November 7, 2014

Scrapped musical comedy by Joseph Heller is just as wild as it sounds


howeWhat creative projects do authors set aside when they don’t have to write weird shit for cash anymore? In the case of Joseph Heller, the answer is a secret musical comedy, one he made an effort to hide the rest of his life.

Edmund Richardson has chronicled the life of Heller’s musical for Hazlitt, who has tracked down a considerable portion of the script. It’s the story of a crooked New York law firm, Howe & Hummel, who operate in a world of questionable ethics, where no one can get ahead without stealing or lying. This was ripe comedy in New York at the time.

Heller didn’t grow up rich. He was raised by a poor widow in Coney Island, Brooklyn. He was drafted and served in Corsica; at the end of his service, he headed to college and eventually Oxford, on a Fulbright. It took him nine years to write Catch-22, which didn’t take off commercially in its first months on shelves, and he needed to make a living. He was offered a job writing the musical for composer Harold Rome, which seemed like a perfect gig to supplement his writing.

Hired for the musical in 1962, Heller was a young, grateful writer who thought the play had struck gold, as he wrote to the producer in March, 1963:

My spirits are soaring with confidence. It seems, to my taste, at least, as funny a script as I have ever read. I don’t think there is a single scene that does not have at least something valuable in the way of comedy and irony, and there is not one love story, but three! (Don’t make me list them.) …. [Howe &Hummel is going to be] monstrously successful. I just hope I haven’t jinxed the damned thing with this letter.

He did jinx the damned thing, though it wasn’t his letter. It was his book: Catch-22 made him famous. Though it had been published the previous year, it became a blockbuster in 1963. Today, as you know, it’s sold over ten million copies. Heller, newly minted as a famous writer, headed to the West Coast to work on Sex and the Single Girl. The producer and composer were furious.

They’d signed contracts in June, but no one in New York was interested in producing the play after Heller defected to Beverly Hills. He soon shed the deal and turned his attention to writing his second book, Something Happened. And he made $2 million for his third book, Good as Gold, which was published in 1979.

After he became rich and famous, Heller seemed to be covering his tracks in the world of musical theater. Richardson explains:

In subsequent years, Heller would rewrite reality as artfully as “Howe and Hummel,” and erase “Howe & Hummel” from his life. His autobiography spares not a word for the project he devoted so many months to. Scholars and biographers have followed his cues. The script as Heller left it oscillates between stiletto-sharp drama and a draft’s uncertainty, yet its strengths drown out its weaknesses. “Howe & Hummel” could have been the triumph that Heller dreamed of. But the closest he ever came to acknowledging its existence was when he remarked to George Plimpton that once, “I started a musical comedy.”

Only two copies of the musical survive today, among the composer’s personal papers. No readings have been given, and the script was never published.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.