Dude - An $800,000 Disaster.  Where Did They Go Wrong?
by Patricia Bosworth
The New York Times - October 22, 1972

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Right after the opening night performance of Dude - which may go down in theatrical history as Broadway's most monumental disaster - its author, Gerome Ragni, huddled in a taxi clutching his 7-year-old son, Eric, to his bosom.

He kept rocking the little buy back and forth, chanting "Nureyev loved it, booboo, Nureyev loved Dude.  He told me."

Nobody else in the taxi responded so Ragni continued, "An' John Huston was there an' Ed Sullivan an' Lennie Lyons..."

He smiled.  It was the same eager, goofy grin he'd worn all during those frenzied weeks before Dude's opening - when the original director, choreographer and costume designer were fired, when the exhausted cast threatened insurrection and the producers swore they would close the show unless ragni wrote a second act.

Ragni's battered clown grin has been a kind of trademark - along with his tangled Medusa locks.  He used them both to supreme advantage in "Hair", the fabulously successful "love-rock" musical which he co-authored and performed in and which turned him into a millionaire.  It also inspired him to write Dude.

So he kept that grin tight across his cheeks until the taxi pulled up to the opening night party at Tavern On The Green.  Then his expression changed to anguish.  "The critics are going to destroy my musical," he prophesied.  "The critics won't understand what I'm trying to do."

Weeks before the show went into rehearsal, even the people most closely associated with Dude couldn't understand what ragni wanted to do.  They began expressing their worries, often after pre-production meetings.  The talk invariably came back to his book.

"It was chaotic, disorganized," said a production associate who prefers to remain nameless.  "We kept telling each other "Hair" had no plot either.  Finally we convinced ourselves 'Dude' would be the son of 'Hair'".

"The songs were great but the script remained a mass of undoable nonsense," said actor William Renfield, one of Dude's stars.  "I'm very fond of Ragni, but the truth must be told."

"I never knew who Dude was," confided composer Galt MacDermot who wrote the music for the show as well as for "Hair" and "Two gentlemen of Verona".  "Early on I accepted Dude was a totally illogical musical.  But you know what?  I liked that!"

Ragni described Dude as an "Off Broadway Broadway show."  He said as much in January 1972, when he and MacDermot dropped by peter Holzer's east side townhouse lugging the 2,000 page manuscript of Dude.

Holzer, a 44-year-old shipping tycoon, is president of American Transport Inc., his red-haired Spanish-born wife, Adela, has big land holdings in Spain, South America and the Orient.  Together they were principal backers of "Sleuth" and "Lenny".  Earlier their $50,000 investment in "Hair" had earned them a $2-million profit.

Now they wanted to produce a Broadway show.  As soon as they heard the creators of "Hair" had a new musical, they investigated.

Ragni had been laboring over "Dude" - subtitled "the highway life" - since 1968.  Friends say he carried  bulging "Dude" notebooks everywhere and scribbled dialogue and lyrics in them between meals at Max's Kansas City.

"We first discussed 'Dude' after the L.A. opening of 'Hair'" MacDermot recalled.  "But we didn't start working together until I finished composing 'Two Gents'.  In the fall of '71 Gerry and I collaborated on 50 songs."

That night last January at the Holzers, MacDermot sang most of those numbers, accompanying himself on an antique spinet.  His small audience loved the score.  "It was exciting, brilliant," Adela Holzer recalled.  "It combined Broadway tunes, jazz, rock, country and western, even soul."

She and her husband were also intrigued with Ragni's concept for the physical production.  He wanted to have the interior of the Shubert Theater scooped out and turned into a free-wheeling environmental theater in the round which would represent heaven and hell.

The Holzers were interested in everything about the musical except the prospect of sifting through the unwieldy script.  So they offered Ragni a room and a secretary in their offices and for the next month he worked there, cutting the 2,000 pages down to 200.

"Then I read it and responded," said Mrs. Holzer.  "Although it had no plot line.  That worried me a little.  I see now it should have worried me more.  Basically 'Dude' was everyman.  Everyman who loses his innocence and fights to regain it.  But 'Dude' was also Gerry Ragni's own life.  His memories. Temptations.  His fears.  His struggle to create.  He's one of 10 children from a poor Italian family in Pittsburgh, you know.  When he was 5 years old, he began painting crazy beautiful pictures all over the walls of his family's house and his parents couldn't stop him.  Even then he believed he was a genius.  That belief has made him tireless.

"I knew 'Hair' was a traumatic experience for him.  He became famous - a rich man.  But his marriage broke up and he fell in with a strange crowd.  This was all spelled out in 'Dude'.  Although names were not named, a lot of the dialogue had angry personal references to Mike Butler (producer of 'Hair'), and James Rado ('Hair's' co-author).  He described how he felt when he and Rado were arrested after walking nude down the aisle during a performance of 'Hair'.  Gerry's basically a very conservative person.  The first question he ever asked me was 'Do you smoke pot?' He seemed relieved when I said no."

In April, 1972, the Holzers optioned "Dude".  They decided to open early this fall - mainly because Ragni had asked them to.  The production was budgeted at approximately $800,000, toward which Columbia Records put up $100,000.

"After raising $300,000 we put in around $400,000 of our own money," mrs. Holzer admitted.  "It was hard to get investors for 'Dude' because the show sounded pretty experimental.  Some of our friends got cold feet."

Understandably.  Ragni's grandiose scheme for reconstructing the Shubert theater - and it had to be the Shubert - would cost $110,000.  Nevertheless the Holzers went about arranging this with good natured enthusiasm.  negotiations took weeks.  Finally, after agreeing on terms which included the cost of restoring the theater to its original dimensions when "Dude" closed, Mrs. Holzer phoned Ragni crying, "We got the Shubert!"  His reply: "Now I want the Imperial."

Mrs. Holzer was unable to find out why he changed his mind.

Since "Pippin" was already booked into the Imperial, the Holzers eventually settled on the Broadway, the biggest house in the theatrical district, and considered a "death house" by many performers because so many flops have originated there.

For a while there was a delay in getting a permit from the city to reconstruct the interior of the theater until Ragni personally phoned Mary Lindsay and asked her to put a rush on it.  In July, architect Leslie Cortesi and set designer Eugene Lee began work on the job of reconstruction.  The seats in the orchestra floor of the Broadway were torn out.  The action of "Dude" would take place in a circus-like arena in the center of the auditorium, with the audience sitting on all sides of the action.

Meanwhile, the Holzers were trying to get Peter Brook or Tom O'Horgan to direct, but both were unavailable.  So Rocco Bufano was signed.  Bufano had done some Off-Broadway shows but never any on Broadway.  "His inexperience worried me," Mrs. Holzer said, "but he was charming and a good friend of Gerry's.  He seemed to understand Gerry's vision for 'Dude' and this was vitally important."

Bufano hired modern dancer Louis Falco as choreographer.  The title role of "Dude" was to be played by Kevin Geer, also a close friend of Ragni's.  Geer's muscular back still adorns the "Dude" display ads and posters.

With the exception of Michael Dunn, Bill Redfield, and rae Allen, the 33-member cast consisted mainly of refugees from "Hair" as well as "Jesus Christ Superstar".  In August, the company went into rehearsal at the Ukrainian national Home on east 9th Street.

The Holzers soon realized that Geer couldn't sing - "He's probably a trained actor but this was the major singing role."  They insisted he be replaced.  Ragni exploded and disappeared into his rooms at the Chelsea.

Eventually the producers and Bufano convinced him a singer was essential.  However, nobody quite remembers how they decided on 11-year-old Ralph Carter (who is black) to replace 23-year-old Geer (who is white).  After more rehearsing, they realized that Carter could never sing numbers meant for the mature Dude.  So singer Nat Morris was hired to play what was henceforth called "big Dude".

By this time Allan Nicholls, a talented Canadian rock singer who had made a strong impression last season in "Inner City", was brought in to play "33", a God-like figure in "Dude".  Ragni, who says he is 33, had written "33" for himself.  But the producers reminded him he had too much writing and rewriting to do.  There was still no real second act.

Still he yearned to play "33", particularly on opening night.  He kept reminding Nicholls of this until the rock singer told him quietly, "If you want to play '33' so much, Gerry, why the ..... don't you?"  This silenced him momentarily.

During most of the rehearsals, choreographer Falco concentrated on movement.  "It was like the decathlon," Redfield said.  "We sprinted, we climbed, we tumbled, we ran.  God, how we ran!  I thought i was going to have a heart attack.  We also rehearsed a lot of the musical numbers but the show was never completely blocked.  And we didn't dare discuss the script.  How could we?  There was none."

By the forth week of rehearsal, the producers, director, cast and choreographer had stopped communicating," said Nicholls.  "And Bufano couldn't control anybody - least of all Gerry."

The burly Ragni would not complete the necessary work on the book.  Instead, he conferred with his sister, Irene Ragni, who sat in on most of the rehearsals, recording the actors' gripes on a small tape recorder.  He also made demands, phoning Adela Holzer at 2 A.M. to say he wanted a hundred butterflies let loose into the audience before each performance.  No?  Well then what about having a couple of oinking pigs and chickens run down the aisle at intermission?

Once inside the Broadway Theater, technical problems arose.  At the first run through, the stage, filled with two tons of top soil, filthied the actors and dumped dirt on everybody sitting in the first ten rows.  People sneezed from the dust fumes;  clouds of dirt rose into the air making, it difficult to see.

At the second run through, the stage was watered down.  Naturally, the dirt turned into mud.  "Actors will do anything to get ahead, but this was too much," Renfield said.  "We phoned Equity and threatened insurrection."  Eventually the stage was filled with thousands of brown felt scraps to simulate dirt.  But the felt went, too, to be replaced by plastic.

Then Bufano called a company meeting which turned into a therapy session.  "We became hysterical," Redfield continued, "and released all our hostilities about the show, our fears. 'When was Gerry going to write some new dialogue?' we screamed.  Later we began yelling about our careers and what the theatre meant to us and what life on earth meant to us..."

Ragni's sister taped the proceedings and Ragni ultimately inserted some of the confessionals into the show.  Michael Alpert, "Dude's" beleaguered press agent, recalls, "I came to a performance and suddenly Michael Dunn is giving this dramatic monologue about what it means to be a dwarf and an artist and I think, 'Where did that come from?' I asked Gerry and he just smiled."

The confessionals were subsequently dropped from the show as were Ragni's personal references to "Hair".

At the first preview on September 11, "the audience wanted to kill," according to Bill Redfield.  "They kept yelling 'rip-off!'  Worst of all, they could neither hear, nor understand us."

The acoustical problems at the Broadway were caused by the placement of the musicians - another Ragni brainstorm.  One full orchestra clustered in a balcony high above stage left.  A country and western band stood on a ramp stage right.  Musical director Thomas Pierson conducted from a seat which jutted out some 100 feet above the audience's heads.

In performance, the score - melodic and driving though it was - simply melted into the air.  The sound had nowhere to bounce.

Ultimately, engineers from M.I.T. tried to solve the problem by draping one wall of the theater with heavy velvet.  They also brought in so much electronic equipment the set began to look like a recording studio.  All the actors wore portable mikes and had batteries (to run them) strapped inside their costumes.  And still the audience had difficulty hearing the lyrics.

By the third preview, "Dude" seemed a shambles.  At this point, Bufano and Falco bowed out and the controversial Tom O'Horgan, who had directed "Hair" and "JC Superstar", took over.  He could only stay with the show three weeks because he had to direct a Dory Previn TV special in Hollywood October 11.  But he believed he could save "Dude".

The cast rallied as soon as the ponytailed O'Horgan appeared.  "The audience thirsts for a story in 'Dude'," he told them.  "For one tiny thread to connect your gorgeous songs.  We're going to make connections and enjoy ourselves while we're doing it."

Previews were shut down and the company went back into rehearsal with renewed energy.  O'Horgan ordered new sets and costumes, and he let Michael Dunn go "because his talents were being wasted."  he also abolished the show's semi-nudity.  The actors now wore flesh-colored longjohns.

In the following days, O'Horgan's gaudy theatrical stamp came down on everything.  From the trapdoor he ordered built in the stage so that little Dude could spring up as if emerging from rae Allen's womb, to the hole gouged in the theater's ceiling so that "33" could be resurrected on a trapeze and swing majestically into heaven.

But the flamboyant visual effects were not enough.  Ragni would not come up with the necessary rewrites to make the book intelligible.  The first act held - but just barely.  Act Two was still in chaos.

Finally, O'Horgan met secretly with the producers and principal actors.  he told them despairingly, "I cannot get Gerry to make any crucial decisions.  I just want to run.  What shall I do?"

They decided to go to Ragni in a body and give him an ultimatum: Either he rewrite certain key scenes or the show would close.
"Gerry creates best under this kind of pressure," Adela Holzer said.  "I think he realized we meant what we said."

Even so, Renfield and Rae Allen (who played Adam and Eve) were forced to write some of their own dialogue.  "We had to.  It was either write it or stand mute in the confusion."

Suddenly another problem arose.  One of Gerry's brothers began attending rehearsals.  Richard Ragni is a priest but he was in mufti so nobody paid any attention to him until his spiritual ideas were relayed to Tom O'Horgan.

A supposed authority on Catholic dogma, Richard believed "Dude" should contain more religious overtones.  O'Horgan rejected his suggestions but Richard continued to barrage the production staff with religious ideas.  he was finally barred from the theater.

"Dude wasn't frozen until two nights before opening.  The cast performed, rehearsed, tried on new costumes and attempted to memorize the new lines Ragni was scribbling in his notebook.  Numbers in the first act were shifted to Act Two.  Other numbers were dropped one night, only to be put back in the next.  An accurate program could never be printed.

However, by the last preview on October 8, a great improvement was seen by those who'd followed the show since its inception.  Now it moved with energy and joy and there was s definite flow between songs.  But the audience still complained it made no sense:  "It was entertaining sometimes, yes.  The music was great, yes.  But what's 'Dude' all about?"

Critics asked the same question and drew harsh conclusions.  Arriving at the party at the Tavern On The Green, Ragni, the Holzers, their angels and actors watched the reviews come in on TV - all of them devastating.  And the morning papers were no better.  Described as "boring", "infantile", "shapeless", and "Much ado about nothing," this eagerly awaited musical took in only $500 at the box office the day after its premiere.

The Holzers were angry at the critics, insisting they were "very unfair".  "It's an audience show," they said.  "Audiences love it.  Word of mouth is terrific."

They took out a brave ad, announcing "tickets on sale until January 6, 1973" - a sign that they meant to fight.  But last Monday night, as "Dude" started its second week, they put up the closing notice backstage.  At press time, the show was scheduled to close last night after 16 performances - a loss of $800,000, and some say it may be a million.

The Holzers say they are finished with the theater forever.  "The broadway system is a lousy system," Peter Holzer observed bitterly.  "A bunch of stone faced old men should not have the right to make up the public's mind."

"It's a shame the Holzers are through with the theater," said george Thorn, a general manager of "Dude".  "They believed in 'Dude' and they were committed to sticking with it.  To making it work.  The theater needs people like that."

"When an innovative musical like 'Dude fails, it makes it 95 per cent more difficult to get fresh experimental stuff on," Tom O'Horgan said.  "'dude' was different - but it was a good show.  It's very depressing."

And what of Gerry Ragni?  Attempts to interview him were unsuccessful.  But two days after the opening, he was running backstage at the Broadway theater with that eager, goofy grin on his face.

He could be heard assuring everyone, "We're gonna make it, booboos!  This little show is gonna make it!"

Copyright The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

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