stage dives

A Musical About Joseph McCarthy Financed By a Scam Artist Ex-Con. What Could Go Wrong?

Well, there’s a reason you haven’t heard of Senator Joe.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Playbill
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Playbill

Broadway flops come and go, and when they go, they usually go loudly — with an earsplitting din of savage reviews or a thunderous tally of millions lost. But what about the flops that barely even make a kerplunk before sinking without a trace? In the history of Broadway misfires, none may be as unusual as the musical Senator Joe (b. January 6, 1989; d. January 7, 1989), as in McCarthy, about the rise and fall of the ruthless anti-communist demagogue, which arose from the creative aspirations of a young actor turned writer in partnership with the director of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. To give you some idea of its unusual ambitions, it featured a musical number in which legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow takes you on a virtual tour of Joe McCarthy’s alcohol-ravaged liver. The show began its life, as most musicals do, with dreams of glory. It came to its unlikely end with the arrest of a career criminal in a Manhattan phone booth.

We’ll get to the crook in a moment, but first let’s meet the story’s good guy. Perry Kroeger was just 20 years old when he caught the eye of director Tom O’Horgan, who cast him in a 1977 Broadway revival of the counterculture musical Hair (O’Horgan’s original Broadway production had run from 1968 to 1972). Kroeger, who then went by Perry Arthur (his middle name), was hired to play the Tourist Lady — a cartoon of a middle-class visitor to New York who is shocked by her encounter with hippies and a role that is always, for the sake of a then-shocking, now-quaint sight gag, cast with a man.

O’Horgan (1924–2009) was a complicated and fascinating figure. He began his career at Chicago’s Playwrights Theatre Club, the fledgling improv-and-performance group where Mike Nichols and Elaine May cut their teeth, and then made his way to New York, where he became a mainstay of the downtown experimental theater La MaMa. In the 1960s, he directed a number of Off and off–Off Broadway shows, but he had bigger ambitions — not just to work on Broadway but to bring his throw-it-all-at-the-wall weirdness (what one critic called “the gut-busting zest that has become [his] hallmark”) to wider audiences and tug the mainstream in his direction.

By the early 1970s, O’Horgan, an aging gay hippie (and, for some period of time, Harvey Milk’s lover), became something of a sensation — a counterculture popularizer who followed the success of Hair with the hit play Lenny (the partial basis for Bob Fosse’s 1974 movie) and Jesus Christ Superstar. But he lost his touch with a 1972 bomb called Dude, a by-all-accounts incomprehensible rock musical about heaven and hell so fraught (at one point, its 23-year-old lead was replaced with an 11-year-old boy) that it became the stuff of ’70s-theater Schadenfreude legend; the show “may go down in theatrical history as Broadway’s most monumental disaster,” wrote Patricia Bosworth in the New York Times. 

(That was before Senator Joe.)

It was in the aftermath of that disaster that O’Horgan, then in his early 50s, met Kroeger, an actor decades his junior.

“Tom and I struck up a relationship,” Kroeger recalls today, “and he took me on as some sort of protégé.” The Hair revival failed quickly, but “we did a lot of stuff over our years together, his later years, after he had lost the trust of the press and no longer had Broadway shows,” Kroeger says. “I did about 30 workshops with him — first as a performer, but then as a set designer, which is what I am now, and that developed into writing.”

In the 1980s, O’Horgan hatched a plan to create an Off Broadway troupe that would perform for larger audiences than La MaMa could accommodate, and he had ideas for three different musicals to launch his new venture. He offered Kroeger the chance to write “the one that was probably the most tangible” — a “popera” (O’Horgan’s term) about the late red-baiting senator McCarthy. “I worked on it for years,” Kroeger says. “He could have made a phone call to [La MaMa founder] Ellen Stewart and set the whole thing up within a month, but he was looking to break free of what he felt was a stigma associated with him doing La MaMa shows.”

Searching for a backer, O’Horgan got in touch with his most powerful and, he thought, well-funded ally in the theater world, a woman a New York assistant attorney general would later call “one of the cleverest and most successful criminals in the history of this state.” Adela Holzer was a Broadway producer and lifelong grifter who, by the time Senator Joe came along, was already plotting her own comeback.

Photo: New York Magazine

The Madrid-born Holzer’s first act had peaked in 1975, when the Times had run a flattering, if not particularly fact-based, profile depicting her as Broadway’s unlikeliest successful producer, a savvy female outsider who had learned to swim in a pool of sharkish men. The interview Holzer had granted in the East 72nd Street townhouse she was then sharing with her third husband, Peter Holzer, was, in almost every particular, a lie. She was not 41, as she claimed, but 52; she had not made $2 million from her buy-in to the original run of Hair but something under $125,000; she had never, as she claimed, been a teacher at Columbia University; and she had not earned “fistfuls of money investing in spice, rice, sugar, butter, cement, and other commodities” but by taking money from investors on the pretext that she could make them rich in some of those markets. Holzer had produced a couple of hits and said she was around $300,000 in the black from her recent successes, but she and her husband had also been the primary producers of Dude. That show’s failure was “the only thing I feel bitter about,” she admitted — yet added, “Naturally I came back to the theater. The theater is an emotional orgasm.”

Just two years after that story ran — right around the time Kroeger met O’Horgan — Holzer was under indictment on 248 counts of defrauding investors. (The case probably tarnished the reception of her just-published rags-to-riches autobiography, which was, amazingly, titled If at First … and subtitled “The Cinderella Story of a Young Spanish Woman Who Became an American Tycoon.”) The townhouse would be repossessed, and the marriage would fall apart. In 1979, as bilked creditors sought almost $13 million from her, she declared bankruptcy. Holzer’s lawyer, Roy Cohn — yes, that Roy Cohn, former chief counsel for Senator McCarthy — employed a defense of basically arguing that she was “an extremely imaginative woman,” which got all but seven of those counts dismissed. She was, however, convicted on those, and after exhausting appeals, she began serving her sentence in 1981.

By 1987, Holzer had been out for a few years and was looking to get back into show business when O’Horgan reconnected with her. Perhaps she liked the fact that Cohn, who had failed to keep her out of prison and was now dead, was a character in Senator Joe, or perhaps she genuinely thought a musical about the Red Scare could be the next Hair. In any case, she and O’Horgan were each other’s best bets at the time, and they started to look for a large Off Broadway house — say, 300 or 400 seats — where Senator Joe, which required a cast of 16, could be mounted.

“They just couldn’t find a house that was open,” Kroeger says. “And I’ll never forget the day. We had been working on this show for a long time. I was at my parents’ house and the phone rings and Tom says to me, ‘She wants to take it to Broadway.’ And my first thought was, Well, that’s the end of it, right here. This is not a Broadway show.

Kroeger was right to worry. The musical he’d written was anarchic and phantasmagorical — most people in the cast would be playing several roles, and the dramatis personae included Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julius Rosenberg, and Ricky Ricardo. And, of course, that liver number with Edward R. Murrow, which called for actors to play the roles of Fatty Deposit and Enzyme.

“For the very few people who saw the show,” he says, “that’s the scene they remember.” (Note: I am one of the very few people who saw the show. It’s the scene I remember.)

Kroeger had never envisioned Senator Joe as Broadway fare — certainly not in an era when the biggest new musical hits were high-gloss productions like The Phantom of the Opera and a revival of Anything Goes. In the best-case scenario that he and O’Horgan had been discussed over the years, “the title Threepenny Opera came up a lot,” he remembers, “like, maybe it would be this down-and-dirty little gem that you discovered in some hole in the wall. But Adela Holzer had this bug in her for Broadway, and I soon found out that Tom had it too.”

Most important, Holzer had money; according to a 1989 New York Magazine story, she quickly came up with half a million dollars, scraped together from investors who had either forgotten or simply missed the news that she was a scam artist and an ex-con. The money was enough to fund the show’s development. Nobody involved in Senator Joe asked where it came from, but nobody had to, since Holzer was in the habit of not-so-discreetly dropping hints that she was intimate friends with — and might even be secretly married to — the billionaire David Rockefeller. “There was a summer of rehearsal in the basement of a church down in the East Village,” Kroeger says. “Then there was a long dead period where nothing happened but she continued to pay the cast for a year.”

By the spring of 1988, when Holzer booked Senator Joe and the musical with which it was supposed to be performed in repertory, a never-again-seen show called Nimrod and the Tower of Babel, in a theater in Port Chester for a pre-Broadway tryout, the money was drying up and everyone was starting to worry. Sets hadn’t been built, and designers hadn’t been paid. A subsequent tryout run in Pittsburgh had to be cut short because so little advance promotion had been done that for one of the performances, only a single ticket had been sold.

Nevertheless, Holzer was hell-bent on bringing the show to Broadway. “She booked it into the Virginia Theatre [now the August Wilson Theatre],” says Kroeger. And then a little while later, she got the Neil Simon,” another Broadway house directly across from the Virginia on West 52nd Street, “which was for some reason better. So for a little while we had our signs up at two theaters at once.”

The run-up to an opening on Broadway is generally a time packed with frantic work, rewrites, and wild collective optimism. That was not the case with Senator Joe. After Pittsburgh, O’Horgan knew that the musical was nowhere near ready, and, possibly because his own interest was waning, he started to check out of the process; he had already taken a directing job in Denmark that was scheduled for right when the show was to start previews. “Tom wasn’t really doing for the show what I felt needed to be done,” says Kroeger. “And if it had had a normal producer with a good, broad vision and an eye, they never would have considered it for Broadway.”

But Holzer was not to be stopped — even though by that point, nobody was being paid and an understandably mutinous mood was growing within the cast and crew. Gordon Harrell, Senator Joe’s musical director and Kroeger’s boyfriend at the time, was farming out individual songs to different orchestrators, all of whom (along with the show’s musicians) were wondering when they might see some money, as they hurtled toward a planned official opening that was scheduled for just two weeks after the first preview. “There was one rehearsal,” Kroeger said, “when she literally came in through the stage door with a garbage bag full of money and paid off each kid with a wad of bills.”

The first preview took place on a Friday night. Audiences coming through the door were handed Playbills that seemed to promise two musicals on the cover — Senator Joe and Nimrod — and weren’t sure, as they took their seats, if they were seeing two one-acts or one full-length show.

I was there. Once the performance started, the reaction I remember was not derision but bafflement: Senator Joe felt under-rehearsed and chaotic, and the actors looked jittery and unsure of their movements. That, however, is not unusual for a first preview. What was unusual was that Senator Joe’s second preview, the next evening, was the last time it was ever seen onstage. Holzer could no longer run from her money problems, and when she couldn’t put up the bonds that Broadway unions require to guarantee payment, the show was — temporarily, she told the cast — shut down.

O’Horgan left for Denmark the next day, but Holzer didn’t give up; in late January, she called him and told him she had raised $750,000, and Senator Joe was back in business. In February, as she was preparing to remount the show, she stopped on her way back from an American Express office to make a phone call from a street booth and the cops moved in. They’d had one of her potential investors wear a wire and arrested her for grand larceny.

“Tom and I took a bus out to Rikers Island to visit her,” says Kroeger. “But for some reason, they were turning away all visitors that day. It emerged that there were multiple scams involving … well, the bad one that always stuck in my head is that she had talked elderly people into mortgaging their homes to give her money for something. And that money was going into the show I wrote. I never saw her again.” Holzer, it emerged, had told investors that her “husband” David Rockefeller had guaranteed the security of their money. She was convicted and went back to prison, this time from 1990 to 1994.

That was the end of hopes for Senator Joe to become part of what would turn out to be a largely terrible season for Broadway musicals, one so bereft of new work that, had the show opened, it would have stood half a chance of getting Tony nominations for Best Book and Score of a Musical (awards that were scrapped owing to a lack of contenders). But somehow the show itself almost had a comeback moment, appropriately enough (or not) in the wake of the triumph of the American way of life over communism in the former Soviet Union.

“Four years later,” Kroeger says, “with Adela Holzer long locked up, another shady character emerges, David Buckley. He comes to Tom and says, ‘We can do this in Moscow.’ He had just been over there, he had seen how cheap it was to do things, and thought that with McCarthy calling everyone Reds, there could be a kind of tie-in with Russia. He said, ‘I want to produce this at the Moscow Art Theater,’ and he talked Tom into it.”

O’Horgan and Kroeger went to Russia and spent months thinking that they were about to become the first people ever to mount a new American musical in Moscow. “We were going to fly 12 actors over, and they were going to meet with the Russian actors, but Buckley had to come through with $100,000 and he couldn’t do it,” says Kroeger. “We were there nearly four months, and they were great to me — living in Moscow during perestroika had a huge effect on my life — and then, for the second time, it was aborted. I googled David Buckley for this interview and found out that he was the director of Debbie Does Dallas, so that’s his story.”

Holzer, it turned out, had a third act in her — seven years after being released from prison, she was back on trial again, this time for swindling as many as 700 immigrants out of $1.5 million by telling them she could purchase citizenship for them. In 2001, at 78, she was sentenced to nine years in the penitentiary. (She was released in 2010, retired to Boca Raton, and, long forgotten, died last September at 96; her death was not reported for months.)

O’Horgan, who never directed on Broadway again, died in 2009. When his papers were being archived, Kroeger, who went on to become a set designer, made sure that the Senator Joe score and scripts were included. He’s not defensive about the show; he even holds something of a soft spot for it. “Last summer, I was at a gay campground, and there were some guys I was hanging out with, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote this thing.’ The next week, I came back, and the guy said [in a sneering tone], ‘Well, I Googled your show.’ And yes, it was a disaster,” he says. “But there will always be this feeling in my heart of, you know, nobody really understands.”

A Musical About Joseph McCarthy. What Could Go Wrong?