Guide to the ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ musical on Broadway

The story of a couple bedeviled by booze appeared as a teleplay and a starry film before getting the stage treatment — find out what makes each take unique.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Love on the rocks. That, in a nutshell – if not a shot glass – gives you the gist of the moody new musical Days of Wine and Roses, now running at Studio 54 on Broadway following its Off-Broadway premiere in 2023.

The show, created by composer/lyricist Adam Guettel and book writer Craig Lucas, stars Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara as married alcoholics Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen. The couple’s battles with the bottle brings a world of hurt for them and their loved ones.

The musical is based on a 1958 teleplay by JP Miller and his big-screen adaptation released four years later. Each version of the story shares common ground and points of departure.

Find out more about what makes each version unique, and see the show before its limited 16-week engagement ends.

Get Days of Wine and Roses tickets now.

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Days of Wine and Roses teleplay

The title of the story originally seen on screen comes from an 1896 Ernest Dowson poem, "Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam," which speaks to life’s changing nature.

The first iteration, Miller’s 1958 teleplay for Playhouse 90, was inspired by heavy-drinking family members. He broadened the story to follow a New York couple whose boozing leads to benders, betrayals, lost jobs, and a vicious cycle of being on and off the wagon.

Cliff Robertson (a Charly Oscar winner) starred as Joe, a public relations ace with a “great line of bull.” Piper Laurie (a Carrie Oscar nominee) was Kirsten, a sharp, self-schooled secretary he meets through work.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, the teleplay frames the action as a flashback. Joe tells his harrowing story at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. By then, he and Kirsten have had a daughter, Debbie, and been married and drinking together for 10 years.

Kirsten is already drinking when we meet her, so when Kirsten’s father (Charles Bickford) later tells Joe, “You taught my daughter to drink,” it’s a bit out of left field. In a hopeful turn, Joe takes steps toward recovery, while Kirsten can’t cope with life without liquor. “The world is so dirty when I’m not drinking,” she says; Lucas borrowed the line for the musical.

Days of Wine and Roses is sobering in every sense, but it was a both commercial and critical success. Miller and Laurie were nominated for Emmys for their work. The teleplay ends with Joe reciting the Serenity Prayer, a common recitation at AA meetings. In 1958, showcasing AA on primetime TV was a bold venture.

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Days of Wine and Roses movie

Miller’s 1962 movie adaptation of his teleplay faithfully followed the corrosive impact of alcoholism on a young married couple. The film’s poster put it this way: “It is different. It is daring. Most of all, in its own terrifying way, it is a love story."

Numerous key scenes remain intact from the teleplay, including when a dead-drunk Joe destroys the greenhouse owned by Kirsten’s father (Bickford, who reprised his role) in search of a bottle he hid. Edwards's film also made changes: The setting shifted from New York to San Francisco, and there was a little more humor.

The addition of one key scene shines a different light on the couple’s dynamics. In the film, Joe is a seasoned social drinker — but Kirsten is a teetotaler. “I don’t like the taste,” she says, adding that she loves chocolate. Joe introduces her to alcohol via a sweet Brandy Alexander, kickstarting her downward spiral.

Jack Lemmon (a Save the Tiger Oscar winner) and Lee Remick (The Omen) starred as Joe and Kirsten under the direction of Blake Edwards, known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, and Victor/Victoria. To prepare for their roles, Lemmon and Remick audited AA meetings, and Lemmon observed prison inmates in a prison drunk tank. The pair were nominated for Oscars for their work, as were the art direction and costumes. The film won for music; its title song has music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

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Days of Wine and Roses musical

The Days of Wine and Roses musical is drawn from both previous sources. The story’s setting is New York, as in the teleplay. Joe likes to drink – but not by himself. That’s a problem, since Kirsten hates the taste of booze and never touches a drop. So as in the film, Joe seduces her with a Brandy Alexander.

Before you know it, she’s slurping Johnny Walker, champagne, and margaritas. That leads to her singing a number called “Morton Salt Girl” – and eventually to personal disasters that impact them, their daughter (here named Lila), and Kirsten’s tough but loving father.

Musicals don’t get much more intimate and tightly focused than Days of Wine and Roses. It’s all about Joe and Kirsten, which the music reflects. James and O’Hara do virtually all the singing, even though other actors play small roles, including an AA sponsor and the couple's acquaintances. As the daughter who’s collateral damage to her parents’ addictions, Tabitha Lawing gets a couple of songs.

Guettel’s Tony Award-winning Light in the Piazza score spills over with lush romance – cue the violins, celli, and harp! — but Days of Wine and Roses is a different musical cocktail. Guettel did not incorporate the Oscar-winning title song into his completely original score, but the show’s 18 numbers are jazzy, abstract, and a bit edgy. More like a dirty martini than a Brandy Alexander.

Meet the stars of Days of Wine and Roses Broadway

During his acclaimed career, James has moved back and forth between the stage and screen. He’s given notable film performances in Spotlight, 13 Reasons Why, and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. He also has four Tony Award nominations: for Into the Woods, Something Rotten!, Shrek The Musical, and Sweet Smell of Success.

O’Hara made her Broadway debut in 2001 as a replacement in Jekyll & Hyde. Over the past two-plus decades, she’s become one of the theatre’s most in-demand actresses thanks to her lustrous soprano voice, strong acting chops, and captivating stage presence.

Notable stage highlights include her Tony Award-winning role as Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Her six other Tony nominations are for Kiss Me Kate, The Bridges of Madison County, Nice Work If You Can Get It, South Pacific, The Pajama Game, and The Light in the Piazza. She can also be seen on TV in The Gilded Age.

Belly up to Broadway’s Studio 54 and see these stars tackle the complex story of Days of Wine and Roses firsthand.

Get Days of Wine and Roses tickets now.

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