Wednesday, September 17, 2008

THE SEVEN OLD LADIES OF LAVENDER TOWN

Although outside the strict definition of a "high school operetta", this true classic stayed in various catalogues for decades -- and even now is available from Willis Music, in a slightly different edition.

Written by H.C. Bunner and Oscar Weil, my copy of THE SEVEN LADIES OF LAVENDER TOWN (1886) was printed in 1910 in a hardcover edition that still looks amazing after a century. There are a few illustrations (uncredited, but one appears signed by CJ Taylor) that just add to the overall oddness of the piece.

The story takes place inside a sideshow tent at the Tidytown Fair (As noted, the place is "Kategreenawayland" and takes place "once upon a time".). There's a small stage, covered with a curtain that bears the legend:

Professor Lightning Haskins'
Great Mechanical and Conversational Agglomeration of
WAXWORKS

Despite this somewhat overblown description, no one's come in to see the show, save for the Duchess of Tidytown, who's come to see if the exhibit is "proper" enough to show her daughters that evening at a private performance. The professor pulls the curtain to reveal statues of George Washington, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, John Smith, Confucious, Napoleon, and Henry VIII (who, the professor quickly reassures the duchess, has now quite reformed his wife-murdering ways since joining the waxworks). The professor apparently bought the whole lot dirt cheap from a fairy, who had changed seven otherwise respectable men into waxworks because, for some reason, they offended her. Apparently satisfied, the duchess leaves, with strict instructions that no one other than her daughters attend the performance that evening.

She's no sooner gone than seven old ladies enter to see the show and find themselves in distress because the various waxworks have the same first names as their long-lost husbands -- even Confucious (Charles Confucious, actually). They start to sing a song taught them by a fairy -- if any men around happen to be their husbands, they'll recognize their wives, no matter what. Of course, the seven men *are* their husbands, but the professor points out that he owns them, fair and square. On this sad note, the first act ends.

The second act is that night, before the arrival of the Duchess's daughters. The waxworks, awakened and aware of their plight, complain that they're always covered with a half inch of dust and have to endure the poking fingers of fairgoers. The professor reprimands them to be on their best behavior just before the Duchess's daughters, cloaked, with faces hidden, come into the tent.

But the performance is a disaster: the waxworks speak each other's lines and refuse to straighten up until they're given their wives back. To make it even worse, they've formed a union. The Duchess enters, demanding to know what the problem is -- only to reveal herself as the very fairy who changed the men in the first place. Her daughters, as you might expect, are the Seven Old Ladies, made young again by fee magic. She then takes it on herself to change the waxworks back into young men again, and everyone is happily reunited -- except for the still complaining professor, who demands what's to become of him now that his livelihood has been taken away. The fairy responds that she'll make *him* a waxwork and sell him to someone else.

And on that perplexing note, the curtain falls to a hymn of praise to Lavender Town.

It's a very short piece, only 36 pages, and Bunner and Wiel have juggled their singers quite well, always making sure that the seven couples are sufficiently offstage to provide a never-seen chorus of fair-going villagers. The music itself is reasonably melodic, albeit a little simplistic, with echoes of popular drinking songs (if I'm reading these correctly) brushed off and cleaned up to become suitable for choruses of proper little old ladies.

I cant find out anything about the history of the play, but I suspect it's based on a well-known legend of some sort. There's so much in the play that seems almost presumed, as though the authors knew their audience didnt need much in the way of story because they'd fill it in themselves. It also feels like a terribly "English" piece, even though the publication history has an American genesis -- both author and composer were from New Jersey. Maybe this was an attempt to write an American IOLANTHE, since the timing would be about right, but as with so many things in this field, it's difficult to know for sure.

Bunner, as it turns out, was a poet and novelist of some renown in the latter part of the 19th century. He authored several short stories, including "Zenobia's Infidelity", which was made into a film in 1939 with Oliver Hardy; he also single-handedly raised the magazine Puck from an amusing little broadside to a vicious political satire publication. Oscar Weil wrote several comic operas, including Boccacio, but he's better known as Alice Toklas' music teacher. Toklas described him as a "pedagogue of the old school, believing in thoroughness and educating young musicians without giving them false hope". When you studied with Weil, Toklas noted, "you learned your business." There are vague echoes of all of this in SEVEN OLD LADIES, ever so slight suggestions of a layer of meaning just tantalizingly out of reach, lost now because of the passage of time.

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