Broadway shows can make history in various ways, but they most often fall into one of two categories: big fat musicals that run for decades and risky productions that close almost as soon as they open.
“The Nervous Set,” starring a young Larry Hagman, fell into the latter category. The jazz musical, admittedly a rare subgenre, opened May 12, 1959, and closed three weeks later — long enough to record a cast album. Now the Lawrence Arts Center is bringing the show back to life for a limited run. The production opened last weekend and continues through Oct. 18.
“The Nervous Set” occupies a specific corner of theater history. With music by Tommy Wolf, a book co-written by director Theodore J. Flicker and Jay Landesman and lyrics by Fran Landesman, the show was an expression of a certain avant-garde sensibility.
Jay Landesman was a St. Louis native who, with wife Fran, founded and operated the Crystal Palace, a St. Louis nightclub in Gaslight Square where many of the leading comedians and performers of the day appeared. Crystal Palace alumni include Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers and Dick Gregory. Poet Allen Ginsberg performed there as well.
In Landesman’s 2011 obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of his sons described Landesman as someone who had shared “tea with Bette Davis, cocktails with Bessie Smith and LSD with Timothy Leary.”
Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is the nephew of Jay and Fran Landesman.
“The Nervous Set” was based on an unpublished novel by Jay Landesman. It depicts the lives and loves of a group of New Yorkers, including a Greenwich Village writer named Bunny and a poet named Danny. Brad, the editor of a poetry magazine, falls in love with an uptown beauty named Jan. Some of the characters are clearly stand-ins for major literary figures of the day, including Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
The cast of the Lawrence Arts Center production, directed by Ric Averill, includes Seth Golay, Megan Birdsall and Michael Andrew Smith of Kansas City and Tom Picasso and Alex Kipp of New York. The live band includes bassist Jeff Harshbarger, Brian Baggett on guitar and Taylor Babb on percussion.
Averill, the artistic director of performing arts for the center, indicated that there might be future productions of the show. Let’s hope a Kansas City venue is on the list.