Gretchen Cryer Essay - Critical Essays

Cryer, Gretchen


Gretchen Cryer 1936(?)–

American playwright, lyricist, and actress.

Cryer writes unconventional musicals which reflect the particular concerns of the late 1960s and 1970s—the right to free speech, the growth of the media and its effect on interpersonal communication, and women striving for self-direction in a male-dominated society. It is generally felt that her work can be appreciated as both social commentary and entertainment and that she has helped female playwrights achieve equality and respect.

Cryer has collaborated most often with composer Nancy Ford; they are currently considered the most prominent female writing team in American theater. Their first major work, Now Is the Time for All Good Men, is a look at the generation gap and the disparity between liberal and conservative viewpoints. Their next play, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, is an inventive, humorous musical divided into two related sketches about a dreamy young man who wants to make every moment "a perfect work of art," since he thinks every minute could be his last; he tape-records his life as a bequest to posterity. In the second sketch, a young Isaac is in jail for protesting the war. He communicates with the girl in the next cell through a television set, and possibly dies at the end of the act, choked to death by his camera strap. This "metaphor on McLuhanism," as Cryer called it, was recognized as the play's weak point, but Isaac was lauded by most critics, who praised the relevance and freshness of her concept and lyrics.

Cryer and Ford are perhaps best known for I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, a long-running musical with feminist considerations at its core. The play presents male chauvinism as something to be laughed at rather than challenged. The musical's message, that changes in relating to men are normal and common among women, touched responsive chords among audience members, many of whom felt it gave them a new perspective on their lives. Cryer was criticized for relying on feminist rhetoric and clichés too strongly and for not probing deeply enough into the situations women are facing. However, as with her other works, it is believed that Cryer has transferred personal concerns into universally entertaining theater.

Clive Barnes

[To] tell you the truth social significance is dear to my heart. But then so are songs, and I take the perhaps old-fashioned attitude that the first duty of a musical is to be musical…. I am writing about "Now Is the Time for All Good Men."… The news is not exactly good.

[The show] was terrible….

[Perhaps] if the book had been stronger … the musical would have been more compelling. Oddly enough, the ideas behind the musical are good—this is where the social significance comes in. For a teacher, who has served jail for refusing to kill in Vietnam, comes to a high school in the wilds of Indiana and teaches the kids about Thoreau and civil disobedience. I warmed to him, and to the young widow he wooed with hard words and high ideals.

Yet characters are not plays any more than kind words are speeches, and the situation with its melodramatic killing of the hero at the end ("West Side Story," what have you done to us down here?) is only superficially developed. It is all too much like "The Music Man" with angst, for comfort. As a result, with its conventional attitudes being paraded like toy soldiers, its sentiments crack into sentimentality.

Once in a while a line emerges to give the flavor of this Bloomdale, Indiana ("a town for the old in heart," as someone says), and when the line comes up the cast clings to it for dear life. I was glad, for instance, to hear about the "woman who saved all her life to go to Europe and there died of pneumonia." But such country-wise perceptions were almost totally obscured by the story's general drift and the music's general drizzle.

Clive Barnes, "Theater: Social Significance to Music," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1967, p. 42.

Edith Oliver

["Now Is the Time for All Good Men"] rates quite high on what ordinarily matters most in a musical [the score, the staging, the acting, the direction]…. The trouble is the words. Now, banal words in a musical can often be dismissed, but these are not banal; in fact, a few of the scenes and lyrics are bright and refreshing. The rest of the book, though, is full of message—preachy, inspirational, and awfully intrusive. The idea of setting a musical in a small old-fashioned town in Indiana and then showing the nastiness and violence that lie beneath its nostalgic charm is defensible, but in this case the irony is too pat and heavily applied and too blunted by sentimentality and complacency. Nevertheless, Mrs. Cryer is young and talented and indignant, and young, talented people have much to be indignant about. (pp. 133-34)

Edith Oliver, "The Theater," in The New Yorker (© 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 33, October 7, 1967, pp. 131-38.∗

Theophilus Lewis

[In Now Is the Time for All Good Men] the leading character is a typical member of the New Left. That is to say, he attacks conservatism with ridicule, irreverence and civil disobedience and cries "foul" when the establishment fights back with nightsticks, tradition and the veterans' organizations.

Portrayed by playwright Gretchen Cryer in a sympathetic light, Mike Butler is a rather likable young man with an abundance of moral courage and, by normal standards, an unsavory past…. Measured by his own ethic and that of his New Left peers, he is a latter-day Thoreau. (pp. 421-22)

While Gretchen Cryer's story is obviously slanted toward the Left, it is a true reflection of life in numerous communities where "liberal" educators are confronting conservative school boards. And her play is really a play, rather than dramatic special pleading. (p. 422)

Theophilus Lewis, "Theatre: 'Now Is the Time for All Good Men'," in America (© America Press, 1967; all rights reserved), Vol. 117, No. 16, October 14, 1967, pp. 421-22.

Clive Barnes

A number of letters have suggested, usually in gently reasonable terms, that I was unfair to the Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford musical … "Now Is the Time for All Good Men" [see excerpt above]. Perhaps more to the point, I was told that the entire musical had been tightened and the ending completely changed. And perhaps even more to the point still, I admired their courage in keeping going after a moderately unfavorable press….

I thought that the new ending was a marked improvement. Instead of the Philadelphia schoolteacher, transplanted to an Indiana town, being murdered for his efforts at teaching Thoreau's concepts of civil disobedience, he is now merely run out of town. This, while perhaps not any more likely, happens to be less melodramatic (remember fiction must be less strange than truth) and therefore vastly more acceptable.

Clive Barnes, "Theater: Reappraisal," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1967, p. 49.

James Davis

["The Last Sweet Days of Isaac"] isn't very entertaining….

It did not seem an ideal wedding of book and music—perhaps, I think, because the book was so dull….

If there had been less to say on the stage and more music from the background, the show perhaps would have been what it calls itself, "a 1970 musical." As it is, I found it pretty unexciting, like a nothing year.

James Davis, "'The Last Sweet Days' No Sweetheart of Show," in Daily News (© 1970, New York News Inc.; reprinted by permission), January 27, 1970 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXI, No. 11, April 27, 1970, p. 292).


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Clive Barnes

With a well-groomed impudence and a cheerful antic wit, a new musical, "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac," arrived … last night for what should be a long stay. It is one of the most preposterous shows in New York and yet also one of the happiest.

I suspect that this very chic and up-to-the-second musical started out as a satire on the rock musical and the freaked-out generation. Yet in some strange way the approach seems to have been absorbed by the subject matter, and even if "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac" was intended as a kind of affectionate put-down, what has emerged is something very positive and extraordinarily attractive.

The book and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer and the music by...

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Martin Gottfried

["The Last Sweet Days of Isaac"] is terribly intelligent and supermodern, very funny, pertinent and impertinent…. The problem is its problems—it ran into a great many of them, obviously tried to repair them, just as obviously couldn't, and decided to settle with what it had. I suggest you settle for that as well because it often succeeds at something nobody else has yet tried.

What Gretchen Cryer … tried to do was apply the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and the visual realities of primary artists to current American existence (television existence, sound tape existence, photographic existence) she kept her thoughts "linear" (as McLuhan would say), working in terms of dialogue and specific thoughts....

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Walter Kerr

"The Last Sweet Days of Isaac" is my favorite rock musical thus far for three reasons: (a) The songs end when they are over; (b) While a boy and girl are doing all that talking about coming alive, they are alive; and (c) Language at last is beginning to rise to the beat.

Take the last first. For the first time in my experience, someone—Gretchen Cryer, it turns out—has succeeded in writing a book that is not only as good as the music but walks right into the music without hemming and hawing about it. I say "book," although [it] is really (let's be honest) two enchanting one-acters….

But the writing is actual writing—not pretentious writing, mind you, not self-conscious...

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Howard Thompson

What a novelty it would be, in a musical needling thick-skulled, set American traditions, to see the bad guys—the old reactionary ostriches—presented as something less than diehard dimwits. The good guys? They're altogether admirable. The other side—impossible, except to long for the simple life. That's their one attribute.

This nagging cliché gathers and hangs like a conventional cloud over "Now Is the Time for All Good Men."…

Let's get this on record fast, even while quibbling about the play's one flaw….

The tone is quietly, sharply searching….

The score is brightly jocular when spoofing the local yokels. It is an interesting score...

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Douglas Watt

I don't expect you to believe any of this, but the hero of [Cryer and Ford's] "Shelter," an unnerving bit of musical whimsy …, is a happily married fellow who lives apart from his wife and their seven adopted children of as many races. He lives in a set—kitchen, bedroom and bath—in a television studio. And he is regularly visited by a young woman named Wednesday November….

From these sorry materials, which would be looked down upon as childish by the Sesame Street audience, a gratingly mannered and senseless book has been devised by Gretchen Cryer, who is also responsible for the foolish lyrics….

I didn't see ["The Last Sweet Days of Isaac"] but seem to recall that the...

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Clive Barnes

There is a lot of sweet music in the kooky musical, "Shelter."… Whether this will prove enough remains to be seen. Certainly the show is very likable….

It has been written by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, who a few seasons back gave us the amiable eccentricities of "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac." "Shelter" has something of that same zany and disarming spirit to it….

The show has a light heart and shows a certain insight into the self-satisfied child-man, Michael, and the kind of women who play house with him. Gretchen Cryer's book is too fantastic in its story line—its central situation of a man living on a TV set is unbelievable—which definitely detracts from the wry...

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Walter Kerr

Got the shock of my life. At "Shelter," an intimate musical surrounded by stereopticon slides, I found myself becoming quite accustomed to the notion that all of the orchestration for the tunes was being provided by a companionable computer named Arthur, whose lights blinked in rhythm to the notes being churned out. As one does at musicals, I found myself turning my head in Arthur's direction each time an intro began, accepting him (it?) as the source of all melody. Once, though, I saw something other than Arthur. I saw two ghostly hands, white, disembodied, waving frantically, like those of a drowning man making one last effort.

Then I realized what, or whose, they were. They belonged to the...

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Susan Dworkin

Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford have been composing fine music and lyrics for the theater and for just plain singing for a long time, and now, suddenly, people are beginning to listen to them. They started too soon, before women's experience was accepted as the stuff of hit songs, and so they had to wait. And wait. But now the waiting may be over.

Their newest record, "Cryer and Ford: You Know My Music" … has lyrics so timely (mostly by Cryer) and music so appealing (mostly by Ford) that it should make people look for their earlier album, "Cryer and Ford" …; between them, they contain all the thematic music that American feminism needs to keep it singing for a generation….


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Richard Eder

"I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" is a musical entertainment about a 39-year-old woman finding herself.

For once, the standard disclaimer must be reversed: The subject does not do justice to this summary description.

There is some freshness of aspiration but none of achievement in this collection of songs and skits about the troubles of a pop singer trying to find a new image for herself.

There is a touch of wit here and there. Gretchen Cryer … is trying to say something honest about aging and feminine identity. Her perception fails her, she falls into platitude after platitude and comes up with a show that is both insubstantial and very...

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Edith Oliver

["I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road"] was written by [Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer]. These are the two remarkable women whose "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac" was one of the glories of Off Broadway in 1970, which makes this show all the more disappointing…. "I'm Getting My Act Together" is a protest show, too, but it has a querulous undertone, and it is a lexicon of all those awful words and phrases (some of them used ironically, to be sure) that are the jargon of the nineteen-seventies—"relate," "relationship," "confrontation," "cleaning lady," "manipulating," "sick," and, worst of all, "celebrating me."

The show may indeed be disappointing, yet it is anything but a total...

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Julius Novick

Ms. Cryer sets forth the story of Heather Jones [in I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road] in terms of feminist cliches. Heather tells us that she was "Daddy's smiling girl," and then she was her husband's smiling girl, because she was expected to be; but ninety-eight years after the first production of [Henrik Ibsen's] A Doll's House, this is not precisely a new insight. And I am sick and tired of the bit about the crass male who says approvingly of some bright woman that she has "brains like a man." Even if that one does persist in real life, can't we give it a rest in the theatre?

Ms. Cryer's show is not simply a performance of Heather's act; what we see is a...

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Walter Kerr

As a natural male chauvinist who's simply never been able to get away with it …, I am endlessly fascinated by the varied cases the more ardent women's libbers make for themselves.

Gretchen Cryer, for instance, seems to me to be making the wrong one—or making it wrongly—in … "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On The Road." Miss Cryer, of course, is the writer-singer-actress who collaborated so niftily with composer Nancy Ford on "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac," and in the fretfully defiant challenge she's issuing now she does remind you—once or twice—how lyrically intelligent, how self-assertively bold she can be. She sings the phrase "Dear Tom, yes, I always fixed your suppers"...

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