Monday, July 28, 2008

THIRTY MINUTES WITH THE MIKADO

I'm sure it's no real surprise to see adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan as popular as they were during this period. Arthur Johnson and May Van Dyke gave us several half-hour reworks of the G&S canon, including THE MIKADO (1940), and I gather this one is fairly typical.

What's fascinating about it is how it becomes less a parody of British society and more of an Attic Greek play, complete with commenting chorus of nobles (with Pooh-Bah at centre) that stays onstage throughout the entire thirty minutes -- almost as though G&S looked to OEDIPUS REX as inspiration.

The storyline, while edited down, is pretty much intact: Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel, is looking for Yum-Yum, while Pooh-Bah serves Japan as the Lord Chief Justice Commander-in-Chief Lord High Admiral Master of the Buckhounds Groom of the Backstairs Mayor and Private Secretary to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Ko-Ko, in desperate need of *someone* to execute within the next month, appoints Nanki-Poo as the Official Executee (since Nanki-Poo has decided to kill himself rather than see Ko-Ko marry Yum-Yum. Nanki-Poo agrees on the proviso that he gets to marry Yum-Yum, since it'll only last a month.

The Mikado and Katisha enter; the Mikado gets an abbreviated version of the patter song, after which we find out that Nanki-Poo is the Mikado's son and betrothed to Katisha, but since he gets to marry Yum-Yum as part of his deal to be the next Official Executee (are you taking notes?), the Mikado tells Ko-Ko *he* must marry Katisha *and* that both Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah will have to be punished for executing the son of the Mikado -- even though they didnt know he was the son of the Mikado. The law's the law, after all. As for the execution, Poo-Bah has issued the Official Certificate of Death, so that part of the bargain is taken care of. With that, everyone sings and dances the finale "The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring", followed by "He's Going to Marry Yum-Yum", and we're done.

Whew. I think we all need a little lie-down, dont you?

Okay, what makes this adaptation interesting isnt so much how they hacked and slashed their way through a two-hour work, but the production notes that follow, detailed descriptions of the set, the lighting, and the costumes, which are surprisingly detailed.

But then we get to the really interesting stuff. With this edition, you dont need a director or a choreographer, because Johnson and VanDyke have spelled it all out for you. For example, the following is the measure-by-measure analysis of "Three Little Maids from School Are We":

Measure 1. Girls enter from DL holding closed fans horizontally in both hands across chests; heads slightly bowed; on tip toe; with mincing steps, four to a measure; across front, up R side and across back, then pose close together at centre. Measure 12, after solo, Yum-Yum minces downstage prettily, stops, holds fan horizontally with both hands under chin and bends forward a little from the waist, smiling at audience. Must be in position before Peep-Bo sings. 16, same business for Peep-Bo. 20, same business for Pitti-Sing. 22, 2nd beat, all stand upright, arms down. 23-26, dance in place holding fans rather high. 1st beat right foot and fan forward, 2nd beat right foot and fan back. 4 measures. 27, 1st beat fans down; 2nd beat turn left but faces to audience. 28-33, same business as measures 23-26 while singing. 34, very quickly turn circle in place back facing audience at 35, in time to sing. 37-38, on hold note (word: "maids") hold fans very high until dance begins. 40, 1st beat right foot and fan forward, 2nd beat back. 41, 4 quick mincing steps forward. 42, pose, half hiding faces behind fans. 43, like 40. 44, like 41. 45, a quick turn, backs to audience. 46, like 40 but upstage. 47, like 41 but upstage. 48, pose, turn faces back over right shoulder and look at audience, hold fans against left side of face. Then on 2nd beat of measure 49 break pose and turning around make picture for final chord: Yum-Yum in center slightly turned to left with knees a little bent, looking roguishly at audience over top of fan. Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing kneel on one knee on either side, fans lifted gracefully in the air.

... all of which ends with the important notation The important thing is to know the song thoroughly before attempting to put song and dance together.

Yep, I'd say so.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

THE DAUGHTERS OF MOHAMED

Most of the works discussed to late have been more musical comedy than anything else; it's almost disingenuous to call something like OH DOCTOR! an operetta when what it really is is low-rent musical. However, just as these little works had their musical comedy side, every now and then something comes along that reinforces their opera side, like THE DAUGHTERS OF MOHAMED (1926).

Written by the sister team of Hazel and Berta Cobb, the work is, as the cover notes, "especially suitable for high schools". And like most operas, it has a pretty thin plotline that serves only as an excuse only to hang the arias and ensemble numbers. We're in Granada, during the time of the Moors. The script doesnt say specifically, but this would place it somewhere in the 15th century, around the time of the Muslim leaders Mohamed IV through Mohamed X. The Cobbs dont say which Mohamed is theirs. In light of the ending, I'm guessing Mohamed X, but it probably doesnt matter that much. What *does* matter is that *this* Mohamed, on the advice of his astrologers, has taken it upon himself to lock away his three daughters, Zayda, Zorayda, and Zoraheyda (I gather they're triplets) and place them in the care of the old duenna Kadiga (who has a secret). After a particularly ostentatious overture (sort of low rent Tiomkin), marked with martial eighth-note triplets followed by blaring half-notes, we're taken to a heavily walled garden somewhere in Granada. It's the morning of the princesses' eighteenth birthday, and Kadiga sends the king an enigmatic message that ultimately says it's "okay, bud, it's time for you to step up and start acting like a father, got it?"

But before the birthday celebrations can begin in earnest, things are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Hussein Baba, the prison guard, and three Spanish cavaliers (known only as Red, Blue, and Green), who see the three princesses and immediately fall in love.

Now, let's sort out our couples, because that becomes important. Zayda is with Red, Zorayda with Green, and Zoraheyda with Blue. Is that right? I need to check this because the girls' names are so interchangable and the boys' so... well, non-existant that... yep, got it right. Okay, so here we have our three lovely maidens and our three dusty (and somewhat anonymous) Spanish soldiers, who promptly get dragged away after they sing their lovely little song to Kadiga, even though it's meant for Zayda and Zor -- well, you get the idea.

Once they're gone, the girls are beside themselves with curiosity: these are apparently the first men they've ever seen aside who might actually be husband material. Kadiga tells them, in essence, "Look, they're probably have girlfriends back home. Forget it." The girls are all upset about this possibility when Mohamed comes to retrieve his family:

The faithful all adore me
Captive tremble at my word

My vassals bow before me

The foeman flees before my sword.


No ego issues with this guy, huh. He tells the three that they're moving to the palace. In return, they show their thanks by saying:

Since we are no longer children, shall we not have dresses and jewels as befit a princess, father? Think of it, sisters: necklaces and bracelets, and perhaps crowns! Indeed, father, let us go at once!

Just give these girls a credit card, and they'll live *anywhere*.

Ah, but life in the palace isnt what it was advertised to be, as they quickly find out: at the top of Act Two, the first line:

Does it seem to you, sisters, that our condition has in any way been bettered by our removal to this place? What could our father's purpose have been in removing us from one prison to another? Indeed I am more wearied of the view from yonder window than ever I was at those of our former residence. And in addition to the burden of utter weariness, I suffer from the bitterness of disappointment, for I thought surely when we were brought to our father's palace we should see something of the gayness of the court and hear something of the occurances of the kingdom? What pleasure can we take in these dresses or these jewels or indeed in our own faces when nobody ever sees us? Is it not a hard lot to be born unusually interesting and then be forced into an existence like this?

Whine, whine, whine. Kadiga tries to cheer them up by reminding them of the multi-coloured cavaliers who have been amazing the prison guards with their talents at singing and playing the guitar. And the three princesses do their gosh-darn best not to seem interested:

Perhaps you could manage to procure us a sight of these cavaliers. I think a little music would be reviving.

Reviving, indeed. But even when Kadiga tells them that the cavaliers are "enemies of our faith, and you must not even think of them but with abhorence", they counter by saying "Though we abhore their religion, we should adore their singing. *You* enjoyed hearing them, and nobody is a truer Moslen than you are." Well, Kadiga agrees to set something up, then, in a soliloquy, frets:

Am I to blame that the maidens have seen the youths? Can I keep the youths from being Spaniards and Christians? Truly, as scrupulous a Moslem as I am, I find it hard to keep my own heart other than Christian -- Allah preserve me!

She approaches Mohamed and tells him the girls are bored. He's shocked -- hasnt he given them everything? -- but Kadiga presses the issue by saying that maybe they just need a little diversion. So Dad, who fails to get the subtle point made by the duenna, arranges a series of entertainments: sword dancers, a singer, a magician, even a dancer named Algedona who, we assume, is there more for the king's enjoyment than his daughters'. Kadiga then conveniently brings in the three cavaliers, who sing a little for the king (and a lot more for the princesses). They're taken away, the king (satisfied that his daughters arent *quite* so bored now) leaves, and the three girls profusely thank Kadiga for arranging this little charade.

She, of course, gets all righteously upset, to the point where she tells them she's going to arrange *immediately* for the prisoners to be punished for their audacious behavior. But it seems that not everything is as it appears: she's been setting this whole thing up and now she's feeling guilty about it -- and not just a little guilty. A lot guilty, because the prisoners also asked her aid in helping them to take the girls away to Cordova to be their wives. And not only that, but she's arranged the horses and for the guards to turn a blind eye to whole thing. And not only that, but... but... she's a Christian!

And so's Hussein Baba!

I wonder if anyone in this court is Moslem, to tell the truth.

Well, in Act Three, it's shortly before dawn, and the moment of escape has arrived. Kadiga, Hussein, and the three cavaliers are all there, ready to go. So are Zayda and Zorayda, but Zorahayda cant abandon her father.

Arrgghh. Lady, look, he shut you up in a prison for eighteen years, then moves you to another one, and you're willing to stay home just because you have codependency issues? Well, no one said operetta heroines were especially bright. Anyway, Blue says, fine, whatever, sings a little goodbye song, and everyone leaves...

... but not for long. Seems someone tipped off the *non-blind-eye* guards, and everyone's been arrested -- and Dad is just furious! He's about to have the Spaniards executed on the spot, when the three daughters intercede. Dad inexplicably relents (maybe he's remembering what a greedy, picky handful they were in Act Two?), and everyone rushes to the... church? or the mosque? to get married.

I dunno about you, but I see serious trouble ahead...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

THE BELLE OF BAGDAD

Another example of the high school operetta following the cultural trends of the day, THE BELLE OF BAGDAD (1929), by Geoffrey F. Morgan and Frederick G. Johnson, comes hard and fast on the wildly successful DESERT SONG. Like ROSE OF THE DANUBE, BELLE OF BAGDAD is a vaguely appealing mixture of foreign exotica, 20s-era Hollywood filmmaking, and easily-sketched romance. The plot is nothing special: a filmmaker has come to Bagdad to seek a new face for his latest spectacular -- but what *is* surprising about this work... well, you'll find out soon enough.

The operetta begins in a marketplace, where American and British tourists mix with local merchants in a easy way that we probably shall never see again. Among the tourists are the new American consul, Mrs. J Horace McMann (A woman? As a government consul? Okay, already we know we're in a fantasy.), accompanied by her daughter Elsa and Elsa's friend Anne. There's also Lord Archie Fitzgibbons, an old friend of hers, and Henrietta Whipstitch, who's on the prowl for some man who promised her marriage and then, inexplicably, ran for the hills when the sun came up. They're all introduced to the Caliph and his daughter Jewel (note the name) and the over-the-top evilly diligent chief of police, Ali Ben Mustapha. We find out there's an assassin afoot, one who's brought a bomb into the city by disguising it as a camera; as such, anyone caught carrying a camera is to be summarily executed.

Enter Dick Taylor, a Hollywood producer, traveling with airplane mechanics Bob and Bill. They're looking for a girl known only as the Belle of Bagdad, but the only info they have about her are some small, grainy photos, one of which shows an amulet she wears on her arm. As you might expect, they've brought a camera with them.

Oops.

While Dick is making time with Jewel (all the while missing the amulet right there on her arm!), Bob and Bill are arrested by Mustapha (since they, not Dick, got stuck lugging the camera around). They manage to escape by disguising themselves as dirvishes, then as members of the Caliph's personal bodyguard. Naturally, they manage to capture the *real* assassin, which means Dick gets Jewel, the Caliph starts some international relations with Mrs McMann, and Mustapha, as every good villian should, gets the romantically voracious Henrietta. Archie (who turns out to be the cad that dumped Henrietta) gets some little dancer, but I dont give that relationship long. Still, somewhere, there must be a list of rules that say everyone has to find *someone* by curtain's fall.

All in all, it's a facile little piece that's surprisingly low on cultural stereotypes (the British get the worst of it, with lines that would confound Henry Higgins). Even when the comic relief duo of Bill and Bob are dressed as dervishes, they *dont* make fun of what could have been a relatively easy target. But when it comes to roles played for broad laughs, it's the Consul and Henrietta, both of whom are seen as demanding and pushy -- and with the advantage of time, Mrs. McMann has transformed into even more of the Ugly American, insisting, for example, that the Caliph follow the rules of American-style court trials. In many respects, this is cut from the same cloth as ROSE OF THE DANUBE -- strange and somewhat overbearing Americans visit nice foreign lands and proceed to take over -- and actually parallels a good chunk of that other work's storyline construction, all the way down to pacing of the musical numbers and the climax of an offstage explosion of the bomb meant to wipe out the royal family. I dont suppose that should be surprising, since Morgan wrote the librettos for both. I'm just a little surprised at how much he steals from himself, almost as if BELLE was a first draft of the subsequent ROSE. Nevertheless, both works are actually ingratiating pieces that hold up pretty well after eighty years.

Musically, it's an innocuous little mix of pseudo-Middle-Eastern ensemble numbers, typical 20s-style romantic ballads, and, of course, a couple of genuinely funny comedy songs for the mechanics and their girlfriends (the afore-mentioned Elsa and Anne, who, of course, just happen to be in Bagdad after the foursome went their separate ways in Vienna). Even the sad little Henrietta gets her own turn:

I have always been a shy and modest maid
I'm never forward, bold, or even pert
All the rules of etiquette I always have obey'd

For I am not the kind who tries to flirt


Henry seem'd so different that I listened to his plea
Heard him when he promised to be true
When he took a second look he ran away from me

Is it any wonder that I'm blue?


It broke me up when he threw me down

Grief overwhelmed me when he skipped town
He seemed so grand, I was so green

He said a lot of things he didnt mean

Why do I pine when I ought to forget?

Id much rather smile than frown
But my life's filled with woe, for that false Romeo

Broke me up when he threw me down.


It's an andante waltz, and I couldnt help but laugh at the thought of hearing it sung to the accompaniment of a country guitar: 20s Loretta Lynn, as it were. Not to be left behind, the Consul gets an Ethel Merman turn with a happy little patriotic number -- a march, naturally, that veers ever so slightly into self-parody:

Dont forget when you travel in a foreign land
And your home seems far away
If you're lonesome and blue
Or if things go wrong with you
There's a friend close at hand every day
Come what may there is someone who'll stand by you
Anywhere you may chance to roam
Step right up and tell your story
In the shadow of Old Glory
To a pal from away back home

Just remember I'm a consul from the USA
The land of the stripes and stars
In any country far over the sea
You'll get a welcome anytime you come to me
You can count on protection from your Uncle Sam
Whether home or far away
So in any foreign land you will get a helping hand
From a consul from the USA

All in all, it's a disarming little work that could be produced today as a historical curiosity that would offend absolutely no one. The only real "villian" per se is about as menacing as anything from a British panto. With some bigger orchestrations and perhaps a little expansion of some of the ensemble numbers, this could be a fun little show, in the style of ME AND MY GIRL or CRAZY FOR YOU.

But that leaves the mystery: in a field where the median price for an operetta is about $15, copies of BELLE are among the most expensive for collectors. Even as I write this, there's one on eBay going for $85. Why this particular script should be so highly prized, I have no idea. True, it's rare, but no more so than any of the others in my collection. Indeed, my copy is in pretty poor shape (It was originally owned by the actress who played Henrietta and who, if the notes in the margin are to be trusted, performed in a production that boasted a chorus of 126!); yet it still commanded one of the highest acquisition prices.

If you'd like to see more about how this region was seen by the US during the 1930s, check out my friend Randy Riddle's Old Time Radio blog at http://randsesotericotr.podbean.com/. One of his recent finds is a series called "Ports of Call", and on his site is a previously unreleased episode (undated, but probably from 1935) that takes 3,000 years of Persian history and compresses them down to thirty minutes.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

XINGABRU

I dont even know where to start.

Beyond the usual of singing college co-eds and dancing pirates, I have a few perplexing pieces in my collection: for example, works that show some kind of cultural fascination with Holland. I mean, why Holland? But apparently at some point in time, Holland was all the rage in high school operettas. Others are strange little fantasy pieces that probably would love to be morality plays of some kind, if they could just figure out what moral they're trying to teach. Nevertheless, once you start collecting these things, you see recurrent names and themes, and after a while, you know pretty much instinctively how the latest addition fits into the High School Operetta universe.

Then you get the true oddity, like... well, like XINGABRU (1947).

Written by John Jameson and Ramsay Duff, this truly defies any kind of description, save that you can tell these boys really wanted to be the next Gilbert and Sullivan. Problem was, they didnt understand what made G&S work, and as a result, you can see a little PIRATES OF PENZANCE here and a little UTOPIA LIMITED there, but nothing that speaks in the same bitingly satirical way.

The physical presentation first: it's an odd size. Most of these are rough 7x10; this one is 8x9. Most have typeset dialogue and perfectly annotated music. While professionally printed, this one has typewritten dialogue built around a hand-written score that has the occasional mark-thru and correction. And while most are saddle stitched and stapled, this one is held together by a 1-1/2" piece of bindery tape, as though the entire thing was a short run. It's possible this was written for some special occasion, since there's no price on it, but my research hasnt produced anything more about it. It just... is. The publisher, Eason Printing in Chicago, is now a screenprinting plant -- for all I know, this was their sole foray into a field dominated by Witmark and Hoffman and a couple of others.

And what a foray it is. Set in Africa, the overture is very not-quite-turn-of-the-century, followed by an opening chorus of young girls in sarongs who tell us a lot about what to expect:

Deep in the middle of the jungle,
Far from Civilisation's rumble,

Where the cascades leap and tumble,

O'er rocks and sand,

Where the lion snarls and roars,

Where the wolves and savage boars

Sniff about our very doors:

That's our chosen land.


Who are we? You might well ask,

This lovely band of girls

Living in the savage jungle --

Why we are jungle belles!

Jungle belles, jungle belles,
Merrily we say.
Although we know the pun is bad,

We sing it anyway.

They continue on with their compardery with beast and bird, like the alligator, the chimpanzee, the buffalo, the bear...

Huh? Bears? In Africa?

Well, folks, hang on. The fun's just beginning. They loll around, hoping it's not Monday (because on Monday they curry the zebras) and discovering, with operetta delight, that it's Father's birthday!

All right, sorry, but I have to stop here, because it's important for you to know that the "jungle belles" are *not*, surprisingly enough, black. Despite the fact that this is some jungle in Africa, where the lion shares dinner with the bear, this isnt a tribe, but a family in exile because, when he was a young man living in Sakatoon (that's in Saskatchewan, in Canada), Dad was asked by a neighbour to do some baby-sitting -- and somehow he managed to misplace the child. Rather than face the music and dance, Dad ran off to Africa, got married, and settled down to raise an all-girl family in this happy place called Xingabru. Ah, but the Fates are not to be denied: Dad's conscience has gotten the better of him. He wants to return to Canada, especially now that he knows that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been tracking him all over the world -- "and a Mountie always gets his man!"

Well, everyone leaves to set up the celebration, and who should show up but the Mounties, insisting -- very loudly -- that they always get their man (in case you forgot). They decide to make camp, and the Captain tells his men to dismount and water the horses. When someone points out that they left the horses at dockside when they arrived in Africa, the Captain brushes that aside and tells them regulations must be followed... so, in a Python-esque moment, they mime dismounting and watering their invisible horses. His aide-de-camp, Corporal True, sits on a stump, which turns out to be not a stump but Mignon, the exiled father's youngest daughter (who has disguised herself as a stump, because... well, never mind) -- and they fall instantly and madly in love.

Also in this troupe is Martha, the Captain's overbearing and commandeering wife, who has followed them into the jungle because her husband is always forgetting his rubbers and umbrella, and she *expects* him to follow her orders and wear his rubbers! They, along with Corporal True, underscore this thought with a song:

Every person in this world, they say, must always do his duty
From the ugliest of creatures to those of greatest beauty

But almost every person from Alaska to the Veldts

If given the opportunity would rather do something else.


Well, duty forces us to lurch to the finale of Act One, where the Captain arrests ol' Dad, the Mounties fall in love with Dad's daughters, and... well, the curtain falls. Now one would think that we've resolved all the storylines, right? The wrongdoer is going back to Canada to pay for his crimes, the daughters all get to leave sunny Africa for the Great White North, the Captain will obey his wife and put on his rubbers.

But no.....

Act Two starts with cannibals (It's about time we got something even remotely African in this). One's on a throne (decorated with skulls, I would imagine) while others perform a dance to tom-toms (Think Hermes Pan here.). Everyone says "ugh!" a lot. The reason we've brought cannibals into the picture? Well, as one of the daughters explains:

The cannibals will attack us while we make our way through the jungle, then they will pretend that they're going to eat us, but really they'll let us go, only they'll pretend that we escaped, because really they arent going to eat us at all. Then they'll pretend that they're going to eat the boys, but really they'll let them go, making believe of course that they escaped accidently, and we can go back to our jungle home, and the boys will be so frightened that they'll go away and never come back, and Father will be saved, and we'll thank the cannibals nicely and go about our business. Now do you get it?

No, but... well, no one said operetta heroines were especially bright.

Of course the cannibals (played like Brooklyn mobsters, by the way) have other plans, a bumber crop of "good fresh Mountie and tender maiden". Moral: one should never trust a cannibal.

Meanwhile, the Mounties, accompanied by Dad and the girls, have been on the march... sorta... or, as Corporal True marvels: "Sir, we've been on the march for six days now, averaging fourteen miles a day. Doesnt it seem a bit strange that we should camp in the same spot every night?" Oh dear, they're lost (and apparently they camp every night right next to a cannibal's throne, but that's another plot point altogether, I suppose). But Dad generously offers to guide them back to civilisation, to which the Captain tearfully responds that he wishes Canada had more of this type of criminal. They're about to start again -- this time in the right direction -- when the cannibals descend!

Hello, we are very pleased to meet you
Now we're going to cook and eat you!
So we extend this hearty greeting:
Welcome! Hope you make good eating!

It seems all is lost, but Father comes to the rescue by telling the cannibal chief that when his tribe eats people, their ghosts remain as a result. Five people, five ghosts. Ten people, ten ghosts. This of course completely shatters the tribe's nerve, and they resolve (with no small hesitation) to become vegetarians. They exit in search of -- ugh! -- wild spinach.

Father is now a hero, but the joy of the moment is suspended by the irrefutable fact that he lost that baby. Now determined to help this miserable man, the Mounties try to prod his memory about that fateful day, and he finally remembers putting the child in a laundry hamper... to which Corporal True suddenly shouts: "I was raised by a Chinese laundryman in Saskatoon!" True's parents tried to get him back, but the laundryman refused, telling them "no tickee, no washee!" But no matter: Father is now innocent, Mignon gets her man, and everyone heads back home with much singing and dancing and praises to duty and Canada.

Gilbert and Sullivan must be absolutely spinning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

I received a new one a week ago...

... and sent the bookseller a note of thanks: this is an especially interesting find that I'll talk about in a few weeks. But the bookseller sent a note in return, which has engendered an interesting conversation about these little gems, prompted by his question:

"I wonder if kids today could pull these off?"

My first thought was, Why would they bother? Somehow, I just cant see high schools today interested in something like ROSE OF THE DANUBE, and I think it's almost dead certain that JEANIE would be off the table, period. But there's other factors that have more to do with actually creating the piece. After all, consider: no cast albums, no reviews -- in essence, no roadmap save for the script and the score. Everything here was a leap into the unknown. Even though something like OH DOCTOR might have been performed by a hundred high schools, there was no central repository of production information that could clue the director or his cast or his musicians or his design team. Sure, every script had a "stage manager's manual" that would walk you through the scenic requirements and the dance steps, but you wouldnt know what it all looked and sounded like until it came together. Today, you can go to YouTube and see a half dozen examples of RENT onstage, and they're all pretty much the same -- pick one, copy it, call it a day. The sole challenge comes in making it look like the original, whereas the challenge in 1930 of producing OH DOCTOR was far more complex. You didnt know what the original looked like, because there was no "original".

And when you really look at some of these, they're pretty daunting pieces for amateurs. If the school had opted to use its own orchestra, those musicians would have to struggle to find the right sound: it wouldnt be pre-recorded anywhere for them to just copy. The actors cast to play the three doctors would have to find their own interpretations, since there wouldnt be any way to see how someone else did it. Bottom line: these would mean a lot of conceptual work, more so than "Oh hey, lets put on WICKED!"

That's not to suggest that theatre students today are inherently lazier than those of a half-century or so ago. I've seen some pretty kick-ass high school productions. But in the main, a high school production of OKLAHOMA mounted in Des Moines is probably gonna look much like another produced in Missoula. I doubt that would have been true of BETTY LOU. If anything, it would be fascinating to see how this material was brought to life in different parts of the country.

Okay, on with the shows...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

BETTY LOU, THE DREAM GIRL

From the team of Lida Larrimore Turner (book and lyrics) and RM Stults (music) comes BETTY LOU THE DREAM GIRL (1928), which has uncredited cover art and handlettering that appears to be the work of Donn Crane. Despite its lurid (and somewhat bizarre) cover image, this is a three-act comedy about a twenty-year-old whose step mother has decided to marry her off to the richest bidder in order to save the family fortune.

BETTY LOU. I've never seen him, but I can tell. He'll be elderly, addicted to dyspepsia and pills, and enormously wealthy. That's the kind mother always selects. There was the Higgins person: a good sort, but he would chuck me under the chin -- and why will fat men past fifty wear knickers? And the tin-can king with a home in Palm Beach, three yachts, and chronic indigestion. He sat with me in moonlight and talked about his income tax! I ask you, isnt there any romance left in the world?

At the same time, her brother has to tolerate his wife's hair-brained schemes to make cash quick -- she's hit on the idea of selling an antique china cabinet, but doing so by suggesting that hidden somewhere in it are the lost jewels of a recently-deceased, terribly rich old woman.

We then meet Mr. Brooks, the latest suitor for Betty Lou's affections -- except, of course, he isnt any Mr. Brooks but instead a petty thief who goes by the name "Gentleman Jim". Annie, who's a maid in the Pendleton household, recognizes him immediately, but he swears this is his last job and offers to give her a cut if she'll help. She refuses: at one time she worked with him, but now she's gone straight. Still, she wont say anything.

Mrs. Pendleton takes "Brooks" to meet Betty Lou, but instead of the twenty-year-old debutante, they find her dressed and acting like a nine-year-old, in a short gingham dress, bloomers, and a hair ribbon, swearing to one and all that she's way too young to even think about marriage.

(Okay, let's think about this: her many friends know it's her in bloomers. Her mother knows it's her in bloomers. Her brother and sister-in-law know it's her in bloomers. But for some inexplicable reason, Brooks thinks she's nine years old. Why do I see Kirstin Chenowyth playing this?)

Still more complications: Tom has brought home an old college friend, Bob Sherwood. Betty Lou takes one look and falls hard and fast -- but he, like Brooks, thinks she's nine or ten, not a grown woman. Bob, for his part, fell in love with Betty when he saw a picture of her in Tom's dorm room, but he's never met her. He's apparently painfully shy when it comes to girls... but (again, inexplicably) he has no problem whatsoever talking to this "little girl" about her "older sister" - and in a scene that's borderline creepy, Bob looks at "little sister" and sees a lot of his beloved Betty Lou in her (well, they *are* supposed to be sisters, right?) and... well, you can imagine how awkward that scene would be today.

And there's more: Bob's looking for a deed to land that (somehow) he could sell to the railroad for a tidy profit. (I say "somehow" because he's not related to the now-dead old woman who *did* own the land, but he figures it's his to sell -- only in the world of operetta...). "Younger sister" offers to help him realize his fortune by showing him a secret drawer in the china cabinet -- sadly, it turns out to be empty. He's even more despondent that he'll never be able to support his Betty Lou, but "younger sister" tells him not to worry, that Betty Lou would love him anyway -- and then ensues an even creepier scene between Bob and the girl he thinks is nine years old. With the two of them on a loveseat and his arm lovingly around her, the curtain falls on Act Two.

Eww.

Act Three is that evening. Mrs. Templeton has decided to hold a masquerade party. Betty Lou has abandoned her little girl clothes and shows up in a serious party dress. While everyone else goes out to dance on the veranda, she stays inside, sad and despondent, fondling an unloaded pistol she's taken from one of the other party-goers. Brooks and Annie show up, attempting to find the rich old woman's jewelry. Betty Lou, relieved she doesnt have to marry him, holds them both at gunpoint while sentencing Brooks to life imprisonment in New Jersey as Annie's husband.

BETTY. I hope you'll be happy. Somehow tonight I want everyone to be happy. Send me some radishes.

Judge Betty continues apace, now sentencing Bob to marry her (at gun point, no less! -- and remember, this is the first time he's seen when she wasnt nine). She has the deed to the land (which *was* hidden in the cabinet after all), which means now they have enough cash to start life together.

Oh, and the cabinet... along with Brooks and Annie and Tom, a *third* man has snuck into the house to see the cabinet and offers to buy it right then and there, providing more than enough cash for Mrs. Pendleton and Tom and Lola and Bob and Betty to all live happily ever after. Who was he? No freaking idea. He just shows up, gives her a check, and leaves. "We think he might have been Santa Claus!" With much singing of "Betty Lou, I love you", the curtain falls.

Well.

No doubt about it, the early scenes between Bob and Betty Lou are just plain... eww. He's twenty. She's nine. He's romancing her. She's nine. He's on his knees before her to show how he'd propose to her older sister. She's nine. Okay, not really... but he thinks so, and isnt that all that matters??

Gah. I want to take a shower.

Musically, it's definitely a product of the time. The big dance number in Act Three is a fox trot, but there's others in Act One for the dancing chorus (Betty's friends from college) that suggest things like the Lindy Hop. Everyone's very rich and very good looking and no one's really bad, just mis-directed... and it's 1928. This thing had a bit of a shelf life (It's still advertised in catalogues from the late 30s), but I cant help but wonder how it would have played during the Depression. For all their characters' innocence, there's a lot of scheming going on, and it wouldnt take much to turn this bland little comedy into something far darker as a commentary about the idle rich who make their money by theft -- either literally, in the case of Brooks, or through deceit, as is the case of Bob. It's a strange little work when you go deeper down its rabbit hole. I cant help but think that the creators were aspiring to write something in the vein of Noel Coward, but...

I mean...

She's nine.

Eww.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

IN OLD VIENNA, OR PICKLES

JEANIE was such a dismal experience to write about, I felt I had to make amends. So to balance things a bit this weekend... IN OLD VIENNA (1925).

Just as inane as everything else presented thus far, IN OLD VIENNA (subtitled PICKLES), by Gordon Wilson, Donn Crane, and Allan Benedict, is much like ROSE OF THE DANUBE because it carries its lightweight and absurd story with some pretty smart and stylish charm. There are several parallel plotlines, some of which (surprisingly enough) arent all that predictable. In order of presentation:

-- a businessman from the US, accompanied by his daughter, has come to Vienna to take a holiday,

-- his "advertising expert" has also come along and makes it his mission to convert the entire city to "pickle mania",

-- an English widow has come to Vienna to search for her long-lost daughter,

-- a corrupt Viennese policeman tried to engineer a "fake daughter" in the form of his own fiancee, thus assuring that, if his plan succeeds, he gets to cash in as well on the widow's fortune,

-- a gypsy girl revolts from the domineering control of her father,

-- and an impoverished American artist, ten years too early for the mania of going to Paris to be an impoverished artist, seeks recognition (not to mention monetary supprt) for his talent.

Wilson and Crane move through these various plotlines with speed and efficiency and leave plenty of room for Benedict to give the singers some rather memorable numbers. When I first read it, I had no idea of its age and thought that it, like JEANIE, was the result of a cultural craze -- in this case, the Hope/Crosby/Lamour "Road" movies. But this precedes them by a good fifteen years, even though it has the same light touch and self-effacing feel. The characters are drawn two-dimensionally, of course, but written with a self-reflective sense of humour that says, "Hey, we're just here to have a few laughs", without being too inane in the process. One cannot read the lines given, for example, Jennison Jones, the ad man, without immediately thinking of Danny Kaye or Donald O"Connor, especially during the song "Pickles":

JONES. I remember as a child, all innocent and sweet --

CHORUS. Do you mean it?

JONES. I surely do.
I was very very fond of anything to eat

CHORUS. Were you really?

JONES. Wait til I'm through.
But of all the dainties that were a pleasure to devour

Pickles were my favourite, for Id eat them by the hour.
Some were sweet and some were dill and some were sour

CHORUS. That's so funny!

JONES. Funny to you!
Pickles! Pickles!
Fifty nine varieties of pickles!
They were green as they could be,
But they filled my heart with glee
And filled my belt with a-gon-nee!

... and so on. It's all very silly and yet very much a blast.

For her part, Ilona, the gypsy girl, has Dorothy Lamour written all over her: sultry, scheming, yet clearly the love interest for our Mr. Jones from the moment they first meet. She gets a showstopping dance entrance and then gets to vacillate between playing cute for Jones and playing caged tigress to her father Jigo. For the time, it's quite the stretch.

But even the second-tier characters are wonderfully drawn: Louisa, Kinski's long-suffering fiancee, is written in a hysterical mock-Germanic accent, such that you cannot help but feel sorry for this woman who loves too knowingly and not so well. Despite their names, Bumski and Rumski, Kinski's faithful assistants, are given remarkable comic turns for their brief moments onstage. And the choral ensemble, rather than providing atmosphere, gets its share of sardonic fun as well, as seen by the opening number sung by a group of American tourists:

We have traveled all around
But till now we've never found
Any town that was so thoroughly delightful.
We will settle here awhile
For we rather like the style
And compared to this the other burgs are frightful.

This is probably a work that came into high schools as a result of a run in New York, although there's nothing at IBDB.com to support that. Still, it's a very polished piece, so I suspect it was first presented by a professional company before dropping into the catalogue of HT Fitzsimmons' "operettas for schools and community theatres". As is the case with most authors and composers of these works, there's scant information about Wilson, Crane, or Benedict, and that's a pity, because if IN OLD VIENNA is any indication, this was a team that knew how to put on a show. About the only thing I have found is that Donn Crane was also an accomplished artist and provided several cover illustrations for these little musicals. If anyone knows anything more about them or their work, let me know.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

JEANIE

Not unsurprisingly, high school operettas mirrored then-current social and cultural trends. This one -- JEANIE (1939), by Paul Monroe and Ira Wilson -- was no doubt a direct result of trying to capitalize on the excitement over Gone with the Wind. Set in the antebellum South, it's a plucky young girl romanced by one man while in love with another.

Sound familiar yet?

Well, it's not quite so cut and dry a copy of GWTW, although the underpinnings are plainly all there. In this particular case, Jeanie (who *does* have light brown hair!) is pursued by "an attractive yet untrustworthy young man" named Rodney Crawley, even though she is bound by love to Dennis Jackson, an adventurer who's also Rodney's cousin. However, bear in mind that, as a good Southern belle, she also flirts with positively *anything* in pants. For his part, Dennis has been gone for seven years -- but he's very devoted to Jeanie and will be back just any second now. We're sure about that. Really.

(By the way, cover art notwithstanding, Jeanie is a proper girl who doesnt smoke. That was added by someone later on. Just wanted you to know so you didnt get the wrong idea about her this early on.)

A strange man, in buckskin and a beaver hat, named John Smith (an alias if ever we heard one!) appears, accompanied by his sla -- servant Lucifer, asking for shelter for the night, and Jeanie, who apparently opens her door to *anyone* who comes down the road in buckskin and a beaver hat, says "Sure, stay for the night. We're having a party!"

Ah, but there's a complication: Rodney's motives arent 100% pure (Well, he *is* the villian of the piece, right?). It seems that Rodney has been working with a shyster lawyer (Mr. Poisson) to gain ownership of Jeanie's fair plantation. He's also been holding letters Dennis has written to Jeanie during his travels in distant California, with the purpose of convincing her that Dennis is dead... so he can marry her, you see. Thing is, Rodney isnt *truly* bad, just obsessed in a "Fatal Attraction" kind of way. But we know that Dennis' motives are pure as snow, because he sings at least three variations on "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and everyone knows that tenors are truly noble, even if they've run off for seven years and then expect everyone to just pick up where they left off when they get around to coming back home. I mean, were she not so stalwart, Jeanie could have been working on her third kid by now, right?

Well, no one said operetta heroines were especially bright.

So, big party scene opens the second act. Lotsa big dresses and middy coats. Dennis is still in disguise, watching Jeanie from afar because... well, the script isnt quite sure. Is he testing her? Does he think Jeanie's in love with Rodney (eww!)? Is he waiting to interrupt the duet sung by the farcical darkies? After seeing two of Jeanie's friends telling her what a swell guy Rodney is, he partially answers these questions by telling Lucifer that he should pack everything, they're leaving (Dennis apparently does not pack for himself; he prefers to stand incognito in the garden and mope.).

Jeanie, dimly aware that *something* might be wrong, asks "Mr. Smith" why he's leaving so suddenly, and they have a sweet little duet that's overheard by Rodney, who, if you can imagine this!, gets all jealous and invites "Mr. Smith" to a duel by saber. But before any real bloodshed, Jeanie rushes between them while they're in mid-combat with sabres flying just *everywhere* (Okay, again, no one said operetta heroines were especially bright), recognizes Dennis, foils Rodney's plans, and ends everything happily ever after...

Well, until the War breaks out anyway. But tomorrow's another day, fiddle-de-dee!

Okay, if you thought Phantom of the Opera was relentless for taking one song and driving it into an early grave, you aint seen nothin' till you've seen Jeanie. Foster's little love song gets a full out aerobics workout in a scant 64 pages: underscoring, a male solo, a duet, a choral finale... it's probably also worked into a few others as well in leitmotif form. I'm sure some folks left thinking that if they *never* heard that song again, they could die happy.

But, of course, we cant just stop there, not when there's other pre-Civil-War stereotypes to plunder, like the opening number, "We've Got a Song", sung by a "chorus of darkies" (off-stage, of course), and the first two lines of the play set the tone for what follows:

MAMMY. That singin' done you good, Miss Jeanie. You has a smile again.
JEANIE. Yes. I forget all my troubles when I hear the darkies singing.

When they're *not* singing, of course, she couldnt care tuppence, nor, it seems, does anyone else since they're *always* off-stage, singing to give her a smile again. To give the audiece a smile, Lucifer and Mammy get an almost embarrassing comic duet, "You's Mighty Nice", a song that suggests, as with the character of Rainbow in OH DOCTOR!, that these were to be played in blackface (Typical line for Lucifer: "It ain' the ladies misliked me; I is very contractive to women.") with very, very broad comic gestures.

But arguably the worst number comes in the second act, when Dennis and Rodney are about to fight for the hand of Jeanie. The male chorus gets its *one* real moment in the score with a number called "Sabres for Two", which has the very remarkable lyrics of:

Sabres for two,
Coffee for one!
Who will drink the coffee
When the fighting is done?

I swear, I'm not making this up.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

OH DOCTOR!

Estelle Merrymon Clark, the author and lyricist of this work, must have been the Richard Rodgers of high school musicals in the 1930s and 40s. Little can be found about her on either Google or Wikipedia, but her name shows up several times, usually along with Palmer John Clark (who I assume to be her husband), in various catalogues from the major publishers of the time. In the main, her scripts are convoluted, sometimes bizarrely twisted tales with too many plots and too many characters.

Then you get OH DOCTOR!

(WARNING: some of what follows will be seen as culturally insensitive. I will underscore now that this play is just a product of its time and should be viewed as such.)

OH DOCTOR! (1931) takes place in what used to be called "sanitariums" and what we would now call "rehab centres". Located somewhere in New Mexico, Drinkwater Sanitarium is world-renown for the curative capabilities of its water -- as such, every patient who comes in is put on a strict water-only diet, as meted out by the esteemed physicians, Doctors Slaughter, Cuttem, and Coffin, who dont seem to understand why patients keep dying. It's arguably a good thing that such regimens are not available to our current HMOs.

The head of this facility, Doctor Drinkwater, has disowned his only son because the lad married an actress; since then, he's not set eyes on either the son, his wife, or their daughter. Naturally, this causes his granddaughter Glory no small amount of concern because she's (1) (here it comes) an actress herself and (2) engaged to a man whose father was a life-long friend of the doctor himself.

Yes, it's a small world after all in high school operettas.

But because Glory is supposed to be off to South America to make a movie, and because her grandfather has never seen her before and probably never will again, she sends her best friend Honor to impersonate her. Why, you may ask? Simple (uh, right, as if *anything* is simple here): Drinkwater's wife (that's Glory's grandmother, okay?) died and said in her will that her granddaughter would receive a buncha cash on the proviso that she spend the last 24 hours before her 21st birthday with her grandfather, in some kind of strange hope that this dysfunctional family can be put back together before they all appear on the 1930s equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show.

Now, for reasons known only to Estelle Merrymon Clark, Bob (the fiance, remember), who would normally be in Los Angeles, just happens to be visiting Drinkwater, specifically, to talk to the doctor about his engagement to Glory.

Except Glory, in the current production, is being played by Honor.

And Bob doesnt know that.

Merriment and mayhem ensue.

To clue Bob in on her little charade, Glory (who still hasnt made an entrance yet, and we're about halfway through Act One) sends him a letter at the sanitarium, which would be fine except that the letter has been intercepted by the janitor and all-around go-fer guy, Rainbow. (Why is he called Rainbow? Because -- here's the joke -- he's coloured! Yuk. Yuk. Yuk.) Rainbow cant read or write so he has no idea who the letter is for, and you can imagine how much *that* plot device gets milked.

Ah, but there's more. A local ranchman named Philip is on the lookout for a notorious Mexican cattle rustler named Manuel. Philip's grandfather and Dr. Drinkwater had a long-standing feud, so Philip isnt really allowed on the grounds. But he is anyway, so there we are -- and by doing so, he sees Honor and is immediately smitten. *However*, he intercepts the letter from Glory (whom he thinks is Honor, remember) and gets all jealous that Bob is Honor's fiance, while Bob's actually Glory's fiance, and... well, it just gets worse from there.

But happily enough, everything is resolved in (once again) a few pages of dialogue and a few songs, and everyone dances and sings in contagious enthusiasm as the doctor, Glory, Bob, Honor, Philip, even Manuel -- oh hell, everyone -- heads for South America to make a film.

What makes this particular work so interesting, amoung other things, is the hit-the-audience-with-a-bludgeon-how-funny-we-are trio of Drs. Slaughter, Cuttem, and Coffin, who, along with their patients, Mss. Crossly and Weakly, get the title song, a strange burlesque waltz that pre-shadows Sweeney Todd's "Little Priest". I have no doubt that, when staged, this little bit surely must have been one of the evening's more demented moments. Perhaps not quite as bizarre but just as much coming from left field is a ballet sequence in the first act that sets up the backstory of the life-preserving waters, one that evokes Hebe, the cupbearer of the gods, a weary pilgrim, a few water nymphs, and a couple of other folk from Mt. Olympus. How they got to New Mexico is anyone's guess.

The part of Rainbow is, as you might assume, played completely for comic effect, and I have no doubt that the role was usually assumed by a white actor in blackface, given how schools operated in the time and how the character is bestowed with such lines as:

"Ah does'n know what's de mattah wid it mam, but ah knows a man what comed hyere once what had a bercolousesess, yassum, an aff'ah dey rinched an' drunked an' swummed 'im outside an eternal, den dey say, "now he's got two bercolousesess." Yassum, an dat man he dies, an dey buried 'im. Umph, umph, ain' dat sompin'?"

Coffin, incidently, speaks with a lisp, suggestive that Clark meant him to be a parody of a gay man. But unless there's something in the stage manager's handbook to verify that, it's only a guess. It's also possible his accent is to suggest some gothic East European overtone a la Dracula.

For something so outlandishly weird, the score is quite amazing: Palmer Clark takes advantage of every ensemble number to throw in as much parts singing as possible: both the first *and* second act finales have no less than six harmonic vocal lines running simultaenously. Not including the vocal work that precedes it, the "Birth of Spring" ballet goes on for six pages, when the norm those days for a dance number was one, perhaps two. There is a direct segue from a Vienna-goes-country drinking song to a hymn honouring the Angelus.

All in all, this is one of those shows where it seems everyone gets to chow down on the scenery at least once or twice, and I'd bet it could be done as is today (even Rainbow, which is so completely over the top that any possible offensiveness is mitigated as a result). You can definitely see its roots in the equally inane Broadway musicals of the 1920s, and a revival, played completely and utterly for camp and with a slightly expanded scoring of some of the numbers, would no doubt be just as entertaining as it was in 1931, if not far more so.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

ROSE OF THE DANUBE

Undated, but I would guess to be from around 1930, this is actually a charming little romance with more than a little Hollywood satire slathered on. It takes place in the tiny European country (arent they all?) of "Eurolania", a country so small and desperate for money that the rulers have to wash their own dishes and do their own laundry. Eurolania has hocked everything -- castle, monarchy, even the gay and happy peasants -- to the one person that seems loaded with cash: the evil (arent they all?) Count Sergius von Popova. Fortunately for Eurolania, however, it's being visited by the famous Hollywood director, Percival McPipp (a thinly disguised Cecil B. DeMille), who's on vacation after completing work on his latest masterpiece, "Uncle Tom's Cabin", a production so stupendous it required no less than 20 Elizas escaping on the ice (His next, "Robinson Crusoe", will have seven savages, not just Friday, but one for every day of the week).

Of course, being a famous Hollywood director, he always travels with an entourage: his wife, his daughter, a few hangers-on, and a cameraman named Darrell Davis, who always has camera and film ready when McPipp decides to shoot something. Darrell, natch, is our dashing hero (and consequently gets all the great love songs); being the hero, he falls immediately in love with Princess Rose, daughter of King Montmerency. So he can spend more time with his lady love, Darrell persuades McPipp to film an extravaganza right there, right now -- in essence, renting the entire country for the unheard amount of one million dollars, more than enough to pay off the country's debt. Out of gratitude, Rose consents to be Darrell's wife, and they sing about how "only one rose" is "enough for me". The King and the peasants get a rousing production number, "He's Putting Us in the Movies!", followed by *another* rousing production number, "We'll Make a Super Super Special!" that brings the first act to a deliriously happy close.

Ah, but there's a complication: the evil Count (remember him?) doesnt *want* be paid off: he wants Eurolania for himself and plots to overthrow the monarchy and install himself as ruler. Hearing of McPipp's plans to make a movie that involves, conveniently enough, a small European country where the peasants riot and overthrow the monarchy, the Count and his co-conspirators plot to replace the fake bombs with (surprise!) real ones.

Act Two takes place that evening, as McPipp prepares to rehearse the Royal Family and the "angry peasants" in the one scene that doesnt seem to require a script, the attack on the castle. It's also during the country's Rose Festival, so everyone's very jolly and gay. The King decides to get down a little with his countrymen by singing to them that, when the affairs of state are too much to bear, he happily runs off to the "balmy shores of Tanganyka", which engenders another rousing production number: inexplicably, a tango.

The rehearsal begins. The tension mounts. Will the evil Count's plan succeed? Will anyone discover the bombs in time? Will Darrell and Rose find true love? Will the King get his wish to be the star of a super-super production?

Well, of course they do and he does and the plan fails, all easily wrapped up in a few pages of script and a couple of songs. Feeling generous, the King decides the Count's punishment for attempting mass assassination is to marry one of the queen's less-than-attractive ladies-in-waiting. Everyone sings and dances in joy and unbridled merriment as the curtain falls.

Whew. So much excitement crammed into 136 pages! But like I said earlier, it's a surprisingly winning little show, with some rather lovely (if hopelessly derivative) songs that range from a tender little love duet to a frantic (if geographically inappropriate) tango about Africa. The comedy is pretty smart for a show designed for high schoolers, and I'd be curious to know how some of it was received by drama teachers of the time, since some of it's borderline racy.

Now, it may seem odd to start this blog about bad high school musicals with one that truly isnt so terrible, but this is pretty much the exception that, as you will see, proves the rule. Morgan and Penn, the author and composer, clearly put time and effort into this cast-off, and it shows. Enjoy this one: what follows may not be quite so endearing.....