Saturday, July 12, 2008


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.

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