The Jazz Age
In 1901, a cap manufacturer named Ralph Raphaelson who lived on the Lower East Side in New York City received a business offer he couldn’t refuse. It required he relocate to Denver, and such a move required money, which Ralph didn’t have much of at the time. His parents did, and they offered to lend their son the necessary funds on one condition: Ralph’s five-year-old son, Samson, must stay at home with his grandparents.
Ralph and his wife, Anna, packed up and headed for Denver, eventually settling in Chicago. Samson lived with his grandparents on the Lower East Side until he was 13 and decided it was time to be with Mom and Dad again. After high school, he took a job at Sears, saving up for college and writing short stories at night. An encouraging rejection letter from American Magazine inspired Raphaelson to enter Illinois Institute of Technology, where he crammed two years of work as an English major into his freshman year.
In 1917, just as the age of jazz was picking up steam, Raphaelson headed to Champagne, Illinois, to see the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. Its star was a 37-year-old singer named Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface. To Samson, Jolson’s performance, particularly “his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song,” felt shockingly familiar. “When he finished I turned to the girl beside me, dazed with memories of my childhood on the East Side, and thought, ‘My God, this isn’t a jazz singer. This is a cantor!’”
In 1922, Raphaelson would spin this revelation into “The Day of Atonement,” a short story first published in Everybody’s Magazine. Based on Jolson’s life, it followed Jakie Rabinowitz, a young Jew living on the Lower East Side who goes against his parents’ wishes—to use “the voice that God gave him” as cantor at the local synagogue—and instead becomes a jazz star named Jack Robin.
Three years later, Raphaelson rewrote the story as a play, The Jazz Singer, which opened on Broadway at the Fulton Theatre on September 14, 1925. It played the last of its 303 performances in June 1926, just as Warner Bros. had acquired the movie rights.
Youth and Success
The first feature-length motion picture that incorporated “synchronized dialogue sequences” i.e. the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer was eventually remade twice, yet its historical significance has less to do with Hollywood than with the American experience overall. The image of Jolson singing “My Mammy” in blackface still inspires discourse and disgust in equal measure. Raphaelson himself admitted the movie was overly sentimental and somewhat embarrassing. In the end, The Jazz Singer ranked as one of his lesser artistic accomplishments.
Raphaelson’s career went into full tilt in the 1930s, when he juggled Broadway comedies such as Young Love, The Wooden Slipper and Accent on Youth with a burgeoning career as a screenwriter, collaborating on director Ernst Lubitsch on nine films, including Heaven Can Wait and The Shop Around the Corner. Based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie, Shop later inspired a film musical, In the Good Old Summertime, a beloved Broadway musical, She Loves Me, and a contemporary comedy, You’ve Got Mail. Collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock, he wrote what he later called his best screenplay, Suspicion, in 1941.
For several years in the 1930s, Raphaelson lived the Hollywood life in a mansion complete with a butler—rather like leading character Steven Gaye’s loyal manservant Flogdell in Accent on Youth, which opened on Broadway on Christmas Day 1934. Set in the fictional Gaye’s Manhattan penthouse apartment, the play presents him as an aging playwright who falls in love with his young secretary, only to watch her be courted by a younger leading man.
In what sounds like a description of Gaye’s relationship with his paramour Susan currently being played on Broadway by Mary Catherine Garrison, Raphaelson wrote in 1935, “When you’re writing for the stage, you have to pay your own secretary. When you’re writing for the screen, there are blondes, brunettes, redheads— there’s even a mimeographing department—and you and she never talk about money.” This cheeky comment didn’t reflect Raphaelson’s own life: He eloped with Ziegfeld Girl Dorothy Wegman in 1927 and they remained married until his death 56 years later in 1983. She lived another 22 years and died less than a month shy of her 101st birthday.
The original Broadway production of Accent on Youth played for 229 performances at the Plymouth now Schoenfeld Theatre starring Nicholas Hannen as Steven and Constance Cummings as Linda. The film version, released in 1935, featured Herbert Marshall as Steven and Sylvia Sidney as Susan.
He Happened to Like New York
In spite of Raphaelson’s enviable movie success, something was missing, as the old story goes. “The moment I began to worry as to whether I’d get a certain contract I wanted— and if I didn’t, how was I to keep up with the scale of unaccustomed magnificence in which I was living—then I knew I had to make the break, and fast.” It was time to return to his hometown.
The playwright who once joked, “You get sinus trouble in New York,” slipped back into Manhattan life like it was an old sneaker. He produced a still-relevant how-to book, The Human Nature of Playwriting, and taught screenwriting at Columbia University from 1976 until 1982. He and Dorothy divided their time between a city apartment and a home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
While being profiled for an episode of Creativity with Bill Moyers in 1982, Raphaelson declared, “I am a better craftsman than Eugene O’Neill, no comparison. Than Tennessee Williams, no comparison. But they’re much better playwrights than I am.” Lest anyone mistake his remark for egotism, he went on to explain that his happy life was a handicap: “Their life, in both cases, feed, marvelously, into their plays. Their tragedies are part of the tragedies that they write. And Tennessee Williams writes one marvelous and [one] bad play after another, which, if he sat down with me for two hours, I could do miracles on. But I’d never be as good as the guy who wrote it.”
Accent on Broadway
Unproduced on Broadway since the short-lived 1950 drama Hilda Crane, Raphaelson is known today mostly for his film collaborations with Lubitsch. But Daniel Sullivan, the Tony Award-winning director of Proof, The Heidi Chronicles, Stuff Happens and Rabbit Hole, had never forgotten about Accent on Youth. “It’s a very sophisticated comedy,” he says, “certainly for its time. In the mid-30s, a lot of Americans weren’t writing in such a highly elegant style.”
Something about the story of a 50ish playwright’s romantic dilemma clicked with Sullivan, and he persevered in talking up a new production of Accent on Youth. But who could play Steven Gaye? Sullivan was stumped. “We put the production off for years, just because I couldn’t figure out what kind of actor would be right for this role,” he recalls. “Then someone mentioned David Hyde Pierce, and I thought, ‘That’s how you do it.’ It was a light bulb moment.”
Pierce connected with the role on a number of levels. “It’s kind of a leading-man part, but with a lot of foibles,” the Tony-winning actor says. “I thought he was a wonderfully complicated, slightly arrogant and interesting character.” Not to mention Gaye frequently talks of his recent 50th birthday. “I turned 50 this year,” Pierce offers, adding with a laugh, “so I consider this play to be a tragedy. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but I find the whole thing really depressing.”
In addition to Mary Catherine Garrison as Susan, Sullivan’s production features David Furr as the handsome if not-so-charismatic actor who woos her and Charles Kimbrough of Broadway’s Company and TV’s Murphy Brown as Flogdell, Gaye’s omnipresent butler.
“I look at it as a sort of lost gem,” Sullivan says of the play. “Or a jewel that was sitting at the bottom of the jewel box that you forgot was there. I just hope it’ll help people recognize that Raphaelson was an important writer of the 20th century.”