They were young, glamorous and reckless, and they represented the American dream. Had they lived happily into their dotage, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald might have become gracious old teetotalers — maybe featured in a 1970 Time magazine profile titled “Where Have They Gone?”
Instead, the legend of Scott and Zelda owes as much to their crash as it does to their ascent in Jazz Age iconography. We love success stories almost as much as we consume stories of loss and tragedy.
As a result, Fitzgerald has endured for decades as a source of endless fascination. In 2006, the Guthrie Theater opened its new building with an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” In another month, Baz Luhrmann unveils his glitzy film take in “Gatsby.” You can’t turn around in a bookstore without bumping into a Fitzgerald biography, a collection of letters, a new appreciation of Zelda.
“It’s very American,” said singer/composer Nancy Harrow of the Fitzgerald legend. “I can’t believe that almost every other day you see some mention of them.”
Harrow is adding to the Fitzgerald canon with a jazz musical she created with writer/director Will Pomerantz. “This Side of Paradise” has its Midwest premiere Saturday at History Theatre in St. Paul — the hometown that Fitzgerald left at age 26 and to which he never returned to live.
The musical’s title is taken from Fitzgerald’s first novel, which he wrote at a furious pace in St. Paul.
Fitzgerald was driven to finish the book in 1919 because he wanted Zelda to think of him as a success. The two had broken off their engagement in large part because she wasn’t wowed by his prospects as an advertising copywriter in New York. When the book was accepted and turned into a hit, young Fitzgerald returned to Zelda with a talisman of hope. So began a great love story steeped in gin, jazz and literary celebrity.
“Their lives played off each other,” said Harrow, who wrote the music and lyrics for the new play. “They weren’t really good for each other in some ways, but in other ways they were very lovable.”
Songs drove the show
“This Side of Paradise” started as a song cycle that Harrow, a longtime jazz singer, wrote and recorded in 2001. She had wanted to write specifically about “The Great Gatsby,” but John Harbison had completed an opera adapted from that novel the previous year, so she wrote more broadly about Fitzgerald himself. Harrow then moved on to other projects, but the idea of turning this song cycle into a musical remained in the back of her head. It finally came to fruition with a New York production at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in 2010. Pomerantz, the show’s director, wrote the script with Harrow.
Pomerantz and Harrow use a framing device of an older Zelda, institutionalized for mental illness, spooling out her story to a doctor. Her statements throw the play into zany and glittering flashbacks of the Fitzgeralds as they jitterbug through the 1920s. Eventually, the frenzy led to exhaustion during the Great Depression. Scott lost his literary edge and Zelda ended up hospitalized.
Norah Long will play the older Zelda, with Bradley Beahan as Scott and Kendall Anne Thompson as the young Zelda. Artistic director Ron Peluso is staging the production, with a live jazz combo.
“We’ve set the play in [the older] Zelda’s imagination,” Peluso said. “In the New York production, Zelda and the doctor would disappear in scene changes, but we’ve got her on stage all the time.”
Peluso admits he is not a Fitzgerald fanatic. He read “The Great Gatsby” in high school. He was more of a “The Catcher in the Rye” guy, but he finds a parallel between that coming-of-age story by J.D. Salinger and the novel “This Side of Paradise.” Both energized young readers and showed a path for self-discovery.
“It’s pretty universal stuff, about a college kid who found his work to be the voice of a generation,” Peluso said.