Friday, August 1, 2008


The British, of course, invented the operetta, so it should come as no surprise that they too had their own version of the early high school musical. While ours were performed in the main by both boys and girls, the British approach was tailored to the needs of, mostly, all-girl schools, with an overwhelming female cast and perhaps one or maybe two "trouser" roles for the unlucky alto.

The example here is THE WILD ROSE (1915), "an operetta in two acts for ladies' voices", by Edith Burrows and W. Rhys-Herbert. His is another name that shows up frequently in this art form, but -- as with Clark and so many others -- there's scant little information about him, save that he was a prominent composer of his time. He provided the score for another in my collection, THE NAUTICAL KNOT, which appears to be a comic G&S pastiche. KNOT was performed several times on both sides of the Atlantic, mostly by small community theatres, but I have yet to turn up a copy of the libretto. It looks like a thoroughly engaging work, so if you know of one anywhere, please let me know.

"Engaging", however, is not a term that leaps to mind with WILD ROSE. Truly, this is the operatic version of "Dont hate me because I'm beautiful", the Pretty Young Thing Victim of Her Own Loveliness.

Act One is in the reception room of Rose's city home. We find out that she's not only young and beautiful and rich enough to have an entire chorus of maids, but she's also bored and jaded and alienated by the very fact that she's young and beautiful and rich enough to have an entire chorus of maids. It's not that she's self-obsessed... well, not really... but, according to the chorus of maids:

All the day
She mopes away,

Her life in endless sighing.

When night falls,

Then sadness calls,

We find her crying.

She is pretty,

Also witty,
Yet she still is sad.

She has health

And great wealth.

Surely 'tis too bad!

Rose herself sweeps in (in a "rose-coloured gown, with a hat trimmed with many roses and a rose-coloured parasol" -- okay, we get the point) and languishes centre stage:

I'm a Rose that blooms in a hothouse
In an artifical way
And instead of fair golden sunshine
Electricity's my day
For it's up in the morning early
Into the hands of my maid
Then it's shopping or to do business
And stupid calls to be paid.

And indeed, the visitors arrive -- adoring debutantes, then her social secretary, who sets up her morning schedule:

Newspaper reporters first
From the "See and Say".
Miss Talkalot, the suffragette
Who wants you to want to vote,
And Mrs. Doingood, who hopes
That you on charity dote.
The dressmaker, the milliner,
And your perfume-maker,
The man who sells the collie dogs,
The laundress and the baker,
The --

... at which point Rose stops her and, resigned, begins her work day. The reporters first (Miss Putemdown and Miss Writemup), who interview her but tell her at the outset that they really dont care what she has to say, they've already written the story. Then the suffragette and the charity lady who stick around long enough to give her a few pamphlets. *Then* Miss Sewseams and Madame Fathertop, who bring dresses and hats in the same relentless shades of pink and rose. *Then* Madame Smellsweet, who brings her a new perfume that smells like...

Oh, c'mon, I dont have to tell you *everything*, do I?

Finally, the bulk of her duties discharged, Rose languishes again, centre stage, now anxiously waiting for a response to a letter she has written to a prominent playwright, Lady Grey, asking for the lead in her new play. Indeed, there is a letter in response, but it seems LG wants someone less "frivolous".

Rose is disappointed.

I want to be loved for myself alone,
And not for my fortune's fame.
I wish I could live in a foreign land
Where no one would know my name.
I'm not really frivolous -- not at all!
In spite of what people may say.
I hate the alse glamour about my life
Both when I'm at work and at play

... and so on and so on for thirty two more bars. Impetuously, she decides to leave the city and go to the country:

I'm going to leave this mad city whirl
And live on a farm -- a plain country girl.

But, naturally, so she wont be too alone, she takes her household staff with her. A girl's gotta have friends, y'know?

Act Two then takes us to Rose's country farm, specifically the garden, which is abundantly overflowing with... oh, c'mon. You know. Her maids, now transformed out of their black and white outfits into lovely little pink smocks, practically disappear into the background, but they still find it necessary to tell us:

The country life is the life for us!
We love it, we love it!
There's nothing in all the world that ranks
Above it, above it!

They proceed to share their day, which seems to have exchanged one form of non-stop labour for another. But maybe it's the air, maybe it's the water -- they *love* it out here. Rose enters (wanna guess what colour her dress is?), carrying a bouquet (of what? C'mon, give it a shot!), and exclaiming to one and all how deliriously happy she is. (Definitely, the air.)

Then, a small crisis: Rose has lost her cat. The maids search just *everywhere*, but no one can find it. Then the nice elderly lady who lives next door enters, bearing the lost animal. And who should she be but Lady Grey. Rose sees this as her opportunity to show the playwright that she's just as down-home as the next country girl with a staff of fifteen to attend to her every need, and indeed LG seems convinced. Then, horror of horrors, all her city friends descend -- the reporters, the dressmaker, everyone -- and Rose is afraid she's blown her chance of getting into LG's good graces.

Ah, but dear Lady Grey assures her that, now that she knows Rose's little secret, she's convinced even more that Rose should play the part, and the curtain descends with our Wild Rose telling anyone who'll listen that she may spend her winters in town, but in the summers she'll return, to be a Wild Rose yet again.

Lord help us all. This is one of those operettas that seems hellbent in its determination to prove to us all exactly *why* this artform died out. WILD ROSE is an interesting piece, to be sure, if only for the way its title character is portrayed. Despite her boredom with her life, here's a young lady who thinks the vote is wasted on women and that charity is over-rated -- and from the way it's written, I gather this was Burrow's take on the issues as well. The suffragette and the charity lady are both portrayed in a downright nasty light, as are the debutantes who are supposed to be Rose's best friends. Indeed, almost all of the supporting characters are sketched as viciously as possible, which makes you wonder why she stays with any of them. But instead, Rose lives in this frightfully "girlish", deliriously monochrome world of pastel femininity gone way overboard -- like JEANNIE's treatment of "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair", this is a work that, I suspect, would induce the viewers to leave the theatre and cause mayhem to every single rose bush in sight. In a perversely fascinating way, Burrows writes all of the supporting characters as symbolic as anything out of "Pilgrim's Progress", but that just leavea a question: Is Rose ready to give up her Pepto-Bismal lifestyle for something written by a character named "Grey"? Further, if Rose was to be the one character with depth, she fails miserably. She's still as spoiled at the end as she was at the beginning, except now she realizes her shallowness has stood her in good stead by ultimately getting her the thing she wanted.

Musically, however, it's far more interesting. Rhys-Herbert gives the ladies some heady challenges in terms of tempe and range, and pity the poor fool that plays Rose, onstage for virtually the entire work and hit with one fairly difficult number after another: twelve out of the eighteen listed in the score. The reporters' interview is a mini-patter song with some tricky wordplay, and the duet for the suffragette and the charity lady is a purposely sappy little waltz.

Still, I dont know about you, but this thing seems tailor made for Paris Hilton.

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