There are all kinds of dead ends.
There’s the “Dead End” from Sidney Kingsley’s famous 1935 Broadway play, an east side slum where kids run amok and criminals (“Baby Face” Martin was played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1937 film version) are hiding.
Or as the kids in the room would say: “loik”.
There’s the Hollywood impasse, where Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell and other “Dead End Kids” of stage production migrated to make the 1937 film, then stayed to star in a bunch of flashy but entertaining comedies where they were billed – until their late thirties – as “The East Side Kids” and “The Bowery Boys”.
And there’s the repeated stalemate of composer Neil Fishman, lyricist Harvey Edelman and librettist Peter C. Palame – all Jersey boys – who started their dream project ‘Dead End: The Musical’ in 1982, got playwright Kingsley’s enthusiastic endorsement, twice thought they were about to go to Broadway, and twice had the rug pulled out from under them.
“The story of how ‘Dead End’ was made is a saga in itself,” said Edelman, now a resident of Caldwell (he’s originally from Westwood). Fishman lives in Glen Rock; Palame is originally from South Amboy.
“None of us wanted to quit,” Edelman said. “I’m a pit bull when it comes to this stuff.”
If the piece “Dead End” is about anything, it’s about perseverance – to find your way out of the trap that life has made for you. Now, 40 years later, “Dead End: The Musical” will finally be heard. A literal.
This month, the show is releasing as a streamable concept album with a cast of 16 members. And this very determined creative team hopes that this first step will lead to others, culminating, finally, in a run on Broadway.
“We want that on stage because that’s where it belongs,” Edelman said. “Here, it’s done in audio form.”
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Heard, but not seen
“Dead End” isn’t the first musical to begin life as an album, Edelman points out. “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”, “Les Miserables” and “Chess” are among the others.
And he believes this story about the haves and have-nots in 1930s New York, brought to life by songs like “It’s in duh Cards,” “In Another World,” “What’s the Harm?” and “It All Comes from duh Loinin'”, will resonate with 2022 listeners.
“All the problems that existed in East New York during the Depression still exist in America in 2022,” Edelman said. “There is always poverty, the rich not understanding the poor, the poor for that matter not understanding the rich. On the contrary, it is worse. It is income inequality, poverty and crime , and the streets are the breeding ground for criminals.”
Kingsley, an old-school liberal (he was blacklisted in the McCarthy days) wrote his slum drama from serious – and reformist – motives. So it’s possible he wasn’t thrilled when his characters became fodder for the B-movie comedies that a whole bunch of metro area kids of a certain age, thanks to WPIX Channel 11, raved about grown up.
“He was a serious playwright, and it was a serious play,” Edelman said. “It’s about how fun-loving street kids could turn into criminals.”
It was perhaps overprotection on Kingsley’s part that led to the strange experience of Edelman and his collaborators when they tried to obtain the musical rights to his piece.
“I don’t know, and we never knew, what happened,” Edelman said.
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At first, everything was going great. Edelman, Fishman and Palame had met in the 1970s and had written a show called “On the Air”, which had been performed off-Broadway several times. Its success led them to consider something bigger, and they attached themselves to “Dead End”.
Palame, who was an experienced theater man from North Jersey, had suggested it.
“It’s a great story, a human story,” Edelman said. “Before we even started writing the songs, we could hear the songs coming out of these people’s mouths.”
They refined their concept during an ASCAP musical theater workshop, then made a juried presentation to the Dramatists Guild in front of such luminaries as Stephen Schwartz, Jule Styne, John Kander and Fred Ebb.
Finally, they auditioned for six songs—as many as they had written—in front of Kingsley himself, who had by then become an Oakland resident and founding chairman of New Jersey’s Motion Picture and Television Development Commission.
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Kingsley was delighted, they recall.
“He said, ‘This should be on Broadway,’ and he was very excited about the project,” Edelman recalled. “We had a great evening that night. After the meeting, we all kissed and shook hands, and Kingsley went to Sardi’s with our lawyer, and the three of us went to a bar and started to celebrate because we were young and we went to Broadway.”
Two weeks later, they got a response from the lawyer. Kingsley had changed his mind.
“We never really understood why,” Edelman said.
Try, try again
In 1995, after Kingsley’s death, the three collaborators once again became close to his estate. Once again, they auditioned all six songs. Once again, everyone was delighted. Once again it looked like Broadway was the next stop from the station. Then they heard from their lawyer. The domain had again balked.
“I went, ‘How is that possible?’ “, Edelman said.
Meanwhile, the three partners, Edelman, Fishman and Palame, continued to write. Among their shows were several small children’s musicals: “Spin: The Rumpelstiltskin Musical” and “Puss and Boots: The Musical.”
“Someone we knew who was into audiobooks said, ‘You should take your musicals and turn them into audiobook musicals,'” Edelman said. idea. We had these things in our trunk. We had a studio. They’ve won all kinds of awards in the audiobook world.”
This naturally led them to think of The One That Got Away. Why not turn “Dead End” into an audio musical?
“We contacted the Kingsley estate, said we thought we could develop an audiobook concept album, and again sent recordings of the songs to the estate, just to refresh their memories.”
This time they said yes. And more importantly, they kept saying yes.
With the rights to the piece secured for the audio (not the rights to the film adaptation, which made some changes to the piece, notes Edelman), the trio eventually completed the rest of the score and recorded the production of three time.
Will three times be the charm? Edelman hopes that, 40 years later, “Dead End” will finally break its deadlock.
“The fact that we kept going, going, paid off,” Edelman said. “Obviously there’s some serious perseverance here.”
More information at www.deadendmusical.com.
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to its insightful reports on how you spend your free time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.