The Play’s the Thing

The creation of “The Sunset Gang” musical by Warren Adler

In the mid 1970’s, I wrote fifteen short stories inspired by my parent’s life in “Century Village,” a community in West Palm Beach Florida that, in those days, catered to retired civil servants, teachers, former shopkeepers and salesman who had lived through the depression and bore its scars. Viking Press published nine of these stories in a volume titled, The Sunset Gang.

Tom Ginzburg, then the publisher of Viking, had given the manuscript to his mother to read. She loved it and urged her son to publish it, which he did. A few years later, actress Linda Lavin, an acclaimed star of TV and Broadway, acquired the rights to three of the stories and produced an adaptation for Public Television’s American Playhouse series. The trilogy, based on my stories “Yiddish,” “The Detective” and “The Home,” were adapted by playwright Ronald Ribman, and starred several highly esteemed actors, including Uta Hagen, Harold Gould, Ron Rifkin, Doris Roberts, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Each story of the trilogy was an hour’s length, received excellent reviews, and was replayed many times on PBS.

Author Meets Composer

Not long after that, I had consented to be a guest speaker at the Donna Reed Film Festival in Denison, Iowa, the actress’s hometown. Her husband had created the festival after her death. At the event, where I was teaching short fiction writing, I happened to meet the composer L. Russell Brown. Larry (as he is known) has written the music for numerous hit songs, including the immortal, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree,” which has become the second most recorded song in history, second only to “Yesterday” by The Beatles. Larry was also one of the speakers at the event and after we would do our respective gigs, we would retire to our motel to escape the sweltering midsummer heat.

We would discuss our work long into the night, and when I mentioned The Sunset Gang, Larry sensed that this might be excellent material for a musical. The idea also struck me as a possibility and I went home and began working on the book and lyrics. Using the technique of Gilbert and Sullivan—lyrics first—Larry would compose music to my song lyrics and in this way we created our first draft.

That was more than 10 years ago. We proceeded to workshop and test the material before audiences through the intervening years, but we always felt that we had never quite gotten it right. After a long hiatus, we tried our hand at it once again. Several new songs were written, changes were made to the book and lyrics, the story was altered and focused, and now we feel that we have finally hit the gong. First and foremost, we have created a love story between two older people.

The Story Connects

“The Sunset Gang” musical is the story of a new love affair that blossoms between two unhappily married people at Sunset Village, a retirement community in Florida. Based loosely on my short story “Yiddish” which, in the television version, starred Harold Gould and Doris Roberts, the two older lovers meet at the Yiddish Club, fall in love and after much angst leave their spouses to spend their remaining years together. Bittersweet and full of humor, the play’s content is deeply emotional and deals with issues rarely explored in the theater.

We have since tested the story and songs before live audiences and discovered that not only does the play stir strong emotions, but also that it is right on target for today’s theater-goers, many of whom are of the age of the characters in our story. Moreover, Americans today, because we are living longer, are continually faced with new challenges and emotional dilemmas, not unlike those that happen to the characters in our play. The subject matter and timing should also resonate strongly for the baby boomer generation, which is just now entering that period that used to be called “old age.” Not so anymore. As many of us grow older, we are discovering that the aging clock has advanced considerably since the days of our parents and there is a lot more exciting living and loving ahead than previously realized.

Production Plans are Underway

The result of all this testing and revising is that we have attracted numerous investors who believe this project will be a unique theater experience that, in the parlance of show business, can have “legs,” meaning a long and profitable theatrical life. Working with Judson Ball, our principal producer, we expect to put the production together for an opening sometime in the spring of 2003, perhaps on Broadway, depending on the budget and the marquee quality of the stars we attract. Both Larry and I believe that the time has come for this material and we are pursuing this production with super-human zeal, energy and enormous optimism. We will keep readers of this E-Sheet informed of our progress. The original book The Sunset Gang is available in hardcover, trade paperback and all formats of eBooks through all major book selling stores and sites on the Internet. A complete collection of the stories titled Never Too Late for Love, containing all 15 of the original stories, is also available through the same sources.

– Warren Adler