By Robert Sandla
“If music be the food of love, play on ...” runs the famous first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a sensual invitation to the delights of wine, women, and song—and to the sexy romances, comic complications, and mistaken identities that make up the show’s hyperkinetic plot. In the late 1960s, songwriters Danny Apolinar and Hal Hester took Shakespeare at his word and created Your Own Thing, a totally now, totally wow musical based on Twelfth Night that updated Shakespeare’s injunction to, in essence, “If pop-rock music be the food of love, play on.” And play on it did: Your Own Thing opened at the Orpheum Theater in Manhattan’s East Village, then a hotbed of hippiedom, on January 13, 1968, and racked up an impressive 933 performances.
Red Bull Theater's one-night-only benefit presentation of YOUR OWN THING will be held Monday, December 12, 2022 at Manhattan's Symphony Space. Get full details here.
Your Own Thing was a mini pop-culture phenom. The show’s very name, based on “What You Will,” Shakespeare’s subtitle to Twelfth Night, echoed a current catch phrase, expressing the atmosphere of acceptance of the 1960s. With its frisky light-rock musical score, anything-goes philosophy, groovy graphics, fast pace, and outrageous Sonny-and-Cher-style costumes, Your Own Thing captured the zanier aspects of the rebellious energy and febrile experimentation of the Sixties. The show spoke for what it was pleased to call “the Now Generation,” but there was nothing in it to scare Grandma.
Your Own Thing was as completely a creation of its time as Hair, the “American tribal love-rock musical” that premiered nearby at the Public Theater a few months before Your Own Thing opened. There were even reports of moving Your Own Thing to Broadway, as Hair had done, but it stayed downtown. Unlike Hair, Your Own Thing never had a hit tune or achieved enduring appeal, but in its day the show was hot. In a first for off-Broadway that annoyed the hell out of Broadway producers, Your Own Thing won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical of 1968. The other shows the Critics Circle considered that year were the patriotic George M!, Hair, Kander and Ebb’s Canadian-nostalgic The Happy Time, and In Circles, downtown composer Al Carmines’ setting of Gertrude Stein’s text. (The winner for Best Play was another Shakespeare spin-off, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, based on Hamlet.)
While Your Own Thing continued to pack ’em in at the Orpheum, multiple touring companies crisscrossed the country simultaneously. The London production was a hit. RCA bought the rights to the cast album for an advance that was reportedly the highest price ever paid for an off-Broadway show, and brought in arranger Peter Matz to beef up the orchestrations a bit. In an effort to capitalize on the show’s success, RCA also released an LP called “Hal Hester Does His Own Thing” and a 45 of Danny Apolinar crooning two ballads from the show, “Flowers” and “The Middle Years.” A 1973 revival of Your Own Thing was sent to an arts festival in Monaco as an example of trendy American musical theater. Even Hollywood was interested in Your Own Thing: the movie rights were sold for an astonishing $500,000, with legendary film director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) slated to bring the project to the screen. Your Own Thing was, in the parlance of the time, where it’s at.
Even though the musical was based—very loosely—on Twelfth Night, the play wasn’t really the thing. Malvolio and his crossed garters vanished, the various drunken clowns disappeared, and Shakespeare’s text, itself based on earlier models, became a platform for freewheeling antics, tunes right off the hit parade, and titillating sexual situations. Two of the songs kept Shakespeare’s words intact, but book writer and director Donald Driver did some wholesale rewriting, too. Here’s one of Your Own Thing’s pivotal lines: ‘“Love is a gas! It’s where it’s at! And if your own thing is against Establishment’s barf concepts, you can drop out and groove with it.” We ain’t talking Shakespeare here, but the creative team intended Your Own Thing to be a blithe spoof that slyly conveyed its quietly subversive message. The result was a show that a New York Times feature story called “explosive enough to zonk the college crowd and slick enough to bring the mink-stole set down to the Orpheum at Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. Now there’s a property to freak out the show biz veterans.”
Your Own Thing exists because Danny Apolinar and Hal Hester goofed. In 1966, like a lot of young composer/lyricist teams, they created a musical based on existing material. Because they were inexperienced with theater pieces, having worked mainly as composers and lyricists of pop songs, they neglected to secure the rights for that property, and the project fell apart when the work’s author turned them down. Determined to select something already in the public domain, they read synopses of Shakespeare’s plots, and were struck by the similarity between the twin brother-and-sister siblings in Twelfth Night (Sebastian and Viola) and between young men and young women in the unisex Sixties. The two recalled an article by Marshall McLuhan in which the cultural critic pointed out that the sexes were growing more alike—that contemporary youth blurred hard-edged definitions of masculinity and femininity. This provided a perfect parallel to the deliberately mis-gendered identities of the twins in Shakespeare’s plot and made the story plausible in contemporary society. They called the musical The London Look in homage to the flamboyant fashions of Carnaby Street, which bubbled with the stylish doings of Twiggy, Vidal Sassoon, and the rest of the mod squad.
Your Own Thing may be the only musical to appear first on the telephone. Apolinar and Hester lived at the time in San Juan, where they played piano and ran “swinging” night clubs popular with the jet set, so they auditioned the show via long distance for their friend Dorothy Love, a one-time performer who owned and managed the Orpheum Theater. In spite of a $332 phone bill, Love loved the project, and brought in Zev Buffman as co-producer. Accounts of what the show cost vary. The New York Times said it cost $45,000 to produce, Variety said $36,000, and Apolinar wrote that the proposed capitalization was $30,000. Whatever the case, those are figures to make today’s producers drool with envy.
By then it was 1967, the whole London scene had quieted down, and the New York scene was happening. The London Look became Your Own Thing, a title which captured the nonjudgmental insouciance of the time. Donald Driver was brought in to rework the book and direct the show. Driver had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, performed in musicals on Broadway, directed musicals regionally, and had made it to Broadway as a director the previous season at the helm of the American version of Marat/Sade. For several years, he had been Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Festival in Washington, D.C.
With Your Own Thing, Driver said he wanted to create something far out yet comfortably familiar—a protest play that even tourists would enjoy. Driver told reporters that the show attacked The Establishment, the military-economic complex, and the Big Brother government. If it did that, it did so by depicting the kids of its day as endearing madcaps, lost in love, not Molotov-flinging revolutionaries. The whole thing had an impromptu, homemade flavor: Apolinar himself designed the show’s logo and appeared onstage as one of The Apocalypse, the show’s rock band. Driver streamlined the story, pared the cast down to nine actors, and focused on the central romances. The clownish rustics were replaced by a jokey rock group called The Apocalypse that recalls the Marx Brothers, or, more appropriately, The Beatles. Since the starchy Malvolio was banished, the show needed some authority figures as a foil for the youthful antics, so the team appropriated such Establishment figures as John Wayne, Senator Everett Dirksen, the Pope, and God, all of whom pop up via the show’s 12 slide projectors and two movie projectors—the cutting-edge multimedia of the time. A modular white set allowed for speedy scene changes via projections and colored lights, while mod costumes indicated the super-hip milieu. Driver made the whole thing zip right along without an intermission. And no doubt it was Driver who wrote such priceless stage directions as “Orson enters and closes door. Viola, not noticing him, does [a wild frug in her frustration.]”
Your Own Thing plunges us right into the confusion of a shipwreck. Everyone bails out but the rock duo of Sebastian and Viola, who even in the mayhem find time to bicker as twins do (“No One’s Perfect, Dear”). They are separated, and Viola is saved by a friendly mariner in a scene straight from Shakespeare, which leads her to ask a thoughtful young person’s question when making one’s way in the world: “And what should I do in lllyria?”
This being a contemporary comedy, New York City Mayor John Lindsay materializes in a projection to tell her that “lllyria is a fun city”—before he coughs from the smog. Bereft in this brave new world, Viola sings plaintively about life in a big, impersonal city (“The Flowers”).
Orson (Orsino in Twelfth Night), the manager of a group called the Four Apocalypse, is hot for Olivia, the soignée owner of a discotheque; her character was deliberately based on Sybil Burton, Richard Burton’s first wife. Suddenly Your OwnThing turns into a backstage musical, à la 42nd Street. We meet the nutty members of The Apocalypse, who sing an unabashed credo for the time, “I’m Not Afraid/I’m Me.” Orson has to find a replacement for the guy who played Disease in the group, who was drafted. Through the intervention of a projection of the Buddha (a plot device not found in Shakespeare), Viola learns of the group’s opening and pretends to be a guy in order to audition. Though initially gawky, she wins a spot in the quartet (“Somethin’s Happ’nin’ (Baby, Baby!)”). Orson finds himself strangely drawn to “Charlie” (“Cesario” in Shakespeare), and Viola finds herself attracted to the comparatively “square” Orson.
Meanwhile, Sebastian, mistaken for a girl, is recovering in a hospital, and sings of his woe in words that belonged to Feste in Twelfth Night, “Come Away, Death.” A busy Buddha intervenes with news about the casting needs for The Apocalypse and Sebastian perks up with “I’m On My Way to the Top.” Sebastian bumps into Orson, who thinks Sebastian is “Charlie,” who is really Viola. Sebastian is a bit confused but decides to do what Orson asks of him and just go with the flow. After lots of running back and forth, during which everyone thinks Sebastian is Viola and Viola is Sebastian and both of them are Charlie, Viola realizes that she is falling for Orson in “She Never Told Her Love,” the show’s other Shakespearean lyric. In a moment that recalls a similar scene in Twelfth Night, Viola/Charlie instructs Orson in the ways of wooing Olivia (“Be Gentle”).
Viola and The Apocalypse sing of how great it is to be young (“The Now Generation”), but Olivia puts a different spin on things when she sings ruefully of how quickly time flies when one turns 30 (“The Middle Years”)—scary stuff, in an era when you weren’t supposed
to trust anyone over 30. She’s attracted to Sebastian/Charlie, who is 20, but they gamely decide to try to bridge that yawning gap of ten years of age.
Inept with women but drawn to Charlie, Orson delves into psychology books about latent homosexuality as images of Freud and historical homosexuals swirl around him—it’s a multimedia reimagining of Orsino’s confusion about his hot-and-heavy attraction to Cesario/Viola. Orson is glad his mom isn’t around to see this weird new development, but decides to stick with it (“When You’re Young and In Love”).
Accompanied by a kaleidoscope of gyrating colors, The Apocalypse sing “Hunca Munca” at Olivia’s disco, in a scene capturing the fervor of 1960s “Happenings.” In a quiet moment, Olivia and Sebastian understand each other better with “Don’t Leave Me.”
After a series of zany gender-blurred misunderstandings, Viola reveals that she’s a real girl, Olivia realizes that “Charlie” is Sebastian, the twins are reunited, and we hear dialogue along the lines of:
Olivia: You don’t mind me being older?
Sebastian: It’s where I’m at. You don’t mind me being younger?
Olivia: Listen, it’s my bag.
Happy ending all around: “Your Own Thing.”
Most critics were delighted by Your Own Thing. The Post’s Jerry Tallmer described it as “a swinging little show that I think I enjoyed better than I ever will Twelfth Night itself.” Unlike other Generation Gap shows, Tallmer noted, Your Own Thing was frothy: “What has been eliminated is the self-pitying chip-on-the-shoulder whine; instead the comment is both light-hearted and matter-of-fact, mainly dealing with the new transsexualism of the young.”
In the New York Times, Clive Barnes called the musical “cheerful, joyful, and blissfully irreverent to Shakespeare and everything else,” adding, “its vitality and charm are terrific. The music is always engaging, and far from consistently strident. People who like The Sound of Music rather than the sound of music do not have to stay away.” Also in the Times, Walter Kerr found the show a bright spot in the season, captivating and timely:
Director-librettist Donald Driver has noticed that there’s a tiny but true and instantaneous connection between all those interchangeable boys and girls in Shakespeare (Twelfth Night here) and the current hippie indifference to what the sexes happen to look like .... An ancient comedy crosses its eyes and makes a funny, apt expression.
James Davis of the Daily News demurred: “It was a bright, highly entertaining show when the engaging little company took to song and dance—and it was a brutal bore when they had to wade through the story.” In Women’s Wear Daily, Martin Gottfried called the show “half-baked.” The otherwise stodgy Wall Street Journal jumped on the Your Own Thing bandwagon, however, opining, “When a topical musical can do something for both the younger and the elder members of the audience, it’s an occasion. Your Own Thing seems destined for a long run down on Second Avenue.”
In a round-up review of then-recent cast albums, the New York Times termed the Your Own Thing recording the best of the bunch when compared to How Now, Dow Jones (Elmer Bernstein and Carolyn Leigh), The Happy Time (Kander and Ebb), and Darling of the Day (Jule Styne and E.Y. Harburg), calling it “the best musical in town.” Interestingly, the original Olivia, Marian Mercer, is not heard on this recording. Mercer left Your Own Thing for an even groovier musical, Burt Bachrach’s Promises, Promises, where she won a Tony Award. Marcia Rodd, the recording’s wise, knowing Olivia, came to Your Own Thing from Love and Let Love, the season’s other, evidently far more earnest Twelfth Night musical, which opened the week before Your Own Thing and quickly folded.
Apolinar and Hester never repeated the success of Your Own Thing, either as a team or with other collaborators. Talk of new Broadway musicals surfaced from time to time, but nothing happened. Hester returned to his nightclubs in Puerto Rico, and Apolinar became a popular fixture at the piano of Manhattan cabarets. Some Your Own Thing alumni worked together in 1981 when Zev Buffman, Donald Driver, and composer Michael Valenti, who had played one of The Apocalypse, cooked up Oh, Brother!, a musical farce based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (which also involved identical twins and mistaken identities). The show was set in the Persian Gulf during the gas crisis years. Driver was book writer, lyricist, choreographer, and director, Valenti wrote the tunes, and Buffman produced. This time, the formula didn’t work, and Oh, Brother! folded after three performances at the ANTA Theater (now the August Wilson).
Of course, people just keep making musicals to Shakespeare, and it’s always a gamble. For every hit like Your Own Thing, there’s a bomb like Music Is, a 1976 musical based on Twelfth Night by the legendary George Abbott. For every The Boys from Syracuse (1938; The Comedy of Errors), there’s Oh, Brother! Even the team that created Hair tried their hands at Shakespeare with Two Gentlemen of Verona, another hip Shakespeare musical that was a hit in its day but has not achieved lasting appeal. In the 1997-98 season, Play On! transposed Twelfth Night to Jazz Age Harlem, set to hit songs Duke Ellington; the show ran briefly on Broadway (the cast featured André de Shields and Tonya Pinkins) and has been staged at regional theaters. Creative teams keep trying their hands at musical versions of Twelfth Night and other Shakespeare plays—with varying degrees of success.
If Your Own Thing was so much fun, why has it vanished from the stage? Perhaps the problem is one of timing; any show that captures the zeitgeist as unerringly as Your Own Thing did looks real dated real fast. “The work is as modern as today,” Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, and he meant it as praise, but when Your Own Thing opened in Chicago two years later, one critic found it “a dated dish ... behind the curve,” while another called the show a “period piece.” The 1960s were over. Way over.
Now Red Bull Theater is presenting Your Own Thing in a special benefit performance with a stellar cast. It’s a rare opportunity to revisit a one-time hit that is almost never staged. How will Your Own Thing come across now, half a century after it made a splash? Maybe somewhat in the way that revivals of 1920s musicals like No, No, Nanette seemed in the 1970s: charming, somewhat goofy evocations of a distant era. Still, even allowing for its blithe spirits, there might be more to Your Own Thing. After all, it’s a musical from the 1960s that is based on a comedy from the 1600s that trafficked in mistaken identities and Elizabethan sexual anxieties and had a cast featuring boys plays women playing men. Your Own Thing updated all that to the Swinging Sixties with trendy unisex styles (men with long hair! women wearing pants!), contemporary anxieties about same-sex attraction, and deliberate gender mis-identification—and set it all to a catchy pop-rock score that was hard to resist. Today, when trans, genderqueer, nonbinary, and other identities are blasting past traditional male-female categories, Your Own Thing and its youthquake-era acceptance of evolving norms might just look fresh again.
As always, however, Shakespeare has the last word, and perhaps it’s best to enjoy the charms of this score and this show on their own terms, knowing that, as the script says, “Present mirth hath present laughter.”
–ROBERT SANDLA has written frequently about musical theater, and is the Editor in Chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.
This synopsis has been updated from the liner notes Sandla provided for the 1999 RCA Victor reissue of the original cast recording.
Red Bull Theater's one-night-only benefit presentation of YOUR OWN THING will be held Monday, December 12, 2022 at Manhattan's Symphony Space. Get full details here.