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Based on Bertolt Brecht's play The Exception and the Rule.
The plot of the Brecht play that was the source material concerns a merchant who is on a frantic journey to the town of Urga, where oil has been discovered. The merchant is trying to get there before his competitors, who are not far behind him, so that he can secure concessions for the businesses that will spring up as a result of the discovery of the oil. To get to Urga, a desert must be crossed. The merchant is accompanied by two men — a guide who knows his way across the desert, and a coolie who carries the merchant's belongings.
In private, the guide suggests to the coolie that the true reason for the race to Urga is because the discovery of oil will be covered up for economic reasons, and the merchant will demand hush money not to reveal what he has heard.
The merchant is obsessed with the idea that the coolie, being poor, hates him for being rich. At the last station before the desert, the merchant becomes distrustful of the guide for being too friendly to the coolie. He dismisses the guide. He asks the innkeeper at the station to give the directions to Urga to the coolie. The merchant and the coolie set off alone. The guide believes that the merchant and the coolie will get lost, that their water supplies will get low, and the merchant won't want to share what's left of his water with the coolie. The guide gives the coolie an extra flask of water to keep hidden
At the Myr river, the current is too high to cross by walking to the other side. The coolie, who doesn't know how to swim, tells the merchant that they must wait till it calms down. The merchant threatens him with a gun and tells him he will have to swim as best he can. He accuses the coolie of purposely delaying their arrival in order to get paid more (as the coolie gets paid by the day).
They manage to cross the river, but a tree falls on the coolie's arm as they cross, breaking it. The merchant, aware that his treatment of the coolie has been unfair, is increasingly fearful that the coolie will take revenge, even though his broken arm limits what he can do.
They get lost. The merchant tells the coolie that they are out of water. The truth is that the merchant has an extra flask hidden away. While the coolie pitches the tent, the merchant sits down to drink some water, fearful that the coolie will notice and kill him for it, even though the coolie has consistently behaved in an extremely subservient fashion.
The coolie becomes fearful that if they are found and the merchant is half dead from thirst while the coolie appears well, he will be put on trial for not having shared his water with the merchant. He approaches the merchant to hand him the flask. The merchant, thinking that the coolie has seen him drinking water and is angry that the merchant has been lying to him, is convinced that the object that the coolie is holding is a stone with which he will attack the merchant. The merchant pulls out his gun and shoots the coolie, killing him.
The merchant is put on trial for murder. It is proved at the trial that what the merchant thought was a big stone was a flask of water that the coolie was offering to him. The merchant is acquitted on the grounds that because he had mistreated the coolie, he had reason to believe the coolie wanted to take revenge. Therefore, he had reason to believe that the coolie was about to attack him, and his murder of the coolie can be regarded as self-defense.
The conceit of the musical was that the play was being presented on TV. The action took place in a television studio in the present-day, during a rehearsal.
This show was a project initiated by Jerome Robbins. Orignally, Robbins had hoped to adapt Brecht's one-act play The Measures Taken. He proposed the idea to Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim has never been a fan of Brecht. He read the play and told Robbins he hated it even more than most Brecht. Robbins asked Sondheim to look at another Brecht one-act, The Exception and the Rule. Sondheim liked it a bit more than The Measures Taken. With some reluctance he agreed to write the music and the lyrics, mostly out of admiration for Robbins.
After sketching out but probably not completing two songs — "Don't Give It a Thought" and "The Year of the . . . " — Sondheim was unhappy and left the project. He suggested to Robbins that Leonard Bernstein write both the music and the lyrics.
Bernstein joined the project but refused to write the lyrics. Jerry Leiber was brought in to write the lyrics, but he quit after a couple of months. Sondheim was asked to rejoin the project, writing just the lyrics. Sondheim agreed to do so, mostly because by this point John Guare was the show's book writer, and Sondheim thought Guare's work on the book was brilliant. Guare had added an extra distancing device to the original play by setting the action in a television studio where a television production of the play was being done.
In Craig Zadan's book Sondheim & Co., Guare explained his concept thus: "It was supposed to deal with the idea that in 1968 having 'good intentions' was not enough, and that it was presumptuous and hilarious to expect that showing man's inhumanity to man would change anything in the world."
Stuart Ostrow was to produce the show on Broadway, with Zero Mostel starring. In August 1968, it was announced that the show, to be titled A Pray by Blecht, would open at the Broadhurst in February 1969. In early October 1968, it was announced that the production would be postponed. About 10 days later, it was announced that the production was canceled.See more
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