Still punching above its weight

After 39 years, Charles Strouse's Golden Boy has held onto its relevance - and its impact
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The Independent Culture

When Charles Strouse, now 75, began composing for musicals, it was common practice for shows to have tryouts in Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore to get them into shape. Golden Boy, which Strouse wrote with lyricist Lee Adams, was no exception - but it's been the years since its opening in 1964, rather than the towns, that have shaped it most.

The version now showing at the Greenwich Theatre reveals the influence of changes not only on musical tastes, but on racial politics. The prizefighter in the 1937 Clifford Odets play, on which the show is based, for example, was changed from an Italian to a black man. "I think the racial seesaw subtly alters all the time," says Strouse, "but other things - the boxer who gives up spiritual values and artistic pursuits to make a buck - remain the same." The issue was one that weighed heavily on Odets himself. "He was guilt-ridden about how he'd once been a fiery left-winger, but had sold out to Hollywood."

Strouse was not a fight fan when he agreed to do the show, but "I became one and am one now." For research, he and Adams went to black gyms, where "we met all the leading boxers of the day, and saw what gentle, thoughtful people they were. When they got into the ring, they'd let it all out." Any exceptions? "Mike Tyson isn't a boxer - he's a lunatic."

When Golden Boy opened on Broadway in the late Sixties, only one man could play the part. "Sammy Davis Jr was the only black performer who could bring in an audience of the size we needed," Strouse says. "He was also built like a lightweight boxer [as is the present star, Jason Pennycooke], he could sing and dance, and his nose looked as if it had been broken." Davis was already a focus of race hatred because of his marriage to Mai Britt; Golden Boy upped the ante. "At that time, blacks and whites could not even touch each other. We had Sammy and the white girl [Sally Ann Triplett in the current production] kiss and make love. We got a lot of hate mail and death threats."

With Golden Boy, Strouse wanted to write a show in a very different musical idiom from that of his previous (and first) hit, Bye Bye Birdie. After such light, upbeat fare, he welcomed the chance to work on a story "that dealt with death, among other things." While the echoes of jazz and gospel in the score are obvious, the stronger influence is classical. The intense "I Want to Be with You" is almost operatic in scope, and "Night Song" was inspired by Stravinsky and Ravel.

These moments apart, Strouse's career has diverged widely from his early studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with Aaron Copland. The latter returned from a stay in Britain to see a familiar name on posters outside a theatre. He rang his protégé to ask, "Hey, did you know there's a show on Broadway by somebody who spells his name like you?"

'Golden Boy', Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, London SE10 (020-8858 7755; to 12 July