Saturday, August 16, 2008

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH SALLY?

In case you havent noticed, some of these little gems come with their own moral lessons, and it seems that the younger the intended performer, the more the lesson has to be bludgeoned. So it is with WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH SALLY? (1923) by Cynthia Dodge, a work written for elementary students, with high schoolers playing the "adults".

Poor Sally. So rich. So spoiled. Such a product of her environment. What Sally wants, Sally gets, and her mother has somehow missed this until seeing the much-better-mannered daughter of one of her society friends. So she hits on the bright idea to ask an old school acquiantance, who now runs an orphanage, to take Sally as an "orphan" for a few weeks so she might learn a little humility towards those less fortunate than her. Never mind that Mom and Dad are headed to New York for a breather from their little darling; that's just something Sally doesnt really need to know right now.

So Sally petulantly gives in and lives with the orphans for a while. While they're all incredibly nice towards her, she returns the favour by being as snot-nosed as possible, demeaning their clothing, their toys, just about everything she can (Were I one of the orphans, she wouldnt have made it to Act Two alive, but anyway...). But Miss Jeffries, the long-suffering teacher, sees possibilities in our spoiled little rich girl -- and before long, guess what! Sally's now kind and considerate and invites all of the orphans to her house for a party as the curtain mercifully falls.

It's a simple-minded little show that merits no more nor less than passing comment, save that poor Miss Jeffries has to endure the reams of exposition laid on her by Lucy Donnelly, Sally's mom, who married well after graduation from college. Her life is so wonderful because she's so rich and her husband is so handsome and... well, you get an idea where Sally's selfishness comes from. Actually, for all its simplicity, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH SALLY has some intruiging psychological underpins, especially for the chorus of orphans. For example, in Act Two, two of the girls are playing with paper dolls and sing:

I am a Paper Doll Lady
Who lives in a paper Doll Town
My hands and face are of paper
I'm dressed in a blue paper gown

I am a very rich Dolly
Who rides in an automobile
I have houses in city and country
But nice as they are, they're not real

Paper Doll Town is the funniest place
Where nothing is real at all, at all
The church and the schoolhouse are paper you know
And even the trees so tall

Considering how this echoes back to Lucy, you cant help but wonder what's going on inside those kids' heads. There's also poor little Peter, the one boy in this menage, who provides comic relief by talking incessantly and finds himself dismissed for his pains: it's almost sad watching him looking for any kind of attention, just to see himself cast aside in favour of the mathematics prodigy Prudence or the twins Betsy and Agnes, who get the casually bitchy song cited above. There's also the interesting contrast between Lucy, who married ever so well and will tell anyone at the drop of a new Paris hat, and Celia, who obviously didnt and probably never will (She's 30 and single, and it's 1923 -- sorry, but this woman is now hopelessly marked as a spinster.). Lucy gets to run amok in the creme of society; Celia gets to deal with its dregs, the cast off children.

Of course, it shouldnt come as any kind of surprise that everyone's attitude changes when Sally tells them she's throwing a party and giving them all of her terribly nice toys (Give a kid a toy, and apparently s/he's your friend forever.). And you cant help but notice the element of slight concern when Lucy returns from New York and finds her selfish little daughter has now turned into a raging socialist -- you can almost hear the withering tone in her line "I will be very happy to see your friends happy".

A side note about the publisher: Willis Music Company is still around, publishing mostly instructional books for band instruments and the nascent rock-n-roll star. But I was surprised to see that they've kept most of their operetta catalogue intact in what looks like print-on-demand formats. But everything's there, including the ads on the back covers for works such as SAFETY, another hit-'em-over-the-head morality play. They also carry works for older students, a couple of which I'll talk about later on. As far as I can see, the prices arent that much more than they were back in the 20s and 30s (SALLY was originally 60 cents; now it's two bucks), and they havent renewed the copyright on these things, which seems a very generous gesture on their part in preserving this rather unique theatre form.

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