At What Age is “Promising” No Longer Promising?


When Ruth Gordon won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the 1969 film Rosemary’s Baby, she was 73 and returning to movies after a 28-year absence. She grabbed the statuette, stepped to the microphone and said in her typically slangy way, “I can’t tell you how encouragin’ a thing like this is.”

PromiseI thought about Gordon’s jovial outburst last week when I learned that Arthur Perlman was awarded this year’s $100,000 Kleban Prize as “most promising musical theater librettist.” Wait a minute, I thought, isn’t Perlman the lyricist, as well as the librettist, for the highly acclaimed adaptation of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, and wasn’t Wings highly acclaimed for its initial production quite a while ago—1993, to be exact?

Story continues below.

Perlman is the Wings bookwriter-lyricist, as was noted in the release citing his win. But doesn’t that suggest that he has passed what many people might consider the “most promising” stage of his career?

If he wrote Wings (with composer Jeffrey Lunden) when he could have been as young as 20, which he perhaps wasn’t, that still means he’s in his forties. Are people in their forties with a couple decades of career behind them still promising?

Furthermore, a glance at Perlman’s bio at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Foundation, where his and Lunden’s properties are licensed, reveals that they received the 2003 Richard Rodgers Award from the Stephen Sondheim Society for The Devil in the Flesh, a musical adaptation of Raymond Radiguet’s World War I novel. They won the 1993 Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theater Foundation Musical Theater Award and have received numerous ASCAP Awards.

Hasn’t his promise been sufficiently recognized?

To be clear: I offer Perlman sincere congratulations on his win. I absolutely don’t begrudge him—or any artist, for that matter—$100,000. He or she may need the money. I certainly wouldn’t expect such a recipient to hand the check back, saying something like, “Don’t you think that calling me promising at this stage in my artistic life is slightly condescending?”

Maybe I’m wrong about it anyway. Maybe I need to rethink the entire “promising” concept. If in 1969 the great Ruth Gordon acted as if she’d just been described as promising, it may be all right for anyone else to do the same. So I decided to find out more about what the Kleban Prize people had in mind.

I held a phone conversation with Kleban Foundation president Richard Maltby, Jr., who explained that the three committee members who choose the winners (this year actor Jason Danieley, playwright/former Broadway cast recording executive Bill Rosenfield and academic Colleen Jennings-Roggensack) have no idea whose submissions they’re judging. They get the submissions unmarked. Ergo, they had no inkling it was Perlman whom they were rewarding.

Saying Foundation by-laws include no definition of “promising,” Maltby added, “‘Promising’ is a subjective term. Maybe it’s good we don’t have a definition. Maybe someone is saved who says, ‘I was about to quit show business.’” He went on to explain that even if anyone at the Foundation wanted to change the words “most promising,” the by-laws are so definitive that altering them is next to impossible.

When I hung up the phone, I got to thinking about the assumptions I make—maybe the assumptions we all make—about the adjective “promising.” Because it’s almost always applied to people and things still young, still new, I tend to think it should be retired for anything or anyone past—what?—past 25, 30, 35?

Story continues below.

Perhaps it needn’t be. Perhaps the very word “promising” is promising. Perhaps the Kleban Foundation is on to something, whether deliberately or not. Perhaps it can be used to indicate anything that holds out promise—such as Perlman’s upcoming works, those developed with his new $100,000.

Pablo Picasso, full of promise

Giuseppe Verdi was composing operas in his seventies. Didn’t they hold out the promise that he had even more superlative works in him? In his eighties, Anthony Caro was completing sculptures that looked like the works of a man a third of his age. Didn’t they hold out the promise of more works of that high caliber? Stephen Sondheim, at 84, is apparently putting together two new projects. Can’t they be said to have great promise? Jazz pianist Barbara Carroll, at 89, is playing as well or better than she ever has. Isn’t her next gig equally promising? Pablo Picasso was painting in his eighties and nineties. Right up to his last day, wasn’t it credible to see promise continuing in his intriguing late work?

Story continues below.

Nevertheless, while I’m busy expanding my use of “promising,” I don’t want to lose sight of its still more typical deployment. It’s still worth deeming young people promising—by the word’s more common connotation. They remain the ones most likely to benefit from $100,000 as they begin uncertain careers. Sondheim for one is probably not as much in need of $100,000?

Children today are too sophisticated

Story continues below.

Now for something not quite completely different. Another recent item stopped me in my determined tracks. The following appears in a New York Times article by culture reporter Brooks Barnes about Disney’s putting its surprise blockbuster hit Frozen on ice, as it were, in multiple rinks:

Disney itself was caught off guard [by the film’s revenues]; it initially played down the movie’s music, for instance, worrying that children had grown too sophisticated for musicals.

What on earth does that mean? The possibilities make a fellow shudder. Can it be that musicals, once one of the models by which American sophistication was gauged, are now considered disturbingly unsophisticated? Are musicals—American, British, whatever—now something from which parents must shield their children for fear of stymying their developing good taste?

Story continues below.

More specifically, if Disney is so concerned about the effects of musicals, why do the decision makers there habitually think about turning everything in the archives into musicals? Maybe some of the deciders have taken a second look at this year’s Aladdin on Broadway and noticed its rampant lack of sophistication and its blatant commercialism. Perhaps they’ve said to each other, “It’s too late for Aladdin, but after this never again!” Doubtful.

Story continues below.