Sunday, August 10, 2008


There are some pieces that, like THE PENNANT, are played as broadly as possible, and then you get something like THE MOON MAIDEN (1935) that's written so minimally as to be positively hypnotic. I have to admit that, when I first got it, I read through it in about fifteen minutes and then set it aside as not even worth mention in the blog. On second look, there's far more, and that merits attention.

Written by Elsie Duncan Yale (book and lyrics) and Clarence Kohlmann (music), this is one of those musicales that seems much older than it actually is. I'd guessed that the Presser edition was a reprint of something from the 1910s, because it just *feels* like it's from that era: the play seems almost derivative of the old silent movie "A Journey to the Moon and Back", with its gushing line of chorines prancing into a bottle-shaped rocket. Still, the minimal information I can find out about its authors says the date's accurate. Kohlmann, for example, was born in Philadelphia in the late 1880s and made his name by writing piano and organ transcriptions of hymns. In 1929, he recorded four organ works for Thomas Edison (although the recordings were never released). Elsie Duncan Yale also wrote mostly religious pieces: cantatas and religious plays for Christmas and Easter. The fact that these two very devout people would write something like THE MOON MAIDEN makes the thing even more incongruous, in a way.

This little fantasy piece takes place on the moon, where we meet Moon Maidens aplenty, as well as the Moon Witch and a Moon Man. Their moonish existence is changed when an airship from the Earth, caught in a tremendous storm, lands, and we're introduced to a quartet of neatly paired off couples. While the Moon Maidens welcome the guests, the Moon Witch sees them as an intrusion and, for a giggle, takes a stolen Silver Lamp of Romance and mixes all the couples up. "Much confusion results", but it all gets straightened out when the Lamp is retrieved and returned to its rightful owner, the Moon Maiden herself. With a few farewells and promises to exchange phone calls via that new-fangled device, the "radio", the Earthlings leave.


Now that may seem like I've condensed it all down, but truly that's it. The "confusion" lasts less than a page and a half. The dialogue in general feels almost sketched, and the characters arent even marginally two-dimensional. But all that sets aside for the music and lyrics: this is indeed one of those works that puts the "opera" back into "operetta" because the play is nothing but a clothesline for Kohlmann's score.

And what a score it is. The piano reduction includes some indication of the orchestration, and from what I can see, Kohlmann designed this to sound as lush as possible within the limits of the kind of orchestra he knew would be performing. The unusually long overture doesnt go the typical route of a medley of songs from the show: instead, it's a medley of themes, set out with a real sense of connection from one to the next. Even the order of tempe is well thought out -- rather than the usual haphazard mosh of cut time, 4/4, waltz, and whatever else might be in the score, this thing moves with elegance from the initial 4/4 march to the concluding 2/4 allegro. It's a surprising piece of work, but Kohlmann continues on, with an array of chorus pieces, agitato solos, and giddy little marches for the (refreshingly, non-country-specific) crew of the Earth airship. There's also a great little comic number for the Poet, who's very proud of the fact that he can rhyme "moon" with "June". The Moon Man hopes their accident will inspire some great epic, to which the Poet improvises:

We did not come to any harm
Because we landed in a palm.

And in response, one of the crewmen adds the enjoiner:

The sailors gave a mighty shout
"Come on, let's heave the Poet out!"

There's also incidental music (a rarity for these things!), a specialty dance, and some fairly complex parts writing that all builds to a rousing finale of "'Tis a Grand Old World". Truly, as much as I can see, this is a stage version of one of those silly late 20s/early 30s science fiction films like "Flash Gordon" or "Just Imagine", but turned into a musical revue by George White or perhaps Ziegfeld in a slumming mood. It fairly screams for big stage pictures and tableaux vivants. To be sure, you'd want to use highly stylized, Art Deco sets for the Moon Desert and the Moon Garden, and glamorous, Erte-esque costumes in white and silver, with enormous headpieces. It's almost as though the authors custom-designed MOON MAIDEN to give schools a chance to create their own versions of the Scandals or Follies.

No comments: