Sunday, September 9, 2012

THE PINK LADY

There are a few things that almost seemed like Holy Grails in my search for materials for this collection, as oddball as it might seem, especially scripts for scores from the early, early part of the 20th century. Most are hardly worth the search, since all anyone really cares about in these shows is the music. But this one is a true gem.

Theatre historians have long asserted that OKLAHOMA and SHOWBOAT were the first American musicals to integrate score with script such that the musical numbers propelled the action. Not so: there were others. And one of the earliest was the wildly successful and now-largely forgotten THE PINK LADY (1911), by CMS McLellan and the truly incomparable Ivan Caryll.

Okay, I'm gonna gush here for a moment. American theatre has been blessed with a number of truly great composers — Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim, Bernstein — but if anyone could use a serious revival, it's Ivan Caryll. I have about a half dozen of his scores (among them a truly whacked adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds entitled WOODLAND), and, while they are definitely products of their turn-of-the-century times, there's also something stylish and sparkling and flat-out lovely that makes them speak across the decades to say, "Look, your rock music is all well and good, but check me out, dude." One might call Caryll the Strauss of Broadway: his music has an almost distinct salon feeling, particularly in shows like THE MESSENGER BOY and THE LITTLE CAFE. He wrote sophisticated, elegant scores that were often well above the scripts they were scotch-taped to. The scripts to these have most been forgotten — and probably for good reason. But not THE PINK LADY. I was fortunate enough to see a copy of this at the Library of Performing Arts in New York and instantly was smitten by its whimsy and joie-de-vivre, and I was excited beyond all reason when the Library posted a pdf of the libretto.

The story will no doubt sound slightly inane by modern standards — but then, dont the farces of Feydeau? All that door slamming and mistaken identity and coincidence piling on coincidence, all to the point where your head is spinning by Act Three. This one certainly doesnt disappoint in that regard, which isnt surprising, considering its heritage. THE PINK LADY is based on Le Satyre, a Parisian boulevard farce by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand (and I'm now on a quest to find a copy of that) that was apparently quite the hit in its own day. So let's see what's going on here, shall we?

We're in a small French village just outside Paris, whose restaurant patrons talk almost incessantly about a mysterious man known as the Satyr, who has a penchant for kissing young maidens who wander into the forest to pick mushrooms. At the same time, a bachelor named Lucien Garidel is about to be married and has come to the village for one last fling with his mistress. But his fiancee Angele, accompanied by Maurice (a spurned suitor who trusts Lucien about as far as he can throw him) and Bebe (a young man who has long pined for a girl whose family moved to Canada a decade before), has come to find him — ostensibly to prove to Maurice that Lucien is indeed faithful to her.

Now we throw into the mix a man named Dondidier... who doesnt really exist. Lucien has been using him as a means of coming to country — much like Algernon does with the perpetually dying Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest — but now Angele insists on meeting him, especially since Lucien has framed him as the infamous Satyr. And if things were messy enough, Claudine, Lucien's mistress and the Pink Lady of the title, appears to have lunch with him. Angele is furious at his deception and decides immediately to throw Lucien over and marry Bebe.

BEBE. But you dont love me!

ANGELE. Of all the men I know, I love you the least. But my happiness of shattered forever, Bebe, and I propose to live and die a martyr. I shall take a husband towards whom I can be cold, dictatorial, and superior. Above all a husband who is totally lacking in personal attraction. In a word — you!

Lucien tries to explain that Claudine is actually Dondidier's wife, sent to explain his absence. But Angele isnt fooled... until Claudine appears and does indeed drop into the role — without any prompting. Lucien has no idea how to deal with this, and Angele, still suspicious, insists on knowing where in Paris she and her husband reside. Claudine smoothly gives her an address, adding that Mr. Dondidier is an antiques dealer. And it all seems settled for the moment... sort of. Bebe actually provided Claudine with the inside information, so that a placated Angele would go ahead with her plans to marry Lucien. And yes, there is a Monsieur Dondidier, who runs an antique store at that address...

... except that everyone overheard Lucien claim that this Dondidier is the infamous Satyre, so now everyone wants to go to Paris to meet him. Everyone. So with that, we're off to Act Two...

The complications build from there: the real Monsier Dondidier is a mousy little dealer in questionable antiques, married to a woman who wishes he were more of a man "than a mash" and is thrilled when she finds out her husband is the infamous Satyre (except, of course, he isnt... but you knew that, right?). Before long, the relationships between the characters have become so convoluted that no one but the Pink Lady herself can sort it out... which she does, ensuring that Lucien does marry Angele, Bebe can remain faithful to his girl in Canada, and Monsieur Dondidier can be more of a man to his wife. And then there's the thing about the two missing statues...

Oh? You want to know about those? Ah, the joy of magic realism. At one point Dondidier points out that two ancient Greek statues, one of Aphrodite, the other of a satyr, have mysteriously disappeared from his inventory... about the same time that Claudine and Le Satyre appeared on the scene. Hmm....

But this leads to an interesting little piece of trivia. According to generally accepted tradition, the female lead of a musical should have her own happy ending... except that the lead here is a somewhat immoral mistress who's leading the male lead astray — and we cant have that. So the librettist's inspired solution? Make her a goddess whose charms are irresistible to men and who can bless Lucien's and Angele's wedding.

The lyrics are by turn wondrous and witty. For example, the Act Two opener, sung by Dondidier's clerk about the store's inventory:

Look a this wonderful thing!
It's Julius Caesar's gun.
And here may be seen the sewing machine
Of the Duke of Wellington
Just look! Over there is a genuine pair
Of Shakespeare's rubber shoes
You've a chance now to own the same telephone
That Washington used to use
Here's a watch and chain that Adam gave Cain,
The piano from Noah's ark,
And here in its place the cigarette case
Cleopatra gave her Marc.

or the hysterical "seduction" scene between Dondidier, reveling in the sudden notoriety of being Le Satyre, and the excited Angele:

D. I'm a wicked, awful man.

A. And I'm so glad
That you're bad
Be just as wicked wont you as you can
A terrifying spectacle to see
If you were, 'twould simply break my heart

D. Is that a fact?
Well I shall act
So awful you will have to make a start
And scamper like a deer away form me
I'm after you before you've time to speak

A. Then we'll have a game of hide and seek

Much of THE PINK LADY was written with specific performers in mind, particularly Frank Lalor as Dondidier and Hazel Dawn as Claudine. Dawn went on to be a Ziegfeld performer until her marriage in 1927, after which she retired from the stage. But for a generation, she was indeed The Pink Lady. And to call the show a sensation would be an understatement: there were two touring companies; the show inspired an entire line of women's fashions; and just about anyone who was anyone found some sort of professional connection with it. The critics were unanimous in their raves, with all noting how the score was so tightly bound to the script that only one or two songs — "The Girl by the Saskatchewan" and "The Kiss Waltz" could be extracted without undue damage.

So why has it faded from memory? Darned if I know. It's a sophisticated, rollicking good time, an intelligent musical that has great fun with itself, the genre, and the audience, with good-natured winks spread as generously as mushrooms in the forest.

Friday, June 15, 2012

TUNE IN!

A cute homage to the days when live radio was more than people yelling politically-charged diatribes at each other, TUNE IN (1934) by Edward Bradley and the ever-reliable Don Wilson (uncredited cover art), takes us behind the microphone to see the intrigue of running a station while keeping one's advertisers happy... no matter what.

We're in the studio of WTNT, owned and operated by the industrious and increasingly frantic Joe Brown. His sole advertiser, Kroggins Kippered Kodfish, has offered to underwrite the station if he'll produce a test show starring "Mitzi, the Mysterious Soprano". The only problem with that is that "Mitzi" is Kasper Kroggins' wife, who — as the authors put it — has more ambition than talent.

A lot more.

At the same time, Lysander Phipps, the former owner and now a theatrical producer, has decided he wants his station back and has maneuvered things such that if the test program fails, the station automatically reverts to him. To try and save the situation, Joe schemes with his announcer Binks to replace her with the WTNT telephone operator, who really is named Mitzi and apparently, thanks to the magical world of high school operetta, sings like an angel.

Well, you really didnt expect otherwise, did you?

So Binks and Jerry Kennedy, the Kroggins advertising manager (and Mitzi's boyfriend), arrange to get Mrs. Kroggins stuck in an elevator between floors. Mitzi sings in her place, but just as the program is concluding, Mrs. Kroggins escapes and dashes to the studio. She's told she's arrived just in time, but what the production team hasnt told her is that she's singing into a dead mike. Unfortunately, a phone call praising Mitzi's performance uncovers the ruse; furious, Mrs. Kroggins fires Jerry and orders her husband to cancel all business with WTNT. Phipps senses his opportunity and demands Joe give him the station. Embarrassed to be caught in the middle of things, Mitzi quits. And on this catastrophe, the first act ends.

The second act is the Kroggins' New Year's Eve party at the station (well, see, the invitations had already gone out and it would have been impossible to contact everyone to cancel and besides all he catering work would have gone to waste and, well, you get the idea, right?). The test program was a wild success with the listeners, due in large part to Mitzi's singing. Phipps offers Joe a clear contract to the station in exchange for a contract for the singer he heard on the program, who he thinks is Mrs. Kroggins. But that doesnt last too long after he hears her sing. Furious at being hoodwinked, Phipps turns around and offers the contract to the real Mitzi, who accepts it.

Things look dire for everyone until Archibald Throckmorton, an attorney who's been unsuccessfully trying to see Joe throughout the entire show, finally gets a word in: Joe is the heir to a huge estate, including all the patents to the process of kippering codfish. And with that utterly unexpected deus ex machina, Joe gets to keep his station, Jerry gets to keep his Mitzi, Lysander gets to leave empty handed, and Mrs. Kroggins gets to return to her place in the kitchen where she figures she belongs. And with much singing from the WTNT "operatic ensemble and concert orchestra", the curtain falls.

Okay, it's the plot of every 1930s backstage musical ever written, but TUNE IN does have a slightly wacky bit of charm going for it. The characters are all well-sketched stereotypes, from the dashing leading man to the Margaret Dumont "opera singer". Bradley has cleverly interpolated the chorus into a full schema of supporting roles, from radio chorus to production people, and the test program itself — the Kroggins Hour — is a cute little send-up of the advertiser-heavy musical revues of the time.

BINKS. Scientists tell us that ninety per cent of our physicals ills come from faulty diet. Why is it that Eskimos have no trouble with their vtamins or calories but are marvels of strength and vitality? Dr. Thymus, prominent veterinarian of Vienna answers that question in a surprising way. He says, 'The Eskimo gets in codfish all the fish the average businessman needs." So if you want to feel peppy as an Eskimo, eat more delicious, fresh from the hook, salt water codfish!

The centrepiece of the show is, of course, Mitzi but the authors note that "any specialties suitable for a radio program may be introduced here", but that the entire program not exceed fifteen minutes — since that was the usual length for such radio shows. Sprinkled through the entire evening are such 1930s radio standards as an Indian number (for the Kroggins Kodfish Kids Klub) and the song-and-dance trio of Milly, Tilly, and Billy. But what's most fun are the numbers written for Mrs. Kroggins, and I pity the poor musical director who had to keep his/her high school musical diva reined in for these. Wilson writes her first one, "What Vision Meets My Eye?", as a parody of "art songs" of the 1910s and 1920s:

What vision meets my eye?
What vision meets my eye?
O this is madness!
I thought I heard a coach and six acrossing hill and valley
Twas but the milkman as he rattled down the alley


Why, the vision's gone!
The vision's gone!
I'm just a lonely maiden
Forsaken and alone


But there's my flowers!
But there's my flowers!
I'll sing about them!

As the background chorus sings sotto voce to Joe that We cant let her sing We cant let her sing, the good lady has to deal with Wilson's musical line, which at spots is purposely written a half step lower or a half step higher to get her off-key just enough to make it unbearable. Her second — "The Gate is Off the Hinges but the Robin Sings There Still" — is more turn of the century music hall but just as much a brilliant parody.

There are also a few overtly theatrical moments, such as when Mitzi, distraught over the events after the program, decides she's going to run away "and join a bunch of gypsies!" — and immediately a chorus of gypsies appear for a wild number involving much tambourining. Later in the show, during a pretty standard love duet, the chorus appears yet again to lend their support to the moment. It's a cute gimmick, and Bradley and Wilson are wise not to overplay it.

TUNE IN is another one of those moderately frustrating shows: good enough to stand on its own in a production today and needing only a bit of dusting off to make it happen. A slight rewrite would allow for a few more pastiches during the Kroggins Kodfish Hour, which could allow things to build to Mitzi's solo. But all in all, it's a lovely little reminder of a time when radio entertainment ruled the land.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Paynter/Grant-Schaefer Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are of course a long-standing staple of the operetta world, and no one exploited this better than Theodosia Paynter and G A Grant-Schaeffer, who almost single handedly turned it into a long-standing career. We've already seen what they did to Snow White, so let's look at a few others.

RIP VAN WINKLE (1933) is a fairly straight-forward retelling, even though it's been moved forward by a century to 1757: Rip and his dog Wolf have been turned out by his ever-nagging wife and finds himself in the Kaatskill (their spelling, folks) Mountains, where he discovers Henrick Hudson and his crew. They've been transformed into gnomes who create weather havoc when playing ninepins. Rip drinks from Henrick's flagon and falls asleep for twenty years. Waking up, he returns home, finds his wife and many of his friends dead, and that the Colonies have won the Revolutionary War. HIs daughter, now an adult and married, offers him a home, and the villagers in general rejoice his return.

Now, you would think that something this simple would be treated fairly simply as well. Unfortunately, remember that we're talking about the duo that made Snow White's evil step mother into a possible Japanese spy. Never quite ones to turn away from a possible cultural stereotype, Paynter and Grant-Schaeffer look at the fact that RVW lived in New Amsterdam and.... well, see for yourself:

YOUNG RIP. Fader! Mooder says the broken shutter you should mend.

RIP. Go in, zon Rip, en say to mooder dot I loo...k en loo...k for de hammer, en I see it not.

YOUNG RIP. In your back pocket I see it, fodder.

RIP. De hammer you see in my back pocket, but I see it not vid'out eyes in de back of de head. You luf' me, leetle Rip? Go tell mooder de hammer I see not.

... and so on and so on, so relentlessly that I imagine learning the lines must have been a serious challenge for the playlet's little performers. References to the Revolution start popping up, with caustic little insults about "King Chorge" and a short song about paying taxes that grant "no representation". By the first act's end, Rip's wife has had enough and locks him out of the house, and he wanders into the mountains.

The very brief second act is virtually non-stop "Dutch lingo", save for Hudson, who affects a British accent. After sorting out that it's better to be Dutch than British, Rip takes a drink and falls asleep. The just-as-brief third returns to the village, where Rip arrives just in time to see a parade of returning Yankee soldiers (recreating the painting "The Spirit of 1776"), and no one seems especially surprised to see him returning after two decades. He's not especially surprised that his wife is dead. With another stirring song that celebrates how great it is to be American —

So now to George Washington we will sing
Tho we are Dutch descendents
Our representation will always be
The Spirit of Independence

— we end.

Okay, it's not bad. The dialect is way overdone, and the Revolutionary War aspect is clearly shoehorned on, but it does address the themes of lost time and the importance of family. The score is a fascinating mix of original work and Dutch folk songs, such as "The Lauterbach Maiden" and "Bergen of Zoom". The much-too-brief second act was probably a hoot to perform, certainly in comparison to the far duller first and third.

The music for ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO (1935) looks to Italian folk songs as its inspiration, but the story adaption is almost as bizarre as that afforded Snow White. Geppetto the wood carver discovers that a large chunk of wood is alive; as he works out the arms and head, they move around and laugh at him. Completed, the puppet runs out of the workshop; it's captured by a passing soldier who decides that, even though we're dealing with a puppet here, Geppetto is a bad parent and is summarily hauled off to prison. Alone, Pinocchio is consoled by his fellow puppets and a Talking Cricket (Where do you think they got that idea?). Pinocchio manages to burn his feet off during the night by putting them too close to a brazier.

Geppetto returns the next morning and makes new legs for his puppet, but instead of being a good boy and going to school, Pinocchio runs off with a brigade of marching soldiers.

Act Two.... well, okay, let me see if I can sort this one out. He's now at a Grand Theatre of the Marionettes, where a Fire Eater threatens to burn him (presumably alive) for dinner. A fox and a cat try to steal his gold by burning down the tree he's climbed to escape. He hightails it to the home of the Blue Fairy, where he falls in a faint. A bearded dog and three doctors — an owl, a crow, and the Talking Cricket — debate whether or not he's alive. Having determined he's dead, the doctors order four black rabbits to bury him, but Pinocchio demurs and takes some sort of restorative offered by the Blue Fairy. He tells a lie, and his nose grows by a foot, but the Blue Fairy restores it after he promises never to lie again. He leaves and winds up in the Country of Playthings, where lazy boys and girls become donkeys. Finally, Pinocchio is swallowed by a gigantic Dog-Fish, where he finds Geppetto, who was also swallowed at some point. They escape when the Dog-Fish falls asleep with its mouth wide open (because it's prone to asthma and heart palpitations) and reach land easily, since, of course, Pinocchio is made of wood and floats and carries Gepetto on his back.

Okay, I'll give you a moment to take all of that in.

Act Three is their return to their village, where everyone — fairy, fox, cat, soldier, talking cricket, kitchen sink — rejoice in their return. Blue Fairy makes him a real boy with no desire to ever do wrong things again, and Geppetto sees someone who'll take care of him in his old age... "as all real boys should".

Oh my.

Now bear in mind that this little extravaganza also features parts for sunbeams ("Fair girls are best in these roles"), fishes, a school master, sprites of the night, the Blue Fairy's attendants, and — believe it or not — assassins, complete with black ski masks. I cant even begin to imagine how many kids it would take to pull this off, but I'm betting well over a hundred. There's also a full rhythm orchestra, with bells, sticks, and cymbals (and the odd tambourine), and a surprising number of technical effects and lighting cues. All in all, this must have been a monster to produce.

Is it worth it, you ask? I suppose that depends. If you're a doting parent who wants to see little Janey onstage for all of thirty seconds while she sings about being a fishy in the sea, then quite possibly so. If you're a Rose-style stage-mother whose son got the title role, you'll be ecstatic — he's onstage for the entire piece. But otherwise?

I have to confess, this one is just a tad too weird for me. This adaptation makes the scripts by Estelle Merriman-Clark simplicity itself by comparison, especially the utterly bizarre second act.

CINDERELLA'S SLIPPER (1937, no cover available) is arguably the most straight forward of the three, although it too has its share of oddities. The Fairy Godmother in this one does a bit of snuff every now and then, and the little beings who create Cinderella's gown are a coterie of "little green tailors", who apparently have very strict ideas on how far they'll go on their work contract:

It's done, Fairy Godmother
Call the lady to put it on
It's ready now for her to don
Our Union doesnt let us do that

One other curious note comes during Act Two, when the Prince somehow gets one of her slippers. She complains that she'll have to hop around all night, while he complains that now he has two feet and three shoes.

Well, no one ever said operetta nobility was especially bright.

Act Three... you know the drill. Distraught prince. Every girl has to try on the shoe. Cinderella is apparently the only one in the kingdom to wear a size 6. Everyone — even the evil stepmother and step sisters — lives happily every after.

I must confess: the whole shoe thing has always bothered me. She was the only one that could wear a shoe that size? The only one?? Well, hey, whatever works for you, I suppose, although I must confess I dont know which is worse: the fact that she is the only one that can wear a size 6 or that he has such short term memory loss that he cant even remember what the girl he spend the entire night with looked like.

Typical man.

The music this time around is all original stuff (I'm not sure what he could have adapted it from, to tell the truth), and it's simple and bright and more than a bit quickly paced, with nothing slower than moderato. I was a bit surprised that the chorus didnt include mice and lizards — the whole coach thing is handled offstage — but I suppose by 1937, production cost was starting to become a bit of a factor. In many respects, it's the perfect little showcase for the lower grades: everyone gets a chance to show off a bit, and it's all handled with surprising speed and theatrical economy.

Perhaps it's their being products of their time, but I was a little surprised by a few things — the rather blatant rip off from Disney manifest in Cinderella and Pinocchio and the overworked accents in Rip Van Winkle. Pinocchio in particular seemed hopelessly overwrought, but as far as I can tell, that's a bit of an exception from the two who wrote these, almost as if the publishers demanded a full-bore panto-level production that they could market as such.

No idea who did the cover art for these. Quite possibly it's the same anonymous artist who did Snow White, but without a signature it's difficult to say for certain.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

THE MAGIC NUTCRACKER

We have all endured (or at least sat through) more than enough Nutcracker ballets to make one's head spin — and unfortunately, this one will not stop the momentum. THE MAGIC NUTCRACKER (1925) by Jane Kerley (with Tschaikovsky's score edited by Carl Deis, cover artist unknown) takes the bare bones of the story and hones it down to even more bone-chilling simplicity.

The entire thing plays out in a single set, a drawing room, with a — for the moment, anyway — normal sized tree, decorated with toys and candy that look suspiciously like the sort of things that would come to life in a juvenile operetta. Mom and Dad are finishing decorating the room, when Grandpa, hoisting a bag so full of toys that you suspect he robbed a bank to finance it, bursts onstage. It's the usual assortment of things that one might suspect will come to life in a juvenile operetta... but the prize acquisition of the evening is a nutcracker.

Oh, not just any old nutcracker, of course: this one is a magic nutcracker, purchased from an old woman who sat on the sidewalk in the freezing snow, advertising him as something that will "surely bring good luck!" (although one might be tempted to note that it didnt quite work in her case, which makes the advertising altogether suspicious, but anyway...) Grandpa is, of course, delighted that he found something his little granddaughter Marie will like.

But of course, as we all know, that enjoyment wont last long, not with her brother Johnny around who, as he is destined to do in every production, breaks the nutcracker, and Marie is devastated.

MARIE. He was so fine! Now look at him! He's all broken! Grandpa gave him to me! Grandpa gave him to ME! My lovely Nutcracker!

... and so Johnny is sent to bed without dessert and we never see him again. At least, not in this operetta anyway. Grandpa has a good laugh at Marie's emotional attachment to a hunk of wood, and everyone leaves. But Marie sticks around, concerned about her nutcracker. To make him... er, it... feel better, she decides to sing "the Arab cradle song that Nurse used to sing to me." But instead of putting the toy to sleep, she puts head to pillow and crashes out instead...

— only to awaken to find herself now suddenly very, very small, so much so that all the toys and candy on the tree are... wow, human sized. And all the toys are now... gosh, as big as her. A fairy made of candy tells us that Johnny ate her toe, which makes it difficult for her to walk. But knowing that the show must go on, she forces herself to dance like Fonteyn. She's replaced by a Chinese boy :

Me no like hang on tree by hair
Big Mel'can man he tie me there
Me no like
Me no like
Small Chinese have no fun at all
Small Chinese boy have great big fall

Next, a bunch of reed flute fairies, then a battalion of toy soldiers... which then means the appearance of the evil Mouse King, who's killed by Marie's shoe, which ends the curse on the Nutcracker, who reappears as a handsome prince, who immediately falls in love with a woman who's Marie suddenly all grown up, who says yes to being princess of the realm, and the flowers all gather, and everyone sings and dances, and you're thinking maybe it's almost over...

And there's a very brief scene following, with now-back-to-Little Marie still asleep in the doll's bed. Grandpa finds her and picks her up to put her to bed, all the while telling her that yes he'll fix the nutcracker in the morning. They're just about to leave, when Grandpa stops and says to the audience...

GRANDPA (at door) Drat that Nutcracker!

Exit and curtain.

And you sit there looking at the falling curtain and asking yourself, Whoa, wait a minute! "Drat that Nutcracker"? What was that all about? I have no doubt it was meant to be a shocker ending, but... it doesnt make any kind of sense.

I guess you had to be there.

Okay, to the music. Overall, not a bad transcription of themes from the Nutcracker. The Overture becomes a bit of an operatic scene, that takes us all the way to Johnny's breaking the toy. The rest are mostly solo and duo opportunities, but, with the exception of the now-cringe-worthy Chinese song, they're done with a more or less light touch. There's nothing inherently complicated about any of the voice work, except that it has some demanding little trills and the occasional surprising rhythm sequence. There's very little parts work since this was probably meant as unison work for the lower grades.

What does make this interesting, though, are the substantial production notes that accompany the script. Apparently Ms. Kerley produced this herself many times and gives us many pointers about how to make the costumes and the scenery. One item that I'm sure raised a few materal eyebrows is the costume for the wind fairy, which is accomplished with a long, straight slip of flesh-coloured gauze. She wears a slight jacket over that, also of gauze, but I'm wondering how many mothers in 1925 told little Janey's teacher, "No way am I allowing my child onstage to look like a hooker!" Probably a lot.

Also, please note: "The fattest children are to be dressed as men of brown gingerbread." That no doubt left its own share of emotional holiday scars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

THE BEAUTY CONTEST

Every now and then a work will that come along that completely defines the generation and culture from when it came... and THE BEAUTY CONTEST (1936), with libretto by Theodosia Paynter and music by G.A. Grant-Schaeffer (cover artist unknown), does that so resoundingly that one reads this script in... well, awe that is part sadness and part stupefaction. We've seen plenty of opportunities to date of how authors of these little works portrayed racial minorities and other countries' cultures, coupled with a patriotic fervor that sometimes verged on the jingoistic and isolationist. But THE BEAUTY CONTEST, arriving with the usual high school operetta innocence, defines relations between the sexes with a trowel-load of solid concrete.

This was another one of those "should I pick it up or not?" moments, as the cover describes the work as "an operetta in two acts for girls". I have a few of these — Wild Rose, The Rivals — and they're usually pretty awful. But THE BEAUTY CONTEST probably wasnt originally meant to be unisex in its production: fully half the cast is men. I'm sure that it was felt that, in performance, these characters would be performed by girls, but there's really nothing mandating that, as the vocal lines for the boys are written more for tenors than sopranos.

All right, let's get to it. We're on the lawn of a summer resort hotel, the type once popular in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The hostess, Jonquil Jones, and her maid-of-all-work, Milly, have done everything they can to keep folks happy during their stay, but a group of girls (daughters of the guests? students off on spring break? we're never told) are preparing to leave because the place is so boringly dull. Jones herself confesses to finding the atmosphere tedious and, to correct this, plans to run for mayor of the town, opposite the very popular standing mayor Mr. Green, just to, in her words, "mess things up a bit". The girls find this insanely thrilling and agree to stay and campaign for her.

Meanwhile, Jim Dandy, a local country boy, drops by to see Milly. It's obvious he's totally infatuated with her, while she's clueless about it all, seeing her promotion from farm drudge to hotel maid drudge as "improving" herself.

Mayor Green and some of the other local men appear. Green has heard about Jones' plan to run for mayor and is concerned: after all, she's wildly popular. To counter this, he decides that the hotel should have a beauty contest, to "take the women's minds off this campaign". He suggests the rest of the men help; if they do, as reward he'll give each the girl of his choice for a "grand dance aboard my yacht".

Milly returns and finds an announcement for the contest. While she mopes that she's not pretty enough to enter, a local beauty expert, Sylvia Spankum, rides in on her bicycle and shares some of her secrets as a way of getting Milly to enter. The rest of the girls return, and Sylvia cons each of them into entering as well, then takes advantage of the moment by giving them a collective makeover — at a price, of course.

Act Two is the pageant itself. The men have come as hooded Gallants (whatever those might be, although I suspect it was just a device to cut on costuming needs), to somehow ensure the judging panel's anonymity. Each girl is given an opportunity to show her stuff, with Milly performing last — and looking, naturally, shockingly gorgeous enough to win. Jonquil takes second place, and the Mayor "bashfully" asks if she would accept being the Mayor's Lady instead of the Lady Mayor. Despite the fact that she's gotten the support of just about every organization in town (which would mean an easy win), she inexplicably (or maybe not so) takes him up on his offer. Jim also claims his prize, as do the rest of the men, and the evening ends with almost everyone neatly coupled off, dancing a fox trot.

Okay, let's think about this for a moment, shall we?

The woman who has no real self-worth suddenly finds buckets of it by dressing up as a bride and winning a beauty pageant. Another allows her career aspirations to be dashed by a politically calculated proposal of marriage. Frankly, the only woman who seems to be making it in this world is Ms. Spankum, who's described as "anything but beautiful" and yet clearly a successful businesswoman (and, given the way the script handles her, most likely a lesbian). Mayor Green is "forty years of age, or elder: a stout, mature, large and commanding figure", so of course sweet, young Jonquil is just gonna rush into his arms. As for the rest of the cast, the authors take pains to make sure the pairings are simple and direct: here's the self-indulgent couple, here's the intellectual couple, here's the Japanese couple, while over here are the two pair of comic-relief twins (whose comic-relief status is defined solely by their physical appearance).

Ms. Spankum, I hasten to add, foxtrots with no one in the finale.

The lyrics... well, let's take a few examples. Here's the number where Jonquil confesses to the girls that she wants to run for office and their subsequent reaction:

Her case has grown most awfully dire
She's now in politics and cant retire
So give a little maiden's prayer
That she will win as Lady Mayor

On the other hand it's quite screamingly funny
The she can give the Mayor a run for his money
The election will be decided on whether
The womenfolk all stand together.

... which, of course, they dont. The minute they hear of the contest, the campaign is the last thing on their minds, and Sylvia, entrepreneur that she is, works it.

When you get those want-to-be-beautiful blues
From the top of your hat to the soles of your shoes
You've got to be willing to diet and kick
If you want your figure to be slim and slick
Your getup will be both stylish and chic
So that you may fascinate quick

And if it's suggested that you're full of vanity
You want your man to lose his sanity
Oh then you'll shine o'er all humanity
Because you've got those Got-to-be-Beautiful Blues!

But it's not all utterly dreadful (although I do like the rhyme of vanity/sanity/humanity); Rickie, a terminally cute French girl, has a flashy little number called "Allezoop! Boop-de-boop!" which cant be anything but an homage of sorts to a certain cartoon character. A girl fascinated by bugs sings of her adoration of things small and six-legged. But these are unfortunately blips; the remainder of this work seems pointedly oriented to making sure the womenfolk are kept in their places: to bear the children, to adore the husband, to accept a hard-scrabble life on the farm.

THE BEAUTY CONTEST, for all its innocence, is a frightening little portrayal of how men and women expected each other to interact, both personally and socially. As I note, it's a product of its time, when roles were stringently proscribed — in fact, I found it interesting that the men of this show are just as restrained as the women, just not as blatantly — and outcomes, even by high school operetta standards, were eminently predictable.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

One of the great things about writing this blog is the memories folks send me: of their parents performing in one, of being serenaded to sleep by a song from another. The fact that there's so little about the creators is a constant frustration... and then this appears in one's email box:

Searching on “Hattiebell Shields” recently, I came across your review of “The Palace of Carelessness.” I can tell you a bit about the authors. Hattiebell, Ivine and Laurene Shields were three sisters, daughters of George Shields, a Scottish immigrant, and Agnes Stoker, born in Ogden, Utah and the daughter of English Mormon immigrants. The girls had two brothers, Claude Lester Shields and John William Shields. My wife Bonnie is the granddaughter of John William Shields, thus the sisters are her great aunts.

The three sisters traveled on the Chautauqua Circuit, performing music. Ivine was operatically trained and made her debut at the Chicago Met and had a brief career. She also played piano. Hattie played cello; she also sang support vocals and played piano. Laurene did dramatic readings, sang and played piano. After their touring days, all three taught music, either privately or in the schools. They wrote several operettas for schools. We own “The Palace of Carelessness,” Station Cloudville,” and “Lindy: An Ode of Glorious Achievement.” My wife does not know if they wrote more operettas.

You are correct that there is little about them on the web. A search for “Shields Trio of Chicago” brings up a web page at the University of Iowa that contains their publicity brochure.

It was nice to see my Bonnie’s great aunts still mentioned. Thanks for posting your comment on their work.

Sincerely,
Bill Fenton

Here are the lovely ladies themselves. The back of the flyer notes:

The SHIELDS TRIO of CHICAGO INDIAN SKETCHES IN COSTUME A VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL PROGRAM Figure Figure Figure Figure The SHIELDS TRIO of CHICAGO Figure PERIOD COSTUME SELECTIONS READINGS AND DRAMATIC SKETCHES Figure THE SHIELDS TRIO of Chicago THE SHIELDS TRIO is an extremely attractive and unique organization. It is most unusual to find three such talented and attractive young ladies in one family. Each of these sisters is an individual artist, and the ensemble is altogether satisfying. These versatile and experienced entertainers offer a program of irresistible charm, consisting of dramatic sketches, and a variety of costume specialties including an Indian musical sketch, numbers in period frocks and hats, monologues and songs in various costumes. IVINE is a singer who has the rare gift of telling a story in song. Her clarity of enunciation and charm of personality captivate her audiences. She is also a pianist of ability. LAURENE is a dramatic reader of great talent, power and charm. She appeals to young and old as she draws from her large repertoire the humorous, the dramatic, the pianologue, etc. She is an excellent accompanist and singer. HATTIE-BELL, 'cellist, possesses a splendid technique and a lovely tone. She plays with equal skill and feeling the old favorites and the works of the masters. She is also an accompanist and joins in the ensemble singing. Figure THE SHIELDS TRIO of Chicago Press Comments from Here and There CHICAGO: Miss Ivine Shields, a singer whose work was exceptional from every viewpoint … splendid voice and dramatic style … won unstinted acclaim from the audience. She has good concert style and appearance … petite and very pretty … (Chas. E. Watt.) Hattie Bell, 'cellist … displayed a beautiful, full singing tone … played with manifest authority. Laurene elicited hearty laughs from the audience … showed great versatility … a charming personality, a musical voice and dramatic power. Ivine sings … with splendid style songs of the kind that require a singer who can project a story in song. This is her special talent. Laurene … as a picturesque Indian maiden … shows great dramatic power … exceeded our greatest expectations. Hattie Bell's 'cello solos delighted the audience. Miss Ivine Shields' enunciation is so pure that not a word went amiss—phrased correctly and scored heavily with her listeners. (Musical Courier.) ILLINOIS: Hattie Bell … showed wonderful technique and mastery of her chosen instrument … Laurene … an appealing personality and voice … true character interpretation … Downers Grove will welcome these young ladies again. The Shields Trio … a delightful program … enthusiastically received … (Wheaton). Laurene … voice capable of great variety of tone colorings … splendid portrayal of characters. (Wheaton.) Each of exceptional talent. (Lake Bluff.) UTAH: Laurene … excellent interpretation and delivery … great ability as reader and interpreter. (Ogden.) Ivine … sweet toned and excellently cultured soprano . . both a pianist and singer of ability. (Ogden.) Ivine … delighted and surprised a large audience … forced to appear after each number … beautiful renditions. (Salt Lake City) OHIO: Hattie Bell … wonderful technique and mastery of her instrument. (Fayette.) Hattie Bell … played with skill and feeling. (Elliston.) Figure DESIGNED AND PRINTED BY THE W. M. KING SERVICE, CHICAGO

Many thanks to you as well, sir.

THE GOVERNOR'S DAUGHTER

Madness, political intrigue, and dirty old men making improper advances — sounds like just another day on the front pages of the New York Times, but they're also a huge part of the very bewildering GOVERNOR'S DAUGHTER (1929) by Alfred Wakeman (book and lyrics) and Ira Wilson (music), the latter of whom gave us the "themes on a limited variation on Chopin" ENCHANTED ISLE and the "doesnt he know more than one melody by Stephen Foster?" JEANNIE.

It's election time in Calibama, and Mr. Goodspeed is anxiously waiting by the radio to hear if he's won the governorship. He's a nice enough fellow, so you know already that in the world of the high school operetta, he's won — but his wife, even before hearing the news, is already planning on the next big step: using this to get at all those people who did her wrong.

Once the results are in, the place is swarming with reporters, all of whom want to know every little detail they can about their new governor, but he's a bit more worried about the whereabouts of his daughter Jane. Not to worry — right on cue, she shows up with her chorus of girlfriends, and she simply cannot wait to tell her almost fiance Johnny about the news.

But Mom has other plans for Jane in the form of Senator Snow, an elderly ("almost fifty!") man whose marriage to Jane could be politically advantageous. First, tho, she has to get John out of the way, and she does so by playing first on his insecurities about the book he's waiting to have published and next on his love for her ("If you really love her..." — well, you know the drill there.). He agrees to break off the engagement and, as Mrs. Goodspeed further insists, will not tell her why.

Naturally, this causes no small confusion in Jane and her father (who actually thinks the guy's a good kid), but John is adamant: he cant tell Jane why it's over. And as Mrs. Goodspeed looks on with no small amount of smugness at her victory, we end Act One.

Act Two is at Snow's mansion, for an inauguration party. Momma has been working not only the party lines and setting up photo opportunities but she's also been laying the groundwork with the media to announce Jane's engagement — even though of course she hasnt bothered to tell Jane about it, but that little detail can be dealt with later. Governor Goodspeed shares Jane's confusion about John and had asked to meet him at the party. John initially tries to say it's over a money issue, but when Goodspeed happily writes him a cheque for ten thousand to cover whatever the debt might be, Joh has to backtrack and say that it's because a history of family insanity, particularly an aunt who lives in Oshkosh. Insanity might be hereditary, you know, so John just had to stop things with Jane in their tracks... for her own protection.

Meanwhile, Snow hasnt been letting any moss grow under him: he's hitting on all of Jane's girlfriends, which doesnt go over well at all with Momma. Now realizing that maybe she erred a bit, she asks where John is — and it turns out she's not the only one looking for him: so is the head of the publishing firm that's considering John's novel (How did this gentleman come to arrive at the party, you ask? Well, you see.... oh, never mind: this is high school operetta we're talking about, remember?). He's come all this way to tell John he's not really interested in the book, when one of the reporters runs in and says there's a crazy man up in one of the trees.

Feigning madness, John sweeps in, pretending to be a count. Or perhaps a duke. Or maybe a king. Nevertheless, he's royalty — and he's carrying a gun, so of course everyone is going to do what he says. The publisher is thrilled by this turn of events — a mad genius! the headlines! what could be better! Mrs. Goodspeed, now seeing John as the lesser of two evils, negotiates a far better contract for John. Everything is going exactly to plan — sorta —

... when Aunt Mary shows up. Governor Goodspeed is somewhat surprised to discover that she's actually not insane and then furious with John for pulling such a trick on his daughter. Momma however smoothly moves in, fesses all, and tells John that, for the fifty thousand he's getting from the publisher, he's free to act as crazy as he wants. And with a hymn of praise to the governor's wife, we end.

Well. As you can see, it's a bit of... well, everything. Preceding the Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing by a couple of years, it still tries to cover the same ground: dirty politics, sleazy senators, the overly infatuated news media... with a few twists all its own. The songs, all of which are far too short, efficiently set up a premise and then never quite deliver on the manic possibilities; for example, the reporters' first interview with the new governor:

REPORTERS.
Sir, we would like to know
Your opinion on so and so
Should we muffle engine toots
Or change the length of bathing suits

GOODSPEED.
This is secret, please dont quote
Or it would get the Statehouse goat
There is no doubt democracy
Demands we make the movies free

REPORTERS.
A scoop that news would be
We tell you confidentially
But problem black as ace of spades
Is what to do with razor blades

... and then it sort of meanders into a more or less concluding chorus. It's a pity, because the premise could have been given a few more pages to really play out. So also with "The Governor's Complaint", in which he tells us the job's not what it's cracked up to be.

The frontline soldier in a war
Is not unlike a governor
Who's always target for a shot
From politicians or what not
He dare not veto any bill
Or show how much he'd like to kill
When office seekers looking wise
Come swarming round as thick as flies
He has to give, he has to get
To please the proletariat
Or make a speech, no matter what
The subject or the cold he's caught.

It's not my nature to complain
But office is a ball and chain
I'd gladly leave it to my wife
And lead a lowly hermit's life

You get to the end of it wishing Wakeman had gone just a bit further, especially since it's to be sung allegretto. Everyone gets the same frustrating star turn, by the way, in a series of under-developed songs that do capture their individual characters.... just not enough so.

Musically? This is the first Wilson score I've encountered that wasnt adapted from another source, and it's not bad. He's not like Don Wilson (nothing I've found suggests they were related), but Ira does have a nice ear for characterization, and some of the parts work for Jane's girlfriends is quite nice. But that's about all.

The pity of this work is that it doesnt go far enough with its screwball storyline. If the rest of the script had been treated like John's mad scene with the gun (which now of course would see him under a pile of secret service men but in the world of high school operetta is just another device), a scene that truly milks the potential of the moment, it would have been a much different — and perhaps far better — work. It crams too much into sixty pages (granted, of small set type) that you wish it had gone on to flesh it out over 90.

Wakeman and Wilson wrote a number of songs together, mostly for barbershop quartets as far as I can see. This was apparently their sole collaboration for the stage.