Sunday, September 13, 2020

343. THE ME NOBODY KNOWS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Hattie Winston, Carl Thoma.

THE ME NOBODY KNOWS [Musical/Crime/Drugs/Race/Youth] B: Stephen M. Joseph, Robert H. Livingston, and Herb Schapiro; M: Gary William Friedman; LY: Will Holt; SC: Stephen M. Joseph’s book The Me Nobody Knows; D: Robert H. Livingson; CH: Patricia Birch; S/L: Clarke Dunham; C: Patricia Quinn Stuart; P: Jeff Britton i/a/w Sagittarius Productions; T: Orpheum Theatre; 5/18/70; Helen Hayes Theatre; 12/18/70-11/21/71 (586; comprising 208 performances OB at the Orpheum Theatre and 378 on Broadway at the Hayes)

Douglas Grant, Northern J. Calloway.

This much admired show had opened Off Broadway on May 18, 1970 (counted here as part of the 1969-1970 season), but was shut down on November 15, 1970, when Equity went on strike. When it reopened on December 18, 1970, it was at Broadway’s intimate Helen Hayes Theatre. One of the many “bookless” musicals produced in the 70s, The Me Nobody Knows was based on poetry and prose composed by New York City ghetto children and collected in a volume edited by a young teacher. 

The material was fashioned into a loosely connected series of musical numbers, all of which deal with the problems and aspirations of underprivileged youth, black and white. A dozen performers (eight of them black and Latino), ranging in age from seven to 18, presented the spirited, rowdy, and often extremely touching material with great skill and energy. Drugs, poverty, crime, and violence dominated the subject matter of their songs.

Beverly Ann Bremers, Jose Fernandez.

The critics were mostly on the kids' side. Clive Barnes wrote, “I loved its understanding and compassion and I felt its pain and yet also its unsentimental determination for hope.” He also loved the “eloquent” music, and the “tersely apt yet poetic” lyrics. John J. O’Connor raved about the ‘refreshingly contemporary score . . . ranging in style from soft ballad to hand-clapping spiritual, from raucous rock to classical fugue.”

Several reviewers found the work unoriginal, however, and incapable of sustaining interest for two hours. Martin Gottfried complained that it was “empty,” “a bummer,” “coy,” and over-cute, revealing none of the anguish beneath the writing. Audiences, however, went with the more positive opinions and turned the show into a hit. The present writer liked it well enough to listen to its album for years.

Among the songs are “Dream Babies,” “Light Sings,” “This World,” “I Love What the Girls Have,” “If I Had a Million Dollars,” “Jail-Life Walk,” “Black,” “The Horse,” and “War Babies.”

The company at the Hayes included Melanie Henderson, Irene Cara, Hattie Winston, Douglas Grant, Beverly Ann Bremers, Northern J. Calloway, Jose Fernandez, and Carl Thoma, several of whom had continuing stage careers. An understudy who became more successful than any of the regular cast was Giancarlo Esposito. 

The Me Nobody Knows earned five Tony nominations, for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, and Best Lyrics, as well as a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award.