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THE NERVOUS SET

Many times, I've traveled thousands of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to see obscure musicals, but catching The Nervous Set at New Line turned out to be the most valuable theatrical pilgrimage I've ever made. –  Peter Filichia, TheaterMania.com

THE NERVOUS SET, the intensely cool, hopelessly hip jazz musical about the Beat Generation, opened exactly 45 years after the original. It's a show that is a part of St. Louis history, originally written by St. Louisans Jay and Fran Landesman, jazz composer Tommy Wolf, and director Theodore Flicker. It was first produced at the Crystal Palace in the legendary Gaslight Square entertainment district in 1959, before moving to Broadway. With a story based on actual events, and characters based on the Landesmans, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat writers, The Nervous Set takes place in New York City in 1950 and focuses on the personal life of the editor of an off-beat literary magazine and his wife. The show follows their attempts to find meaning and love in a society they find discontented -- or overly contented to the point of dullness -- as the action moves from Greenwich Village to Connecticut to New York's swanky Upper West Side. The Nervous Set took a sharp left turn from the 1950s musical comedy norm, discarding dance and big, expensive sets, replacing the usual Broadway orchestra with an onstage jazz quartet, pushing cute sentimentality aside for the brittle wit and weary sophistication of the Beat Generation. The New York Daily News called the show "the most brilliant, sophisticated, witty and completely novel production of the past decade." Several of the show's songs have gone to become international jazz standards, including the haunting "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men."

The Nervous Set explores the origins of the Beats, a generation of young people in post-World War II, pre-Vietnam America, swimming in disillusioned angst and apathy. The show is funny, biting, outrageous, despairing, and brilliantly witty. But more than that, it's truthful -- a clear-eyed 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's 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 cultural giants. 

Kerouac 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.” The show is set at a thrilling moment in American culture -- at the same time that Kerouac was changging 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. 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 taboo themes of faith, intolerance, depression, loneliness, cruelty, and despair. Also in 1950, Aldous Huxley, who had written the revolutionary novel Brave New World years earlier, was taking mescaline for the first time, and he wrote The Doors of Perception, starting (or re-starting) America's drug culture. America, the bland land of conformity was being turned upside-down -- and now we can revisit that amazing time with The Nervous Set.

Want to explore more? We recommend:

The original Broadway cast album, and recordings related to The Nervous Set

Jay Landesman's entertaining autobiography Rebel Without Applause, which contains many of the actual people and events that are fictionalized in The Nervous Set

Director Scott Miller's background notes on The Nervous Set

New Line's cast on the radio -- on KDHX's "Break a Leg" and on KWMU's "CityScape"

Author Fran Landesman's official website, with biographies of Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf. And a bio of Jay Landesman.

A bio and links for Jack Kerouac (the real life model for the character of Bummy in The Nervous Set); a bio and links for Allen Ginsberg (the model for the character Danny); and the article "The Sovereign of Smut" about Gershon Legman (the model for the character Yogi) 

"Behind the Beat," an article about Neurotica, the real magazine that became the fictional Nerves in The Nervous Set

The 1952 New York Times Magazine article, "This is the Beat Generation" by Beat writer John Clellon Holmes

The Beatland website, and some interesting "Beat" links, including The Beat Page, Beat Generation News, The Beat Generation Archives

David Halberstam's excellent book The Fifties, chronicling the decade that gave birth to The Nervous Set

A great background article on Gaslight Square, where The Nervous Set premiered, and the official Gaslight Square website. Also, The Legend of Gaslight Square

The cast of New Line's The Nervous Set included Jeffrey Pruett (Brad), Kirstin Kennedy (Jan), Thom Crain (Yogi), Michael Deak (Bummy), Nicholas Kelly (Danny), Danna Dockery (Sari), Mark Moloney (Max),  Isaac Bondurant, Josh Goldwasser, Sarah Lynn Griffin, Rich Ives, Susan Arnold Marks, and Leah Schumacher

Poster designed by New Line resident designer, Kris Wright.

    

The Crystal Palace, where The Nervous Set first debuted.

  

The Crystal Palace (inside)

 

The Crystal Palace (outside)

 

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