by Scott Miller

 “What are you rebelling against?”
“What have you got?”

Those famous words from the film The Wild One were on the title page of Jay Landesman’s novel The Nervous Set. And it was those words that almost got it published. Editor Gene Miller very much wanted to publish it but couldn’t convince his boss, Stanley Rinehart, to make it happen. Miller wrote to Landesman, “Your book is the kind that makes people like [Rinehart] and his editor-in-chief very uncomfortable; it reminds them about the truth about themselves and the world they live in.”

            The Nervous Set, the jazz musical born in St. Louis’ legendary Gaslight Square entertainment district, described the Beat Generation, a generation of young people in post-World War II, pre-Vietnam America, swimming in disillusioned angst and apathy. It was funny, biting, outrageous, despairing, and brilliantly witty. But more than that, it was truthful, a serious social document, a record of a time and place that should never be forgotten, when America had lost its way and lost track of what’s important. It was a loving evocation of the Beat Generation, with all its warts and contradictions, all its nihilism and its earth-shattering realignment of modern literature and poetry. People know about the hippies, but how many know where the hippies came from? The Nervous Set shines the light once again on some of America’s true giants, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (who had been friends since 1944), John Clellon Holmes, and Jay Landesman. And interestingly, Ginsberg and William Burroughs were both from St. Louis, and Beat jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was from East St. Louis. In 1950, when The Nervous Set is set, Ginsberg was twenty-three and Kerouac was twenty-eight.

            The Beat Generation was so dubbed (publicly) in 1952 in John Clellon Holmes’ New York Times Magazine article called ”This is the Beat Generation.” But Kerouac and Ginsberg had been using the word since 1945, when they had picked it up from Herbert Huncke, a Times Square thief and male prostitute, who had picked up the word from his show business friends in Chicago. The word beat (in this sense) originally came from circus and carnival people describing their wearying, rootless, nomadic lives. In the drug world, beat meant robbed or cheated. In this 1952 article, John Clellon Holmes, one of the Beat writers himself, wrote:

Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective. The origins of the word 'beat' are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.

       Its members have an instinctive individuality, needing no bohemianism or imposed eccentricity to express it. Brought up during the collective bad circumstances of a dreary depression, weaned during the collective uprooting of a global war, they distrust collectivity. But they have never been able to keep the world out of their dreams. The fancies of their childhood inhabited the half-light of Munich, the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the eventual blackout. Their adolescence was spent in a topsy-turvy world of war bonds, swing shifts, and troop movements. They grew to independent mind on beachheads, in gin mills and USOs, in past-midnight arrivals and pre-dawn departures. Their brothers, husbands, fathers or boy friends turned up dead one day at the other end of a telegram. At the four trembling corners of the world, or in the home town invaded by factories or lonely servicemen, they had intimate experience with the nadir and the zenith of human conduct, and little time for much that came between. The peace they inherited was only as secure as the next headline. It was a cold peace. Their own lust for freedom, and the ability to live at a pace that kills (to which the war had adjusted them), led to black markets, bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity, hucksterism, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The beatness set in later.

Bringing the “Beat” Beat to Broadway

The Nervous Set, the first Beat musical, began previews in St. Louis on March 4, 1959, and opened on March 10, in a three hundred seat saloon-theatre-club called the Crystal Palace, in the heart of Gaslight Square. Strange as it might seem to those who weren’t there, for almost a decade in the late fifties and early sixties, Gaslight Square was an international mecca for Beat writers, up-and-coming comedians, and jazz musicians, like yet-to-be-stars Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Alan Arkin, and so many others. Jay had discovered the Compass Players, an improv troupe, in Chicago, and had invited some of them, under the direction of Theodore Flicker, to come to the Crystal Palace as a resident company. Among the players were Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Del Close. Nichols would go on to become one of the top theatre and film directors of all time. May would become a top playwright. Later on, the Compass Players would morph into the Second City improv company in Chicago. And even later, when Second City strayed from pure improv, Del Close would leave and start the Improv Olympics, which has since become world famous. Artists from around the world descended upon St. Louis to meet and learn from each other, and at the center of this artistic storm were Jay and Fran Landesman, proprietors of the Crystal Palace, the generally acknowledged stars of Gaslight Square and, some claim, founders, or at least early nurturers, of the Beat culture.

            Jay Landesman had written a basically autobiographical novel – never published – called The Nervous Set, loosely based on his own life in New York and his relationships with Fran, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Holmes, and others literary icons. Talking about writing the book, Landesman wrote, “My story was a very small canvas, an insider’s view of the flotsam and jetsam of the intellectual life that I was a part of. All I had in the beginning was the opening line, ‘You can’t stay married if you want to make it in New York,’ the title The Nervous Set, and a regular schedule.”

When the idea emerged to make it into a musical, everyone agreed it was a good idea – Jay wrote the script with some judicious editing and shaping by Flicker, who also directed, Fran wrote lyrics, and the house music director at the Crystal Palace, Tommy Wolf, wrote the music. In later years, Flicker would claim he had written every word of the script with no help from Jay, and that he was cheated out of his sole authorship credit – and out of part ownership in the Crystal Palace –  along with a whole catalog of other wrongs. We’ll never know for sure if any of his claims are true.

The Nervous Set was a huge hit in St. Louis, despite its three hour, forty-five minute running time. The original cast included Don Heller, Arlene Corwin, Tom Aldredge, Del Close, Janice Meshkoff, and Barry Primus. Aldredge and Close would continue their roles later on Broadway. Aldredge would go on to a healthy Broadway career in shows like Into the Woods, Passion, and others. And Aldredge’s wife, Theoni, designed the original St. Louis costumes, before going on to become one of the top costumers on Broadway. The St. Louis set was designed by local artist Dave Moon. Variety reviewed the St. Louis production: “The Nervous Set, a locally written musical comedy, premiered at the Crystal Palace saloon theatre to ecstatic packed house enthusiasm. The Nervous Set deals with the beat generation, sometimes tenderly, sometimes spicily, sometimes hilariously, but always entertainingly… The show has some twenty tunes, tailored to the assorted beatniks, squares, and snobs who populate the three acts.” Today, some critics complain that the script is weak, that it doesn't spell everything out. Their criticism is true but misdirected. The script for The Nervous Set operates much like a later masterpiece, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, in which the surface dialogue is utterly trivial, and all the real dramatic red meat is under the surface. The Nervous Set script gives an audience everything it needs, all the backstory, motivation, relationships, and character development any other musical offers, but it does it all very subtly, and almost entirely in subtext.

In the spring of 1959, producer Robert Lantz saw the show and decided to bring it to Broadway. In a moment of supreme idiocy, Lantz decided to run the show in St. Louis until May 2, then open it on Broadway on May 12, with major revisions and only one week to transfer and re-stage the show. This meant no time for advance sales, no time to sell it to theatre parties, no time to create word of mouth or court the New York press. Lantz apparently believed the show would only be topical for a minute or so, not recognizing the Beat culture’s growing popularity and mainstreaming. Lantz also wanted to change the show’s title to Like Tomorrow. The New York cast included Richard Hayes, Tani Seitz, Larry Hagman, Gerald Hiken, David Sallade, Del Close, Janice Meshkoff, and Tom Aldredge. Heller, Corwin, and Primus, from St. Louis, were demoted to the chorus. Maybe the show was just too weird for Broadway, with its smartly cynical, literary, abrasively intellectual script, its existential angst, its four-piece jazz combo onstage, its lack of choreography, and its general lack of interest in any of the conventions of the Broadway musical, and it turned out to be a flop.

Part of the blame for the show’s failure belonged to Lantz, who demanded songs and scenes cut (the running time was reduced to two and a half hours), structure made more conventional, the very sad ending changed, and more. He told the Landesmans that Broadway wasn’t ready for a musical that ended with a suicide. Of course, this was two years after West Side Story, which ended Act I with two deaths and ended Act II with the hero’s death. And it was more than a decade after Carousel had killed its hero in the middle of Act II. In fact, Lantz didn’t decide how he wanted the show to end until three days before opening. At each of the previews, the show had a different ending.

Lantz essentially killed The Nervous Set. He had found this exciting, new, experimental musical, decided to take it to Broadway, then stripped it of everything that made it special. Perhaps had it opened ten years later – even in its emasculated state – it would have run longer. But in 1959, it could only eke out twenty-three performances, essentially robbing it of a further life in regional and community theatres. Today, it may not seem as radical at it once did, but imagine a show like this opening in a season with Once Upon a Mattress, Destry Rides Again, Gypsy, Fiorello!, and The Sound of Music. At the time, Jay said, “Some [of the audience] hated the subject, hated beatniks, and it colored their reaction. Some who liked the idea wanted us to go into a serious, psycho-socio-economic analysis of the beatnik attitude. Our idea was simply a fun show. But I don’t think the average New York paying audience is as sophisticated as the ones we had at the Crystal Palace. They didn’t seem to get half the satire.”

Critical reception to The Nervous Set on Broadway was decidedly mixed. The New York Daily News called the show “the most brilliant, sophisticated, witty and completely novel production of the past decade.” But Frank Ashton in the World-Telegram & Sun called it “a weird experience. Something exclusively for the beat, bop, and beret brigade.” Robert Coleman in the Daily Mirror called it “a nerve-wracking musical.” Missing the point the most of all of them was Walter Kerr in the Herald-Tribune, who said, “There is nothing here that Cole Porter couldn’t have done twenty times better, while well dressed.” There’s nothing like judging a show for not being something it never intended to be. No doubt if the show’s creators had written something worthy of Porter’s frivolous, smart-set musicals, they would’ve beaten themselves to death with a book of Ginsberg poetry. The Nervous Set creative team would go on to write one more show, A Walk on the Wild Side, set in a whorehouse, but even the audiences at the Crystal Palace weren’t ready for that and it closed quickly. They never wrote another musical. It’s interesting to imagine what else they might have written if Broadway had been ready for The Nervous Set, if it hadn’t been emasculated, and if New York had welcomed it more warmly.

Still, a Parisian producer invited the Landesmans to bring The Nervous Set on a tour of “Iron Curtain” countries, but the tour never happened. Legendary composer Richard Rodgers called the Landesmans to congratulate them after seeing the show. Jay said, “Rodgers was extremely generous and complimentary to Fran and Tommy Wolf, the composer. He told them this show would be remembered for years for its talent, and if it didn’t do anything else, it had brought a talented team of songwriters to Broadway. He insisted on composer Leonard Bernstein coming to see it.” Rodgers offered to give Lantz a rave quote to use in newspaper ads.

            Even though the darkness of the subject matter was tempered with abundant humor, it was still a very cynical, satirical kind of humor. It was inescapably something very new to musical theatre, a kind of show that would not become a part of the art form until the later 1960s and 1970s when Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince made the adult concept musical the norm. In addition to everything else, Tommy Wolf’s music for The Nervous Set was genuine, full-flavored jazz, a sound never yet heard on Broadway, and only rarely heard afterward. Unfortunately, the show’s original showstopper, the torchy “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” had already been recorded by several jazz artists and, for complicated contractual reasons, couldn’t be included in the Broadway production or be recorded on the cast album. Another song from the score, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” had some life outside the show as well, but “Spring” became a jazz standard and is still performed today.

            Tommy Wolf described Fran’s writing method in his liner notes for their album Wolf at Your Door:

She writes with incredible speed in curious flashes of intense concentration, as a stenographer taking sudden, urgent dictation from a personal, omnipotent muse. When this hysteria is exhausted, she gives battle to the stammers of self-consciousness and embarrassment for days before she will part finally with her birthings; but she reacts to the completed song with the simple excitement of a child. Since she knows nothing whatever about music, her writing very often cannot be crammed into conventional phrase lengths and patterns; yet her rhythms and accents are so natural and flowing that you are never aware of odd measured periods, phrases, or cadences.

He then goes on to describe his part in the creation of their songs:

The main objective in our collaboration is a unity of lyric and music with logical comfortableness. The lyric is paramount and always precedes the music. My job is to give the diamond a purposeful setting, and in rare instances, to suggest a different cutting (damn these metaphors). Then after much anguish, many bruises, and more vituperation, we reach some sort of disagreeable agreement that my melody has imprisoned the spirit of her lyric.

What separates these songs from nearly all other theatre songs (except, perhaps, those of Jacques Brel, which also were not originally written for the stage) is that the lyrics are actual poetry. It is a long held belief that poetry does not work as lyrics, that it is too dense, too artful, that people (and characters) just don’t talk like that. But the concept musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in the late 1960s proved that there are exceptions to this rule. And now, understanding and ignoring the debilitating effects of the rewrites on the Broadway production, we can now see that Fran’s lyrics are similarly brilliant, even in a theatrical context. They work partly because most of the characters are poets or writers themselves, so Fran’s heightened lyrics make sense coming out of their mouths. Also, the show itself is a heightened evocation of reality, almost never attempting any moments of naturalism. When Jan sings of a “grimy moon,” we accept the unusual turn of phrase because this is a poetic world we’re in. Curly couldn’t have sung that in Oklahoma! and Dolly Levi would have never sung such a lyric in Hello, Dolly!, but here in The Nervous Set, Fran’s lovely words work beautifully.

            Likewise, Tommy Wolf used music to characterize, just like the best theatre composers. “Max the Millionaire” evokes the sounds of New York’s Yiddish theatres to characterize this Jewish immigrant businessman. The “Party” songs use a kind of sarcastic show bizzy sound, but one with plenty of “wrong” dissonant notes and chords, to suggest a banality and an artificialness under the words. Clearly, the people at the parties are not important because they don’t sing jazz. “A Country Gentlemen” mixes verses in a hokey folksy style with bridges in a more frantic jazz style, to make the point that Brad and Jan may talk about the rustic life, but they don’t really belong there; they keep slipping back into jazz music. “Travel the Road of Love” employs a pseudo-country style to underline Bummy’s obvious disdain for the people to whom he’s singing. He doesn’t sing in his own voice here (i.e., jazz), as he does in “Fun Life.” He sings in their voice, so we know he’s not sincere. He’s pretending to be one of them so he can ridicule them with bland declarations of love and optimism. On the other hand, the songs that are meant to be taken at face value, those that genuinely characterize the important characters, are all done in the musical vocabulary of jazz.

George Frazier wrote in Esquire magazine, “Talking about style, [songwriters] Comden and Green are delicatessen, for Christ’s sake, and as for Leonard Bernstein, you can have him tax free and gift wrapped. But if it’s style you’re looking for, then listen to the wonders that Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf have wrought.” More recently, The London Observer called Fran  “the poet laureate of the borderland between urban hipness and emotional insecurity.”

The Beats Go On…

One of the Landesman’s New York friends once said of their apartment and their Beat friends, “Through these doors pass the most beautiful and neurotic people in the world.” Landesman’s friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would eventually become the poster boys for the Beats. Kerouac and Ginsberg called their writing style as “spontaneous bop prosody,” referring to the newest style of improvisational jazz, “bop.” Kerouac would later inscribe his novel Mexico City Blues with, “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday.”

Later, when Kerouac’s novel On the Road hit mainstream success, he suddenly had to do interviews with the mainstream press. He was asked to appear on television, be photographed for magazines. He was suddenly a product in the mainstream world he had tried so hard to reject, and he was quite belligerent in some cases. That nastiness is dramatized in the show in the scene leading up to Bummy’s very sarcastic, very condescending song “Travel the Road.” He’s talking down to these people who are throwing him a party, to the people who have bought his novel. He’s being rude to them, even if they don’t all realize it. That nastier part of the Beat culture faded away over time, as the Beats passed the spiritual baton to the far more positive hippies.

The Beat uniform became a cliché later, but the Beat look was real – beards, turtle-necks, dark glasses, and for women, peasant blouses, wide belts, and flared skirts. When Kerouac appeared on The Steve Allen Show in 1959, Allen asked him to define the word beat. Kerouac enigmatically answered, “Sympathetic.” Writing about the 1950s in his introduction to the collected issues of Neurotica, John Clellon Holmes wrote:

The times, if not out of joint, were still in the plaster-cast of post-war recuperation. Within a year or two of V-J Day [“Victory in Japan Day”], it became apparent that peace wasn’t going to break out, and that a more or less permanent state of anxiety was going to sour our morning coffee and our evening drink for the foreseeable future. The social and intellectual assumptions of wartime – One World, Freedom versus Tyranny, a sort of United Nations ethical egalitarianism – seemed at once hollow and anachronistic if one remembered the blinding technological light of Hiroshima and the appalling human darkness of Auschwitz. Yet most of the young men and women who returned from the war experienced a sudden release of energy, curiosity and impatience-with-the-past that belied these dismal facts, these recent nightmares. They were intent on questioning everything.

The Beats were a product of their times, reacting to the hyper-materialism and conspicuous consumption of their parents in post-war America, and The Nervous Set framed that “nervous” decade, describing events that took place in 1950 and premiering on stage in 1959, looking at the beginning of the decade through the lens of the end of the decade. The fifties were a time marked by the Civil Rights movement, the invention of rock and roll, the first publication of Playboy, the explosion of television, the creation of the suburbs, the development of the birth control pill, the beginning of the Cold War, the publication of the Kinsey reports on American sexuality, the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Brown vs. the Board of Education and desegregation, the beginning of the feminist movement, and so many other social revolutions. America was changing so fast and so radically that it was hard to keep up – and hard to understand.

At the same time, the goal or most Americans was to establish themselves as a nameless cog in a the machinery of a great anonymous corporation and live their lives happily unnoticed and unchallenged. Conformity was everything. Responsibility was absent in all but the most trivial forms. Rather than changing the world, the idea was to be as insignificant as possible, never to never stand out, never to be different. (Terry Gilliam explored this idea of America in his dystopian film Brazil.) This was the time of the Rise of the Expert in America, a time when everything Americans did was dictated by “experts” – on parenting, on cars, on toothpaste, on marriage, on food, style, culture, medicine, and pretty much everything else. Experts told Americans how to live their lives and that’s how they lived them. Experts recommended headache pills and told us how to raise our children so they wouldn’t turn out to be criminals or homosexuals. It wouldn’t be until the Civil Right Movement picked up steam that America would wake up.

But as far back as the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Beats boldly and loudly rejected the mainstream – in whatever form it might take – and rejected conformity. As Jay Landesman wrote in Rebel Without Applause, “The only price of admission was a healthy maladjustment to society; an interesting neurosis was an added bonus. ‘Square’ was the dreaded word. To be ‘serious’ was to leave yourself open to attack without chance of survival.” But the Beats didn’t really offer up anything to replace that which they rejected. The Beats would eventually evolve into the hippies (a label evolving out of the word hipster) in the middle 1960s, a similar social movement, but one that finally found its political voice and actually presented a legitimate alternative to the emptiness of mainstream culture. The term beatnik soon became common, but usually in a derogatory way. The -nik suffix had first come to America with Jewish immigrants from Yiddish (i.e. nogoodnik), but after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the suffix really entered American English, usually as something negative, and often to connote someone who is a “Commie” in one way or another (since it was now associated with the Soviets). Reportedly, the term Beatnik was coined by columnist Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after the launch of Sputnik. To the American public Sputnik represented not only a triumph of the Russians over America in the Space Race, but also the idea that maybe the Russians could now send nuclear weapons over and blow us up. And it scared Americans to death. Beatnik came to mean not just outside mainstream life and culture, but also somehow Russian influenced, not just un-American but actually anti-American. But the Beats themselves did not like the term beatnik, just as the hippies would later reject the term hippie.

            Much of the Beats’ dissatisfaction focused on hypocrisy in American culture. Gershon Legman wrote in one Neurotica piece, “Murder having replaced sex in the popular arts, the glorification of one requires the degradation of the other. We are faced in our culture by the insurmountable, schizophrenic contradiction that sex, which is legal, in fact, is a crime on paper, while murder, a crime in fact, is on paper the best-seller of all time. Civilization is not yet ready to let love and death fight it out in the marketplace, with free speech and four-color printing on both sides. Censors refuse to see that the backwash of violence affects the victim. Any rotten thing you want to put on paper is OK with the district attorney, but if you put into a novel the description of the ordinary act of sexual intercourse between a man and a wife, you will go to jail. At least sex is normal. Is murder?”

            Kerouac once said of the Beats in New York, “We are living at just the right time – Johnson and his London, Balzac and his Paris, Socrates and his Athens – the same thing again.” At the same time that Kerouac was changing the course of the American novel and Ginsberg was doing the same with poetry, other revolutions were also taking place. Jackson Pollock was changing American painting with his wild visceral new abstract style. Charlie Parker was changing jazz, with the invention of “Bop,” a fierce, aggressive, manic new kind of jazz improvisation. Lenny Bruce was changing comedy, turning it not only political but arguably dangerous. Marlon Brando was changing the American theatre, with an entirely new style of aggressive, emotionally raw acting. Off Broadway was being born and The Living Theater was starting the American experimental theatre movement. Sid Caesar was changing the face of the newborn television, inventing live sketch comedy with Your Show of Shows. Charles Schulz was changing the nature of comic strips, bringing the disillusionment and disenfranchisement of the Beats to the funny papers with Peanuts, his now world famous comic strip that debuted in October 1950. Schulz’ strip featured a collection of contemplative children who commented on literature, art, classical music, theology, medicine, psychiatry, sports, law, and the until then taboo themes of faith, intolerance, depression, loneliness, cruelty, and despair. Garry Trudeau, creator of the politically charged comic strip Doonesbury, grew up with Peanuts and has called it “the first Beat strip.” He has said that Peanuts “vibrated with 1950s alienation. Everything about it was different.” Also in 1950, Aldous Huxley, who had written the revolutionary Brave New World years earlier, was taking mescaline for the first time, and he wrote The Doors of Perception, starting (or re-starting, more accurately) America’s drug culture. America, the bland land of conformity was being turned upside-down.

            Author Brian Hassett wrote recently, “From Pollock’s swirling strokes to splashing color screen-savers, from Brando reaching New York audiences with A Streetcar Named Desire to Bravo reaching living rooms nationwide with Inside the Actors Studio, from Jack {Kerouac]’s punctuation-liberated prose to the abbreviated brevity of online language, from Ginsberg freely howling to Richie Havens howling ‘Freedom,’ the commitment to spontaneous subconscious expression of this pivotal mid-century decade intuited our new millennial lives in ways still being improvised.”

            Interestingly, in the late 1980s and into the early years of the new millennium, a new Beat movement emerged, among American and British teens, apparently morphed out of the punk movement. They called themselves “emo kids,” short for “emotional.” As defines it, an “emo kid” is “one who rejects pop culture and joins the counter-culture realm. Usually has ideas contrary to popular opinion and seeks to gain a better understanding of life through artistic venues. May appear depressed, have black or red hair, and dress in a way that is contrary to what is popular. Thrift stores, art, coffee shops, underground music, and poetry are usually of great interest. Contrary to popular opinion, though an emo kid may seem depressed, within their own group there is an element of deep understanding and friendship. Emo kids see the world as beautiful, but its inhabitants as lost and depressing.”


Jay Landesman began Neurotica in March 1948, a small, independent magazine about the relationship between neurosis and art and literature. Neurotica published some of the first works by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan, and many others. Landesman’s friend Richard Rubenstein had said to him “Let’s cure the ills of America by starting a poetry magazine. All the poetry rags are so goddamn academic, it’s time for something radical.” So Jay did.

The first issue declared, “Neurotica is a literary explosion, defense, and correlation of the problems and personalities that in our culture are defined as neurotic. It is said that if you tie a piece of red cloth to a gull’s leg its fellow gulls will peck it to pieces. Neurotica wishes to draw an analogy between this observation and the plight of today’s creative anxious man. We are interested in exploring the creativeness of this man who has been forced to live underground, and yet lights an utter darkness with his music, poetry, painting, and writing.” Arguably, The Nervous Set would do the same a decade later. Freudian psychoanalysis was very trendy at the time. Freud himself believed that in the modern world, humans were compelled to repress and stifle their natural, animal drives in order to live in a civilized, ordered society, and that this repression of natural impulses caused neuroses in every civilized person. In other words, Freud argued, neurosis is the norm.

In Neurotica’s first public call for articles, Landesman suggested some possible topics. They included “The New Look is the Anxious Look,” “Psychiatrist – God or Demi-Tasse?”, “Parties – Pathological or Otherwise,” “American Sexual Imperialism,” “All the Good Roles Have Been Taken: The Plight of the Talented Untalented,” “The Unique Mores of the Bar and Tavern Social Milieu,” “The Theatre as Sublimated Suicide,” “The Castration Complex in Animals,” “The Drive to Be a Misfit and Its Rewards,” “The Therapeutic Nature of Evil Acts,” “Love Founded on Mutual Misunderstanding,” “Can You Slap Your Mother? A Semantic Problem,” “The Art of Mock Suicide,” and others just as subversive. Immediately, Landesman began getting submissions – even though the magazine only paid five dollars per printed page – and Neurotica was officially born in spring 1948. Both The St. Louis Post Dispatch and Writer’s Journal published articles on the new magazine, and it quickly became a hit, not just locally but in New York and across the country, mostly due to immense and enthusiastic word-of-mouth.

The jacket cover for a 1981 collection of the nine issues of Neurotica said, “But Neurotica was much more than just the Bible of the Beats. It brought together an unholy alliance of existentialists, surrealists, radical sociologists, psychoanalysts, playwrights, and musicians to create the first ‘underground’ critique of American life.” John Clellon Holmes wrote in his introduction to the collection, “Neurotica reminds us that the worst-of-times is the seedbed of the best, and that those seeds are planted and nourished by a few stubborn and prescient spirits who say a loud and insistent No! to convention and hypocrisy so that a later generation will have a climate in which to assert their exuberant Yes!” It’s true – the Beats had laid the groundwork for the hippies. Holmes went on, “Neurotica was not entirely alone in this endeavor – there were others striving in this direction, a few others – but its then-unfashionable point of view proved to be in the vanguard of what is extremely fashionable now, and it is time at last that we take a backward-look at a magazine that was looking forward to us all along.”

In response to a questionnaire Neurotica distributed to its readers, one reader wrote, “I don’t how I feel, particularly whether your writers are more neurotic than your readers or the opposite but in any event it’s original and uses the axe instead of the scalpel.” John Clellon Holmes wrote a piece of fiction for Neurotica that became the first to use hipster language in print:

This is a local fable and the boy is Beeker. This guy was a Peko-man, and he blew himself out of the coils of a trumpet every night. He came on for culture, not for loot; so he passed the marihuana to his cohorts when the need was near. This tea dispensing on the cuff brought in enough for bills, and the lad was living in a new era.

Eventually, when Jay and Fran left New York, Jay gave Neurotica to his crazy, sex-obsessed associate editor, Gershon Legman, to do with as he pleased. Legman declared in the next issue, “No more poetry unless it makes a point. I’m going to get you writers who clearly see that America is on the brink of a nervous breakdown.” Of course he was right – the 1960s were coming…

Man, Woman, and the Serpent Among the Beats

            Like the novel, the musical The Nervous Set tells two parallel stories. In the central story, Brad (aka Jay Landesman) is the editor of a literary magazine called Nerves (based on Landesman’s real life magazine Neurotica), and he meets a rich girl named Jan (an amusing blend of “Jay” and “Fran”). Though they come from different worlds, they marry but have a very rough time of making it work, particularly as they realize they’ve become bored with the intellectual, overly intellectual world of the New York Beats. In the other, connected plotline, a overbearing bore named Yogi (based on the real life Legman, who Jay once said reminded him of Captain Queeg) comes into Brad’s life and takes over Nerves, nearly running it into the ground – and nearly destroying Brad and Jan’s marriage – before Brad gives him the boot. In the novel and in the original St. Louis version of the show, the story ended with Jan attempting suicide while Brad is out at a party. But the ending was eventually cheered up for Broadway. Along the way, Brad’s Beat buddies, Bummy Carwell (based on Kerouac and Holmes, with a last name that slyly refers to Kerouac’s famous automotive crisscrossing of America) and Danny (based on Ginsberg and Anatole Broyard) also have their adventures in their own interlocking orbits. The Nervous Set novel told the same larger story about the same group of friends as two more famous novels, John Clellon Holmes’ Go and Chandler Brossard’s Who Walk in Darkness. Though a later version of the script focused more on the Beat culture itself, trying to describe that time with lots of references and jokes much the way Grease did, the script Jay and Flicker originally wrote used the Beat culture more as milieu, as atmosphere, and in a way, as antagonist. The clear focus of the story was Brad and Jan and their attempts to make a conventional marriage work in a very unconventional world.

Jay Landesman worked in the family antique business in St. Louis as a young man, but he frequently made buying trips to New York, and it was there in Greenwich Village that he discovered jazz clubs and Bohemian bars. Jay met Fran at a party, and she did live on Central Park West and 75th, and her parents did have a country house in Connecticut, just like her fictional counterpart. Jay described her as “a classy uptown broad in full rebellion” and also her “rebelliousness combined with fragility, her incompleteness and inconsistent character.” Jay married Fran on his 30th birthday. Although, Jan in the musical is more a composite of Fran and Jay’s first wife Pat. Legman/Yogi actually intruded on Jay’s life with Pat far more than Jay’s life with Fran, and Pat always believed Legman had ruined their marriage. Unfortunately, as other men have, and as it happens in the musical, Jay was one man before he married Fran and another after he married her. She had fallen in love with his rebelliousness, his desire to break all the rules, but once they married he became as conventional as Ward Cleaver – at least when it came to their marriage. Jay expected Fran to do the shopping on her lunch hour and clean in the evenings after work.

The Beats were always battling The Mainstream, but the women in the Beat movement were engaged in another fight as well – rampant male chauvinism. Even within the progressive milieu of the Beats, women were still second class citizens. Even those women who were writing, who were intellectuals, were dismissed or ignored most of the time. In the book Women of the Beat Generation, author Brenda Knight wrote, “In many ways, women of the Beat were cut from the same cloth as the men: fearless, angry, high risk, too smart, restless, highly irregular. They took chances, make mistakes, made poetry, made love, made history. Women of the Beat weren't afraid to get dirty. They were compassionate, careless, charismatic, marching to a different drummer, out of step. Muses who birthed a poetry so raw and new and full of power that it changed the world. Writers whose words weave spells, whose stories bind, whose vision blinds. Artists for whom curing the disease of art kills.” But these strong, fabulous women were pushed into the background, largely ignored, usually disrespected.

Of course, when Jan complains in the show about having to do the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and other menial chores, Brad is baffled by her complaints. After all, he tells here, those the “basic things” a woman does. Not only is he extremely sexist (as were the other Beats), but what’s worse is that he doesn’t recognize his own sexism. Like the other men, he’s interested in breaking only those rules that free him, not those that might free Jan. But friction between the couple also comes from the difference in their lifestyles. Jay came from the Midwest, but once in New York, he quickly adopted the edginess and intensity of native New Yorkers. But even though Jan was raised in New York, she lived a protected life of privilege in a high rise apartment on Central Park West. Jan does not have the edgy combativeness of average New Yorkers. She never had to fight for a seat on the subway to get home from work. She never had to fight with her landlord over a leaky faucet. Jan never learned the New-York-as-jungle skills that Brad learned, and consequently, they see the world from two entirely different perspectives.

In The Nervous Set, the friction between Jay’s life with Jan and his nihilistic Beat philosophy is dramatized in several scenes. It begins during the song “New York” when Jan asks Brad and Danny, “Isn’t there anything you two guys like?” Later, in the party scene in Connecticut, Jan says to Brad, “I wonder sometimes, Brad. If you don’t like people and you don’t like anything that anyone else does, how can you like anything? How can you like yourself?” These lines capture the inherent self-destructiveness of the Beat culture. And her song, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” capture not only her own view of the Beats, but also – because of her outsider status in the community – an objective analysis of the Beat culture. It becomes the central thesis of the show, the idea that the Beats were brilliant but destructive and unhealthy, that no genuine emotional attachments (like a marriage) can survive the nihilism. At the end of the song, she begs the moon to shine brightly enough to lead these sad young men home again. And her request is answered; Brad does finally come home again in the show’s heartbreaking final scene, but arguably, he’s too late (depending. on how you read the show’s final moments).

            Finally, in real life, Jay and Fran decided they were both extremely unhappy in New York, that their lives were no longer what they had been. They decided to move back to St. Louis. Jay wrote, “The real reason for the dramatic decision was that Fran and I weren’t having fun anymore. All that running around to bars and parties, putting everyone and everything down, had ceased to be exciting. Who cared who had writer’s block and who couldn’t get it up anymore, who wasn’t having orgasms, who was selling out, who knew who and what they could do for me?”

            In The Nervous Set, Legman/Yogi represents the dark side of the Beat culture – all nihilism, all negativity, no positive take on anything, paranoid and eternally pissed off, always scowling behind his great walrus moustache. Jay wrote about Legman, after booting him, “In the short time of my close association with him, I learned to distrust experts, do-gooders, power, the Establishment, my heroes, all liberal tendencies, celebrities, and success. I was going to need something very powerful to believe in if I were to survive.”  Legman was also obsessed with all topics sexual, and later in life, became the world’s foremost collector of obscene jokes and limericks. He eventually published a volume of no less than 1,700 dirty limericks. All this is reflected in the show with the very sexual song “How Do You Like Your Love?”, a song still somewhat shocking today, forty-five years after it was written. Interestingly, late in the show, Yogi says to Brad, “Stick with me now, and you’ll be remembered when they write the history books of this generation.” Of course, Jay did not stick with Legman, and sadly, Jay was not remembered in the history of the Beats. It’s fun to wonder what would have happened if Jay had stayed in New York, had continued working with Legman, and had continued publishing more and more outrageous work. Maybe he would have been remembered. We’ll never know.

            Jay’s greatest talent was in the discovery and assembling of other talented people. As the editor of Neurotica, he identified some of the greatest writing talents of his generation. And later, as the proprietor of the Crystal Palace, he discovered and booked some of the greatest – still unknown – performing talents of the time, including people like Barbra Streisand.

Based on a True Story

            The Nervous Set is largely true. Events have been telescoped, some characters are composites, but most of the people and events really happened in the early 1950s. For example, in The Nervous Set, Bummy finds unexpected commercial success for his novel, mirroring the real world phenomenon of Kerouac’s On the Road. And, as in the show, Kerouac had actually asked Landesman to publish his book, but Legman wouldn’t allow it. Interestingly, On the Road became a ubiquitous symbol not just of the Beats’ feelings of disengagement with the larger culture, but also of the profound physical changes in America brought on by the revolutionary Interstate Highway Act, which created ribbons of highways all across America, making it easier and faster than ever before to cross the country, bringing the country closer together, shrinking distances in a very real way. The poet Anatole Broyard taught at the New School, and actually tutored a millionaire poet named Hy Sobiloff. Kerouac did actually flirt with Fran.

Jay had actually bought a pogo stick with a red tip at FAO Schwartz. He wrote about it: “It seemed to be the perfect instrument to celebrate the rudderless life we were drifting into.” At one party, “the stick became the focus of attention, more popular than any guest. Its significance was being seriously discussed. The existentialists wondered if it would catch on in Sartre’s circle. Freudians saw it as a liberation of the repressed psyche. The Blake expert, Klonsky, who had fallen off one in childhood, declared it ‘dangerous,’ Ginsberg saw it as an extension of Celine; Solomon pulled for Artaud. ‘It’s the real journey to the end of the night,’ declared a wit. Kerouac, the ex-footballer, took possession, sure that he’d make a touch-down, but he was thrown for a loss a few seconds later. ‘It cuts Zen,’ someone shrieked when he fell off.” And then, “the party went back to being nervous.” The pretentious party guests in The Nervous Set are only slight exaggerations. Novelist Chandler Brossard wrote, “They measure their cool by the length of time they refuse to say anything to each other. I was at a party when they were so cool one froze to death in his silence and the other two turned to stone rather than risk a gesture.”

Part of the great fun of The Nervous Set is its three party scenes, first at Jan’s parents house in Fairfield, Connecticut – “in the country” – then at Brad and Jan’s apartment in Greenwich Village, and finally at the home of Katherine Sloan-Whitaker, on Sutton Place in uptown Manhattan. Each party starts with essentially the same song, “The Party Song,” almost the exact same music each time, but with different lyrics. These three scenes and these three versions of the song point up both how different these three worlds were but also how much the same they were. Certain parts of the lyric are the same in all three songs, all three contain the hoorays, all three have similar versions of phrases like “nice meeting you” or “nice seeing you,” and all three end with the same lyric. Of course, each lyric is riddled with references to the culture of its group. In Connecticut, the song references barbecue, the PTA, and voting for Symington. In the Village, the song references Elia Kazan, Stan Kenton, and Charlie “Bird” Parker. Uptown, the lyric focuses almost entirely on gossip among the guests.

For the Landesmans, a culture – and especially a sub-culture – is defined by its parties.  In his second autobiography, Jay Walking, he describes who to invite to make a party a success:

“minimum of three potential celebrities (any field); a foolish couple; a serious couple… somebody who moves well (male of female); one beautiful Fascist (to confuse people)… no fat people, unless Robert Morley or Peter Ustinov… no crew cuts; a swinging accountant; two attractive lesbians; one international drug trafficker; a beautiful flawed couple; a gay [politician]; one colored TV personality… a forgotten cultural hero; the ex-wife of a world celebrity’ a pop singer no one recognizes’ a girl with buck teeth, a corrective shoe, or both…

 Name Dropping

            The Nervous Set also contains many references to actual people, places, and ideas that were well known among the early Beats, and in some cases, the mainstream society of the time, although many of them may be less well known today. Wassily Kandinsky was a famous avant-garde, abstract, “expressionist” Russian painter, who died in 1944. Norman Vincent Peale was a famous TV and radio Methodist minister and author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” He was one of the first to combine psychology and religion, in what we would think of today as New Age philosophy, promoting the idea of “visualization.”

            The Partisan Review was a left-wing magazine of American politics and culture, first published by the American Communist Party starting in 1934, but then in 1937 taken over by the non-Communist Left, and more recently published by Boston University, but shut down in 2003. The New Criticism was a theory of literary criticism developed after World War II which said that only the text itself is worth considering, not the author, his life, his intentions, other related sources, or even a reader’s reaction. This  viewpoint was all laid out in the book The New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom in 1941.

            The lyric “Sillman’s last review” refers to Leonard Sillman, the producer of many Broadway plays and revues, most famous for his series of sophisticated, intellectual revues that began with New Faces of 1934, and continued with other New Faces editions in 1936, 1943, 1958, 1962, and 1968. Birdland was a world renowned New York jazz club opened in 1949 and named for jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker. Walter Winchell was an incredibly powerful journalist who invented the gossip column. His column in the late 1940s and early 1950s ran in two thousand newspapers across the United States. The 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success is a thinly veiled exposé of Winchell’s power and ruthlessness.

            Die Drei-Groschen Oper is the German title of playwright-director Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill’s deliciously nasty political satire, the musical The Threepenny Opera, about corruption and greed at every level of society. Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, starred in the original German stage production and film as the whore Jenny. The show came to New York in the 1930s and was a complete flop. Later, it returned in the mid-1950s in a new translation by Marc Blitzstein (who had written The Cradle Will Rock) and Lenya played her original role off Broadway. When the story of The Nervous Set is set, in 1950, very few people would have been aware of the show, so Brad’s mention of it is probably either a stab at impressing Jan or testing her to see if she’s “in the know.” Or both.

            Henry James was a famous gay novelist and one of the best-known intellectuals in mid-nineteenth-century America. Scarsdale is an upper-class suburb of New York City. Elia Kazan (“Kadge” to his friends) was a famous stage and film director, particularly known for his collaborations with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Stan Kenton was a controversial (at the time), progressive jazz arranger and bandleader. Sheila Graham was a Hollywood gossip columnist on TV, radio, and in print from 1935 up through the 1960s. She was also the lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald later in his life. The movie Beloved Infidel, released in 1959, was based on her autobiography. Scott based a character on her in The Last Tycoon.

            The Tibetan Book of the Dead was originally published in 1927, and is basically a collection of Buddhist scriptures that offer significant insights into the psychology of death and dying, and suggests the importance of meditative practice and knowledge as tools for self-understanding. Timothy Leary later rewrote the book as a guide book for LSD trips, and called it The Psychedelic Experience.

            Lester Young was a famous jazz saxophonists and bandleader who died in 1959. Delmore Schwartz was a great but very controversial – and deeply troubled – American writer and poet. Benzedrine was a popular amphetamine among the Beats. The lyric “And screw Time magazine” refers to the fact that Time publisher Henry Luce tried to buy out Neurotica. The lyric “We volunteer to pull his daisy” refers to the first poem Jay Landesman published by Allen Ginsberg, “Pull My Daisy,” which he wrote with Jack Kerouac.

            Look magazine began in 1937, and according to the Library of Congress, “Originally designed as a tabloid-type publication, full of sensational coverage, the magazine shifted its focus after World War II under the influence of Fleur Cowles, the wife of the publisher. Advertised as a biweekly for the whole family, Look made a concerted effort to appeal to women, particularly in their roles as consumers. One expression of this effort was the regularly featured ‘For Women Only’ section, which highlighted consumer goods and services, frequently of the less conventional sort, such as women's spats and fur bikinis. As this suggests, the magazine blended the frivolous with the serious, not only covering fashion, food, celebrities, and popular culture, but also presenting more probing investigations of the civil rights struggle, health issues, and education.”

            It’s also interesting that the script makes a point of telling us that Brad drinks Pernod – the drink of choice for artists as wide ranging as Oscar Wilde, Picasso, Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, and poets Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. This licorice flavored liqueur contains 65-75% alcohol content and historically it has contained absinthe, a hallucinogen.  Throughout the ages, Bohemian artists have enjoyed Pernod, often poured over a cube of sugar into the glass.

Give My Regards to Broadway

            One of the secondary aims of The Nervous Set was to reject the conventions of Broadway, especially because most Broadway songs at the time (with the obvious exception of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work) expressed only the most superficial emotions. Mainstream show tunes had not yet matured to the point of expressing deep, complicated emotions, the kind of emotions portrayed in The Nervous Set. So to make that point, Fran wrote a lyric for the song “New York” that made numerous references to other famous New York songs, including Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan” (repeatedly) “Take the A Train,” “Broadway Melody,” “Broadway Rhythm,” “New York, New York” from On the Town, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and others, many of which are from the kind of mainstream musicals The Nervous Set is rejecting. The point was that just saying you love New York, just listing New York landmarks, means nothing. Those songs Fran invoked in her lyric said nothing about what makes New York unique, or about why people – especially artists – flock to the Big Apple from all parts of the world.

            Likewise, in the song “What’s to Lose?”, Fran made the same point, though less acerbically. In the show, Brad and Jan have just met and yet here they are singing a love song to each other. That, in and of itself, was commentary on the silliness of past musicals. But Fran’s lyric, once again, made references to other songs, including “Taking a Chance on Love,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “Ridin’ High,” and lots of other love songs about stars, sweet love, and hills full of flowers. The interesting thing in this case is that the characters themselves know how silly they’re being, and so the song becomes charmingly self-mocking, not just from the point of view of the writers but the characters as well. That’s something writers would do later on in musicals, but it was utterly new in 1959.

Gaslight Square

The Nervous Set was created in a very special entertainment district in St. Louis called Gaslight Square, where Jay and Fran Landesman ran a very special club-restaurant-theatre called the Crystal Palace, so called because it was filled to overflowing with a bizarre and thrilling assortment of chandeliers, stained glass windows and other antiques, all from the Landesman’s family antique business. Time magazine wrote during the heyday of Gaslight Square, “St. Louis finally has a place to go at night and the place is Gaslight Square. A three-block oasis of nostalgic frivolity where some fifty gaudily atmospheric taverns, cabarets, restaurants and antique shops are packed together in fine, fin de siecle jumble, it combines a sort of Disneyland quaintness with the gaiety of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and the innocent naughtiness of Gay Nineties beerhalls.”

According to the Jazz-by-Mail website

Basically built around the theme of St. Louis famed Riverboat and Gaslight era, the Square included a world-wide assortment of brilliantly designed spots. There were art galleries, theater productions, antique stores, night clubs, bistros, coffee houses, international cuisine, comedy , music of every style, oriental rug shops, bars, books, and people. There were entertainers, the artsy crowd, Beatniks and bohemians. Later came the hippies and flower children, the permanent and transient residents, the suburbanite visitor, the tourist from around the world. On April 17, 1961, the Smothers Brothers opened in a revue at the Crystal Palace. Second on the bill was an 18-year-old singer named Barbara Streisand. The Landesmans, who had moved the Palace to the Square in the fall of 1958, had a fine sense for finding obscure performers with talent, particularly off-beat comedians. Woody Allen played the Palace, as did Lenny Bruce, Phyllis Diller, Alan Arkin, George Carlin, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara, Pat McCormick and Dick Gregory. In the same period, the Landesmans were presenting plays by the avant-garde – Beckett, Albee, Osborne – and giving St. Louis actors a showcase. Elsewhere, at one time or another, there was Judy Collins at the Laughing Buddha, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry at the Everyman Coffee House, Miles Davis at Jorge's. There were elegant restaurants and kosher delicatessens, a repertory theater, coffee houses where you played chess, bars where you sang along, or brought your guitar and sang alone. There was briefly, a local newspaper, there were several unofficial mayors, there were a lot of Beatniks (and later, some people said, too many hippies), a boiled-shrimp vendor named Seventeen, a bartender who spouted Shakespearean invective, Ernie Trova painting to the blues and Allen Ginsberg reading to jazz.

It was a very unusual place to live, work, and play. It was at the Crystal Palace that Fran Landesman and house music director Tommy Wolf began writing songs together, mostly about Fran’s life with Jay. Then when the Compass Players came to the Palace, their director Theodore Flicker suggested that Jay, Fran, and Tommy write a musical, and The Nervous Set was born.


Copyright 2003. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming (though still hopelessly untitled) book on musical theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.