Few places on earth had as much to do with the success of F. Scott Fitzgerald as Princeton University. It was there that a young writer fell in love with the woman who would serve as inspiration for one of his most famous characters and where the seeds of his first novel were sown. The Underclassman, a new play by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, running now through November 30 at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City, takes a look at this pivotal time in Fitzgerald's life.
Set in 1915, the play follows Fitzgerald's days at Princeton (along with Princeton alums Edmund Wilson '16 and John Peale Bishop '17) and his work with the Princeton Triangle Club show. It was during this period that Fitzgerald fell in love with Ginevra King, a debutante who was clearly out of his social class. The romance haunted him throughout his career. King is often credited as the inspiration behind such characters as Isabelle Borge in This Side of Paradise and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. His debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was based on his time at Princeton. It was an instant success and introduced Fitzgerald as one of the leading voices of his generation.
Through music representative of the age, The Underclassman explores Fitzgerald's coming of age as a writer, his romance with King, and his love of musical theatre. Fitzgerald wasn't much of a student at Princeton, but he was heavily involved with the Triangle Club. The group still exists today, creating original musical theatre productions each year. Fitzgerald is credited with writing all of the song lyrics for three consecutive Triangle Club shows (Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!, 1914-1915; The Evil Eye, 1915-1916; and Safety First, 1916-1917).
The play features Matt Dengler as Fitzgerald, Jessica Grové as Ginevra King, Piper Goodeve as Marie Hersey, Marrick Smith as John Peale Bishop, and Billy Hepfinger as Edmund Wilson.
"It's interesting to see what led up to the F. Scott that we all know," said Matt Dengler. "That's the fun part of the play. We all have a relationship with F. Scott and The Great Gatsby. We all sort of know that era because of him and this play lets you watch the story unfold. It's cool because F. Scott's known for the ‘20s - the Jazz Age - and these were his formative years."
In order to get a better feel for the time frame, Denglar and Grové were part of a field trip to Princeton University where they walked around campus, visited the Triangle Club, and even saw some of Fitzgerald's original manuscripts.
"It was the best research we could have done," said Dengler. "The university architecture is spectacular. We went into an old lecture hall that has not been touched since the early 1900s. There were about 200 seats and we joked that if you sat in every seat the odds were that you would have sat in one that Fitzgerald had sat in… or didn't because he didn't go to class very often. But the campus is gorgeous and it's really untouched since his time there. It looks like Hogwarts!"
Basic research was not necessary for the husband/wife duo of Peter Mills (Princeton class of '95) and Cara Reichel (Princeton '96). The two met and began dating as members of The Triangle Club. They knew the basic history of Fitzgerald and the Club as his legend is hard to ignore at Princeton, but they expanded their knowledge by studying the history of the Triangle Club and letters from King and Fitzgerald in the University archives.
"[The Triangle Club] was my first experience writing songs for musical theatre or writing songs at all for that matter," recalled Mills. "Everything I know about musical theatre I learned from The Triangle Club because that's where I really started."
The two first told Fitzgerald's tale in 2005 under the name The Pursuit of Persephone, a play that was well received and earned Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Score and Orchestrations. The new production contains the same central story, but has been streamlined. In the original, much of the play was framed by Fitzgerald looking back as an old man; the new version puts the focus on the present directly as the story happens.
"We allow the young F. Scott Fitzgerald character to take on some of the narrating role that the older F. Scott did by way of using his voice as a writer," explained Mills.
In addition, Mills says that a few songs were cut, a few were added, and the overall running time was reduced. A pattern they found, even in the best reviews, were comments that the play was too long. There's always a danger when changing a show that has received good reviews, but the creative team paid close attention to what people responded to favorably in the original production and did their best to preserve those elements while tightening the overall play.
"Peter and Cara have done a great job because F. Scott's style of writing is so poetic," said Dengler. "If you read This Side of Paradise, there are huge poems and passages with flowery imagery. The work sort of lends itself to music and their lyrics are spot on. They drew from his poetry."
They say you never forget your first true love. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, that was certainly the case. King is thought to have inspired nearly as much of Fitzgerald's writing as his wife Zelda. In The Underclassman, you get to know the one that got away — the woman who haunted Fitzgerald throughout his career. The play captures the youthful energy of the young lovers during a period of time in which the world was on the verge of World War I. It's an era in which the members of the Lost Generation were just beginning to come into their own.
The Underclassman is running now through November 30 at 229 W. 42nd Street New York City.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.