). The endlessly delayed climax of Doc and Suzy’s romance is brought about by an absurd twist that finds a dimwitted fellow named Hazel (a funny Stephen Wallem) breaking Doc’s arm so that Suzy will soften up and take care of him.
And yet the opportunity to hear this little-known score performed with such musical expertise puts you in a forgiving mood. The estimable Encores! orchestra, under the musical director Rob Berman, has never sounded more supple, flexible and musically engaged, while the cast, under the direction of Marc Bruni, is uniformly strong.
Ms. Osnes, who took over the role of Nellie Forbush from Kelli O’Hara in the recent revival of “South Pacific,” cannot entirely smooth out her character’s contradictions, but she has a pure, rich soprano that she uses expressively. Mr. Chase, a criminally underused leading man on Broadway, follows up his appealing turn for Encores! in “Bells Are Ringing” (opposite Ms. O’Hara) with an equally fine performance here. Mr. Wopat’s voice has gained some rough edges, but he’s well cast as the malapropism-prone Mac.
And Ms. Uggams positively shines in the leading role of Fauna. The opera star Helen Traubel played the part in the original production and received top billing (another reason the romance got squeezed, presumably). On the original recording she sounds only mildly Wagnerian — but it still makes for a somewhat peculiar piece of casting.
Ms. Uggams, by contrast, brings an easygoing soulfulness to Fauna’s songs that warms them up considerably, in fact practically reinvents them. Leading one of the most infectious songs, “Sweet Thursday,” with a sunny charm that exemplifies the optimism that was a signature emotional note for Rodgers and Hammerstein, she radiates an earthy tenderness that casts a subtle glow throughout the evening. It feels mildly out of place in the slightly sordid milieu of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, but the musical theater lovers basking in the audience are not likely to complain.