Saturday, August 9, 2008

THE PENNANT

One of the oldest pieces in my collection, THE PENNANT (1912) has had a longer shelf life than most of these little works. Apparently wildly successful on its release in the Presser catalogue, it's mentioned in several school's histories, which pretty well assures that it was one of those mainstay warhorses of the high school operetta canon. The copy I have is from a glee club production in 1936; from the notations in the score, it looks like this one was used by the music director.

The catalogue describes it as: "Year after year sees many productions of this clever musical play which introduces pretty tunes, amusing situations, well set up young men, bright girls in smart frocks, a dance here and there, and a real school spirit." And by and large, it's not... well, *that* far off.

Written by Frank Colville (lyrics) and Oscar Lehrer (music), and taking place on the campus of some unnamed college (and an interesting point about that in a moment), we're in the midst of an (offstage) football championship. The boys' chorus, all dressed in football uniforms, roar on giving the school yell and then loudly inform us:

We're a merry, merry bunch of
Rah rah guys.

Ah, but they're not convinced they're gonna win, because it seems their captain, Jack, has his head all full of roses and "Huylers" because he's a poor boy in love with a rich girl (shockingly, from another campus! -- I think...) named Doris. But he cant marry her because he has no money -- and worse, he finds out that a shady bunco man named Levi Lender is trying to set his beloved Doris up with some English fop named Lord Woodby Rich (say it slowly...).

Okay, we've already seen how blacks were portrayed in these works, but now we get one of the rare opportunities to see how Jews were seen -- and it aint much better. Levi is costumed as a "shoelaces Jew" (which I gather means the *appearance* of being impoverished, although hopefully someone will let me know for sure), with a top hat and a frock coat and lines such as:

Koosh! Dont get a cold foot now, Meester Lord Rich. Remember that there is just as good fish in the sea as ever was shot.

... while Lord Woodby responds with:

But it all seems so beastly commercial. I marry a Yankee's daughter, get a little slice of his bally tiny and then go through the rest of my life with a freak from the States tagging at my heels. Oh dash it! I say.

Ah, but Jack's best friend, a country bumpkin named Green, arranges to replace Doris with Mrs. Reno Grass, a widow who's been pretty much stalking him for months now. Jack then assures Doris that he has plenty of money coming from a New York syndicate for an article he's going to write about the big game. Green's plan kicks into action when he engineers for Lord Woodby to meet Reno ("who is very homely" -- yuk yuk), whom he thinks is Doris, remember. Levi tells him who she really is, and Lord Woodby's reaction is one of surprise:

Mrs. Reno Grass, whose pictures are in the papers?

Uh, bud, hate to break it to ya, but... pictures in the papers? Doesnt that suggest you know what she looks like? Ah well, anyway... Lord Woodby is thankful that Levi saved him from a life of misery and runs off to find the *real* Doris, while Levi tells us how sad and pathetic his life is -- oy oy oy:

I'm attending strictly to bees-ness
I'm just figuring up the percent
Of my part of the boot
If the lord wins his suit
With the heiress as is his intent.

In essence, he loans the lord ten thousand dollars and expects eighteen thousand in repayment. Just bees'ness, you understand. To make sure there's no more screwups, Levi introduces the lord to Doris' parents, and we find out (1) she's a foster child and (2) Mama expects her to marry well to repay all the money they've spent on her. In a near-operatic finale to Act One, Jack's teammates loudly announce their support for him since he helped them win the game, the spurned Reno turns her attentions to the now-available Jack, Levi rubs his hands with glee that his plan has succeeded, Lord Woodby condescends to ask for Doris' hand, Green complains that he doesnt have a girlfriend -- and then all five sing:

Let's all be happy, all be gay
Let tomorrow bring what may

to a counterpoint from the chorus:

We'll all be happy when the bright sun rises,
Although for many there may be surprises
There are many parts to this game of hearts
And we masquerade in some queer disguises
But after all when the plot's completed
You'll find some schemers have been defeated
And love will triumph, on this you can depend
We'll be happy happy happy
In the final end.

... all of which sorta makes Act Two unnecessary, right? Frankly, Act Two is pretty much unnecessary: Jack and Doris elope right at the start (after she complains that it wont be a big church wedding like she's always dreamed). While we wait for them to come back with the happy resolution, Lord Rich serenades Doris' hat, Reno takes another shot at Green, Doris' mother waxes about how her daughter is marrying a peer, while her father tells us he's a self-made American business man and has no use for this contracted marriage nonsense (I'm not surprised, actually). After each of their star turns (It's more like a vaudeville at this point), Jack and Doris return, with Jack brandishing the marriage certificate (Her father is delighted she's married to an American!). Levi moans he's out ten thousand plus interest, and we rampage blithely into the finale as everyone, regardless of resolution, sings:

O the happy happy school days
Golden time of life
Just before the din of battle
In the world's broad fields and strife
O the joyous ties of friendship
How our happiness they crown
As tonight we sing the praises
Of the good old college town!

Gads. Although just as facile as anything else heretofore presented, I have to admit I had a real problem following the main story for the libretto's sixty-some-odd pages. For example, I had real trouble sorting out exactly *when* the Big Game was being played: I *think* (and I say that advisedly) it was going on concurrently with the events in the first act, with Jack occasionally leaving the field to come back to the stage to sing a song or do whatever, then racing back to score the Big Touchdown. But, as I say, that's only a guess.

It's also a little tough figuring out what to make of Reno, a "straw widow" who's been married six times and lost them all. She's stalking Green in an almost frightening way, then turns one-eighty to when the opportunity to get the Englishman arises. I know she and Green are supposed to be comic characters, but there's something about her that seems... I dunno... odd, maybe? In the end, she apparently *does* get Green (again, I think - I'm not sure, still, after three reads), and everyone's just peachy keen about it (Echoes of Betty Lou: were we really that lax about March-December romances back then?).

Okay, here's the show's gimmick -- and probably one reason why this thing continued to play for two decades and a bit. It's arguably the world's first musical that can be rewritten with complete freedom for your personalized needs. Are your school colours brown and orange while the libretto specifies blue and red? No problem! Just insert your own and find a new rhyme for "orange", and you're on your way! Does the lyric say "college"? Change it to "high school" and make it all your very own! Truly, you can change the school cheer, the name of the town, the kind of trees (from maple to whatever you happen to have, even if it's sagebrush)... just about anything and everything can be modified to suit your every whim. Your town doesnt have a villanous Jewish money lender? Again, no problem! Change him to any ethnicity you want to ridicule and hit the boards! Truly, it's an all-purpose musical that would be completely different in Muncie as it would be in Fairbanks.

There's also a great deal of era-specific dialogue that, now, is somewhat incomprehensible, such as the early mention of "Hurleys". You dont want to get Jack upset because he'll be "up in the air". I know what they mean, more or less, but it'd be interesting to know what they mean. For those curious, the phrase "well set up young men" in the catalogue entry doesnt mean they're rich. It means, in today's parlance, they're hot.

I dont know anything about Colville, but Lehrer is far better known as the creator of the modern half time show. From the turn of the century to about 1920, he was the music director for the University of Oklahoma and created the patterned march steps we see on football fields every fall. His work, which was geometric shapes that changed and moved across the field, was apparently breathtaking for its time, but his successor pushed it even further and created the idea of spelling out words and creating letters. I imagine his successor -- and indeed marching band directors across the country -- pushed the envelope even more. And all of this led, in its own way, to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.

Hmm. From a play that has no real core identity to a vacuous pop singer with a nipple pasty. Indeed, another of life's mysterious connections.

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