Every independent theater producer dreams of mounting a landmark show that will confound the industry and put him in the record books. Philip Rose lived the dream with his first show. “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on March 11, 1959, made history as the first Broadway production of a work by a black playwright (Lorraine Hansberry, who made an additional mark as Broadway’s first black female playwright); the first show to be staged by a black director (Lloyd Richards); and the first work in a movement to bring the black experience to Broadway.
In his pleased-as-punch memoir, Rose relives the trials and triumphs of producing this milestone production, which began with a casual promise to read a friend’s play and an impulsive decision to produce it. As a young man, just starting out in the music business as a singer and record producer, he hadn’t the slightest notion of how to sell a play, let alone one with a contemporary black perspective on racial issues, to the Broadway theater establishment. “I was ready to put out a shingle saying, ‘Philip Rose, Producer,’ and to respond to the many calls which would undoubtedly come in from eager investors, actors, directors, theater owners,” he writes. “I did realize it might take me a few weeks to accomplish all this.”
Despite a rocky narrative start, in which Rose struggles to keep the show’s production history at bay while he fills in some autobiographical details, the book is at its most disarming in these awkward early chapters.
Remembering a time when he was young, liberal and passionate about black music and poetry, Rose writes with true feeling about the friends he made at Harlem music clubs and in racially integrated settings like Camp Unity, the summer camp where he first met Hansberry and forged the friendship that he still cherishes. If feeling were all, his dear friend would never have died at 34 — or married Robert Nemiroff, who, in Rose’s sorrowing view, exploited her talent and sabotaged their friendship.
By comparison, Rose’s recollections of his working relationships with other theatrical figures — from intimates like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis to adversaries like Kermit Bloomgarden — are much thinner, more anecdotal. He is quite eloquent, though, in expressing his attachment to the shows he’s produced and his commitment to the political values they represent to him. Writing of his decision to cast Alan Alda and Diana Sands as lovers in “The Owl and the Pussycat,” he declares himself “a strong advocate of affirmative action” on the issue of nontraditional casting. It gives him great satisfaction when Walter Kerr’s review of “Purlie” acknowledges, however critically, his intention “to become more militant and serious about our country’s racism.” And he takes pride in pointing out that “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie” (which starred a kid named Al Pacino who “almost frightened us out of the theater with his intensity”) dealt with its drug-dependent characters “as complex human beings rather than as stereotypical drug addicts.”
Although the real meat of this memoir is the backstory on “Raisin,” it’s nice to be reminded of a time when independent producers like Philip Rose were the backbone of Broadway. Back in the days when they still did it for love — and on principle.
Marilyn Stasio is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review.