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'Days of Wine and Roses,' a film about love and addiction, is now a spirited musical

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara star in a new Broadway adaptation of the 1962 film<em> Days of Wine and Roses.</em>
Joan Marcus
Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara star in a new Broadway adaptation of the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses.

Sometimes, the most intriguing musicals come from the most unlikely sources.

A new Broadway show, based on the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, as well as its 1958 teleplay, opened Sunday night. The movie is about an attractive couple, played by Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon, who are alcoholics.

But can a story about addiction and recovery sing? For the creators of the new musical, the answer is a resounding yes.

"It's a love story first and foremost," said composer/lyricist Adam Guettel, who wrote the show's jazzy, multi-layered score. "Days of Wine and Roses is not a cautionary tale, not a morality play. There's no judgment here. We want the audience to lean in and watch these behaviors."

So, when the audience meets Joe Clay, a glad-handing public relations man played by Brian d'Arcy James, and Kirsten Arnesen, a bookish secretary, played by Kelli O'Hara, they see them falling in love with each other — and with drinking. In one early song, "Evanesce," the couple has moved in together and between each verse, Joe pulls out a different bottle of booze from a paper bag, showing both the passage of time and how alcohol helps to fuel their relationship.

Director Michael Greif marveled at the economy that Guettel and script writer Craig Lucas used to tell the story – this song in particular.

"It's so unbelievably clever of Craig, the way he introduces, you know, that third person into the relationship," said the director. "[He says,] 'I did invite someone to join us.' And that someone's in a bottle."

Actor Brian d'Arcy James said he likes the way the show offers a series of snapshots from the life of its two central characters – one moment you discover they've married, another moment you discover they have a child, another that drinking has cost Joe his job.

"There is this sense of kind of jumping from one moment to the next," he said, "and, just kind of stepping in to see how their lives are devolving or evolving."

'I know we're not lying'

It took a long time for Days of Wine and Roses to evolve as a musical. Twenty years ago, Guettel, Lucas and Kelli O'Hara collaborated on an early workshop of another show, The Light in the Piazza. O'Hara had just closed in The Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway with d'Arcy James, and people had noted how much the pair resembled Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. So, one day, she casually mentioned to Guettel that Days of Wine and Roses might make an interesting musical for the two of them.

"I didn't know that he went and got the rights and he started thinking about it," recalled O'Hara. "And about 10 years later, I sang the first song from it."

O'Hara sings 14 of the show's 18 songs, showing off not just her vocal range, but her acting ability, especially as the story gets darker. In fact, while there is a chorus onstage, playing other characters in the world that Joe and Kirsten inhabit, the vast majority of the score is written for the two leads, giving a laser-like focus to their story – the joy, the descent, the bumpy path toward recovery.

Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas have spoken publicly about their own struggles with addiction. Both are now sober, but Lucas said: "It's hard to watch this show at times because of my lived experience, but it's also a great privilege because I know we're not lying."

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in <em>Days of Wine and Roses.</em>
/ Joan Marcus
/
Joan Marcus
Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses.

Lucas and Guettel have kept the film's time period – the late 1950s/early 1960s. That's when Craig Lucas was a child and heavy social drinking was very much part of his family's culture, as well as their friends.

"My parents went out to parties seven days a week," Lucas said. "And my grandmother stayed with me because my parents were falling down and breaking bones and crashing cars."

So, one of the biggest changes Lucas brought to the adaptation is building up the character of the young daughter, who barely appears in film.

"Often with children of alcoholics, the child becomes the parent," Lucas said. "They step up. They hold the family together. They know somebody has to do it, and they're there. And they're not about to see the family get broken apart. So, for me, there's tremendous hope."

But, if you've seen the film, you're aware that Joe and Kirsten's path to recovery is not linear, and questions remain – will the sober one relapse? Will the other one find sobriety? Everyone involved in Days of Wine and Roses is keenly aware that this show is not for all audiences, given its unflinching portrayal of addiction.

"I get people every single night who either say something like, 'thank you so much, I'm eight years sober this year,'" said Kelli O'Hara. "Or 'I don't get this show. It's really depressing.' I get that a lot, which is very telling. You know, it's an interesting, uncomfortable lens."

And that's just fine with Craig Lucas. "For me, art is a risk," he said. "It has to be."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.