The show was called “Via Galactica.” In 1972, as this science fiction musical was being prepared for its Broadway opening, some members of the creative team feared that no one would be able to say its name. And in any case, what did it mean? According to the show’s publicity material it meant, “road to the stars.”
Investors in the production knew “Via Galactica” was going to be the most expensive musical ever staged. To the Nederlander theater family, it was the show that would open their new flagship theater, the Uris (now called the Gershwin). But in my house, growing up, it meant many other things: Regret. Heartache. Disappointment. Failure. A very public failure. I was 12 when my parents’ musical opened and closed. After a decade in the works, it lasted a fleeting seven performances.
I will never forget the opening night party at Sardi’s. My father, the producer George W. George, was waiting for the reviews in a shadowy corner of the restaurant. Champagne was flowing, and spirits were high. We were in the dark ages of communication — pre-Internet, pre-blogs, pre-Twitter — and reviews dictated the fate of a show. At around 12:30, the first notices came in. The New York Times review would make or break you. And break us, it did.
I say “us,” even though I was a child, because from as early as I can remember, “Via Galactica” was in the air. It was part of my DNA. From the vantage of our den on Central Park West, where my mother, Judith Ross, co-wrote the book, or the living room, where my parents held readings of the script to attract investors, or the dining room, where they debated every aspect of the show, I watched them build the perfect beast. A spectacle like no one had ever seen.
It was going to be fantastic! Flying spaceships! Flying people! A stage made of interconnecting walkways and trampolines — with a backdrop of thousands of Ping-Pong balls strung together, floor to ceiling, upon which gorgeous images would be projected. The cast was multicolored — Raul Julia, the lead, was blue; Virginia Vestoff, his leading lady, was painted gold; and the other actors on stage were every color in between. Peter Hall, former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, would make his American directorial debut. Galt McDermott, who composed the score for “Hair,” wrote the music. My mother, a relative newcomer, wrote the book with Christopher Gore, who also wrote the lyrics. And as producer, my dad put all the pieces together.
But “Via Galactica” seemed plagued from the start. For a moment the show was to be called “Up,” but when posted next to the Uris name on the marquee, it sent an unfortunate message. Once again, the title became “Via Galactica.”
In previews, both actors and scenery fell through the soft trampoline flooring. Irene Cara, the actress of future “Fame” fame, flew around the stage — that is, when the rigging worked. Raul once got stuck in the spaceship and hung helplessly over the orchestra for 20 minutes until stagehands extricated him. The new wireless microphones, which allowed the actors to jump freely from trampoline to trampoline, somehow got cross-wired with the local police precinct. When Virginia opened her mouth to sing, out came emergency calls about car accidents and arrests in Midtown.
They say the devil is in the details. And the details were killing the show. A production that had seemed like a sure thing was careening out of control. It went over budget. There were delays, clashing egos, injuries. Everyone was asking, how could so many talented people get so many things so wrong?
The publicity poster for “Via Galactica” now hangs in infamy at the entrance to Joe Allen’s, the restaurant on West 46th Street whose walls are lined with posters of famous Broadway flops.
Many years after the play closed, my father would still talk about things he would have done differently. “Via,” as he called it, would send him walking to the refrigerator late at night, reliving it in his mind. One thing that bothered him enormously was a song, perhaps his favorite, that was cut from the show in the final stages of production. It was called “Home,” and it was a sentimental ballad that cut to the core of the main character’s plight.
In the show, Raul Julia played a man who falls in love with a rebel woman who’s leaving earth for good. Finally he has to choose: stay in the place he knows, the home he loves, or go with her to the stars. In the race toward opening night, despite the talent and the spectacle, too many of the human elements of “Via Galactica” got stripped away, and the show fell flat. None of the special effects could make up for the lack of what draws us to the theater in the first place: story, characters we care for, pathos.
It took my father a long time to learn this lesson — and with a lifetime of experience he conceived the more down-to-earth musical “Memphis.” Sadly, he didn’t live to see it win last year’s Tony Award for best musical.
Last week I went to a preview performance of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Three hours and one mechanical glitch later, I left the theater feeling uneasy, my long-dormant “Via Galactica” synapses firing. I can well imagine the pressure the creators of “Spider-Man” have been under. Right before opening night, when you’re running out of time, you can find yourself so close to the canvas that you can’t see the big picture.
But I’d like to urge them, take a moment, now if you can. Step back and look at what you have. Put the play’s human moments front and center. There’s still time.
I’m rooting for “Spider-Man.” May it become the brilliant show it deserves to be. And may everyone connected with it have an old age with no regrets, no posters in Joe Allen’s and no late-night walks to the fridge.
Jennifer George, a writer and a jewelry and clothing designer.